Focus on the three most frequent kinds of “good-enough” in public policy and management. One is “we’ve gone this far and that’s good enough.” We of the mid-twentieth century were told that an annual economic growth rate of 3% and an unemployment rate of 4%, while not perfect, were certainly good enough.

The second good-enough is the more common, “we’ve gone this far, but that’s not good enough; we must go further.” In a policy world of many unknowns, reducing uncertainty gets us part of the way, but we’ve also got to manage uncertainty that is not going away anytime soon. We recognize this need to go beyond “just coping,” even though many already know that a hundred year from now, people will ask, “How could they ever have been uncertain about that!”

The third type of good-enough is problematic in a different way: Sometimes we have to go too far in order to know what was good enough. (Or on the upside: “How can anyone settle for safety when they have never taken a risk?” early race-car driver, Hélène Delange, asked.) “We’re at the limits of our understanding of how monetary policy affects the economy,” an experienced banker tells us; “Sometimes when you test the limits you find out where the limits are by breaking through and going too far”. It has often been said that we have to risk their overutilization in order to establish just what really are sustainable yields of forests or fish. In a world where tipping points exist, such pushing to and over the edge understandably causes concern.

I want to suggest a fourth type of good-enough in public policy, though in my experience it rarely is taken as such. If, as Sartre put it in No Exit, “hell is other people,” then heaven is where other people don’t make hells for the rest of us. These others have been good enough in forestalling a failure that very likely would have happened, but were not or have not been able to go far enough to make it last longer.

Like others, I think here of Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela (or the lesser known and on a smaller scale, Botswana’s Seretse Khama and Quett Masire)—each a very imperfect person, comrade and leader, but each preventing some fresh hell on earth. They were good enough to take us further than we could or should have ever expected, albeit we want to go further than they took us.

Who, anyway, can expect perfection in this life? That Christ was the first Christian doodler and painter—think John 8:6-8, where he bends down to draw something in the dirt, and Veronica’s veil upon which he wiped his exact image—neither makes him good-enough in either, even if, as some say, he was as good as you’re going to get—and even then, maybe just only.

Loose ends, #2

–Formal risk management frameworks are, in my experience, apt to reduce the complex of “reliability standard, system and possibility” to “risk, asset and probability”, and in the process commit a major category mistake. It’s as if in talking about water you’re immediately asked to think “H2O” and to separate out oxygen and hydrogen from each other along with best measuring each—while all along assuming that this analysis enables you to talk about water as water per se, e.g., having the property of “wetness.”

–“Safety culture” is a redundant phrase, and misleading so, I believe. “Safety” is its most problematic as a noun, when instead “it” is better thought of as a set of adverbial properties associated with really-existing behavior and practices, e.g., “the control room is managing reliably and safely at the same time.” Yes, the behavior and practices in question constitute a culture of sorts, but that culture is the set of practices and not something in addition to be fostered or prior to those practices.

In this way safety is no different from, say, democracy or intelligence. Here too democracy is not a noun so much as an adverb—“behaving democratically in that s/he evidences the following practices,  i.e., voting in elections, paying taxes and more—and intelligence is “thinking intelligently,” i.e., “s/he is doing so by virtue of behaving in x, y and z ways”). If I am right, this matters because to think of safety, democracy and intelligence otherwise is like thinking you make fish from fish soup.

–One very major problem with “start simple and then scale up” is that each scale/level is complex in its own right. The map smooths out shoreline, but visit the shore and there’s nothing so smooth for any such border there. To start simple and scale up makes as much sense as trying to pinpoint the shoreline through the eye of a needle.

In reality, there’s nothing more difficult than being simple about complexity. “A maximum of simplicity goes with a maximum of difficulty. . .Being simple is not simple; it is attempting the impossible,” wrote French writer, Georges Perros.

–What crisis scenario do I have in mind? The earth releases gases into the atmosphere that are then triggered by sunlight into storms, droughts and other natural disasters. No, not global climate change, but Aristotle’s theory of comets. I read that a new advance in science and technology threatens to set abroad grey goo. But which grey goo? The one predicted from recombinant DNA experiments at Harvard in the 1970s, the genetically engineered “ice-minus” bacterium for Berkeley strawberry fields in the 1980s, the genetically engineered crops of the 1990s, or the nanotechnology of the 2000s, or something newer?

