Policy optics as prompts and probes to recasting: 14 brief examples

Policy optics are concepts, analogies, methods and counternarratives used to recast issues currently defined as intractable. Recastings, if they work, remake (redescribe, recalibrate, reframe, revise) an issue more tractably. I seek to explain and describe how this is done in When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene.

But policy optics also function as prompts when they pose new but important questions and as probes when they reach for answers, even if both redefined questions and answers fall short of full-blown recasting. Below are 16 short examples of prompts and probes, in no order of priority, culled from the blog. Though some touch on topics in the Draft Guide, all are new material and considerably shortened from the original entries (where references can be found).

1. Unions and unionized

Assume evidence can be generalized as follows: Unionized firms as compared to nonunionized firms have lower rates of productivity, employment creation, and investment, other things equal. Even putting aside all the contrary evidence, we still ask: So what?

The preceding are generalizations only. Localized scenarios in which the opposite holds are possible and counter-cases available. Considerable evidence suggests that the ‘‘union/nonunion’’ dichotomy masks great variability in collective bargaining laws and wage arrangements across countries and regions.

That variability suggests we take a deeper look at the macro-design standpoints with respect to unions or not. What human rights, for instance, are at issue when one talks about unionization? One quickly realizes that the rights concerned relate less to any ‘‘right to unionization’’ and more to established rights of collective bargaining and freedom of association.

The latter as the point of departure surfaces an issue missed by some observers: Focusing on different rights illustrates just how narrow is the earlier focus on empirical generalizations about unionization. We should also be looking at the evidence related to economic growth and collective bargaining arrangements, generally and specifically. We would then better understand why local conditions are so variable with respect to ‘‘unions,’’ now variously defined and found.

2. Complex: other concepts and methods

When I and others call for better recognition and accommodation of complexity, we mean the complex as well as the uncertain, unfinished and conflicted must be particularized and contextualized so as to analyze and manage case-by-granular case.

When I and others say we need more findings that can be replicated across a range of cases, we are calling for identification not only of emerging better practices across cases, but also of greater equifinality: finding multiple but different pathways to achieve similar objectives, given case diversity.

What I and others mean by calling for greater collaboration is not just more teamwork or working with more and different stakeholders, but that team members and stakeholders “bring the system into the room” for the purposes of making the services in question reliable and safe.

When I and others call for more system integration, we mean the need to recouple the decoupled activities in ways that better mimic but can never reproduce the coupled nature of the wider system environment.

When I and others call for more flexibility, we mean the need for greater maneuverability across different performance modes in the face of changing system volatility and options to respond to those changes. (“Only the middle road does not lead to Rome,” said composer, Arnold Schoenberg.)

Where we need more experimentation, I and others do not mean a trial-and-error learning where the next systemwide error proves to be the last trial destroying systemwide survival.

Where others talk about risks in a system’s hazardous components, I and others point to different systemwide reliability standards and only after to the different risks and uncertainties that follow from the different standards.

3. First: differentiate equality

Much of the debate over equality has been and remains at the macro-principle node. We all have equal rights; we all should have equal opportunities. Yet from the very beginning, exceptions have been in the form of specific contingency scenarios read off the macro, e.g., people are in principle equal but people are not born with the same and equal potentials. Contingency scenarios qualifying the reading of macro-principles litter debates over equality.

As the genetics we are born with are of course not everything, we also find vast differences in human-by-human particularities. Equal at the macro level, the most obvious fact at the micro-level is how unequal each person is in so many ways. Macro-principle, principle-based contingency scenarios and micro-experience are, however, not the only nodes around which equality debates organize.

The gap between macro-principle on paper and system behavior in practice is also everywhere evident. Systemwide pattern recognition, our fourth node, is populated by all manner of trends and statistics that show, e.g., just how unequal income, wealth and consumption distributions are within and across countries. Indeed, the difference between equality as professed and equality as realized is benchmarked by this gap between macro-principle and the recognition of systemwide patterns.

So what?

Put plainly, the macro-node in equality debates formalizes as principle what others cannot help but seek to informalize more through exceptions and contingency scenarios. The micro-node informalizes what others cannot help but seek to more formalize when they talk about systemwide patterns emerging across different cases. Equality, in this way, can’t help but be a messy project.

