The toolkit

The graduate programs in policy analysis with which I was familiar had their master’s degree grounded in a core curriculum, with courses in: the politics of public policy; use and role of microeconomics in policy analysis; research methods including statistics; and course work on implementation, public management, or the law, among others. Call this, the toolkit (I know, I know, rebarbative to some). In practice, the core curricula varied and could also cover public finance, ethics, program evaluation, qualitative methods, and GIS, to name a few.

At no point in my graduate training or career do I remember being told that a policy problem not amenable to the toolkit was intractable. The toolkit had space for new methods and approaches. Narrative analyses and triangulation via different methods and analytics were there as well in my practice.

The toolkit got smaller, however. Perhaps public policy analysis was not as interdisciplinary as professed at the get-go. Certainly, econo-speak and p-values took over the pages of house journals like the Journal of Public Policy Analysis and Management (with an impact factor rounding off to, now what, 4.714).

In another sense, the toolkit was never really interdisciplinary enough to attract decisionmaker attention. Actual policy analyses might as well be the proverbial message in the bottle tossed out onto turbulent seas in hope that someone, someday, sooner preferably than later but no guarantees ever, grabs the bottle and treats its message seriously. This, however, is not for want of having tried to get their attention.

Over my policy analysis and management career, I witnessed the 20-page policy brief reduced to the five- page memo into a fifteen-minute PowerPoint presentation into the three-minute elevator speech into the tweet. Along the way came more and more visuals, as in a picture is worth a thousand words. To them, this was keeping it simple. What next on the syllabus: Telepathy? “The knowing look” in 10 seconds or less?

Updates and table of key entries by topic area

This week’s blog: The toolkit”

Take another look: “Policy as magical thinking”

Popular blogs (by number of viewers): “Optimal ignorance”

(The most recent blog entry precedes this one; use keyword search function to find others listed below)

Table of key entries

Most Important: “What am I missing?,” “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Power,” “Interconnected?,” “I believe,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “Keeping it complex. . .,” ““Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism,” “More on over-complexification,” “Playing it safe, utopia,” “Case-by-case analysis: realism, criteria, virtues,” “Not ‘Why don’t they listen to us?’ but rather: ‘What should we listen for from them. . .’,” “Humanism, by default,” “Mess and reliability: five inter-related propositions,” “Control, surpris’d,” “When good-enough is better: a summary,” “Heuristics as clues,” “First, differentiate!”

Recasting big policy issues: “Poverty and war,” “It’s war or peace?,”“Second thoughts on income inequality,” “Unbracketing [Inequality],” “Surprising climate change,” “COVID-19,” “Missing racism,” “Healthcare,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene, ” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Culling sustainability,” “In a failed state,” “Revolts,” “A colossal inheritance,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination’,” “Government regulation,” “Economic consequences of having no must-never-happen events in the financial sector,” “What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t,” “Recasting Roosevelt’s New Deal,” and Longer Reads (below)

More recastings: “Policy narratives,” “America’s and Trump’s,” “Recastings #1,” “When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel,” “Public Policy Analysis, c.1970 – c.2020: In Memoriam?,” “Sound familiar? Here’s why,” “A grammar of policy analysis,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Policy as magical thinking,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Global Climate Sprawl,” “Disaster averted is central to pastoralist development,” “Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,” “It’s war or peace?,” “It’s more top-down and outside-in than bottom-up or inside-out”

Not-knowing and its proxies: “Seeing unknowns,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Managing inexperience,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal,” “By way of distraction…,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Humanism, by default,” “Preknown, known, unknown,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “On population increase,”“It’s war or peace?”

Ignorance and uncertainty: “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Uncertain superlatives,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Why aren’t they all running away!,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Error and Safety,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Mercator’s projection,” “Preknown, known, unknown,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “It’s war or peace?”

