Scene 1

It’s reported Lord Acton despaired over the prospect of ever finding French, German and British historians who agreed on an account of the Battle of Waterloo. So too have others.

In The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal famously recounts the misadventures of Fabrizio, who makes his way to Waterloo on the eve of the battle. Everything turns chaotic, with confusion supreme. “A few minutes later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead of him a ploughed field, the surface of which was moving in a singular fashion. . . .[O]ur hero realized it was shot from guns that was making the earth fly up all around him. . . . ‘But is this the real battle’,” he asks a sergeant”.

Friedrich von Hayek, Nobel economist, picks up the story and asks, “Was the man plowing his field just beyond the extreme wing of Napoleon’s guards part of the Battle of Waterloo?. . .To follow up this kind of question will show at least one thing: that we cannot define a historical fact in terms of spatiotemporal coordinates”. Literary critic, Nicola Chiaromonte, revisits that narrative: “Certainly the Battle of Waterloo that Napoleon saw and directed (or thought he directed) is not the event Fabrizio wanders into. Nor is the explosion of incidents in which Fabrizio finds himself the same event as the mortal engagement of the soldiers who jeer at him. . .The Battle of Waterloo was all of these, separately and together, plus countless other happenings.” By no means last, a more recent Fabrizio, Tod Hackett, runs to watch the chaotic, confused and eventually disastrous filming of the Battle of Waterloo in Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust

This power in “the Battle of Waterloo” is very much the power that political scientist, James G. March, long ago described as “different parts of the system contribut[ing] to different decisions in different ways at different times”.

Scene 2

Contingency is the chief feature of battle and the chief feature of contingency is surprise—not again that power defined as the ability of A to get B to do something B would not have done.

To appreciate this better, puzzle over the power that contingency plays in A getting A to do what A would not have done otherwise. Here is the poet and critic, T.S. Eliot:

“My writings, in prose and verse, may or may not have surprised other people; but I know that they always, on first sight, surprise myself. I have often found that my most interesting or original ideas, when put into words and marshalled in final order, were ideas which I had not been aware of holding. It is ordinarily supposed that a writer knows exactly what he wants to say, before he sits down at his desk; and that his subsequent labours are merely a matter of a better choice of words, a neater turn of phrase, and a more orderly arrangement. Yet I have always discovered that anything I have written—anything at least which pleased me—was a different thing from the composition which I had thought I was going to write.”

Stay with the range of evidence that those “most interesting or original ideas”—those most powerful ideas—are the ones you don’t know until you set them down before you:

  • “A writer doesn’t know what his intentions are until he’s done writing,” says poet, Robert Penn Warren. Even when the writing is done, poets “are apt to discover that what they decide to express is not everything their poems say,” writes Anne Stevenson, herself a poet, adding: “Nothing in my experience is more important about the writing of poems than that they should surprise you; that while you are submitting to their rigorous demands of rhythms and sounds they find a way of saying things you never meant to say or never knew you knew.” 
  • “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” asks a character of novelist, E.M. Forster. “Therefore, till my work is finished, I never know exactly what result I shall reach, or if I shall arrive at any,” wrote Alex de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill. “I do not know what I think until I have tried to write it,” said political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. “I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would,” confesses Stacy Schiff, biographer.
  • “You never know what you’re filming until later,” remarks a narrator in Chris Marker’s 1977 film Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge. “You start a painting and it becomes something altogether different. It’s strange how little the artist’s will matters,” adds Picasso (and any number of other artists). In like fashion, “one important reason for making drawings, I imagine, is not to draw a likeness of what one sees, but to find out what it is you see,” adds poet and art critic, James Schuyler. Goethe noted “my tendency to look at the world through the eyes of the painter whose pictures I have seen last”.
  • Harrison Birtwistle describes his process of composing a piece of music: “I know what it is before I’ve even written it, but in other ways I don’t know at all. As I unravel it, it never turns out to be what you think it’s going to be”. J.M. Coetzee, Nobel novelist, manages to make all this sound commonplace: “Truth is something that comes in the process of writing, or comes from the process of writing”.
  • More, there are other ways to “write as thinking.” Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss would record different points on separate note cards and then deal “them out randomly in the hope of finding unexpected correlations”. “As Beatrice Webb [UK reformer] rightly said, the very process of shuffling notes can be intellectually fertile. It helps one to make new connections and it raises questions to which one must try to find an answer,” writes historian Keith Thomas. Those who, as sociologist C. Wright Mills commended, sort out their files can have just this sense of making hitherto-unseen associations and connections.

