No, really: the American people have been lied to about how dishonest their politicians are. The overwhelming majority of them are people who are in politics because they have what seem to them to be well thought out, deeply felt, honestly believed ideas about what they want to change about America to make it even better. When they go into politics, many of them have the same low opinion of the opposition politicians that most of you have about all politicians. They start out thinking that our people all agree on what's wrong with America and how to fix it, and since the other side must know the same facts that we do, and think the same way we do, they must only be fighting us so they can rob the taxpayers and funnel the money to their friends. But if they make it very far in politics -- no, that's understating it. If they last very long at all in politics, long enough to get to know their opponents professionally (let alone personally), they eventually learn the same way I did that no, the other side's people aren't evil, either. They just think differently, and have had different experiences of the world that lead them to trust certain facts (or "facts") more than the facts (or "facts") that we learned from our experiences to trust. Or so the ones I've known have told me, and I believe them.
From the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, I made a systematic study of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. This stood me in good stead when I, and a lot of my friends and co-religionists, ended up the target of a nationwide conspiracy theory fad, the Satanic Ritual Abuse moral panic. But in hindsight, I don't recommend it to you. There is a reason why your teachers, and journalists, and just about every responsible adult in your life tried to steer you away from this particular branch of what I call "secret history and forbidden lore." It teaches you habits of thinking that are false to fact and actively bad for you. Even perfectly healthy people who go into conspiracy theory on a lark, for laughs, frequently come out the other side stone cold paranoid, or even (like poor Kerry Thornley) fully blown paranoid psychotics and/or schizophrenics. Actual criminal conspiracies do exist, and sometimes last for years, and that lends conspiracy theory a gloss of undeserved respectability. I say "undeserved" because in truth, conspiracy theory is based on a very flawed set of assumptions about how human beings behave, especially in groups, ignoring such long-proven truths about the human condition as Franklin's famous maxim about the difficulty of keeping secrets, and Robert Anton Wilson's equally important but under-appreciated maxim about how impossible it is for people in hierarchical relationships to tell each other the truth. They also tend to fall prey to logical fallacies as old as ancient Rome, Lucius Cassius's famous claim (as quoted by Cicero) about how all that's necessary to prove that someone is guilty of a crime is to prove that they benefited from the outcome.
So if you study conspiracy theory long enough? And especially, if you study one particular conspiracy theory and all of its branches and permutations in extraordinary depth, to the exclusion of all others? You end up internalizing the rules of the conspiracy theory "game" as if they were the rules of life itself. Even if you study enough conspiracy theories to see the common fallacies and logical traps they fall for, and manage to keep your distance, you still end up internalizing those rules. And for the rest of your life, you'll have this obnoxious little voice in the back of your head that's learned to think like a conspiracy theorist, a little Imp of the Paranoid sitting on your proverbial shoulder, that sees two facts that fit together (if you're a paranoid) and "prove" some conspiracy theory. For the rest of your life, you will have a part of your brain that wants to break free and take over the rest of your brain, so you can relax into the comfort of your own delusions about how evil everybody who disagrees with you is, and how they're all out to get you. For the rest of your life, you'll have to stand in eternal vigilance against the temptation of paranoid psychosis. I don't recommend the experience.
Those two things being said? You can imagine my reaction when, two items apart in Rachel Maddow's absolutely amazingly good top-notch really, really don't miss this any more news show on MSNBC weeknights (called, simply, "The Rachel Maddow Show"), I had the following two facts brought to my attention:
- The current White House proposal for the bailout of the financial services is industry is one that they've been sitting on for months, only waiting until this last weekend to reveal it. And ...
- Today, Senator (and probable future President) Barack Obama admitted, while campaigning, that if the $0.7 trillion bailout of the financial services industry happens (as it pretty much has to), then he's going to have to give up on quite a few of his spending proposals.
That's not how it happened. The financial melt-down happened because of some all-too human, all-too frequently recurring logical fallacies that drive the business cycle. If nothing else, nearly all human beings have the bad habit of having only about a three-year "window" of active memory, which means that anything that has lasted longer than three years has "always" been true and "always" will be, even if they "know better." This renders them incredibly painfully willing to believe any explanation for why the last three years have been different from all of history before them, explanations that always boil down to "because of (some recent historical innovation) the Old Rules no longer apply." Warren Buffett comes by his well-deserved reputation as a super-genius for one and only one reason: he never, ever falls for that. And the White House didn't wait for their bailout plan until this week because they were waiting for the last possible second to make it impossible for Congress to understand or amend before they had to pass it, nor were they waiting to see if Senator Obama's poll numbers were going to improve. As I said all the way back in January, these negotiations have been going on since at least last November, and there was no way to get the financial services industry to even consider taking less than face value on the bailed-out assets until at least a couple of companies had collapsed. (Nothing like a handful of deaths of loved ones to concentrate the thinking, and that's just as true of corporations as it is of individuals.) Nor is there anything about their plan that is contrary to their long-stated principles; there's no reason to think that they designed any part of this plan with possible future President Barack Obama in mind.
The wanna-be paranoid psychotic part of my brain was wrong to suggest it. Any actual or potential paranoid psychotics who suggest it are wrong. But it's a good thing I had all those months of experience with actual working politicians to clarify my thinking about them, or all those years of reading conspiracy theory tracts might have made it dangerously difficult for me to think this through and see that.