Risk, resilience and root causes: “A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Central role of the track record in risk analysis,” “Resilience isn’t what you think,” “Root causes,” “Frau Hitler, again,” “With respect to what?,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “Error and Safety,” “Four macro-design principles that matter—and one that can’t—for risk managers and policymakers,” “Managing-ahead for latent risks and latent interconnectivity,” “Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?,” “Safety, like much in democracy and intelligence, is not a noun but an adverb,” “First, differentiate!,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations”

Regulation: “A few things I’ve learned from the Financial Times on regulation,” “Government regulation,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “An infrastructure’s regulator of record is in real-time recovery from setbacks, always”

Infrastructures: “The real U.S. infrastructure crisis,” “Innovation,” “Take-home messages,” “Who pays?,” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Catastrophized cascades,” “Healthcare,” “Interconnected,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “Achilles’ heel of high reliability management,” “Where distrust and dread are positive social values,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Government regulation,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Error and Safety,” “Managing-ahead for latent risks and latent interconnectivity,” “What you need to know: Big System Collapse! Or not.” “Mercator’s projection,” “Impact-sheds are not managed systems, except when…”

Environment: “New environmental narratives for these times (longer read, consolidated from following entries),” “Nature,” “Tansley’s ecosystem,” “Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Culling sustainability,” “Lifecycle modeling of species,” “Better fastthinking in complex times,” Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,”“What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t”

Rural development: “Disaster averted is core to pastoralist development,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Culling sustainability,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “Misadventures by design,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Next-ism”

Pastoralist development: “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read),” “Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for ‘Multiplatform pastoralism’ (longer read),” “Pastoralists as avant-garde,” “On population increase”

Catastrophe and crisis: “Catastrophized cascades,” “Jorie Graham’s systemcide,” “The shame of it all,” “Next-ism,” “The future is the mess we’re in now,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Good messes to be had from their catastrophism,” “What you need to know: Big System Collapse! Or not.”

More mess, good and bad: “Mess and reliability: five inter-related propositions,” “A different take on the traffic mess,” “Happiness: The mess,” “Who pays?,” “Misadventures by design,” “. . .and raise my taxes!,” “Top-of-the-list thinking,” “Take-home messages,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “The New Normal is managing not just negative setbacks but also positive ones,” “Good messes to be had from their catastrophism,” “Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?,” “The good mess in no single, right reading and in the many (more or less) wrong ones,” “Predicting the future,” “Planning, with a difference”

Betterment and good-enough: “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “It’s better between the James brothers,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” “Professional, amateur, apprentice; Or, As good as the fingernails of Manet,” “‘at sea,’ ‘from on high’,” “Betterment (continued),” “Better fastthinking in complex times,” “Humanism, by default,” “Good-enough criticism,” “When good-enough is better: a summary,” “What to do when policy articles keep ending where they should’ve started,” “Heuristics as clues,” “For the sake of betterment: Positive functions of social dread, blind-spots and complication”

Policy palimpsests and composite arguments: “Take home messages,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Reflection and sensibility,” and other Longer Reads (below)

Economism: “Economism,” “Keep it simple?,” “Loose ends, #1” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The missing drop of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “Makes the gorge rise”

Methods (narrative, risk, triangulation, others): “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination,’” “Policy narratives,”“A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “The missing drop of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty,” “One ‘why’ and four ‘how’s’ to recasting complex policy and management problems,” “Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,” “Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “On population increase,” “The toolkit”

Longer Reads: “Ammons and regulation,” “The next Constitutional Convention,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “A consultant’s diary,” “A different take on The Great Confinement,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New environmental narratives for these times (consolidated from Environment entries),” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty (consolidated from entries for Risk, resilience and root causes),” “One ‘why’ and four ‘how’s’ to recasting complex policy and management problems (consolidated from earlier entries),” “Pastoralists and. Pastoralisms”

Something less complex?: “Red in tooth and claw,” “What kdrama has taught me,” “The irony of it all,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Five questions everyone should want to answer,” “Distracted anti-utopians,” “Sallies out and sees,” “It’s as if,” “Proof-positive that international irrationality is socially constructed. . .,” “Coulda, shoulda, woulda,” “Siding with the wall,Which of these old lists still makes sense?”

