Friday 21 August 2015

SMARTS Update: On Intelligence and Deceit

A friend, Gail, handed me a clipping. When she finds something in the papers that smacks of SMARTS, she brings it to me with a tentative grin, like a cat showing a prized bird. Do you want this? Do you like this? I pushed it to the back of my desk. I was too busy catching up on the latest Canadian political scandal.We call it the Senate Scandal or the Duffy affair. To political junkies like me, it goes straight to the heart of the main problem of all democratic governance-- the endless struggle between our need to know the truth about what is done in our name, and our representatives' raging desire to keep us ignorant of anything that might loose their hold on power.  And so we are treated to endless, fruitless attempts to square the circle, to create a smart politics of deceit.

Senator Mike Duffy is a very round, very bald, and very clever former television journalist who used to wittily refer to the job of a Canadian Senator as the taskless thank. That was before he was appointed to the Senate himself by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Just so you know:  under the Canadian Constitution, Senators represent provinces, and must reside in the provinces they represent. Yet they are appointed to office by the Prime Minister, so at least in the beginning of their terms they may feel beholden to him for the pay cheque they get until they retire at 75, and their retirement benefits thereafter. The Senate must review legislation passed by the House and can send a bill back to the House with added amendments.  The Senate was designed as a check on the unbridled power of an elected majority government. This may be why some clever wag dubbed it the Chamber of Sober Second Thought, although more likely it's because the first Prime Minister of Canada was a notorious drunk. Over the last four decades, most of the Senate's power, like most of Parliament's power,  has been sucked into the Prime Minister's Office. Nowadays, it's a matter of the leadership in the Senate ramming through whatever the Prime Minister demands as communicated by the un-elected political flunkies running his Office.

As a journalist, Duffy was really good at sniffing out lies.  As a Senator, Duffy, and several other colleagues, proved to be very good at helping the Prime Minister raise money from the Conservative base and at maximizing entitlements. They increased the monetary value of the taskless thank by getting reimbursement for expenses relating to their primary residences in or around Ottawa, while maintaining the public fiction that their primary residences were in the provinces they represent. In other words, the first lie begot the second. By living a lie, they increased their benefits, getting repaid for expenses incurred while in Ottawa. What's remarkable is that nobody raised a fuss about this until years after Duffy was appointed. After all, everyone in the Ottawa media knew Duffy (like several other Senators), continued to live in the same Ottawa area house he'd always lived in, and that he seldom visited his cottage in PEI, the province he is supposed to represent.

This business entered the public eye in late 2012 when the Ottawa Citizen raised questions in print about Duffy's primary residence, and asked whether he'd made expense claims relating to his house in Ottawa. When it became clear that he had, they began to ask the same questions about others. Eventually it was learned that Duffy made claims and got reimbursed for more than $90,000. Others had claimed and received more.

The Prime Ministers' political "brand" was threatened by these revelations. The Prime Minister likes to portray himself as the Tax Cutter (like Dubya claiming to be The Decider). The Prime Minister tells his base that he is radically shrinking the size of the Canadian government so that Canadians can spend their own money as they please instead of letting Ottawa waste it. Yet here was Duffy, his most active political Senator, his very best fundraiser, with his thick fingers in the public purse. Leading Conservatives in the Senate first tried to cover it all up. But transparency and accountability are also supposed to be part of the Prime Minister's brand. So independent auditors were ordered in. Then  the leadership tried to guide these auditors in their reportage, with helpful pointers from the PMO.

These facts too came out in the papers but especially on CTV because someone was unhappy, and someone was leaking. Drip, drip, drip.

The Prime Minister's top officials, led by his Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, decided the best way to get this whole affair off the front pages was to get Duffy (and the other Conservative Senators who'd made these claims) to admit "mistakes" and to pay back what they'd claimed. They spent hours and hours doing this instead of minding the larger issues of government. Why? The Prime Minister in the current Canadian parliamentary system is like the queen in a vast ant's nest: the Prime Minister sits atop the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary, appointing everyone who matters. If the Prime Minister goes down, so does the government.  To protect the Prime Minister, his minions, like the good soldier ants defending the queen, will attack and shred anyone or anything.

