Bankers made money under the New Deal, made more from World War II, and even more once banking was deregulated in 1999. Now with the banking system near collapse, they seem poised to make money from the failure. Is it a conspiracy? It is, of a specific kind: a conspiracy of convenience. Mistaking that convenience for causation can cause a lot of problems.
This week, Morning Feature looks at conspiracy theories. Wednesday we explored good reasons to consider such theories. Yesterday we explored the common fallacy of conflation. Today we explore another common fallacy in misinterpreting conspiracies of convenience. Tomorrow we conclude with conspiracies of commonality.
And as it’s Friday, your intrepid Kossologist has looked to the stars for your fortune, and it’s diminishing faster than your 401(K).
Conspiracy Theory 103 – Conspiracies of Convenience
Note: This series will not attempt to prove or disprove any given conspiracy theory. The series isn’t about donning a tinfoil hat, but asking why we find them attractive, and how we make them.
Yesterday I argued that Canadian journalist Naomi Klein proposes a conspiracy theory in her book The Shock Doctrine. I expected some would object to that characterization, and some did. The phrase “conspiracy theory,” as many have noted, is commonly limited to crackpot ideas of faked moon landings and the like. Indeed that’s part of what this series aims to overturn, because that narrow definition seeks to discourage exploration or even discussion of legitimate and sometimes provable theories such as the one Klein offers.
Most of the conspiracy theory that Klein proposes is true, but it’s a very specific kind of conspiracy theory: a conspiracy of convenience. “Disaster capitalists” have benefited by events ranging from the 1974 coup in Chile to Hurricane Katrina, just as bankers have benefited by events ranging from the New Deal to World War II to deregulation and lately even their own failure. As anyone who watched the film All the President’s Men knows, if you want to know whodunit, “Follow the money.” Right?
Well, sometimes. But more often when you “follow the money” you’ll find people who already had “money.” Specifically, you’ll find people who were well positioned to benefit by events, often regardless of what specific events occurred. But merely benefiting by an event does not prove they caused that event. To the extent they are conspiring, theirs is a conspiracy of convenience.
Commenters yesterday criticized me for not having yet defined what I mean by “conspiracy theory.” And as I’m not using standard definitions – indeed I’m trying to negate some of their perjorative elements – that is an entirely fair criticism.
Conspiracy theory – A theory explaining one or more events that requires multiple human beings acting in concert toward shared interests, where at least some of the activity is done in secret and/or under cover of disinformation.
That is and is intended to be a very broad definition. For example, it does not require that the interests or actions be illegal, because often the legality/illegality distinction is muddled, or turns on the official status of the actors, and/or where the actions happen. The Iraq War was authorized by Congress, and thus is legal under U.S. law. (As a war of aggression, it may not be legal under international law.) To the extent that the decision to invade Iraq was made in secret and/or under cover of disinformation – deflecting examination of the Bush administration’s real reasons with false allegations of WMDs and Iraqi involvement in 9/11 – the origins of the war are a “conspiracy theory” as I’m defining it. And at least some elements of that conspiracy theory have been proven true by the evidence.
Conspiracy of convenience – A conspiracy theory where the actors are well positioned to benefit by events, and act in concert to benefit by events, where at least some of the activity is done in secret and/or under cover of disinformation.
The key distinction in a conspiracy of convenience is that the conspirators need not have and often did not cause the events by which they benefit. That distinction is important because too often a conspiracy theory overreaches by presenting the benefit as evidence of causation. The inability to prove causation is then used to discredit the examination of the event, when in fact the actors did conspire to benefit by that event.
“Lucky me, I hit the trifecta.” – George W. Bush after 9/11
Paul Krugman was among the first to criticize Bush for what many have dismissed as “a tasteless joke.” Bush reportedly said those words to budget director Mitch Daniels, shortly after 9/11, to explain why he could abandon his promise to maintain a budget surplus. But the Bush administration’s “trifecta” from 9/11 went beyond budgeting. That disaster enabled the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, sweeping claims of executive power, surveillance of American citizens, effective suspension of Constitutional rights such as habeus corpus, and of course the Iraq War. That war in turn poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the coffers of Dick Cheney’s former company Halliburton and other defense contractors.