Managing this mess called thinking in these ways becomes the way your distractions and their insights control you. Nor does any of this stop us from ghostwriting our earlier thinking later on.

Scene 3

If your point of departure in thinking about power is that ability of A to influence B to behave otherwise, then the person I am after having learned what I really know or think has enormous power over the person I was before being distracted and surprised by that discovery.

Conversely, there is an enormous powerlessness in not being able to think or know when few if any words or images exist for the purpose—“the language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, neither Italian nor Spanish, but a language none of whose words is known to me,” despairs von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos. What is rendered too simple or too complex leaves us, literally, in and at a loss for words.

For me, it’s not good enough to say power is primarily about that A making that B do something instead. Nor is it good enough to say power is primarily about controlling the decision agenda or determining peoples’ interests without them knowing it. At least when it comes to the policy and management issues with which I am familiar, power isn’t concentrated or dispersed by self-interest, full stop. The power I am talking about lies in surprise and, since surprise is a chief feature of complexity, surprise and its power should be thought of as complex from the get-go. Again: Complex is about as simple as it gets

Scene 4

Better to say the power I am talking about is the power of surprising connections.

It is thinking through the reverberations that, in my mind, connect Adorno starting an opera on Tom Sawyer, Picasso painting Buffalo Bill Cody, Sartre preparing a screenplay on Freud, Benjamin Britten facing the prospect of becoming a bandmaster (or Samuel Beckett considering being a commercial airplane pilot), Coleridge and fellow poet Robert Southey planning an egalitarian community on shores of the Susquehanna, Goethe’s plan to clean up the streets of Venice, Kafka drafting rules for a socialist workers’ cooperative, and Abraham Lincoln and Hedy Lamarr securing their respective patents. More than “w” as in war links Walt Whitman the medical orderly, Max Weber the hospital orderly, and Ludwig Wittgenstein the dispensary porter.

The objective correlative of contingency is power. When so, the great threat to addressing power is to think there is an outside to contingency and to assume that asking a question requires first knowing what qualifies as an answer. Some of the most potent answers start out, provisionally, as distractions from the original question. When you think about it, these distractions are a bit like asking, “What is more important, power or contingency?”, and being told, “But that’s like asking which chopstick is the fork…”

Central role of the track record in risk analysis

–Assume you, a competent specialist, have been tasked to undertake a risk analysis for an energy utility that provides electricity, natural gas, or both to a large region of major urban, agricultural and natural resource users.

The utility wants to identify risks and uncertainties that, if left (further) unaddressed, would have severe consequences for its operations (think: induced wildfires or pipeline explosions). Utility operations, including the technologies, are so complex that “accidents are waiting to happen,” when unidentified and/or unattended.

Your analysis begins conventionally by identifying and isolating weak or vulnerable elements in the utility operations, be they in physical structures or in specific tasks (think: corrosion in pipes or so-called operator error). No chain is stronger than its weakest link, so the wisdom goes, and if the utility doesn’t know the weakest, then operations are in an important respect merely failing to fail.

That conventional point of departure focusing on the weaker or weakest links no longer takes risk assessment and management far enough, and honestly it would be irresponsible to stop there.

In the first place, you are not dealing with chains of processes and technologies only. It is the system of operations that is the unit of your risk analysis, and indeed the utility operates its electricity or natural gas system as a system. This means that if it loses an element it frequently has another way or ways to maintain service across the system as a whole. This applies as well when the lost element is the weak link—not always, of course; but more frequently than you might suppose.

Which leads to our second problem with a weak-link focus on the part of the risk analyst. Not only was the utility’s system originally designed to have back-ups for handling contingencies and failures, the important point is managerial: The strength of the utility’s operations derives in good part from its weak links, and not in spite of them. The gas operations of the utility are as reliable and safe as they are because it is known that those pipes corrode that way under these conditions. Not only is the weak link frequently known, it has many eyes focused on it, particularly if it is already recognized to be a chokepoint for real-time systemwide operations.

–In fact, when conventional analysis is pushed further, risk isn’t the “negative” that determines the standard or remedy to correct; the standard of safety and reliability adopted determines the risks requiring managing to meet that standard.

Standards, to be standards, need constant testing to ensure they are not overly simple or overly complex with respect to the safety and reliability mandated. That is, the standards of service reliability and safety—in order to function as standards—require managing the entailed risks and uncertainties as the chief way to test the efficacy of the standards. This makes risk a positive, not a negative, when it comes to management.

