Chance v. Conspiracy Theory Watch: Ezra Klein’s Contingency Observations v. Matt Damon’s “The Adjustment Bureau”

At the Washington Post’s website, Ezra Klein shares why he can’t bring himself to sit through the conspiracy-themed Matt Damon film, The Adjustment Bureau:

I can’t believe in guys in suits with the ability to plan things.

And why can’t he believe it? Because, as a Washington political reporter, he sees how history is really made (that is, contingently): 

No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans. Partisans are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities. And there’s so much press interest in Svengali political consultants like Karl Rove or David Plouffe, all of whom get built up in the press as infallible tacticians, that the place just looks a lot more sophisticated than it really is.

But I tend to be shocked at how sophisticated it isn’t. Communication between various political actors — a crucial ingredient in any serious plan — is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don’t really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they’re interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and speculates about what they just heard. Most every political reporter can back me up when I say that it’s extremely common for key players on both sides of the aisle to ask you what you’re hearing or how you’d rate the chances of their bill — and this typically happens when you’re sitting down to ask them the very same questions.


In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed. They’re traveling constantly, buried under too many meetings and constituent requests, and working desperately to stay one step ahead of whatever they’re getting yelled at about that week. That isn’t to say they don’t take on long-term projects, but in general, the way they take them on is one day at a time. The most common lamentation you’ll hear from congressional staffers when a legislative fight starts going badly is “didn’t anyone think of this beforehand?” In general, the answer is yes, someone saw the fight over the excise tax or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts coming. They just didn’t have enough time, or couldn’t get their boss and the relevant principals and staff members from other offices to put aside the time, to plan for it.

In other words, as the round world turns, no one ever really has a firm grip on the steering wheel of its evolution.

Isn’t that scary?

But it’s quite easy, in retrospect, to construct a story that matches our desire to believe that at least someone was in control of how an event actually turned out:

When a campaign — either electoral or legislative — fails, we hear all about this: Staffers anonymously complain that there was no plan, that the internal communication had broken down, . . . Usually, a lot of that stuff is true. More misleading are the contrasting stories about the campaigns that succeed. Those stories tend to feature the brilliant plans, effective communication strategies and towering cunning of the people involved. . . . Events tend to be too fluid and fast to support very detailed planning. Whenever I read those stories, I think of George Foreman’s contention that the rope-a-dope was never a strategy at all, that Muhammad Ali had fired an arrow into a barn and then walked over afterward and painted a bull’s-eye around it. More often than not, that’s a pretty good description of how politics works . . .

And why elaborate conspiracy theories, in the real world, don’t.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Chance v. Conspiracy Theory Watch: Ezra Klein’s Contingency Observations v. Matt Damon’s “The Adjustment Bureau”

  1. TomH says:

    Conspiracies have to be relatively simple in order to work. The Founding Fathers were quite conspiratorial, meeting in masonic lodges. The internationalists for a long time denied the existence of the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderbergers and did an Alinsky on the Birchers. Turns out that the Birchers were right about some of their allegations.

    I don’t think that the Bilderbergers are all that competent or dominant, but they do have a fair amount of influence.

    I’ve been reading Rove’s book and he leaves no illusions that the Bush campaign that he ran was all that competent in some ways. They were totally unprepared for what happened in Florida with the legal maneuvering. Rove also denies most of the shenanigans attributed to his supposed cleverness. Rove paints Bush as a whole lot smarter than the popular impression of him. Rove is unpersuasive to me in painting Bush as a conservative as regards fiscal policy.

    • santitafarella says:


      Rove has deep contempt for Sarah Palin’s intelligence, and the fact that he doesn’t have the same contempt for Bush’s suggests that he thinks that Bush is smart.

      But it harms his credibility with regard to anything he says when he pretends that Bush didn’t wreck the fiscal health of the nation with his fiscal “deficits don’t matter” policies. Here, off the top of my head, is a quick list of what brought us from Clinton era budget surpluses (remember Gore’s “lock box”?) to Bush era deficits:

      –Bush’s tax cut before 9-11 was billed as “giving voters their money back”. It went mostly to the rich and it’s still in place. “The lock box” was basically gone.
      –9-11 stunted the economy, shrinking tax revenues.
      –Bush initiated TWO wars in response (Iraq and Afghanistan) and—obscenely—promoted a SECOND TAX CUT at the same time, meaning that the bill for the wars is not being paid.
      –To secure the elderly vote in his runup to reelection, he pushed through an unfunded mandate: Medicare D.
      –He further deregulated the banking industry and defunded the federal agencies charged with policing the industry.
      –When the housing bubble collapsed and the banking industry displayed its corruption, the economy tanked and he was advised to deficit spend to keep the consumer bottom from falling out of the economy completely.
      –His wrecklessness in war and in domestic policy so outraged people that voters put a Democrat in the White House—who surrounded himself with Keynsians. Those Keynsians pushed through one more stimulus package.
      –Obama, trying to then get the long term health of the budget under some appearance of control, focused on health care, got a health bill through congress that will reduce the deficit—but Republicans don’t like it, so they’re trying to dismantle it (which will further aggravate deficit issues).
      –Obama, if the economy doesn’t pick up, will lose reelection, and Republicans will push through another series of tax cuts (and will no doubt want to roll on another war).
      –Neither side is willing to antagonize voters, and so will not seriously touch entitlement or defense.
      –The next terrorist incident over the next decade (and there will almost certainly be one) is poised to tank the economy again, and lead to greater defense spending, and hence even huger deficits.

      Have I missed something in this sequence? Maybe I’ll make a post of it. In my view, this is a profiles in courage moment in our history: Republican and Democratic politicians should come together and cut things across the board and raise taxes so that when the next terrorist incident occurs, the country is not ruined by it.

      Unfortunately, neither Obama nor Boehner are trying to ride out one more election cycle. I assume Obama’s calculation is that, after he is no longer up for re-election, he’ll cut a deficit deal with Republicans in 2013.

      But what if a terrorist attack occurs before then, or Saudi Arabia is upended by the revolutions sweeping the Middle East?

      —Santi : )

      PS And Rove is an atheist, by the way.


  2. TomH says:


    Karl Rove is an atheist? Pretty strange if Rove is an atheist.

    Some of us check our facts.

    You won’t find me defending Bush’s fiscal policies. Obama is Bush on steroids when it comes to unfunded mandates as well as being a purveyor of massive tax increases.

    I don’t credit Clinton with fiscal responsibility; that goes to the Congress. Typically, the Congress increases spending from the levels in the budget the president presents. Clinton’s Congress decreased the spending that Clinton proposed, so I give them the credit for balancing the budget.

    Banking deregulation has been going on a long time. Don’t hang it just on Bush. Clinton and the republicans in Congress when Glass-Steagall was repealed get the lion’s share. It’s complicated and controversial. The main argument for deregulation was that the U.S. banks would lose business to overseas banks if they weren’t allowed to expand their businesses. That’s a valid point.

    Regarding entitlements–soon, we are going to have to deal with them and this will require our political leaders becoming adults. That leaves out the libs. At the same time, we will need to be competitive in attracting capital. That will require keeping our effective tax rates competitive with China, India, etc., so that will rule out tax increases.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Tom H:

    Karl Rove’s atheism (I thought) was a pretty open secret about Rove. I didn’t think the question was seriously in dispute.

    As for the blame game, you can play it if you want. My point is that the steps I listed above are how we got into the mess. You can remove Bush’s culpability from each step as you please, but I’m wondering if you see a key step that I’ve missed.

    As for Obama being Bush on steroids, I don’t think that has any objective basis in fact, and if I thought that of Obama, I wouldn’t vote for him again. Obama, I think, is genuinely concerned about the debt, but I think he is being told by Keynesian advisors that it’s bad to contract govt. spending at this point in the recovery. I also think Obama is getting advised on the political side not to commit to entitlement cuts until after the election in 2012 (if at all). This, in my view, is Obama’s failure. This is his profiles-in-courage moment, not 2013. If the economy tanks between now and 2013 because of an oil or terrorist crisis—or another banking crisis—he will have blown a historic opportunity to cut a deal with the Republicans for something meaningful.

    It’s one reason I increasingly think that Romney could be the next president. The deficit is simply too alarming. Obama should act now, risk his presidency on a historic move, and not assume that he’ll have 2013 to get it right.


  4. santitafarella says:

    Christopher Hitchens said this of Rove’s atheism:

    “Well, I don’t talk that much to them—maybe people think I do. I know something which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “’I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.’”

    If Rove, in the occasional public statement, makes mention of God, it’s not out of belief (in my view). He’s just a Machiavellian.


  5. Kris says:

    Hmm, found this after searching for a poem I’m particularly fond of– “A Brief for the Defense”.

    While I don’t endorse any conspiracy theories, and do find myself poo-pooing them for just the reasons suggested, there really have been some remarkably effective covert projects pulled off by groups like the CIA. (Who also fail miserably about as often.) Check out Project Eldest Son, for example.

    Anyway, I’ll explore the blog some more later when not swamped with work. Thanks for writing.

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