Planning, with a difference

Planning for reliability and reliable planning are to be distinguished from each other, in the words of my research colleague, Paul Schulman.

–Much of infrastructure planning is dedicated to planning for a reliable electricity grid, water supply, transportation system, or other core critical service. Planning for infrastructure reliability has it textbooks, courses, and disciplines. Risk analysis in this planning also has established sets of regulatory and professional standards, methods, and “best practices” depending on the infrastructure in question.

–Reliable planning, in contrast, is not about the reliability of infrastructure but rather about the process of planning—a process for selecting appropriate means for achieving expected outcomes in the infrastructure’s safety and reliability. Reliable planning means sensitivity, much as infrastructure control room operators have, to possible errors of forecasting and in basic assumptions for the planning exercise. Electricity transmission planning, by way of example, has to estimate load, generation resources, and policy constraints, say, ten years in advance and at times well beyond.

How then do we render planning more reliable as unpredictability ramifies?

–One part of an answer is to manage expectations across the cycle of infrastructure operations, extending from normal operations, through service disruption, system failure, recovery and establishment of a new normal, if there is to be one. Since that is not always possible, managing setbacks is necessarily part of the answer. Fortunately, some setbacks are positive in illuminating better directions ahead in the face of turbulence.

–Where does this leave us?

In the absence of managing expectations and setbacks, a plan falls short of both planning for reliability and reliable planning. Plans collapse into a by-product of the interplay between contingency and events, i.e., far too often those involved don’t realize that what they confront are not classic cause-and-effect but rather situations and resonances about which they have limited causal understanding.

Principal sources. This blog entry draws directly from Paul Schulman’s work in:

E. Roe & P.R. Schulman (2016). Reliability and Risk: The Challenge of Managing Interconnected Critical Infrastructures. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

P.R. Schulman & E. Roe (2018). “Extending Reliability Analysis Across Time and Scope.” In Ramanujam, R. and Roberts, K. (eds.), Organizing for Reliability. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Related blog entry: “The New Normal is managing not just negative setbacks but positive ones as well”

It’s more top-down and outside-in than bottom-up or inside-out

–Assume the recommendation is that stakeholders sit down and hammer out a management plan for the landscape. Assume they are community residents, large business- and land-owners, representatives from local non-profits or NGOs, and government officials and planners with duties for the area. Looks bottom-up, at first pass.

What if the businesspeople and large landowners do not live within the landscape; the NGO personnel are headquartered or live elsewhere; and government officials attend if able to travel from the capitol? Stakeholders they are, but do they have the same “stake” in the landscape as do local residents–namely, the only stakeholders in this “bottom-up” exercise that reside in the area to be better managed?

–This kind of stakeholder planning isn’t so much bottom-up as it is outside-in planning. It equates outsiders and insiders as well as experts and residents are stakeholders, full stop. It asserts that the claims of expertise or government duties in the landscape are right up there with the claims arising from full-time presence there.

A different exercise is to come up with recommendations that promote inside-out planning and management, where locals are themselves the professionals and where the planning and management process is initiated and guided by those within the landscape. Policy relevance of information gathered under these conditions is more likely to increase when those who determine what information is needed end up using the information they themselves have gathered.

–Which is to be preferred: (first-pass) bottom-up or (in-practice) inside-out? The answer depends on your stance with respect to the context complexities for planning.

A top-down or outside-in approach to sustainable livelihoods might be grounded in an overall design or foundation said to be better or best for realizing the goals and mandates of “sustainable livelihoods.” In contrast, the goals and mandates that emerge from a bottom-up or inside-out approach are likely to differ, when really-existing practices, rather than macro-designs, accommodate the local contingencies.

The crux for me is whether or not the contingently local practices are directed to reducing the complexities that give rise to having to live sustainably. When sustainable livelihoods are a response to context complexity, insiders must be expected to wonder what are options, if any, to reduce the complexity outright. Inside-out and bottom-up are to be distinguished from each other if their respective practices represent different orientations to accommodating or reducing the complexity.