–When so, the logical and empirical prior question that the analyst in our thought experiment has to answer becomes this: Have the utility managers demonstrated a real-time track record by way of experience and training in addressing circumstances under which (1) they didn’t know what they initially thought they knew, (2) they in fact knew more than they initially thought, (3) or both?

If the track record is one of success (measured in terms of ensuring system reliability and safety), then the analyst can better trust the utility’s system operators and immediate support to know and appreciate how inexperienced they still are when it matters. But the existence of any such record must remain an open question for the analyst.

I cannot over-stress the importance of this track record. For the major risk factors may already be well-known by real-time system operators. It’s not a matter that key risks are unknown or invisible to them. Which is to say that it’s the track record that is the proper unit of analysis for our inquiring risk analyst.

Is there a track record of learning-and-unlearning by utility operators and support staff around, say, meeting the challenges their equipment fires pose to system reliability and safety? Or are equipment fires something consultants and others worry more about than utility operators, who worry about different risks over which there is a track record of more real-time learning/unlearning? Or are some utilities under such pressure to change as systems that track records of any important sort become more and more difficult to establish?

Related entry: “Seeing unknowns”

Betterment as “yes-but” through “yes-and”

“I in fact believe that we possess valid criteria for judging when criticism is good and when it is bad…But I also think it is a mistake to assume, and self-defeating to pretend, that these criteria are simple and obvious….To get progressively clearer to the multiple and interdependent discriminations involved requires the evolving give-and-take of dialogue…[W]hen a proponent says, ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ his interlocutor will reply, ‘Yes, but. . .'”   M.H. Abrams, literary critic

“The motto on his shield is a bold ‘YES BUT—.’” Dwight Macdonald, the critic writing of himself

“Remember, I started out learning and appreciating literature at the time of the Black Arts Movement, when people were saying, ‘Look at what’s around you. Look at the people around you. Look at all that music around you.’ I was learning poetry at that time. So I was learning poetry when people were saying, ‘We don’t need no poems about trees. We need poems about the people.’ That was one of the things that you would hear from the people who wanted a certain kind of community poetry. But see, you’ve got a guy like me who’s listening to that, and I’ve been twelve miles out on the Bermuda reef and working in Alaska. My job was with nature. So when I picked up the Black Arts Movement, I picked it up with, ‘Yeah, yeah. But—.'”  Ed Roberson, poet

This entry’s upshot: Betterment is the realization that very difficult issues of politics and policy where inexperience still matters are made sense of and advanced by getting to point of having to say, “Yes, but” or more “Yes, and.” “Yes, it is complex; but it’s worth pushing this matter further…” The part that is “yes” is affirmation that taking a decision does matter; the part that is “but” or “and” is the insistence that the follow-on also matters. Another way to put it is that the “not-yets” we end up calling the future are opened up and preserved by insistent “and-yets” of the present. Our duty of care is to say and show how “even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it needs to be pushed further if we are to see what can be done…”


A great deal of US politics and policy is caught up in the yes’s as against the no’s of pros versus cons, advantages versus disadvantages, and costs versus benefits. But there has never been consensus on making this either/or. Lionel Trilling famously said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. For Robert Frost, neither exists in its own right—“yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” That is difficult to answer, Bolaño describes:

“And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.”

Bolaño’s translator (Natasha Wimmer) asks, did this Simonel mean “Absolutely”? For my part, I’d like to think simonel insists “yes” and “no” matter when followed by “but” or “and,” the first as a caution and the second as encouragement.

Betterment happens, when, after someone says to us, “Isn’t this so? Isn’t this the decision we must take?,” we respond, “Well, yes but…” or “Yes indeed, and…” The former may be a call for second thoughts before proceeding; the latter may be the guarantee of another time and place to reconsider a decision once taken or its consequences. Either way, the insistence on yes-but or yes-and is itself a decision that what is missing now requires further inquiry. It is the insistence that we can still make decisions when pushing the truth further and having made that decision, we can and will do so again.

Here’s an important example.

In his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, Flaubert defined (at the time, scandalously) “budget” as “never balanced.” That holds also for the public debt. If I am reading historians Istvan Hont and Michael Sonenscher correctly, 18th century thinkers wrestled again and again with the constitutional means for reining in the bad-‘no’ side of public debt (e.g., rulers use monies to go to war), while promoting the good-‘yes’ side of public debt (e.g., rulers build the infrastructure Adam Smith and even others saw as the appanage for betterment). To put it another way: If the future we cannot now predict is the mess we are currently in—or, if you prefer, we are constantly trying to foresee what the present is all about—why ever would we think we can manage the public debt better than the yes-buts and yes-ands of today?