Nothing stops privileging one over another, or some over others, even though all four nodes are interconnected. Doing so, however, exaggerates. There is a world of difference between privileging one node from the get-go versus answering the question, “What do we do here and now with respect to this case of (in)equality”—after, however, first assessing the four nodes with their conflicts and examples.

4. A major policy issue is clearcut only until the next counternarrative

The removal of rescue boats and the increase of the utilization of drones is used by Frontex to detect and prevent migratory flows at an early stage, as migrant vessels are recognized in pre-frontier areas. In fact, the Frontex Situation Centre is a unit in charge of monitoring the external borders and the pre-frontier areas of the EU. . .The investment in drones has increased considerably in parallel with the deterrence of external rescue operations and the withdrawal of some naval missions in the Mediterranean. . .Therefore, vessels that are capable of helping migrants and asylum seekers are replaced by drones that can only observe. In consequence, the agency has not the obligation to intervene neither rescue them.

from a report accessed online on July 6 2022 at http://centredelas.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/WP_DronesFrontex_ENG.pdf

. . .beyond reasonable doubt they want to make sure no one can be rescued by them (positively formulated, they don’t want to become part of the business model of human traffickers)

from a friend’s email in response to the above quote

5. Apocalypse and tax havens

Novels and scenarios about post-apocalypse are dystopian when it comes to the climate emergency: Nothing will be as it was before. Even so, it’s that “nothing will be as it was” that bothers me.

–An example, and one the reader can relate to: tax havens. Once you have an inkling of what to look for, the numbers loom massive.

In one year alone (2016), multinational corporations (MNCs) were estimated to have shifted USD 1 trillion of profits to tax havens, with an estimated USD 200-300 billion in lost tax revenue worldwide. (The Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Hong Kong and the Netherlands are among the most important tax havens.) Another study estimates multinational enterprises shift close to 40% of their profits to tax havens globally. As for regions, the main European banks are reckoned to have booked EUR 20 billion (close to 15% of their total profits) in tax havens. In Germany, by way of one country, MNCs there are said to have shifted corporate profits of some EUR 19 billion to tax havens, with an estimated tax revenue loss of roughly EUR 5.7 billion.

Now, post-apocalypse. The Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Hong Kong and the Netherlands? Under water. MNCs? They should be so lucky! Tax havens and forgone tax revenues? After the apocalypse, what taxes?

In other words, the bad of tax havens, pre-apocalypse, is corrected post-apocalypse.

–Why ever then are we spending time and resources on reducing the use of tax havens when all our energies—all our political will—should be directed to averting the climate-induced apocalypse? From this perspective, today’s tax havens are visibly part of opportunity costs of deadly climate inaction. Reducing tax havens is worse than meaningless unless the generated revenues are directed to mitigating the impacts of climate change—and even then the prospect of “too little too late” looms.

Or is it too little too late in quite another sense? For surely part of being in the apocalypse means we have to manage global climate change far better everywhere than we (can) manage tax havens here or there, and now. If so, we are on the losing end either way: managing (or not) tax havens won’t get us to the climate change mitigation needed. . .

Unless of course, we imagine that getting rid of these tax sinkholes for the rich and already-undeserving—the enemy of both populist and cosmopolitan citizenshipare among the few things that are truly urgent, like the climate emergency.

6. What the Thai BL series, “Bad Buddy,” tells us about “societal reset”

“Reset” is a popular term for our “starting over” (as if from clean slate) or “starting again” (as if restarting from where we are). But there are other ways to think about “reset” as it applies to wider society.

One such way will be unfamiliar to readers: the current response to a Thai BL (Boys’ Love), “Bad Buddy.” It’s a twelve episode series, now moving to the 11th “cursed” episode: According to the trope, things must get worse in the next to the last episode (just) in order to get better at last.

–I’m not going to describe the history of BL tv series (they’re not Greek boy’s love or pedophilia), nor how Thai series differ from BLs in, say, Japan, Taiwan, or South Korea, which themselves differ. For those interested, a sinkhole of web-links awaits you (by the time you get to the history of China’s censorship of BLs and its current wink-nudge “bromances,” you’ll have learned a great deal).