–A last point. One form of accommodating complexity is to recast a seemingly intractable problem more tractably. Doing so isn’t simplifying or reducing the complexity; indeed, recasting shows the issue to be complex in other ways than thought to that point. A new analogy, for example, illuminates complexity rather than shrinks it.

From my perspective, it’s much better to think of sustainability not so much as ensuring resources for future generations as it is increasing the opportunities of this generation to respond to unpredictable change without killing ourselves in the process. Both tasks are complex; the latter, however, is a necessary albeit not sufficient condition for the former. To repeat this blog’s mantra: If you can’t manage now, why would I believe you can manage later?

Which of these old lists still makes sense?

Does reality exist distributively? or collectively?–in the shape of eaches, everys, anys, eithers? or only in the shape of an all or whole? William James, philosopher

1. Here are two among several principles proposed for evaluating whether a policy is consistent with electricity competition and deregulation (thanks to a 2005 publication):

  • Generation decisions (building and producing) are driven purely by market forces, which include the cost of externalities in the prices to customers.
  • Consumption decisions are driven purely by market forces in which customers have access to relevant data and information and prices include the cost of externalities.

2. These three assumptions among several others were also listed as key in market deregulation (thanks to a 2001 publication):

  • Markets are efficient and follow the One Price Law.
  • Risk can be quantified and therefore uncertainty eliminated through probabilistic statistical analysis.
  • Seismic market shifts, sometimes called outliers, are so rare that they can for all practical purposes be disregarded.

3. Contrast the above with three propositions proposed at about the same time (thanks to a 2004 publication):

  • Belief in the possibility of a public interest, distinct from private interests, is fundamental to the public domain.
  • It follows that the public domain must be protected from the ever-present threat of incursion by the market and private domains.
  • By the same token, the language of buyer and seller, producer and consumer, does not belong in the public domain; nor do the relationships which this language implies. People are consumers only in the market domain; in the public domain, they are citizens.

It’s a fair certainty which of the three lists you consider closest to realistic.

An infrastructure’s regulator of record is in real-time recovery, always

–The repeated criticism made about regulators of record is that they can never keep up with the latest maneuvering of those they regulate. Were that the only problem!

–Since there is so much the regulator has to keep on top of, it is in a permanent state of managing or coping with setbacks in doing that. To see why, I quote at some length from Reliability and Risk (2016), where we describe in schematic terms the full cycle of the real-time operations of a critical infrastructure under regulation:

Figure 7.1 introduces an idealized version of a single infrastructure’s entire operational cycle, covering all system states from the perspective of its control operators and other reliability professionals (including their support staff). . .Beginning from the left side of Figure 7.1, this infrastructure’s control operators typically maintain operations within (de facto and de jure) bandwidths of reliable system and performance conditions. Notice that “normal” does not—cannot, as we have seen—mean “invariant”: adjustments are to be expected within bandwidths to enable adaptation to a stream of contingencies and unpredictabilities. . .

Control operators enter a crisis condition when they confront or anticipate conditions that threaten their cognitive skills to understand a situation in terms of recognizing patterns and to respond to a situation in terms of formulating action scenarios that they then translate into strategies of action. A crisis could begin with loss of communications or some other requirement for the management of their control variables. The crisis starts for control operators when they are pushed to operate at the edge of or beyond their domain of competence, where skills and task requirements are matched.

. . . .[T]his team situational awareness of the crisis might not correspond to an actual disruption or catastrophic loss of service; it may well precede it. The time period for the crisis from the perspective of the operators may be advanced in every phase over public perceptions and even the perceptions of organizational or political leaders. The latter may see the crisis only at the point of loss of service. But by the time that stage is reached, control room operators could be on the road to restoration or even beginning recovery. . . .

The crisis begins a period of intense and focused attention on recognizing what’s actually happening: discovering a pattern or patterns and assessing action scenarios. This activity can restore disrupted service. . . If failure occurred, the recovery takes a different form of problem-solving activity on the part of control room operators. The focus shifts from narrowing attention on understanding the particular character of the failure to expanding the scope of factors attended to, including related infrastructures, in pursuit of recovery strategy. Recovery necessarily involves many outside organizations and personnel whose actions have to be carefully coordinated if it is to be successful. . . .