But what are those yes-buts and yes-ands?

We arrive at an answer when we differentiate the time horizons and responses with respect to the “public debt crisis.” Which current public debt crisis—one, more, or all—are we talking about for managing better? Is it that the current problem with the public debt is: that we can’t predict the kind of interventions and states of affair are necessary to adapt better to future debt conditions; that increases in the public debt (including interest payments) are unsustainable; that our latest shop-window budget avoidance vaporizes like all fads; and/or not that the debt crisis will worsen, but determining when it will be catastrophic? Each of four represents a different kind of “present.”

Betterment comes to the fore not by having to choose which of the four presents (or in combination) “better” represent reality; rather it is by insisting that each must be interrogated by asking the further question: “What are the implications of not-knowing the present being identified or surmised in each?” Doing so is to insist “yes-but.” As in: What if “not knowing the present” is the only practical way to keep ourselves open to the possibility of different long-terms with respect to, in this case, bettering ourselves when it comes to the public debt?

If the discounted net present value of obligated public and private pensions threatens to swamp projected resources to fund them, then the first question is not, “Omigod, what do we do?,” but instead: “What do we really know about these estimates?” For that matter, what sense do categories like NPV and discount rates make in a contingent world?

More specifically, what if not-knowing—not-knowing really—is the way we keep options open or in reserve, if only because we rightly insist that affairs constellating around the public debt remain difficult after three hundred years grappling with its yes’s and no’s of inexperience? I am insisting that most everything said about the pros versus cons of the public debt today are best treated as stopping short of what could be pushed further. Taking decisions about the public debt while admitting its complexity is the way we open ourselves to redefining just what the public debt is to us, now and ahead. More, if you did further differentiate the public debt as a set of categories for action, you would identify cases much closer to the yes-and-no’s—our simonel—we have also been talking about for centuries, one of which I call betterment.

Difficulty at risk and unequal

If inexperience is a proxy for not-knowing, so too is difficulty. There may be more bulletproof typologies for difficulty than that of literary critic, George Steiner, but it’s sufficient for my purposes here. At a quick trot, four types of difficulty stand out for Steiner in making sense of a text (“text” construed now broadly): contingent, tactical, modal, and ontological.

Contingent Difficulties. Here, the text or situation poses obscure terms or notions that you have to “go and look up.” With a little work—you read more or talk to those in the know—you figure out what the term or notion in question means for the case.

As contingent difficulties, “Just what does risk and its assessment or management really mean?” has any number of answers that can be looked up in handbooks, manuals or statutes. What does this or that regulation say about the term in question? The same too for what qualifies legally or officially as “inequality,” income or otherwise.

Tactical Difficulties.  Here the text poses obscurities that are deliberately difficult and not meant to be settled by looking up an-or-the answer. Legal ambiguities may be intentionally introduced in documents or situations to make it difficult for any decisionmaker to engineer or cookie-cutter the single answer across cases.

In this way, purposive ambiguity ensures that no single answer exists for “What is risk?” or “What is inequality?” To focus on a theme shared by both questions, just what “market prices” are being talked about when figuring incomes or risks core to inequality: transaction prices, offered prices, prices thought to prevail if there were a trade to observe, prices modeled on the prices of inputs into that model, and/or something else?

Modal Difficulties. Here “mode” refers not to numerical average or middle value but to “modes of experience.” The text poses difficulties because of the differing experiences of those reading or interpreting it. “Today I am less experienced, less able to adapt to this harsh selfish environment than the average twenty-year-old,” writes essayist Phillip Lopate, “who has grown up without my New Deal-Great Society set of expectations.”

As modal difficulties, risk and inequality center on the experience of being unequal or in risky situations, and how that experience changes through personal or interpersonal appraisal and reappraisal. “To grow up is to discover what it is one is unequal to,” writes psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips. As modal difficulties, being unequal or “at risk” do not and cannot equate to official classifications of material inequality or legally-assigned “risky behavior.”

Ontological Difficulties. Here the text poses situations so in extremis that they cannot be comprehended whatever the experience. These difficulties have no “answer” because no question is being asked that is answerable.