The evidence shows a conspiracy of convenience surrounding 9/11. In 2000, the neoconservative Project for a New American Century stated in a document titled Rebuilding America’s Defenses stated: “Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor,” and by noon on 9/11 the media were comparing those attacks to Pearl Harbor. Many of the founding members of PNAC were by then working in the administration, and they pounced on that tragedy as an opportunity to implement many of the policies described in that document.
But while the evidence proves a conspiracy of convenience, it does not prove that Bush or some PNAC cabal caused the 9/11 attacks. For many years, the unsupported leap from convenience to causation was cited to deflect criticism of how the Bush administration cynically conspired to benefit by the 9/11 tragedy, with comments such as: “You’re saying Bush caused 9/11????”
This is a constant danger when describing conspiracies of convenience, and that’s a big problem because many real conspiracies are exactly that: conspiracies of convenience. The inability to name them as such without incurring accusations of “crackpot conspiracy theory” makes it difficult to identify, examine, and criticize them.
Indeed, this is a common element of the disinformation campaigns behind which conspiracies of convenience hide their activities. Allegations that a group or institution is conspiring to benefit by an event is often met by a strawman rebuttal: “You’re saying they caused that???” And if anyone, anywhere has actually made an allegation of causation, it becomes even easier to dismiss conspiracies of convenience, because even provable claims of convenience get tainted with the unprovable claims of causation.
“Follow the money.”
Which brings us back to the bankers, who made money from the New Deal, made more during and after World War II, made even more by deregulation, and now seem poised to make even more from the government’s response to save our banking system from collapse. The evidence for a conspiracy of convenience has been documented in countless books and articles. Banks are indeed well positioned to benefit by almost any event, even their own failures. A sound banking system is an essential element of any nation’s economic infrastructure. Letting the banks simply fail creates too many ripple effects that hurt too many people, and ironically the top bankers are least likely to be hurt by those failures because they can afford to ride out the losses. So the government steps in, not to help the wealthy bankers but to help the ordinary people who would be ruined by the banks’ failures. And the bankers make money again.
Is this a conspiracy of convenience? It is, to the extent that their plans to benefit by events are carried out in secret and/or under cover of disinformation, as they often are. But when we play the “Follow the money” game and allege that bankers conspired to start World War II, or intentionally created the current failures to transfer speculative paper assets into hard cash through government bailouts – when we make the leap from convenience to causation – we undermine our own efforts to expose the truth.
And when we tacitly agree to let provable conspiracies of convenience be lumped in with unprovable charges of causation – and both be dismissed as “crackpot conspiracy theories” – we become unwitting participants in the disinformation campaigns behind which those conspiracies hide.
It’s Friday, so the stars are cross with you … again:
Aries – We may never know why the chicken crossed the road, but you need a good reason.
Taurus – Don’t burn your bridges, or try to go a bridge too far. In fact, avoid bridges, or just cross them when you get there.
Gemini – Everyone has a cross to bear. You’re probably someone’s.
Cancer – Use the weekend to cross annoying chores off your “to do” list. Maybe even do some.
Leo – It’s said that crossword puzzles help stimulate the brain. So don’t be down. Be across.
Virgo – This is a good weekend to cross-index your DVD collection with your shoe collection.
Libra – Avoid conversations at crossed purposes. Don’t talk all weekend.
Scorpio – Crosswalks are a great place to meet people, but sidewalks are safer.
Sagittarius – Don’t double-cross someone who’s already cross with you.
Capricorn – Your sign is the goat, but that’s no excuse to cross-breed with one.
Aquarius – Carry a cross while slaying vampires this weekend … if you were planning to slay vampires this weekend.
Pisces – Beware of cross-contamination. Don’t touch anyone or anything. Not even the air.