You think I’m implying that we shouldn’t worry. Wrong. The point here is that we are once again back to a key narrative discrepancy in crisis scenarios—between the stated urgency to innovate and experiment on one side, and the stated requirement for reliability and safety on the other, yet both claims underwritten by demands of unpredictability at the same scale of analysis, the system level. This is a narrative discrepancy because it can’t be written off or talked out of; it however can be managed as one of the messes we are in.

–We hanker after the old language, like that of Baroque music or Mozart, and keep asking why we can’t have more of the same old good. But it’s not only that the language has changed, that we can’t go back, and that new language is needed for the new meanings once pushed further. They want more Bach because that way they don’t have to think about the new meanings nor the older changes.

With respect to what?

–The methodological demand is always: First differentiate! In 1968, Garret Hardin published his article on the Tragedy of the Commons with: “The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.”

But that proposition was exactly what could not be assumed empirically: The facts on the ground were the opposite, and often so. Rangelands, herds and herders were, we now know (we actually knew then), much more differentiated, and years of work on common property resource management documented that the tragedy of the commons was but one configuration of resource use among many other arrangements, some which worked against overgrazing or resource overutilization. For such insights Lin Ostrom won her Nobel Prize.

–How did we get to demand, First differentiate? Those interested in policy might start here:

John Stuart Mill once contrasted Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “By Bentham beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? And by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it?”

Later pragmatists insisted that both questions led to a further question, “What is it for?,” as in: “True with respect to which meanings and for what?” In asking and answering the latter question, truths and meanings are pushed further so that no conclusion is concluded definitively. “What has been concluded that we should conclude about it?” is a question associated with William James, well-known philosopher of pragmatism.

Why does this matter? Because differentiation matters. There is no such thing as risk on its own; it is always risk with respect to something. Where truth and meaning depend on “with respect to what”, it becomes possible to differentiate wrong readings (interpretations), while admitting there is no single right reading (interpretation): or, if you will, there are many right readings, without there being the right one.

Literary critic, I.A. Richards, put the matter this way in a letter to T.S. Eliot:

“This problem,—that a single line need have no one right reading, yet will have innumerable wrong ones; that among all the many “right” ones some at least will carry, primarily, very different interpretations;. . .and yet that we must take some partial meaning, and make it deputize for the whole but without forgetting that we do so. . .”

To put the stakes in my words, the danger lies in not pushing truth-and-meaning further to the point where: Interpretations are differentiated from each other (i.e., in terms of their with-respect-to-what’s) and thereby pushed further away from any notion of one or any interpretation on its own.

Complexity is the enemy of intractable

You see jewelry where I see sculpture on a small scale; you see the orchestra conductor conducting; I see that conducting more as a dance. I witness the birth of the family’s first child; you see the first child give birth to a family. You see the sketched outline of a toy sailboat (or other desideratum); I point out that the boat’s image is the space left behind after all the other images have inlined it. We both, on the other hand, see the hole without its doughnut.

I ask, when is biotechnology bestiality? You ask, are gardens zoos without the cruelty? Isn’t heroism first violence to oneself? Is burglary a kind of architectural criticism? Are galleries a novel way artists handle storage problems? Does burning down a lumber yard mean houses have been destroyed? Doesn’t our continuing inability to safely store nuclear weapons waste reveal the Cold War to be the first war in modern times where the continental US took direct hits because of an enemy?

What does the US look like when one realizes it is a country where more men are likely raped than women? (Think: its male prison populations). What if those rigorous, time-consuming studies to model and validate the life cycles of threatened and endangered species become weapons of mass destruction?

Other examples can be added, but the point remains the same: There is no one way to look at things, when they are complex. The world is not one way only because the world’s complexity—its many components, each component with multiple functions (I am a husband, father, blogger…), and the many interconnections between and among components, functions and the wider environments in which these are embedded—enable all manner of different interpretation, explanation and description. No single one can cover, let alone exhaust, that complexity. The upshot of this inexhaustability is that complex problems can be cast in multiple ways; or to put it from the other direction, any complex problem that has no other description than “it’s intractable,” “a wicked problem hic et nunc,” is an exaggeration that has stopped well short of further recasting.