In nominal terms, the whole cycle of infrastructure operations ends after recovery, when control operators are at a new normal, with scenarios and patterns added to their management repertoire, along with new facilities and equipment as well as with any new regulatory or policy constraints. The “new” in the “new normal” could be above the old normal’s performance effectiveness. But it could also be below. Untried equipment, hasty reorganizations, or new regulatory constraints imposed from a public-accountability more than a reliability perspective may leave control operators and other reliability professionals with far fewer options and more unstudied conditions than they confronted before the crisis.

–While imposition of the last mentioned new regulatory constraints is with respect to the “the new normal,” the regulator of record is present at every horizontal and vertical point in the infrastructure’s whole operations cycle, if only ensuring regulatory compliance. As the entire cycle, including the stage of normal operations, is dynamic, so too it must be for the regulator.

–Focus now on several dynamics. The probability of system failure (Pf) changes along the horizontal and vertical dimensions (Pf often being higher in recovery). As such, talking about risks depends on where you are in Figure 7.1: the risk of disrupted services given crisis conditions in control room management before any actual service disruption, (2) the risk of failed services if disrupted infrastructure services are not restored, (3) the risk of failure in recovering services given the difficulty and complexity of recovery operations, and (4) the fresh risks of a new normal in infrastructure services post-recovery (e.g., is the infrastructure now more resilient or brittle?).

Talk about resilience means as well differentiating the types of resilience by the stage of operations one actually is in during the cycle, e.g., resilience to stay within the bandwidths of normal operations is nothing like the inter-organizational resilience to be evinced at recovery. All along the cycle, latent as well as manifest configurations of interconnectivity with other infrastructures change.

–The upshot? This challenge of the regulator–to be as differentiated in regulation as the whole cycle is for the infrastructure being regulated–isn’t just “a challenge.” Yet labeling it “an impossible task” doesn’t help, for where goes the infrastructure, there must go the regulator of record.

In my view, it is better to say that at best the regulator of record is in permanent setback management; at worst its own activities require the coping behavior associated with emergency management. Either way, the regulator in terms of its own cycle of operations never recovers fully; or if you’re on the optimistic side, recovery is its new normal.

Siding with the wall

On one side. I read a lot because I’d like to think the answer is out there, ready to be stumbled over, because someone smarter has seen it already. More than that, when found, I’d realize that Piece-of-Truth had been right in front of me–the writing on the wall.

On the other. This drive to explicate—to explain so as to explain more and then even more—has been criticized by the wildly different Peter Sloterdijk, philosopher, and Shirley Hazzard, novelist. Surely, the brain is hard-wired for this.

Which side? A while back I culled old journal issues. Partly to see what I had commented on then by way of marginalia, but also to see if what I had read pointed to what I think now. My scribbles were unreadable.

It’s war or peace?

Actually, neither.

The opposite of peace is not-peace. War is one type of not-peace. There are also contraries and contradictories, like “both peace and not-peace” and “neither peace nor not-peace.” If these semiotics were not enough, ordinary language has its own categories. Other people don’t think in twos, but in threes or more, e.g., Virginia Woolf talks about Peace, Love and Hate as the biggies.

Once you’ve got more than a dualism, the contradistinctions go any which way. If Peace is the freedom from extreme love and hate, the Woolf’s threesome become Love, Hate and Freedom from extreme versions of both. And by talking about Peace being “a freedom from,” you eventually stumble into “freedom to,” as in: Why not freedom-to as its own kind of Peace?

–For my part, the better question is: What is neither peace nor not-peace? One answer would be a world so complex that the determination of what is “peace” versus “not-peace” is not possible. Why? Because right now nothing has been concluded, yet. It’s as if when reading World War II entries in John Colville’s Downing Street Diaries, you were also experiencing real time today.

