The real U.S. infrastructure crisis

They call it the “infrastructure crisis.” Water from your taps isn’t any better, roads need repair, power outages happen at any time, and don’t expect public transit here to get you anywhere just-on-time.

You’ve probably also heard it’s going to take billions more dollars to bring these physical systems up to the A-grade we want.

But that is not the real infrastructure crisis we face. Even if our physical structures were dramatically improved, the management side would still be under attack and worse.

Because you don’t see this real crisis, you don’t know what needs to be done or what you can do about it.

Our state and federal water projects, energy and natural gas utilities, electricity transmission grid, refineries and pipelines, public transit, and more have centralized control rooms to manage their services as safely and as reliably as they can, right now when it matters most.

What you see is when the service is late or not there. Mistakes play out before your eyes. What you don’t see is how control centers prevent all kinds of accidents and failures from happening. That is, what you and the public almost always experience are the savings in errors prevented.

These perfect strangers in our control rooms stop massive losses on a regular basis and most of us don’t see that routine disaster prevention or know about it.

Some accidents waiting to happen are due to that poor shape our assets are in; other accidents are due to operator error or constant cost-cutting. Those reasons, though, are true only as far as they go.

The wider truth is that accidents are waiting to happen in control operations because so many shocks are unpredictable. Weather changes suddenly, a generator drops off line without warning, or an unexpected wildfire or flash-flood disrupts the service.

Such rude surprises require very clever control operators and dispatchers to work around the problem so that the services you see, even if disrupted at one site, don’t fail across all other sites.

Yet these control rooms are attacked from many different directions today. This goes beyond the vast number of cyberattacks from outsiders fended off for the time being. (Prevention of cyberattacks, by the way, is almost always seen as a technology and design challenge, rather than a control-center management issue—though without control rooms society wouldn’t have any kind of platform with which to cybersecurity seriously.)

The real infrastructure crisis is the attack by insiders and summertime patriots paid to know better:

The Infrastructure CEO—If we don’t risk failure by cutting costs we’ll never get market share! The Economist—Trust me, selling electricity is no different than selling corn syrup. The Politician—Don’t worry; when things go belly-up, we’ll deal with it then. The Technology Innovator—You can never have enough innovation, and where better to start than on what we depend on most! The Infrastructure Investor—We’ll buy just the bridge and tolls; you lot keep the rest. The Chief Risk Officer—Nothing’s wrong with our models; it’s reality that’s 26 standard deviations away from normal. The Planner—There’s nothing like a disaster to clear the table so as to start all over again. The Regulator—If it takes fining them on the silly stuff to get their attention, so be it. The Consultant—Sorry to interrupt, but could you tell me again what exactly is going on here in the control room?

Surplus to most requirements, I’d say. To put this craziness in context, you’d have to think long and hard to imagine a single terrorist attack on a major infrastructure that costs California and its citizens as much as did faulty electricity deregulation during and after the state’s 2001 electricity crisis. Or think of the trillions in wealth destruction associated with the “financial innovation” leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

So, let me be blunt and clear. The greatest source of systemic risk in our society today is the unremitting assault on our critical infrastructures by macro-designing techgnostics, evangelizing advocates of economism, and their fellow-travelers in our legislatures and regulatory authorities. If it were only the terrorists we had to worry about! There is something deeply suspect about the very idea that the engine of better human behavior is the right macro-design in need of no reverse gear.

That said, what then is to be done about the attacks from within and what can you do about it?

First, get real. Contra those specialists who insist the electric grid is, in their words, a general-purpose technology, the grid is actually a distinctly managed, highly differentiated socio-technical system. Complex is about as simple as it gets today for public utilities, large water projects, or major transportation systems. In fact, easy fixes for electricity and other vital services are what got us into the infrastructure mess we’re in today.

Second, get worried because priorities matter. New construction and maintenance are only part of the answer to better transportation, water and energy supplies. The priority is to stop the unchecked attacks undermining really-existing daily operations. If we can’t run these systems reliably and safely now, why ever would anyone believe promises to do so in 2035? Since systematically important banks are important enough to stress test, we should be stress testing key critical infrastructures so systemically important that they too mustn’t fail. We should be taking a “National Academy of High Reliability Management” or “California Commission on Infrastructure Management,” not just the on/off proposal for a National Infrastructure Bank.

We might want to keep in mind the example of Phalaris, 6th century BCE tyrant in Sicily. He ordered his servant, the inventor Perillus, to design a huge bronze bull in which to roast his victims alive. Their screams would, the tyrant hoped, sound just like the bellows of a bull. Phalaris was so impressed with the contraption that he promptly tried it out on its inventor, Perillus, as the first victim. Were the fellow-traveling innovators just as honored when it came to their novel financial instruments that led to the 2008 financial meltdown or the 2001 California energy crisis!

Third, get smarter. Politicians, policymakers and their consultants habitually underestimate costs, overestimate benefits, and undervalue environmental impacts of their pet infrastructure projects. It should be crime—yes, a crime—when they fail to tell us about the arsenic in their dumbed-down and permanently incomplete designs.

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