Few examples remain in media always ready to domesticate every fresh obscenity. Sometimes, though, we get a scorching glimpse. Leslie Hardman, Jewish military chaplain with the British during World War II, tried to describe what he saw when entering the concentration camp at Belsen: “If all the trees in the world turned into pens, all the waters in the oceans turned into ink and the heavens turned into paper, it would still be insufficient material to describe the horrors those people suffered under the SS.” As ontological difficulties, inequality and risk radically alter our humanity. They make us humane or inhumane in ways indescribable and beyond the limits of evolved cognition, knowledge and feeling.

Implications. While the four types of difficulty come brewed together, first-order differences are evident. One, the numerical majority of inequality and risk difficulties are contingent, tactical and modal—that is, they can be addressed, if only over time or at times only provisionally. (Let’s wager that search engines and digital databases will improve people’s ability to deal with such difficulties.)

Two, those who handle these difficulties are often found in teams, groups and networks rather than on individually, since the difficulties are so knowledge-intensive that they require varied experiences with heterodox contingencies. Three, what are taken to be significant inequality or risk difficulties are more likely to be modal than ontological. Modal difficulties recognize complexity, but insist on the importance of different types of experience in addressing them; ontological difficulties are not, by definition, differentiated, at least in that way.

The overall implication is profound: There are costs in asking us to address one type of difficulty and not others. It’s scarcely sufficient to insist the opposite of complexity is simplicity, when the opportunity costs of dealing with ontological difficulties are set by not dealing with contingent, tactical and modal ones instead.

More specifically, the difficulty with “a more equal or less risky society” isn’t that the notion is idealized or reified. Rather the ideal or aim of a more equal and less risky society is not as variably difficult as are inequality or high risk in practice and experience.

This is another way of saying that if reduction in poverty and inequality means making “the playing field level for everyone,” those involved must be skilled enough to survive and persist when that doesn’t work. There is a caveat, though. The more experience with complexity and not-knowing we accumulate, the more we must resist behaving as if our inexperience and its difficulties are also decreasing. What matters the most is the continuing experience that inexperience is always front and center and so too are its difficulties. Accumulating modal experiences as to how complexity remains complex but gets less difficult needs to be constantly challenged by the countervailing sense that we are as artless and craftless as ever in our inexperience with the unknown.

Inexperience and central banks

“Given the uncertainties the Fed was tackling, Mr Powell [current chair of the US Federal Reserve] argued in favour of caution on rates policy and a ‘risk-management’ approach, praising Mr Greenspan’s 1990s approach of waiting for clear evidence of higher inflation before moving rates higher.”

(accessed online on September 27, 2019 at https://www.ft.com/content/e492d82e-a7a4-11e8-926a-7342fe5e173f)

If knowledge of unknowledge—knowing what the unknowns are—is next to impossible, is there a proxy for not-knowing that can be better known? I suggest inexperience is one proxy. This is illustrated by the example of Alan Greenspan as chair of the Federal Reserve. The implications are unsettling in ways not commonly supposed for the central banks of major nations, including but not limited to the current events referenced above.

–When chair of the Fed, Greenspan presented a paper, “Risk and Uncertainty in Monetary Policy,” to the American Economics Association, which published it in the Association’s Papers and Proceedings of May 2004. As Greenspan and his confrères recorded, the pre-eminent focus of the Fed was the maintenance of price stability in the face of turbulent events and considerable uncertainty:

“The Federal Reserve’s experiences over the past two decades make it clear that uncertainty is not just a pervasive feature of the monetary policy landscape; it is the defining characteristic of that landscape. The term, ‘uncertainty,’ is meant here to encompass both ‘Knightian uncertainty,’ in which the probability distribution of outcomes in unknown, and ‘risk,’ in which uncertainty of outcomes is delimited by a known probability distribution. In practice, one is never quite sure what type of uncertainty one is dealing with in real time, and it may be best to think of a continuum ranging from well-defined risks to the truly unknown.”

One expects risk and uncertainty because the “economic world in which we function is best described as a structure whose parameters are continuously changing”. Greenspan took this uncertainty, coupled with the demand to ensure price stability in the face of it, to mean that the Fed could not rely on a fixed approach:

“Some critics have argued that [our] approach to policy is too undisciplined—judgmental, seemingly discretionary, and difficult to explain. The Federal Reserve, they conclude, should attempt to be more formal in its operations by tying its actions solely, or in the weaker paradigm, largely, to the prescriptions of a simple policy rule. . .But at crucial points, like those in our recent policy history (the stock market crash of 1987, the crises of 1997-1998, and the events that followed September 2001), simple rules will be inadequate as either descriptions or prescriptions for policy.”