But the PMO had a problem: recalcitrant Senators did not agree that they owed money. Some had sought opinions from Senate officials that what they were doing was just fine. They dug in their heels.  The Prime Minister's Office brought out the brass knuckles to make them pay. First they were suspended from caucus, then, eventually, from the Senate (and their pay cheques). But the Senator they really put the thumb screws to was Mike Duffy. As the audit proceeded, negotiations ensued between Duffy, his lawyer, and officials of the PMO to permit him to escape from it. Soon, Duffy admitted to the press that he'd made a mistake due to the ambiguous wording of Senate rules, and had borrowed money from the Royal Bank to pay back what he now agreed he owed ( or perhaps not, but hey.) But this was lie number three. In fact, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff had written Duffy a cheque to cover what he would pay back and several folk in the Prime Minister's Office, including the Prime Minister's lawyer, had participated in crafting this lie and handing it out to us as " media lines." Somewhere between March and May, 2013, the lie fell apart.  The Prime Minister had to tell the House that Duffy had not paid back the Senate with funds of his own, but had used his Chief of Staff's money. The Prime Minister praised Nigel Wright for selflessly dipping into his personal wealth so that taxpayers were made whole, but then announced that he had accepted Wright's resignation. Why? He, the Prime Minister had known nothing of this wonderful plan and had not okayed it.The Prime Minister's new line was that only Wright and Duffy knew of it. Later, the Prime Minister changed this media line and claimed he'd actually fired Wright. Why? Because Wright had deceived him.

The RCMP then investigated and charged several Senators with crimes.  Duffy was charged with 31 counts of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Wright, the man who paid the alleged bribe, was not charged with anything. People from one end of the country to the other shook their heads in wonder. How was it that the guy who paid the alleged bribe was not charged? Was this a real crime or the political punishment of Duffy via the courts? Surely political crimes only exist in places like Brazil ("For my friends, anything, for my enemies the law," as one of Brazil's presidents used to say.). Or Egypt? 

The trial began this summer, then went on hiatus. There was only one question in everyone's mind. Did the Prime Minister know of this plan that Wright would pay Duffy or not? If he did know, he'd lied about it over and over again in the House, and to all Canadians. Being caught lying to the House used to be grounds for immediate resignation from high office. And deceit is very bad for any political brand.

The trial started up again at the end of the first week of August just as the Prime Minister kicked off the longest election campaign in more than 100 years.  Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff, spent six days on the stand being grilled by Duffy's lawyer. The Prime Minister spent those days bouncing from one tightly scripted political event to another,  hoping to drown out the bad trial story with better ones. But every day, reporters on the campaign trail asked him questions raised by the sworn evidence given by Mr. Wright. Wright, when faced with a binder full of emails he'd written and received, admitted that he had offered money to Duffy, rather than that Duffy had demanded it, and that the media lines he'd helped craft and which were uttered in public by his colleagues, cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister, and Duffy, were misrepresentations. Among his emails was one that made it clear that far from Duffy and Wright keeping this dastardly plan to themselves, as the Prime Minister had insisted repeatedly, in fact the Prime Minister's lawyer knew of it and so did Ray Novak, the man who replaced Mr. Wright as the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff. Just as this evidence was introduced in court,  the Prime Minister's campaign spokesman explained to the press that Mr. Novak is so close to the Prime Minister that it is "unfathomable" that he could have known of this payment and not told the Prime Minister.

The result: the main facet of the Prime Minister's so-called brand is being destroyed by the trial. Ever since he was first elected, the Prime Minister has been marketed to us as the Smartest Guy in the Room. His former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was marketed as the other Smartest Guy in the Room and as Mr. Integrity as well, due to his strong religious beliefs. You'd think the word Watergate would have been uttered by at least one of these smart folks as they struggled to execute their cover up. But apparently not. Why didn't they see that all this deception would be found out and would destroy trust? Is it possible that they aren't smart at all?