We have space for three major implications that follow from this conclusion. First, silly begets silly. If you think the most salient fact about domestic murders is that they happen at home in the kitchen or the bedroom, does that mean each household member should order takeaway and eat it alone in the living-room? The most salient point about domestic murders, surely, is that they are complicated case by case.

Second, the best advice is more experience with complexity, not more advice. Just look at the historical track record of advisers to leaders:

Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Seneca and Nero; Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf; Petrarch and Emperor Charles IV; Montaigne and Henri IV; Descartes and Sweden’s Queen Christina; Voltaire and Frederick the Great; Diderot and Catherine the Great; and in case you want to add to the list, Adam Smith and the Duke of Buccleuch or und so weiter—all these and more even before this new century. . .Or if you really want to be cringeworthy, just consider André Gide recommending against publishing Marcel Proust and T.S. Eliot against publishing George Orwell. . .

I mean, let’s get real: If these guys didn’t advise effectively, who the hell are we to think we can do better? (And, puhleeese, don’t throw up Kissinger and Nixon as the alternative!) Better than advice is more experience with complexity which affords opportunities for rethinking/ redesribing/revising difficulties, that is, to see these difficulties differently and to act differently than before without denying their complexity in the process.

Third, the litmus test that an issue is overly complexified or overly simplified is whether or not it can be recast in ways that open up fresh options for intervention without gainsaying its complexity. If—and yes it is a big “if”—a simplification can be recast as complex in ways that new interventions are now plausible or if the issue thought to be so complex no further action is possible can be recast to show otherwise, then the gist of the matter has been pushed and pulled beyond the current exaggerations.

But how to do this? For me there is no better place to start than with the fact humans have always been many-sided, and so must our responses be. Examples I’ve used in the past include:

  • Bad policy mess: It is said that one out of every two young African-American men in major US urban areas is enmeshed in the criminal justice system. But that’s a large number of men, right? Good policy mess: Why, then, are we not interviewing the other 50 percent of young urban African-American males outside the criminal justice system to find out what they are doing, and what the rest of us could learn from them?
  • Bad policy mess: At one point, three to four billion people—up to two-thirds of the world’s population—lived in regions without adequate water supplies or sanitation. Good policy mess: Now that is a very, very large number of people. This is such a huge distribution of people without adequate water supplies that some of them must be doing much better than others. That, without being Darwinian about it, means then there are tens of millions —hundreds of millions?—of people who have many things to say about how to better survive without adequate water to those millions more who are also trying to survive without it.

It also should go without saying that any recasting is not definitive and at best sufficient for a period of time to make and keep a decision. What matters is the pragmatist’s use-criterion: Does the recasting work? And yes, of course, recastings are never guaranteed. That, though, is an empirical issue established case by case, one that cannot be decided a priori or beforehand via full-stop declarations of policy intractability when—and this is the good mess we are in—those issues are, yes, complex.

Recastings, #1

–The minute you take the significance of the car to be something other than the source of traffic congestion; the minute you see how luck matters in that congestion;. . .

the minute you understand that there are real reasons why the advocates and opponents of the car need traffic congestion to justify their own positions; the minute you know it’s a miracle there aren’t more agencies and groups fighting over stewardship rights in better addressing traffic congestion;. . .

the minute you see that no one is going to compensate you for being stuck in traffic, that life is sometimes unfair because other parts of it aren’t, and that situations, like congestion, can be improved, though not for very long; . . .

the minute you see that the traffic jam is the herd behavior of a people intent on imitating others; the minute you see that those strategies and arguments in favor of reducing congestion (privatization of public infrastructure, congestion tolls,  full-cost pricing of cars) lead to pressures to increase wealth and thus economic growth and along with it having more cars;. . .

. . .that is the minute you start to rethink traffic congestion.