Action, accordingly, must be developed with context, since no single or simple rule “could possibly describe the policy action to be taken in every contingency”. “The world economy has become too complex and interlinked,” he later amplified in his 2007 memoirs.

All the above makes sense—were it not for the blisteringly obvious fact that THE APPROACH DID NOT WORK when it came to events leading up to and during the 2008 financial crisis. The financial crisis’s $19 trillion in household wealth destruction hugely damaged Greenspan’s reputation and the approach he fostered as Fed chair.

And yet….

When you peel away the pre-crisis hagiography and post-crisis demonology around Greenspan and the Fed tenure, his policy management approach still looks eminently reasonable for accommodating risk and uncertainty: That is, as others have summarized, don’t get caught in intellectual rigidity, remain flexible, prepare for surprise, and avoid theory in favor of tested practice when managing risk.

So, again, what went wrong?

What’s wrong is that the approach failed, utterly, to demonstrate any kind of track record of experience in responding to, if not actually realizing beforehand, that they didn’t know what they thought they knew. Further, they may have known more than they thought, but we will never know that from the existing record.

Only well after the financial crisis did Greenspan admit publicly anything like having had to cope in the face of unknowns. In a 2013 interview he conceded, “when I was sitting there at the Fed, I would say, ‘Does anyone know what is going on?’ The answer was, ‘Only in part’ I would ask someone about synthetic derivatives, say, and I would get detailed analysis. But I couldn’t tell what was really happening”.

In actual practice, you don’t manage risk and uncertainty just because you lack the right information for direct control; you manage because there are limits on your ability to comprehend what information you have; and you manage that way through your demonstrated ability to appreciate or otherwise avoid those limitations (including cognitive biases) and their consequences.

All this, in turn, depends on your prior and active experience (including training) in coming to grips with what you know (but thought they didn’t) and what you do not know (but thought they did) in real time and over time. (Vide the blog entry, “Seeing unknowns”.) That specific track record, if it existed, was nowhere evident in the self-regard Fed risk managers held themselves as to the eminent reasonableness of their managing risk and uncertainty. Their certainty-about-uncertainty turned into another lethal version of 19th century positivism.

What this implies is that future histories of the 2008 financial crisis must extend the domain of inexperience considerably beyond that much-documented dearth of sophisticated mortgage buyers. (Anyone, for that matter, would be inexperienced when finding themselves in the midst of unstudied financial bubbles at that cognitive edge of knowledge and unknowledge.)

I am suggesting we will have to credit more of the 2008 financial crisis to inexperience than, as now, to the low, mean cunning of overpaid banksters aided and abetted by thralldom to Efficient Markets and Value at Risk.

In fact—and this is the sobering part—if inexperience was a very real and active culprit then, we should be doubly worried now. For the real concern today isn’t about writing future histories; it’s about what’s writing the futures now. It is exactly the lack of experience with quantitative easing, unprecedented bailouts, and sovereign debt negotiations along with their uncertain, if not unknowable consequences, that drives post-2008 responses by the central banks of the world’s major countries.

What kdrama has taught me

“The only way to speak of a cliché is with a cliché.” Christopher Ricks

–How do I convince you that watching South Korean TV dramas of 16 to 21 episodes is good for you? Whenever I explain why a story about a 400-old space alien falling in love today or why it’s worth watching two actors obviously in their twenties play 17- or 18-year students—my friends look at me and wonder.

But, I’m telling you, this stuff is really, really good. The acting (Kim Soo Hyun, Jun Ji Hyun, Lee Min Ho, Park Shin Hye in the above); and the music (the entire OST from Cinderella and the Four Knights; “Love is the moment” from Heirs; “Eternal love” from Healer—with the amazing Ji Chang Wook btw)

…even if, granted, there are problems with things like endings, lips syncing into a kiss, and subtitles.

So under pressure to justify all this, I’ve come up with a more complex rationale justifying my—and your—watching kdrama.

Kdramas, like US soap operas and Spanish TV novellas, have tropes: boy/girl loves girl/boy, second-male lead falls in love with first female lead, poor girl makes good, and a closet-full of stock characters, ranging from revenge-seekers to fate itself.

