Let’s play the Newly-Impeachable Game! Our bachelors are the three appointed and acting attorneys general in the Trump epoch:
- Attorney General #1 is a slithering, racist demon who lives every day hoping he gets to jail more brown people, and lied to Congress about his contacts with the Russians during the Trump campaign.
- Attorney General #2 is a thuggish, lying brute who worked for a scam company fined $26 million for deceiving customers under his watch.
- Attorney General #3 is a principled, mannered scholar whose experience as Attorney General 25 years earlier heralded a return to competence for the Department of Justice.
Now, which of these men do you think earned the highest chance of impeachment for his duplicitous and criminal behavior? If you sidestepped Jeff Sessions and Matthew Whitaker and picked AG #3, Bill Barr, congrats on winning. In a blistering few weeks since he got Robert Mueller’s report, Barr has been doing some world-class manipulation of the truth. He has:
- Released a four-page summary that lied about its contents, clearing the president of crimes the report didn’t clear him of.
- Released a redacted Mueller report that confirmed all of those crimes, and then lied about its contents again.
- Lied to Congress about the report’s contents.
- Skipped out on a Congressional hearing about how he lied to Congress.
The Speaker of the House said Barr “lied to Congress and that’s a crime.” Robert Mueller wrote that Barr “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” Rep. Jerry Nadler has threatened to hold Barr in contempt. Reps. Eric Swalwell, Maxine Waters, and Kathleen Rice have called for his impeachment. These are bold statements about the top law enforcement official in the country.
I think impeachment’s unlikely, but it might actually be the cathartic victory the Democratic Party wants and needs. It’s going to be challenging, of course. Typically, when Congress wants to hold someone in contempt, they ask the Attorney General to arrest that person. Is the Attorney General going to arrest himself? Have we ever even asked that question before this year?
All of this gets to the heart of a complex issue that is central to life in the Trump era. Barr’s behavior calls into question a very thorny problem in game theory: What do you do when the officials who prosecute corruption are themselves corrupt?
There are three ways I know to look at this problem. The first is to look at the behavior of officials in corrupt systems. That way is going to disappoint you because you’ll see that incentives exist for the system to stay corrupt. Bribery is a particularly insidious form of corruption in which some money exists to move a person toward illegal action, but not enough money exists to move the entire system toward legal action. If you give every official enough money to make bribery not worth the penalty, you can stop it. Otherwise, you create incentives for some people to give in to bribery. If you are far enough below a reasonable level of compensation, the entire system will give in to bribery. That’s why 30% of Latin Americans report bribing an official last year.
In systems like this, there’s either no change or revolutionary change. We might not want revolution. We might just want the boring mostly-non-corrupt executive branch we had a little while back. Remember Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman James E. “Hoss” Cartwright? No? I didn’t either. He was the only high executive branch official convicted during the Obama years, in his case for denying he was a press leak. Plus, there was former CIA director David Petraeus, whose extramarital affair with his biographer that led to him pleading guilty to a misdemeanor of mishandling classified information. Otherwise, basically crime-free. We have that in our recent history. We should be able to get it back, despite the crime den currently in power.
We need better role models. The second method I know of to analyze corruption is to look at bees and ants. Then you might get the results you want (and this is where I get a little gushy about my decades-long devotion to the theories of sociobiologist Edmund O. Wilson). In insect societies that are eusocial—that is, developed for good societal behavior—it’s a bad thing for anybody but the queen to make more insects. Now, you can argue whether that’s good or bad strategy for the insects, but that’s the principle they’ve got. Sometimes a rogue queen lays some eggs—I swear to Heaven that it’s called a “gamergate,” unrelated to the web harassment campaign of the same name.
What happens to a gamergate that lays eggs? She gets hammered, that’s what. In a concept called “worker policing,” the workers seek out the rogue’s eggs and eat them. Here’s the part that might shock you: In species like tree wasps, this worker policing comes from workers who also lay rogue eggs. That’s right, the criminals police the criminals. That makes sense when you think about it. There’s a limited amount of space for eggs. The criminals can only succeed in their criminal behavior if other criminals don’t succeed in theirs. So the incentive for community policing is high even among offenders.
In a sociobiological sense, worker policing is a harsh but necessary facet of a highly organized society. It’s the kind of thing we can apply to our society, by empowering workers to call out and (within reason) act upon transgressions we can’t abide. We’re not going to eat each other’s eggs, but we can make sure no one subverts the rules of society. We just have to police our so-called leaders a bit better, and try not to get killed for it.
But maybe insects aren’t your jam. Maybe you need to get your direction from humans, and not of the political variety. I understand that. I suggest that you focus on the third place I know where officiating can determine outcomes: sports. Specifically, you gotta watch the end of Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and L.A. Lakers, part of the greatest NBA conference finals series of all time.
