Saturday, November 5, 2016

Reassessing James Comey's motives

On Monday, I posted something about James Comey's motives when he announced the reopening of the Clinton email investigation.  I gave it the most innocent interpretation possible-- the old "mini-max regret rule" from rational choice theory.  The idea is that you try to minimize the maximum amount of regret you would feel if things go wrong.  So, what if Clinton wins, then we find something on the Weiner/Abedin computer that leads to an indictment and everyone finds out that Comey sat on the information before the election?  That would suck for him.  To avoid that, make the information public, even though that means violating the Department of Justice rule against making announcements on investigations within 60 days of an election to avoid influencing elections.

Here, though, let's re-evaluate that.  Let's evaluate Comey's motives with... social science!  John Stuart Mill to the rescue!  Mill was famous for a lot of cool stuff, but for those of us on my side of the discipline, we still love "Mill's Methods."  It is a cool bundle of analytic techniques to help us with causal analysis.  Let's compare three different "independent variables," or potential causes that can explain Comey's behavior in general rather than any one, specific case:  the mini-max regret rule, the Department of Justice keep-your-fuckin'-mouth-shut-to-avoid-influencing-elections rule, and the screw over Hillary Clinton rule.

What would each rule have to say about the Weiner computer?  Well, the mini-max regret rule would lead Comey to make an announcement that the investigation has been re-opened.  Why?  See Monday's post.  The KYFMS rule is pretty clear cut.  The DoJ policy is not to say anything within 60 days of an election regarding investigations that might influence the election, and Comey was advised, by the Attorney General (an Obama appointee...) to follow that rule.  He was advised to wait until after the election to update Congress, which would have been both within the law and DoJ policy.  The SOHC  rule says to make the information public for obvious reasons.

Well, there's the problem, right?  The SOHC rule gives the same prediction as the MMR rule.  We need another case.  We have one!  Comey told the Feds that they shouldn't reveal that they had confirmed Russia's involvement in the DNC hacks.  His reasoning?  The KYFMS rule.  He said that it could influence the election.  Comey's worry was that if the DoJ confirmed that Russia is working to elect Trump, it could help... someone!  So, in the case of the Russia hacks, he wanted to apply the KYFMS rule.  But, what would the MMR rule have implied there?  Suppose Trump had won, then it had come out that Comey had quashed reports confirming Russia's work before the election on his behalf.  Wouldn't that have sucked for Comey?  The MMR rule in the Russia case would push him towards openness there too, and his willingness to disregard KYFMS should have been consistent.  So, what's the pattern?

This is how we do things with Mill's Methods.

Case Mini-max regret DoJ nonintervention Screw Clinton Comey’s action
Russia Speak Silence Silence Silence
Weiner computer Speak Silence Speak Speak

OK, see the pattern?  The "dependent variable" is Comey's action.  Which "independent variable" perfectly predicts Comey's action?  It's the SOHC rule.  Had Comey followed the MMR rule, he would have pushed for openness in the Russia hack case, and had he cared about the DoJ nonintervention rule that he cared about in the Russia case, he would have waited two weeks to reveal the Weiner computer.  On the other hand, if his goal is to screw over Hillary Clinton, reveal the Weiner computer stuff because it can hurt Clinton, but try to quash the Russia thing because it could have helped her.

Can Comey be convicted of a Hatch Act violation on the basis of this little table?  No fucking way.  But, it does make Comey look less like he did in my Monday post.  We then have the business of his announcement that the FBI wouldn't file criminal charges.  It is highly unusual for the Feds to make a statement that charges would not be filed and then to say that the person under investigation is also a terrible person who did terrible, terrible things and we should all hate them.  At the time, it looked like a rhetorical bone for the Republicans.  In the context of that Mill's Methods table above, it looks a lot like violating norms-- not laws but norms-- against Clinton.  As leaks continue to drip out of the FBI about investigations, we must remember this: the following statements are not incompatible:

1)  Clinton is sketchy.
2)  The Feds are out to get her in ethically sketchy ways.

There is absolutely no incompatibility between statements 1 and 2.

So, as we head into the final days of the worst election ever, I'll repost my passover-ish four questions for this election.  If you need to ask a jewish friend to explain it, do so.

1)  How is this election different from all other elections?
2)  On all other elections, we choose between a Democrat and a Republican.  Why, on this election, do we choose between a paranoid, secrecy-fetishist with a personal entitlement complex and a reckless, sociopathic, racist, misogynist demagogue?
3)  On all other elections, we get public servants.  Why, in this election, only scum?
4)  On all other elections, we only have to shower once after we vote.  On this election, why do we need to shower twice?

And for anyone who cares, I'll be doing Fox News today at around 2:00 Eastern, although I suspect that most of the readers here aren't regular Fox viewers.

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