Impact-sheds are not managed systems, except when…

–Conflation of the physical system managed with the area of system impacts should the system fail is common. The spatial area managed by a water supply or electric grid is not the spatial area affected by indefinite loss of water or electricity. Large critical infrastructures may be operated within regions, but regions are not systems managed on their own in the same way critical infrastructures with central control rooms are.

To see how this matters, picture a stylized relationship between the probability of levee failure (Pf, e.g., 1%, 0.1%, 0.01% per annum), the estimated cost per mile of levee stretch to bring it to high safety standard, and the estimated loss in economic value (including foregone earnings due to loss of life), should levee failure occur at a given Pf. One relationship is the diagonal read from the upper right to the lower left (my thanks for Robert Pyke for the figure):

The dotted line assumes that the losses in economic value of a levee breach decline as levees are brought to a higher, more costly standard with reductions in the probability of levee failure, Pf. What is managed directly is maintenance at a levee standard and the associated Pf; only indirectly is the “economic value of levee breach” managed..

–If you counter that this impact-shed is “the system to be managed,” then you beg the larger question: What infrastructure manages the impact-shed in terms of the consequences of levee breach (Cf), including economic losses?

Answer: Cf is most pertinent to the emergency management infrastructure, and not the flood and levee infrastructure as in the illustration. The time period for the former involvement may well be limited (say, six weeks to three months after the disaster), leaving the bulk of the recovery to those infrastructures that manage systems–e.g., roads and waterways–and not the respective impact-sheds.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda

–Have you attended any presentation where the engineer proposes all-benefit-and-no-cost designs and technologies of such fantastification as would bring a failing grade to a student in public policy and management? The slides are a tableau vivant of Revelation pulling the “thing” out of Nothing, the thingamajiggery sacralized as innovation. (As a Renaissance ceiling fresco, the fabled risk-seeking innovators would be little putti wheeling around St Market, upwards into a cerulean sky.)

–When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. (The counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, ask critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?”)

–What would we be reading now to be as collectively agitated as were early readers of Machiavelli’s Prince, the French classes delving into the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert, or Beccaria’s On Crime and Punishment, or those stirred by Michael Harrington’s The Other America?

Or is the point quite the other way round? The “we” is expanding, every day, by agitations of other media?

–Go look for one of those early 20th century American landscape paintings by, e.g., Redmond Granville, of wildflowers spreading across fields or Edgar Payne of a remote lake in the snowy Sierras. Then look at virtually the same painting, but this time with a young woman in her calico dress or cowboy on a horse. In an instant, this painting dates the preceding one. What had been an idealized-now flips to a historicized-then. Public policy is full of such flips: reforms that work on paper but date immediately when real people with real problems in real time enter the picture—both as subject and as frame.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued “matter” was treated like a pincushion whose surface was hidden by all the sensations, thoughts and properties stabbed into it.

You ask today’s version of, “What’s the matter?,” and you get a pincushion of sentences affixed with an “etc.” Each implies the unnamed factors are only critical to the point we needn’t clutter the analysis any further by naming them. “Hail, Muse! Et Cetera,” as the poet, Byron, sarcastically put it in the third canto of Don Juan. Yet, really, why are we reading if not to find out what the writers think are critical enough to name? (Writes Wittgenstein: “Again and again, my ‘etc’ has a limit.”)

–Our experiences “lie jumbled up inside us, and we find we have an inner world like a rubbish bin,” wrote the sociologist and psychotherapist, Ian Craib:

This is a different sort of mess…the flux of the inner life and our emotions, about which we maintain the illusion that it can be made orderly and predictable. We might think that the rubbish bin can be sorted out, but it seems to me what the push is towards emptying it and starting afresh.

But we don’t know how to start all over again, and as such two sets of opposing pressures drive the anxiety of having to sort things out: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know (or can know) and the centrifugal pressures of opening up recasting what has been taken as unknowable or for granted.

This is Proust in translation: “What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown”. We only know that which we create—and with this, the anxiety both at the knowing and at the recasting.

–The first words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are, “Whose there?” Indeed. And at its end, what life isn’t unfinished? In both cases, arithmetic averages wobble.