For me, it’s not the tropes that make kdrama but their clichés and how they’re assembled together. Almost every kdrama I’ve watched combines a good number of the following clichés:

The real kiss between Episodes 8 and 12 followed by the interlude of sheer happiness that just can’t last, then the break-up and the last-episode time jump, say, five years ahead; the whole concept of confessing and dating; hiccups, nose-bleeds, pinky promises & thumb seals; back hugs, comfort pats, and amnesia; night-time fireflies and anytime car chases; carrying someone piggy-back, rushing the gurney down the hospital corridor, slicing vegetables in a kitchen, checking the cellphone, texting and more texting; banquet rooms, hunger groans, finger cuts and pinpricks below the thumbnail; fake rain, lens-less eyeglasses, airplane cabins that are obviously not, and drinking from empty paper cups; slow-motion turns and long-motion gazes; cars U-turning on major roads, the white truck of doom hitting the car mid-intersection; foot-to-the-peddle and the vehicle accelerating into the outer lane and off screen; one-sided love, funeral wakes and karaoke singing; the guy’s shower scene (what abs!); she accidentally falling into his arms, he grabbing her wrist, she drunk, he clenching his fist and knuckles whitening, she kicking her legs up and down on the bed, he searching his trays for watches and accessories, she kicking him in the shins, he bending across her and pulling her seatbelt tight, he/she following at a distance behind her/him, and both of them slurping down steaming rahmen; side-to-side, ear-to-ear whispers or the slow shuffle and stumble of having been shocked or her arms rigid and straight down the first time they hug; “hey!” pronounced “yah!”; did you ever know so many people who sleep with the bedroom lights on?; “fighting!,” and omigod, always the flashbacks!………..

–When it finally struck me that I’d just gotten started with the above list, I realized: There are so many clichés you could think of a kdrama as one cliché after another from beginning to end. 

And that proposition—itself an example of Ricks’ point?—has changed how I watch TV police procedurals from the US, Europe and Scandinavia. I suspect, most like everyone, I watched the procedurals as stories with plots to be followed and solutions to guess along the way.

Now I can’t watch them without first seeing their clothesline of clichés: the segmented sequencing of slamming the office telephone down, rushing out of the station, hurrying up the steps to a house or flat, the chase, the tense interchange in the interview room, and more. (In fact, TV dramas from different countries share the same clichés: For example, “if you haven’t identified the body, they’re not dead” is also a biggie in kdrama.)

Just as a good part of the craft in kdrama is how to freshen the clichés, so too the craft in police procedurals is in the twists to the sequencing the clichés. (Yes, the fish-eye kiss in most kdramas is so hackneyed—the woman’s eyes pop open and remain so as his lips suddenly touch hers—until, that is, you watch how Jun Ji Hyun does it in My Love from the Star.) To catch any freshening of clichés requires not only a new level of watching and thinking on the part of this viewer. The recurring clichés also drive intertextual resonance across different kdramas—connections and interconnections I hadn’t seen on first viewing. The clichés present an entirely new comfort zone to discover when watching.

So there: Watching kdrama is more complexly rewarding than my interlocutors think.

–Now on to equally important stuff. We’ve scheduled a layover in Taiwan so I can see tour some of the tdrama sites (my favorite song ever is Aaron Yan’s “That’s Not Me”(這不是我 on Spotify) and if you haven’t seen the tdrama, Before We Get Married, then don’t—JUST-DO-NOT—or else you’ll be addicted (you have to watch it twice, if only to get the significance to the last scene of the first scene’s “Let’s have coffee”)—and speaking of “Addicted,” that amazing cdrama is unlike any other subtitled cdrama out there (go on the web to find out the backstory)—but let me stop before I get started on how jdrama differs…

Second thoughts on income inequality

I can’t remember a time over the last forty years as a policy analyst that we’ve been exhorted to act on income inequality to the degree we are now.

But I can think of at least ten complications in trying to do so. More, these come immediately to mind, i.e., the concerns are much discussed in areas with which I am familiar and certainly not hidden out of sight in the grey literature. To be clear from the outset, each complication below is patently contestable, no single one is dispositive, a good many are correlated while the key numbers keep changing. Yet together the difficulties remind us….. Well, let me save the positive upshot for afterwards. To begin and in no order of priority:

First, if you’re worried about wealth inequality, why then aren’t you pointing out more often that consumption has been much less skewed than income in the US? Many households have long had refrigerators, ovens, cell-phones and the TV, whatever differences in income.

Second, even as the top fraction of 1 percent has vastly more income than the lowest 20 percent, that still must mean, numerically, far more happy poor people than the happy ultra-rich. Yes, of course percentages matter, but the sheer number of people who are by and large happy must also matter in any felicity calculus for public policy.