I watched the game live and I knew. I just knew. I was screaming at the TV so loud, I’m not sure I actually heard anything the announcers said. But I assume they were saying, “What are these referees doing?” Because it sure looked like the outcome of Game 6 was being decided by an officiating crew.
What the officiating crew—or at least referee Tim Donaghy—was doing was fixing the game. A game is fixed when the outcome is predetermined before the participants head onto the court. It might be that a key player has financial incentive to underperform, or perhaps injure an opposing player. That’s awful, but at least the system is performing well despite rogue elements on one of the teams. You can handle that, if you can isolate the problem and remove it from the game. That’s what happened in 1951, when the FBI found the 1950 CCNY Beavers basketball team were shaving points. They arrested everyone involved and restored order to college sports.
When it’s the refs? Holly hobby, that’s another matter. Tim Donaghy fed the mob outcomes of games he would arrange through application of foul calls and no-calls. During the season, he would routinely shift outcomes by enough points to come in over or under the spread. He might’ve gotten away with it had he been less greedy. Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals was watched by millions, yet the ref crew—which somehow had an extra referee in Donaghy—gave the Lakers 18 more free throws than the Kings in the fourth quarter.
That was just enough to get the game to tip to a Game 7, the desired outcome. Desired by whom has been the subject of much debate. But there is no debate that the game was fixed, and that the Kings lost a Finals trip because of it. If you watch the whole fourth quarter, you cannot reach any other conclusion. If you are on the Kings in that scenario, there is nothing you can do. The game is not in your control. You are going to lose. You have a corrupt referee, and he gets to win, at least for the moment. Donaghy went to jail, so he didn’t get away with it. But if you’re a King, what you care about is your ringless finger.
The reason Donaghy got caught is the interesting part. It wasn’t that the NBA offices saw the game and decided it was officiated in a corrupt manner. It was that the whole world saw it and decided that very thing. Take a look at the column The Post’s Michael Wilbon wrote the next day. He says, “I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as that in Game 6.” At the time, he didn’t ascribe malice to the refs. The Feds saw the game differently. They looked into Donaghy’s past and found a degenerate gambler who was in deep to the Mafia. They crushed him till he sung.
The so-called “gentleman’s sport” took fan policing to an even higher degree. In golf, people watching TV could call penalties on the players. During the 2013 Masters, millions watched Tiger Woods drop a shot on the 15th after plunking one in the water. One of those viewers, David Eger, had a relevant skill set: in addition to being a Champions Tour golfer, he was a tournament director with both the PGA Tour and the USGA. He knew the rules. Woods broke them by taking a drop instead of returning to a divot, qualifying him for disqualification. The officials didn’t see it, but because they got called by Eger, they had to assess a penalty. Woods avoided the DQ, but got a two-stroke penalty which hobbled his bid for a fifth green jacket. (He got it this year, of course.) Eventually, even the PGA deemed that too much gentlemanliness, and terminated the decades-old rule that viewers could call in penalties. I was sad to see that happen. Golf courses are big. You need eyes everywhere.
When ordinary people can call the officials to task, those officials are put on notice. They change their behavior or they change their jobs. I’m obviously not talking about balls and strikes here. But the NFC Championship this year, where the Saints got robbed by incompetence from the officials? Maybe so.
It’s worker policing, plain as day. The ants and bees and wasps have it right. Empower people to call out corruption and the corruption gets dealt with. Leave it solely to the officials who are corrupt and you get more corruption. It’s as simple—and as complex—as that.
In the case of Bill Barr, for the moment, worker policing might be working. Barr has been bribed by Trump to clear him. Not with money, of course, but with power. He’s not on America’s side, he’s on Trump’s side. The Mueller Report is clear: there was serious malfeasance. You can debate whether it’s collusion and/or obstruction, but what it most assuredly is not is vindication for the president. Barr pretended it was, lied about whether it was, and then grandstanded before the Congress he lied to. No attorney general has ever been successfully impeached. Barr might be a trailblazer here.
Here’s why it’s working. The Democratic base has a huge groundswell of support for impeaching the president. We all know the Senate will never vote to confirm his impeachment and we don’t care. For those of us who feel this way—and there are a lot of us—standing up for the rule of law is important even if the Republican majority in the Senate doesn’t. We are all watchmen. Our representatives in Congress hear us.
The thing is, impeaching a president is hard work and it might backfire. Speaker Pelosi doesn’t even want to think about it. It’s hard to blame her for that. But she’s not even going to spend a moment’s hesitation when it comes to a contemptful attorney general who lied to her colleagues and stonewalled her committees. Mueller showed clearly that offenses worthy of potential impeachment had occurred. Barr tried to sweep that under the rug when everyone was looking. He became Tim Donaghy—just another corrupt official who plied his crimes on the highest stage.
They caught him. We caught him. We’re just doing a bit of worker policing here. Because if you stick your hand into a wasp nest, you’re gonna get wasps.
This is the thirty-fourth installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, and college admissions. Many of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can preorder by clicking the link.