Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Real Problem With Jade Helm 15: Game Theory

In case you missed it, Jade Helm 15 is a military training exercise that is going to involve special forces troops (and others) conducting training operations on American soil--specifically in American towns (many in Texas) where one of their goals is to do things without attracting attention . . . like ninjas.

Additionally, in case you somehow missed it, everyone from real-life Texas Governor Greg Abott to pretend Texas Ranger Chuck Norris has raised 'concerns' that maybe (just maybe) the "training exercise" is an excuse to mobilize troops in order to seize Texas--to take it over (never mind that, as John Stewart pointed out, the Federal Government already controls Texas--we took it over in like 1840!). Just in case the Federal Government is gettin' too frisky, though, Texas has mobilized its National Guard to keep an eye on those Spec-Forces scalawags. Just in case.

Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have given at least some oxygen to the fire. Cruz said the Federal government has proven itself untrustworthy and Paul vowed to "look into it" (Cruz, in fact, has already done that--he's asked The Pentagon for answers on JH15!). It's a pretty high-reaching conspiracy theory--but the rhetoric of Cruz and Paul were downright rational compared to Glenn Beck.

Glenn Beck has told his audience of 10 million listeners that the country is "Being set up"--that what is going on in Baltimore and Ferguson isn't 'real'--and that it's a prelude to a nation-wide institution of martial law that will happen when the civilian police forces are overwhelmed and they turn to the Department of Justice for help. At that point there will be a 'night of the long knives' wherein patriots like Beck are murdered in the night:
"This is the biggest show ever," he warned. "That’s all that’s happening right now. This is a show. We’re watching a script and a play play out in front of us. None of this stuff is real. Those riots in Baltimore. That wasn’t real ... At some point, there will be a straw that breaks the camel’s back, and it will set the whole country on fire. And what happens? We will cry out for police help. The police will be overwhelmed. The DOJ will say, 'We’re going to take over policing, we’ll coordinate it from here.' And you’re done. It’s lights out, republic." 
The problem with Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theories or the Glenn Beck scenario (which isn't identical--but let's face it, it's basically the same concept) isn't the extremely crazy nature of them and it isn't the actual cost to, say, mobilize the national guard (although that's, yeah, kind a problem if you're inclined to look at it that way)--no, the problem is that Game Theory is pushing the level of paranoia required to win in right-wing politics way to the, erm, right (assuming low-to-high goes left to right!).

What does that mean?

Signaling Theory
The concept behind Signaling Theory (which is derived from Game Theory, a branch of mathematics that predicts the best strategy an entity can take based on the set-up of a situation) is this: In communication between people or animals a big question is one of honesty--how can an animal know, for example, that another animal is a good choice of mate?

Or how can a human know that a person they are dealing with is 'suitable' (say, as a presidential candidate)?

Signaling Theory poses that in order to make one's worthiness clearly evident, one can take an "expensive position." The idea is to do something that is difficult, dangerous, or costly so that "faking it" isn't possible or worth it for a pretender. An example of this is dangerous big-game hunting for a human male to prove he is a good provider, capable, manly, and so on. Another example is expensive cars, clothes, and jewelry: if you dress like a million bucks people assume you're worth a million bucks--and you're suddenly a lot more attractive.

Signaling Theory is generally structured around finding a mate by means of making yourself look awesome--but it plays out socially too. In this case, when presented with a bizarre conspiracy theory, Candidates of The Base have little choice but to play along--or even double down.

In this case the "cost" that Cruz invokes is that he says something that makes him look insane. While you can argue that Cruz's statement had some moderate nuance (after all, who totally trusts "The Federal Government"?) when talking about that during a conversation on the Federal Government instituting some kind of Texas-Police-State you are not just making a vague point about how The Feds are a big darn machine that sometimes gets it wrong and often screws it up.

No, Cruz is effectively saying "Yeah, Texas-Take-Over? That's the kinda thing Obama has led us to expect from this administration. Not sayin' it's happening right now, mind you--have to check that out--but oh yeah: it's the kinda thing he'd totally do."

This, in the general election, will be played in full context and make him look like he buys into Nazi-Moonbase theories.

The point is that if Cruz wants to be the choice of The Base he has to signal that he's one of them--that he's suitable--and that means he can't shut down the absurd idea that the Pentagon is going to perform a coup in the Lone Start state. He can't be a voice of reason. Rand, a little further from The Base (although, yes, a conspiracy theorist in his own right) can afford to be a little more distant and diplomatic.

Contrast to Democrat Terry McAuliffie, Governor of Virginia's, response:
“We’re too busy for that foolishness,” McAuliffe added. 
Virginia loves the military, the governor said. 
“So if Texas companies are watching this and say, ‘What a waste of time and resources with our guard,’ come to Virginia,” McAuliffe said.
If you grew up in the 80's, consider how odd it is to hear a Democrat signing patriotic hymns to the military while a Texas Governor has to defend his state from 'em. That's signaling.

Moving Conspiracy Theory to Mainstream Politics
Here's part of the platform from The Green Party:
PoliciesFA720 The Green Party supports a moratorium on the use of GMOs in all agricultural systems including production of human food and animal feed and on importation of GM food or feed. (See AR413CC254EU489 and ST364
Despite the fact that studies of GMO food have found no danger, Genetically Modified Organisms (agricultural products) are largely distrusted by a lot of people--especially toward the further left of the political spectrum. Strangely, though, the Democratic party doesn't have anything about GMO foods in its policy line-up. Why not? Why does the Green Party have this in their platform while the Democrats don't have anything--and this is acknowledging that GMO food issues appear on the left and right in significant numbers?