–It need not be agricultural versus urban versus environmental. As ecologists insist, it depends on where system boundaries are drawn. From one perspective, it looks like three separate systems in competition with each other: a forest next to grazing land next to arable fields, no one of which can expand without loss to the other. From a perspective that treats them as subsystems to one ecosystem, the grazing land serves as a firebreak between the forest and arable holdings.

So too the California Delta can be seen not just as its own system but also as a buffer against encroaching urbanization from the east (Sacramento and Stockton) and west (San Francisco Bay Area), much as agriculture in South Florida and Western Netherlands have buffered against urbanization moving into the region’s “green” areas. It follows that the key issue is where that extra investment would produce the greatest positive impact on the ecosystem and landscape: planting trees and greenscapes in Sacramento or Stockton (the urban ecosystem); reducing chemical agriculture on Delta islands (the agricultural ecosystem); and/or constructing more wetlands around Delta islands (the environmental ecosystem). Saving the environment depends on the optics you use to recast the systems of interest.

–Can we find 12 (or whatever number of) systematically interconnected healthcare providers so critical in the US that they could bring the healthcare sector down as was threatened when the 12 systematically interconnected banking institutions were under threat during the 2008 financial crisis? If so, we would have a healthcare sector in need of “stress tests” for systemic risks just as post-2008 financial services institutions have had to undergo.

–The language of risk is now so naturalized that it seems the obvious starting point of analysis, as in: “Ok, the first thing we have to do is assess the risks of flooding here…”

No. The first thing you do is to identify the boundaries of the flood system you are talking about as it is actually managed and then the standards of reliability to which it is being managed (namely, events must be precluded or avoided by way of management) and from which follow the specific risks to be managed to meet that standard.

–Experts insist that CO2 emissions must not exceed an atmospheric threshold of 450 parts per million or lower; other experts insist the standard should in fact be 350ppm. But there exists no global cadre of managers nor is any being trained nor is there any global control room for them to work in that could ever reliably realize any such threshold standard. The same holds for globalized carbon tax schemes and international cap-and-trade protocols (e.g., proposals for an “international target carbon price”).

All of which explains why the shift away from global climate change models to regional ones is so significant. (We’ve embarked on doing so in California.) It is far more plausible to imagine major water and energy control rooms coordinating at the regional level than globally. In fact this region-based collaboration is doable today, as it was yesterday. More, the casting for better practices in doing so is sure to turn inter-regional (a.k.a. global) at a certain point.

–It is little recorded that some early English colonists to America either ran away to live with Native Americans or refused to return from captivity when given the chance. As one early writer put it, reluctant colonists enjoyed the “most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail upon us”. Native American practices were also adopted by other colonists who remained firmly in the Western tradition. Famously, an early French Jesuit found Native American customs “afforded me illumination the more easily to understand and explain several matters found in ancient authors”.

Just imagine the entire lot of colonists ran away to live with Native Americans, once realizing both that better practices had already been found and that colonization was altogether a ghastly prospect by comparison. Now that’s a counterfactual to mull over!

In a failed state

“America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few,” according to the Bush Doctrine promulgated in response to September 11 2001.

In a 2002 interview, painter Gerhard Richter was asked if he would paint the 9/11 aircraft terrorists (as he’d done earlier with Baader-Meinhof members): “Definitely not. This horrific form of global terror is something I cannot fathom”. He added: “September 11 horrified me”.

“September 11 bothered me more than I expected,” Richter admitted later. By 2005, when an interviewer asked about a small painting appearing to show the World Trade Center’s towers, Richter said: “These here are only failed attempts. I couldn’t get this stereotypical image of the two towers, with the some billowing out of them across the deep blue sky, out of my mind.” He went on to say that the painting in question “couldn’t work; only when I destroyed it, so to speak, scratched it off, was it fit to be seen”.

Below is his September, a 2005 photo-painting of the event and relatively small at approximately 28” x 20”:

The image you are seeing was rendered from a photograph showing the south tower of the World Trade Center as it was hit. As to the specific photo, it “was very typical. . .Colorful—red, yellow, fire” “I painted it first in full colour, and then I had to slowly destroy it. . .

