People are outraged because Newt Gingrich suggested that the U.S. government should start monitoring mosques to thwart terrorism. Outrage is a perfectly reasonable response to Gingrich’s proposal if you’re dumb enough to think the government isn’t already monitoring mosques in the U.S.
How do I know the government already monitors any mosques in which they suspect there might be problems?
It’s because the government has motive, opportunity, low risk, and a lot at stake. When you put human beings (moist robots) in an environment with those variables, the outcome is predictable. It’s the same reason you can be sure some hedge funds are trading on insider information and some state primaries are rigged. When you have a lot to gain and almost no risk of getting caught, shenanigans are guaranteed.
So how can President Obama act as though Gingrich’s suggestion to monitor mosques is unconstitutional while Obama is almost certainly monitoring mosques right now? That’s easy, thanks to the miracle of words. The government isn really monitoring mosques. It is simply monitoring any situation in which they have credible intelligence about a threat.
Such as, oh, say…mosques, for example.
To remain on the right side of the constitution, all Obama needs to do is not monitor every mosque. If you know a mosque preaches against terrorism, for example, you can probably skip that one. Now you’re operating within the constitution. Worst case scenario, the Supreme Court someday disagrees. No biggie.
Testing Loyalty to Sharia Law
Gingrich also recently said he wants to “test” Muslims living in the United States to see if they support Sharia Law because it is incompatible with the Constitution. Gingrich says we should deport anyone who fails the test, as they are not loyal Americans.
Your first reaction to Gingrich’s idea is that singling out one religion is unconstitutional and bigoted, and the tests would be worthless because people can simply lie. Plus, all that testing would be impractical. Let’s dig into that a little.
If the government tests all Muslims, and no one else, that is clearly a problem with the Constitution and unfair as well. But let’s say you test everyone in the country for loyalty to the Constitution versus loyalty to any competing system. That makes it fair, albeit impractical to implement. There are simply too many people to test.
Well, not so fast. Imagine that the test is administered to anyone who applies for a driver’s license, passport, or government ID. Those applicants would be asked to sign an oath of allegiance to the United States at the same time. It takes an extra 30 seconds. After a few years, you’d have most adults.
But how accurate would such a test be? People can simply lie. Here’s where things get interesting, because I think technology is right on the cusp of being able to create a lie detector that is 99.99% accurate. Let me say a bit about that.
A trained interrogator – or even a trained hypnotist – can detect deception in a subject with, let’s say, 80% accuracy. That’s not good enough.
An existing lie detector with old-timey technology can detect deception about 80% of the time too, but that’s not good enough to be accepted in a court of law.
Now we have technology to detect lies based on changes in a subject’s eyes. This technology claims to be about 85% effective, and better than polygraphs. But that still isn’t good enough.
There has also been a lot of technological improvement in the speed, sensitivity, and cost of brain scan technology. You can put an inexpensive headband with sensors on a subject and detect brainwave changes. That technology can’t yet detect deception, but it’s heading in that direction.
I also believe we are at the point where the government can create a map of a person’s social media and digital communications and know with a high degree of certainty whether someone is connected with bad people. That is a sort of lie detector as well.
This gets us to the Adams Law of Slow-Moving Disasters. The Law states that whenever humans can see a disaster coming, and we have lots of time to prepare, we always do okay. That’s why the world hasn’t run out of food or fuel. It’s why the Year 2000 bug was no problem at all. It’s why the hole in the Ozone is closing. It’s why your drinking water and air quality are better than in the seventies. When we see a problem coming from a distance, we solve it.
And that will be the same with immigration and the risk of letting terrorists slip into the country. We have time to solve it. And technology is already 85% there. We’re probably three years away from lie detection technology that is 99% effective. That’s probably the solution. And if we test all citizens – not just Muslims – such a system is probably fair enough to satisfy the Constitution.
The Pence Pick
You might be wondering what I think of Trump’s decision to pick Mike Pence for VP, given that Pence has disagreed with Trump on substantive policy issues in the past.
First of all, policies don’t matter in this election, or in any other election. Reason is mostly an illusion. And anyway, Pence will modify his positions to match Trump. No one cares.
Secondly, political experts say making a good choice for a VP running mate can’t help a candidate much, but a bad choice can hurt. Pence doesn’t do much to help, but he also doesn’t do much to hurt. So he’s a safe choice on that dimension. And he has plenty of government experience, as Trump says he needs. So Pence helps solve for Trump’s lack of experience. But those effects are all marginal.
What matters with Pence is how he looks in terms of contrast with Trump. The best choice for VP is someone who looks like a boring, washed-out version of the top of the ticket. You need that contrast to remind people that the top of the ticket is truly special.
Pence is an experienced politician. But you stand him next to Trump and he sort of disappears. The contrast persuades you – subconsciously – that Trump is better than an experienced politician. That’s totally irrational, and totally effective.
What’s Clinton’s biggest strength? Experience. How does Trump compare to the experienced politician on his own ticket? Better, at least in the public’s irrational way of thinking. So if Clinton and Pence are both experienced, and you prefer Trump over Pence, you somewhat automatically extend that thinking to Clinton – with all of her boring experience – and imagine her to be a weak version of Trump as well.
Replace Trump and Pence with Reagan and Bush-the-elder to see how well this contrast-based persuasion works.
And think of Obama picking Biden. It’s all the same persuasion trick. You want the VP to be the solid, uninteresting version of whoever is at the top of the ticket.
Now imagine if Trump had picked Gingrich for his VP running mate. Gingrich would make Trump look less experienced, less informed, and less intelligent by contrast. That’s a bad formula for winning. Gingrich is simply too interesting.
And after Gingrich came out in favor of testing Muslims for loyalty to Sharia law, he became the worst possible choice for Trump’s running mate. Trump is trying to move to the middle for the general election. Gingrich is running hard in the opposite direction. If Gingrich is not on the ticket, his radical-sounding ideas create an anchor that actually makes Trump look moderate by comparison. But if Gingrich had been a running mate, it would make a Trump presidency look scarier than it already is. And fear is Clinton’s best weapon against Trump. So no matter what Trump planned a week ago, Gingrich took himself out of the running with his recent comments about testing Muslims. Still, I expect Gingrich to be part of a Trump administration somehow.
No matter what you think of Pence, he was the right choice on the dimension of persuasion. And that’s the only dimension that will matter here. Trump just needs to stay boring until November to win. Pence can do that. Gingrich probably could not.
Why My VP Predictions Were So Bad
Predicting VP candidates is nearly impossible because that is a political calculation and it depends on how your opponent is framing you lately, what comes up during vetting, personal chemistry, and more. The Master Persuader Filter can’t predict anything in that environment. All it can do is tell you after the fact whether the choice was a good one on the persuasion dimension.
That said, last week it was easy for me to rule out Mark Cuban and Newt Gingrich because they are too “interesting” for the #2 spot. But it is easier to know who is ruled out than to know who is a good pick among the remaining candidates that are adequate but uninteresting.
The Master Persuasion Filter works best when looking at a large population of people over an extended period of time, such as a presidential election. In that kind of situation, about 20% of the public can be persuaded by the best persuader in the contest, and that’s enough for a landslide.
The Master Persuader Filter is less good at knowing what one person will do about one decision in one specific situation.