Because The Green Party is a party catering to a fringe political group--a group that has already given up on winning a national general election and, instead, is playing a different game than normal national politics does. The Democrats, however, are capable of winning national elections and cannot afford to get bogged down in GMO-style issues.

The Republicans, historically at least, haven't been consumed with fringe-theories either (the teaching of evolution being something of an exception). As such, it generally requires 3rd parties to cater to the conspiracy mindset--even for something as relatively mainstream as GMO foods (Chipolte has moved away from GMO foods, for example, proving there is a valid economic driver behind GMO-food doubt for certain markets).

What Jade Helm has done is, again, amplify a trend that was actually somewhat novel in 2012 and seems to be increasing: conspiracy theory moving not just into mainstream conversations but actual top-line candidate politics. The GOP may not have a GMO plank in their platform but they have certainly developed a more and more literal Tyrant-Obama Caucus.

The Omnivore doesn't want to be ignorant of history here--JFK theories are as mainstream as mainstream gets (although not as politically pointed)--and the death of Vince Foster had three official investigations, after all--but let's be real. The Vince Foster thing was more analogous to Benghazi where there were hopes that either actual malfeasance or just the appearance of it could be a political weapon.

A dramatic change in this dynamic was Donald Trump's temporary rise to the head of the 2012 GOP election-pack on the basis of questioning Obama's country of birth. The Obama-Birth-Certificate theory originated among hard-core Hillary supporters during the 2008 primary. There were rumors Hillary's challenger would be found out (either before the convention--so "Yay!"--or during the general election so we'd best not nominate him). While these, of course, never panned out hurt feelings ran high in the Hillary camp and a lot of the most hard core of the Hillary supporters migrated towards McCain and thus the theory spread.

By 2012 you had to believe that either the whole world was incompetent or else there was nothing there on the Birth Certificate front (would not McCain have checked into it? He did have millions of dollars . . . ). The theory, however, had an appeal for dark emotional reasons and Trump gave it light and oxygen with which to grow. The Republican base loved it and rewarded Trump with a leadership position.

The power of signaling was made clear--but it also showed that that sort of of high-grade signaling really did have a high cost: while candidates were cagey about the Birth Certificate, from then on, no one else made it a part of their campaign platform.

It's worth a digression here to note that Romney-conspiracies (that he paid "no taxes") or that his retirement account grew a monstrous and illegal amount--were simply not in the category of "Obama was born in Kenya, raised by the power-elite super-lefists to become a leader--and then injected into American politics with an entirely fabricated life's story (no one can ever recall seeing him at Harvard!)." Absurd allegations have always been a part of bare-knuckle politics but catering to conspiracy theorists is a different animal altogether.

Signaling + Economic Motive = Acceleration
Signaling in contemporary politics is providing an incentive for 2nd-tier candidates to embrace--or at least Christian-Side-Hug--conspiracy theories that otherwise would have been left to the Internet and talk-radio diatribes. The current status of the base--inflamed by conspiracy theory because it drives profits for conservative media stars like Glenn Beck--provides a mechanism to trade sanity for rating points or approval.

This is a short-term strategy: if Cruz ever has to get pinned down on Jade Helm, he'll have to ditch the theory if he wants to win a general election--but when people like presidential candidates and governors of Texas embrace these theories at all it moves the Overton Window--the range of ideas society will accept--in the direction of Crazy Town. This, in kind, forces guys like Beck to become even more extreme: It's a positive feedback loop and, as its driving bad behavior, there's nothing positive about it.

Jade Helm is the 'fin' of this phenomena cresting the water.  Here are some other pieces of the emergent phenomena: David Weigel writes Woah, If True--a series for Bloomberg about conspiracy theories "escaped into the wild" (meaning they actually come up in real-life grown-up conversation and the real news). One example is Santorum caught off guard about a theory that Obama tried to nuke South Carolina. Santorum did not know the theory, was flummoxed, and did his best to signal by talking about Obama as a 'tyrant' with regards to immigration--but what if he had known the depth of bullshit there? Would he have said something to set the record straight for the terrified citizen who literally thought that Obama was replacing generals who refused to "fire on Americans?"

No. He wouldn't have--because he wants to win (conversely, read Weigel's piece on Jeb's response to a Bilderberg question! Jeb is not 'signaling' to the base at all--that's the big part of his brand--and they hate him for it).

The messaging the base is getting (the apocalyptic high-cost-per-impression pop-up ads on conservative websites, for example) is part of a dynamic that is riling up the base in order to milk them for money. Major political figures giving crazy theories like Jade Helm 15* a nod is a new thing and with Beck and people like him escalating their rhetoric we're going to see more of it.

Edited to add: GOP Republican Louie Gohmert is all in with the signaling.

What If: Jade Helm 15 is A Response to Russia Arming Mexico??

* It is worth nothing that there were some actual elected officials on the 9/11 Truther side too--but, again, sitting big-state governors and high-grade presidential candidates are still pretty new. It's also worth noting that while very distasteful and pretty crazy, the 9/11 Truther position is objectively less crazy than the Jade Helm 15 Texas-Take-Over theory.

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