Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Do you believe in conspiracies?

So there's a poll about conspiracy theories that is asked of Americans, by Public Policy Polling, with at least the veneer of procedural propriety. Among the questions: was the moon landing faked, is global warming a hoax, is Obama the damn Antichrist, and... “Do you believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq War, or not?”

We-e-e-e-lllllllll... one of these things is not like the other, right?

How do I answer this question? Am I a lefty conspiracy nut or a sane moderate adult? Was I a lefty conspiracy nut in college (when this all went down, for me), and a sane moderate adult now that I'm almost 30 (WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT)? Was Bush involved in some sort of plot that led people off to die just to enrich its profiteering members pockets? Probably not. But I think something happened sort of like what happened with the (currently stuck) Deep Bore Tunnel in Seattle.

Tunnel supporters (oh, geez, here Al goes on another tunnel rant) decided they wanted a deep-bore tunnel built before they set out to make a case for it. They knew the existing viaduct wasn't seismically sound and needed to be replaced. They knew it couldn't be rebuilt in similar form because it wouldn't meet building codes or highway design standards. These are near-indisputable facts, and no amount of future-nostalgia for the viaduct will make them go away. They believed they needed a full limited-access freeway in that corridor; that's an opinion I disagree with (at the very least, I think it's a bad assumption to go in with), and I think it's really the crux of the matter. All the rest of the questions flow forth from there. They believed a surface-level freeway or a cut-and-cover tunnel would be too temporarily disruptive to public waterfront access and existing businesses; these are widely popular opinions and I agree with both. At that point, the only option is to build a tunnel, and the task ahead is to sell it.

The way they sold the tunnel is through studies. Good leaders involved in a sound decision making process would have started the study by determining goals and needs. This process would have identified many important needs that really will be met well by the planned work in the Highway 99 corridor: providing vehicular access to the Port of Seattle and industrial district from the city at large, reconnecting the local street network across the highway between Lower Queen Anne and rapidly-growing South Lake Union (the tunnel wasn't necessary for this, but it's kinda part of the plan), providing a legible route for Highway 99. It also would have identified needs our plan doesn't readily meet: ensuring fast, reliable, and direct mass transit access between downtown Seattle and southern and western corners of the city, maintaining the pedestrian network of Pioneer Square, managing surface traffic in downtown and SODO, providing a bypass of downtown Seattle congestion for long-haul traffic in the corridor that actually carries such traffic (I-5, the reasons for which could fill a whole blog post), addressing all our environmental goals, and being fiscally responsible. Phew, that's a lot of stuff the tunnel sucks at — and I only really disagree with supporters on one thing!

But the studies weren't designed to find how to meet our needs, they were designed to sell a freeway. The metric placed above all others was vehicular travel time between Green Lake and the Port of Seattle, a race designed to be won by a freeway tunnel with few exits between these points and none between Mercer and Yesler. The necessity of a pure limited-access freeway seemed self-evident without examination to most people, and was never effectively challenged. Studies and arguments showing that a non-freeway alternative met our full slate of needs better than the tunnel, for less money, were dismissed without official acknowledgement, in ways that stifled discussion. Cascadia prides itself on open government, but what we saw was a farce of that: advisory votes on confusing measures without any real discussion of what we needed and why. I don't think that's a nefarious conspiracy, but it's bad leadership and bad decision making that ultimately misled all of us, public and leaders alike.

Similarly, the Bush administration determined it wanted to invade Iraq before building a justification based on WMD. It had a number of reasons it wanted to go, but the WMD case was considered likely to gain support in the media, so the administration assembled what evidence it could find (including the erratic and evasive behavior of Hussein's regime when pressed) and presented it widely. It wasn't a back-room conspiracy; it was put together by people whose various earnest reasons for wanting to replace Saddam Hussein were no secret. The public case was disingenuous and held together by wishful thinking. I'd say wishful thinking for a war is pretty perverse on the face of it, but if you believed in the rest of the case for invasion (as many Americans did and continue to do) you'd continue to support it (as many Americans did and continue to do).

So when the WMD evidence turned out flimsy this didn't change the opinion of many on the war (though the experience of being a country at war did, which could fill another blog post... by someone else). In Seattle, when new traffic and tolling revenue projections showed the tunnel in a worse light, this didn't change a lot of people's views on it. WMDs were never really the leaders' reason for war, why should they determine the people's acceptance of it? Because the media ran with that narrative and wanted to hold the administration's feet to the fire? Even that didn't matter much; people that opposed the war all along simply had a loud new ally, and people that supported it got to exercise their well-earned skepticism at the media. In this age of polarization few were left in the middle aside from that very media, trying desperately to hold together a common narrative, being duped badly, acting as stupid as it looked (that could fill another blog post).

Back on topic... I don't think that's a nefarious conspiracy, but it's bad leadership and bad decision making that ultimately misled all of us, public and leaders alike. Do I believe the Bush administration intentionally misled us? To Public Policy Polling, as I read the question, you can put me in with those that believe in the New World Order and Reptilians: a true conspiracy believer. And not as crazy as all that, either.