A friend convinced him to reconsider trashing September. “I failed,” he said to that friend; the painting “shows my helplessness. In German, my scheitern, failure.”

A failure? Really? What do you think? Is the painting in a failed state? Does it fail in itself or by virtue of what it depicts?

More, look at September closely. Do you see the active, living absence of the deep blue, red and yellow that initially tripped Richter up? By extension, do you see the active, living absence of the new democracies to come into being this century from presently failing states, including—dare we say—parts of the US?

“at sea,” “from on high”

“Monday my host came to the hotel to tape an interview. For two hours I answered fourteen carefully prepared questions. The tape was lost. Tuesday morning I agreed to retape the interview. To the same fourteen questions I gave new answers. Both sets of answers were honest, but on Tuesday I was a different person. I was a different person less by being a day older than by having exhausted a viewpoint, or at least my examples of viewpoint.” Composer and diarist, Ned Rorem

Exhausting a viewpoint that makes room for other, newer connections and viewpoints, and to do so again and again, is one way of locating what is there but missed up to this point.

Here’s a demonstration of how this works for me. Start with a sample of excerpts I’ve collected on what it means to find “ourselves being at sea.” Apologies: There are twelve excerpts and it’s a pretty hefty read before I get to my point. That said, please look for anything that surprises you along the way:

Rene Descartes, philosopher: “The Meditation of yesterday filled my mind with so many doubts that it is no longer in my power to forget them. And yet I do not see in what manner I can resolve them; and, just as if I had all of a sudden fallen into very deep water, I am so disconcerted that I can neither make certain of setting my feet on the bottom, nor can I swim and so support myself on the surface. I shall nevertheless make an effort . . .until I have met with something which is certain, or at least, if I can do nothing else, until I have learned for certain that there is nothing in the world that is certain.”

Blaise Pascal, philosopher: “On a vast ocean we are drifting, ever uncertain and bobbing about, blown this way or that. Whenever we think we have some point to which we can cling in order to strengthen ourselves, it shakes free and leaves us behind; and if we chase after it, it eludes our grasp, slips away and flees off for ever. Nothing halts for us.”

Michael Oakeshott, political philosopher: “In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.”

F.S. Oliver, historian of politics: “The question, therefore, was not which of these two rivals deserved to be rewarded with the highest post, but which of them might be less likely to show himself the less dangerous pilot in a very ticklish bit of navigation. [One rival] was the sort of man who would drift past opportunity on the tide; while [the other rival] might be apt to run his boat upon the rocks without waiting for a landing-place. On the whole, however, the general disposition appeared to be in favour of [the latter], who had this to recommend him, that he was obviously in a run of luck.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, historian and political scientist: “The legislator is like a navigator on the high seas. He can steer the vessel on which he sails, but he cannot alter its construction, raise the wind, or stop the ocean from swelling beneath his feet”.

Otto Neurath, philosopher of social science: “Imagine sailors who, far out at sea, transform the shape of their vessel…They make use of some drifting timber, besides the timber of the old structure, to modify the skeleton and the hull of their vessel. But they cannot put the ship in dock in order to start from scratch. During the work they stay on the old structure and deal with heavy gales and thundering waves. . . A new ship grows out of the old one, step by step—and while they are still building, the sailors may already be thinking of a new structure, and they will not always agree with one another. The whole business will go on in a way we cannot even anticipate today. . . .That is our fate.”

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, author and critic: “The question whether it’s best to swim with the current or against it seems to me out of date…. The method of the yachtsman who tacks with the wind as well as against it seems more fruitful. Such a procedure applied to society demands stoic disbelief and the greatest attentiveness. Anyone who wants to reach even the nearest goal must expect, step by step, a thousand unpredictable variables and cannot put his trust in any of them.”

Andre Gide, author and diarist: “I am reproached for my oblique gait. . .but who does not know that when the wind is contrary, one is obliged to tack? It is easy to criticize for you who let yourselves be carried by the wind. I take my bearing on the rudder”.

