Russiagate, Cognitive Bias, Human Nature, and My Political Nihilism

After two years of investigation and constant media coverage, the Mueller Report is finally finished. While anyone outside the Justice Department has yet to read the full report, Attorney General William Barr has released a summary. The so-called Russiagate story is not yet over, however, as there are now calls for the entire Mueller Report to be made public. Exactly what the Russiagate story is and how it started is expertly told by Matt Taibbi in his “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD” piece. What I’m more interested in is how this whole story is indicative of human nature.

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State of the Union

It has been a little under a week since Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union (SOTU) address. I didn’t actually watch the address, but I’ve watched and read commentary on it. Most of the stories I’ve seen first mention that Trump was uncharacteristically reserved and on script. He checked off the usual SOTU boxes – the state of the union is strong; we have to do more to unify and stop trying to divide our nation; congress has to be willing to reach across the aisle; the military is great but we can make it greater; immigration; infrastructure; etc. That’s all well and good – although those of us paying attention know that this is mostly feel-good gobbledygook that doesn’t actually translate into any real policy or changes in attitude. Interestingly, a look at George Washington’s first SOTU (1790), it appears they were concerned about very similar issues – the military, immigration, jobs, education.

However, I’m more interested in the tradition of the State of the Union in general than any particular president.

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And Expecting Different Results

Imagine that you live in a 200 meter by 200 meter square cage of solid walls with a ceiling 10 feet above you and a dirt floor. This stone ceiling contains two barred openings in two of the corners, which allows you to see the sky and obtain water from the rain. One of these barred openings 100 feet by 100 feet, the other is only 10 feet by 10 feet.You have no idea how you got into the cage, why you are there, or even really how long you have been there.

Now imagine that you are not the only one living in this cage. There are nine other people living in the cage with you, none of them knowing how they got there, either. As far as any of you know, you have always lived in this cage. Out of the ten total people, including yourself, two groups have formed. Each group has four loyal members, led by one charismatic leader. You and one other person are only loosely tied to your respective groups. The group you are in has taken residence in the corner of the cage with the 10 foot by 10 foot opening in the ceiling, while the other group was able to take the prime real estate near the 100 foot by 100 foot opening, where they have had success in farming the dirt floor, while your group has had only modest success. This has created an imbalance within the cage, where your group would depend on theirs for food.

But there are also four barred doors that lead to the outside the cage, one on each wall of the cage. Outside these bars there is also a solid door that can be open or closed. The people inside the cage can determine whether these solid doors are open or closed. Whether the people within the cage have a tenuous connection to the outside. But the doors only seem to open into a large, dark, and empty corridor. And yet, mysteriously, if the solid doors are open, food rations are deposited at the doors seemingly at random. But necessity is the mother of all invention. As the other group is content to farm, whenever those solid doors are open, your group stakes out the four doors and retrieves the rations when they appear.

The result is that when the solid doors are closed, the other group thrives; when the solid doors are open, your group thrives.

Every year, on the year, ten consoles raise from the floor in the middle of the cage. The consoles contain three buttons, labeled Open, Close, and Leave. If most people vote Open, the solid doors will be open, allowing for outside food to come in and your group to thrive. If most people vote Close, the solid doors will be closed, making it so only food grown inside the cage is available, allowing the other group to thrive. If most people vote Leave, the solid and barred doors will all open, allowing you and everyone else in the cage to leave to an unknown fate. If it is a tie, the previous years’ state of affairs will remain in effect.

Finally, one year, just days before the election, you bring up the strange fact that nobody has ever voted “leave” before to your group. The others scoff at you. You’re that disloyal person anyway, who has voted for closing the solid doors a few times in the past. You did this because you saw the devastation of the other group when the doors were open and you were sympathetic. Their crops dried up, the people begrudgingly taking scraps from your group rather than put in the effort to make their own. But, of course, the other group has one person who has voted to open the solid doors a few times. The two of you have been chastised for being ‘undecided’ and ‘independent’ before, so your bringing up the third option is not all that surprising to your group.

“Leaving might be better than either other option,” your group leader points out, “but it will never win. Voting to leave is the same as voting to close off those solid doors. It’s throwing your vote away. It’s more important to make sure they don’t win, because closing those solid doors would be worse than having them open.”

“But having the solid doors open is worse than being able to leave,” you point out.

“We don’t know what’s outside the cage,” your group leader says, “for all we know, it might just be more cage, or someone out there might just trap us in another cage that’s even worse than the one we’re in.”

“But if we keep voting for the same two options every time,” you argue, “there is a one hundred percent chance of us being trapped in a cage. If there is even a one percent chance of no longer being in a cage by voting to escape, isn’t that worth pursuing?”

“It’s just not going to happen,” your leader says in a condescending tone, “this is just the way it’s always been.”

“But everyone agrees that they would rather not be stuck in the cage,” you say, “so why can’t we have bipartisan support for Leaving? If we all decided not to conform to the Open-Close duopoly, there wouldn’t be a need to vote strategically for the lesser evil in which every choice you want, Open or Closed, is still being inside the cage.”

“By voting Open or Closed,” you continue, “you are essentially voting for me, and everyone else, to remain inside the cage. The real choice isn’t between Open or Closed, but between Imprisonment and Freedom.”

“That something has been the way it is for as long as you can remember,” you plead, “is not a good reason to continue keeping it that way. Besides, there must have been a time in the past when we were not inside the cage, even if we don’t remember being outside, nor how we got inside, which was almost certainly not voluntary on our part. Someone put us here, and we have the means to escape, yet we choose not to. We continue choosing the same two options, but the ultimate result is that we remain in this cage, telling ourselves that we are free as long as it is our side who wins the next vote.”

“But this is a lie,” you say, “our side is the side that gets all of us – our group and theirs – out of the cage. There is no freedom for us if the solid doors are open, and there is no freedom for them if the solid doors are closed. We all know the two options are not good, yet we keep ourselves imprisoned merely to stop the people we think are our enemies from falsely believing they won. We think that ‘winning’ the next vote will make us free. But insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Final vote:

Solid doors closed: 5

Solid doors open: 4

Escape: 1

You all remain in the cage.