Third, it is certainly true income inequality has increased in the US, but such has happened elsewhere over roughly the same period, albeit not to the extent in the US. Fourth, why are we so sure inequality would have been less had we done otherwise? To stick with counterfactuals, if John Kerry had been elected instead of George W. Bush, do you really believe inequality would have been less?

Fifth, contrast the 1960s’ injunction to drop out of the middle-class rat race to the more recent preoccupation on income inequality (the 99% versus the 1%), as if now it’s really all about moneyed interests. (For that matter, today’s shrinking of the middle class diminishes the deadweight of bourgeois values from a 60s’ perspective, doesn’t it?)

Sixth, if we were to redistribute income, what does this mean for redistributing income generation? In the international community, it is often said that, say, cattle-holdings in Africa have been highly skewed and unequal, as if that is an argument for a more equal distribution of livestock. But to imagine that is to imagine a quite other production system (indeed, systems) in place. So too in the US. If, as critics point out, we are in a massive experiment with the radical skewing of incomes, so too would substantial de-skewing be experimental, right?

Seventh, discussions about income inequality frequently pivot on a syllogism: There is not enough money for the poor, there is more than enough money for the rich, therefore more people could be comfortably off if incomes were more equalized. But what if there is too much money in the world as it is, unequal or not? As seen in that 2008 financial crisis, credit default swaps along with sovereign and corporate debt alone exceeded by many multiples the total estimated annual global GDP, an imbalance of bad money blasting away the good.

Eighth, we have all seen those graphics showing how the cost of one military super-plane cashes out into so many more classrooms or social services. But the opportunity cost of that mega-plane is not set by forgone social and health services. The money saved by not building that plane would—again, counterfactually would, not could or might—be set by post-tax wages and income no longer forgone, not by a better-funded discretionary budget.

Ninth, an even more anomalous feature of income inequality discussions has been their narrow view on what a more equal distribution of income would achieve. We hear about better health and dental care among the poor, were incomes less skewed. What we don’t hear enough are arguments that more income for the poor means that they too can buy more media, take more trips, get an iPad, eat at better restaurants and have better vacations—precisely things the modern puritans deny the poor when it comes government income transfers.

Which leads to a tenth reservation about inequality discussions today: the all-too narrow focus on broad government income transfers as the primary redistributive mechanism. Private remittances, to pick just one alternative, are more important than government aid to many poor countries. Why aren’t we then focusing more on increasing wage remittances as a way of addressing inequality? Or from the other direction: Since US incomes are that unequal and healthcare that inefficiently priced, then surely these inequalities and inefficiencies are a source of positive slack and reserves for future revenues and funding of better programs and economic growth?

Let’s stop there. Am I asking you to admit defeat when it comes to addressing inequality? Hardly. Complexity of the income inequality issue does not mean its intractability; it means more opportunities to recast and rethink inequality. One illustration will have to suffice.

In May 1968 more than a thousand academic economists—Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith, James Tobin, to name a few—endorsed a “national system of income guarantees and supplements” for the US. Milton Friedman, as well, supported an equivalent negative income tax. But how would we today respond to this assertion: “As long ago as 1968 over a thousand economists endorsed a national system of basic income guarantees—so it behooves us now to consider that an option as well to address growing poverty and income inequality in the US.”

Objections rush forward: So much has changed since then! Congress is more polarized, the American public more fissiparous; we know more now, these days we have to be far more realistic; and the like. Or: We sort of ended up with a patchwork of income guarantees, anyway. We may have been positioned to realize a (better) national income guarantee initiative during the War on Poverty, but surely not now, right?

Such feints may be hold as far as they go, but they do not go far enough. Why? Precisely because of the ten complications just listed.

For these difficulties and like complications imply that, rather than not being positioned now to produce a national income guarantee, we may actually be in that position—it’s just that we don’t know it. Further, we don’t know it because we are more and more at or beyond the cognitive limits on thinking about complex matters, like income inequality.

Which would mean: Even if we are positioned to implement a national income guarantee, we can no longer know it to be so other than through the surprise that comes with having taken action to that end. The just-so story, “It’d take a miracle for anything like this to work here!,” becomes instead the surprise, “Who would have thought we were actually able to do this now!”

The latter response we associate with A.O. Hirschman’s Hiding Hand principle: Only by not knowing in advance how very difficult some things are to achieve do we achieve them or something even better. Yes, of course, there are no guarantees; yes, of course, there are many recorded instances when the Hiding Hand has not worked. But either way, the central point for policy and management remains: Inequality is not just difficult; inequality is and has always been the result of difficulties.