Isaiah Berlin, historian of ideas: “. . .they pretend that all that need be known is known, that they are working with open eyes in a transparent medium, with facts and laws accurately laid out before them, instead of groping, as in fact they are doing, in a half-light where some may see a little further than others but where none sees beyond a certain point, and, like pilots in a mist, must rely upon a general sense of where they are and how to navigate in such weather and in such waters, with such help as they may derive from maps drawn at other dates by men employing different conventions, and by the aid of such instruments as give nothing but the most general information about their situation.”

Joseph Conrad, novelist: “He would reason about people’s conduct as though a man were as simple a figure as, say, two sticks laid across each other; whereas a man is much more like the sea whose movements are too complicated to explain, and whose depths may bring up God only knows what at any moment.”

G.L.S. Shackle, economist: “[We] are like a ship’s crew who have been wrecked in a swirling tide-race. Often a man will hear nothing but the roar of the waters in his ears, see nothing but the dim green light. But as he strikes out, his head will come sometimes well above the water, where for the moment he can see clear about him. At that moment he has the right to shout directions to his fellows, to point the way to safety, even though he may feel sure that next moment he will be again submerged and may then doubt whether after all he has his bearings.”

Ernst von Glasersfeld, philosopher: “This means that the real world only manifests itself when our constructions fail. . . .Somewhat more metaphorical would be the following analogy: the captain of a ship has to cross straits he does not know and does not have a chart for nor navigational help such as a beacon, etc. on a stormy, dark night. In the circumstances only two things are possible: Either he sails into a cliff and loses his ship and his life; in the last moment of his life he realizes that the reality of the straits was not as he imagined and his course did not correspond with the actuality of the straits. Or he reaches the open sea; then he knows only that his course was accurate but no more. He does not know whether there could have been easier, shorter crossings than the one he blindly chose. And he does not know what the real condition of the straits was.”

Let me arbitrarily stop here, just as a wider selection of excerpts would also have been arbitrary. What follows is my line of thought in drawing out connections that I hadn’t thought about before from the quotes—again for the purposes of discovering what I have missed, in this case about “being at sea”.

What sticks out by way of a surprise to me is that Tocqueville says the navigator cannot alter the ship’s construction while at sea, while Neurath’s point is that the ship has to be rebuilt while at sea. By the way, Neurath appears to be restating the older Theseus’s paradox, where (in the first century) “Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship”. 

This digression, in turn, reminds me—definitely off tangent—that I often confuse Plutarch for Petrarch, and it was famously Petrarch whose climbing of Mount Ventoux in 1336 “began the Renaissance by being the first learned man ever to climb a mountain only for a view.” But, when I think about it, being at the top of a mountain for the view is about as orthogonal as you can get to “being at sea with no view in sight” as in many of the above excerpts.

Anything to be found in that comparison? This question returns me to another view of Mt. Ventoux:

“On 26 September 1988, all day long, the world before my eyes remained still, in the greatest serenity that I have ever seen. Whenever a breadth of wind rose, it seemed only for refreshing the heart. Mount Ventoux appeared to be a distant sphinx sitting on our threshold, protecting it from the slightest stir.” Philippe Jaccottet, Swiss-born French poet

Jaccottet implies—I liked to think when I first read the passage—that the only thing unique about any event is its date and only for now—for want of any metaphor or simile (his sphinx) that lasts longer. As in, which analogy lasts longer: the view from on high or being at sea. . .

All such stream of conscious stringing-together-and-bringing-around is, to repeat, arbitrary when the pursuit is of missing resonances as a way of making room for new viewpoints to be held (for however long). What I am doing in the above list of assembled quotes is inverting the notion that new insights arise out of persisting anomalies in current ways of thinking. I am, instead, creating anomalies—formally, anomalous connections—where none were before through the arbitrary juxtaposition of quotations, as a way of extending my own thinking.

There must always be a sense in which such connections-through-quotes are forced and since forced, they are compelling in their own right, at least for me. This is a high-stakes wager that any line of thinking is an alternative version of what I could have been thought instead.

The upshot is: When the subject is as complicated as “being at sea,” I can—you can—start and end anywhere in making a new connection, which is probably a good enough way to think about pushing my (your) thinking further than before.