Everybody understands that deception is stupid and will be found out.

But everybody also deceives-- because deception has its social uses and often succeeds.

SMARTS recounts all kinds of useful signal deceptions deployed by clever animals like octopus and squid. Deception may be  fundamental to most intelligent behavior: plants use it to defeat insect enemies and plant competitors, insects use it to grab others' resources. Deception is certainly an integral part of human societies. In warfare, it has always been smart to fool the enemy over anything. Democratic politics, especially during election campaigns, involve continuous, low level, managed warfare. Then there's those 38 million people who signed up for websites to cheat on their spouses without getting caught.

The drive to deceive and the value of deception go very far back in evolutionary history. Which brings me back to Gail's clipping. When I finally picked it up and read it, I realized it was a story by the science writer/blogger Carl Zimmer whose work often appears in the New York Times. He described a paper published in PLoS One in July by a group of Italian scientists led by Andrea Di Giulio of Roma Tre University. The paper was about a clever deceit that is fundamental to the life cycle of a parasitic beetle that lives in ant nests.

As the paper explains, ant nests are fortresses full of useful resources. Soldier ants parole constantly to detect incursions and to rip invaders apart. However, there are some insects which  have evolved the means to mimic the communication systems of ants so they can live in ants' nests and be taken care of by the ants instead of being  thrown out. Ants are well known to communicate with chemical signals. But it appears that ants also have an acoustic communication channel. Each ant caste (worker, soldier, queen) makes specific kinds of sounds to communicate by rubbing part of a leg over ridges on the thorax. These sounds constitute three rudimentary languages. There is a particular beetle which apparently has free run of the nests of a certain kind of ant in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. These beetles live their entire life cycles in ant nests, entering freely, searching there for mates, laying their own eggs which are groomed by worker ants and hatched out as larvae. The worker ants then feed those larvae, just as they feed their own, and groom the adult beetles even as they eat the ant larvae and drink the body fluids of freshly moulted adult ants.  The question is: why don't the ants recognize these beetles as foe and drive them out?

In symbiotic relationships, both parties gain from the other. Apparently the beetles carry certain chemicals on their bodies that are useful to the ants. But that doesn't explain the whole relationship.The Italians discerned that while most species of this beetle do not have ridges that permit them to mimic the sounds, or stridulations, the ants make, these beetles do have them. In effect, they speak to the ants in the three different languages uttered by worker, soldier, and queen. Because they can sing like queens, they are treated like queens within the nest.

With tiny microphones, the scientists taped the acoustic signals of three ant castes, then played the signals back to other ants and got appropriate specific behaviors from workers, soldiers and queens. Then they taped the beetles' sounds and compared them to the ant recordings. They found they mimicked pulse and intensity. The Italians then put a tiny loudspeaker into a chamber, buried it in the sand, "then put ants in the chamber and played beetle calls through the speaker....they crawled toward the sound to investigate, waving their antenna in a pattern they use only to detect fellow ants. "  They began to dig toward the speaker, as if to come to the rescue. The sounds made by the beetles mimicked very well the sounds made by ant queens, raising their status to the status of the queen in the nest, making the ants serve them even as they ate their fill of these ant servants.

The beetles' entire existence, in other words, is built on signals that are lies, that purport to say the signaler is one thing, when the facts are otherwise.  The scientists used the word "hack" to describe the beetles' manipulation of the ant communication systems. Interestingly, the Globe and Mail used the same concept of deceptive parasitism in a recent editorial to describe the operations of the PMO within the larger Canadian democracy.

Deceit is stupid and will be found out. But deceit can also be smart and effective. It's up to us to catch our politicians when they practice it, and to punish them accordingly.

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