What I want to focus on here is one major response of YouTube viewers to “Bad Buddy” (with its millions and millions of episode views and tens and tens of thousands episode comments): This series represents, right now, a “reset” of Thai BLs.

I want to argue that the “reset” talked about in YouTube comments (at least those in English) is an optic through which to think about calls to reset specific contemporary politics and society.

One of the first things “Bad Buddy” viewers comment about is the great acting and chemistry of the two male leads, Ohm and Nanon. Just say it’s astrophysical. The higher-quality of storyline, filming and direction, sound track, and pacing are also singled out for note. All and more are clear in Episode 5’s lead-up to roof-top scene, where in the language of many Asian dramas Ohm confesses his feelings and they kiss.

That last sentence in no way conveys the intensity of what we viewers actually saw and what that embrace conveyed. There is something very fitting in the reset being triggered the moment Ohm utters a mai (“no”) unlike any before.

One BL convention has been that these be straight actors kissing according to a storyline written by a female author for a largely female audience–where in the past the kiss would more often than not be two sets of closed lips compressed momentarily on to each other. Not so in “Bad Buddy.”

Other BL conventions have also been bumped out of the way by “Bad Buddy.” Most invidious to international viewers has been the question of “who’s the top, who’s the bottom?” or husband/wifey in the relationship. “Bad Buddy” makes it clear the protagonists see themselves as boyfriends. Nor is there’s the usual, “He’s the only guy I’d ever love.” Nor are the females cyphers for “funny” or “incidental,” as has been the case.

I could go on about why I’m such a fan, but suffice it here: At the time of writing, many of the YouTube viewers agree they are witnessing what they take to be a bigger reset of cultural conventions at least in the BL industry.

It seems to me that this type of “reset” is not one of resetting Thai society views of LGBTQ+ communities there or elsewhere. Nor is the reset one of setting a gold standard or benchmark for future BL tv series.

The reset I take away from the comments–that is, the reset I believe I’ve been witnessing through to Episode 10—is more akin to shaking the kaleidoscope of BL conventions and then making a new twist. The different colored shards—those conventions and tropes—don’t disappear but are being reconfigured. YouTube viewers of “Bad Buddy” are recording, participating in and energizing just such a reset. In conventional terms, expectations are notably changing and viewers are managing the changes and those expectations.

So what?

For someone living in the United States now, the economy is narrativized almost always into top and bottom. The top shafts the bottom; rich and poor are all having to take it up the ass. “A lifelong Democrat/Republican, this is the first time ever voting for my man, Trump/Obama.” This drama of ours is cursed to end early, without the final episode 12.

The notion that top and bottom could be “friends,” that the other half aren’t to be dismissed, that even when we’re fucked up and down, it’s more complicated, and that even if society can’t be remade from newer or altogether different shards, our current representations and configurations can be turned to make them work differently—well, that’s one imaginary too far in the US!

If so, then I take the positive upshot to be: Focus on kaleidoscopes that can be twisted. (This is what “Bad Buddy” does for me.) Two examples as far away from BLs but ready, I believe, for a “Bad Buddy” reset will have to be illustrative.

Once you refocus, philanthropy needn’t be viewed as the city’s rich helping the city’s poor; urban-generated remittances needn’t be seen as one set of family members helping other family members elsewhere. Both philanthropy and remittances twist into something else when it’s “urban citizenship”—its duties and responsibilities—that come into better view through these very transactions.

Another example. A conventional configuration of dryland herds as assets is being twisted into a newer configuration of herds as global environmental liabilities. One consequence of the latest twist is to exclude pastoralists from being considered part of the near-global asset boom in rising prices of stock, bonds and real-estate.

Yet, at some point in the further twisting ahead of what patently is a kaleidoscope of very different configurations of herd assets and liabilities, it will be clear that a big question was missed in the earlier twist: Who benefited when public attention was distracted by reclassifying cattle as global environmental liabilities from recognizing instead that their owners/managers were (continue to be) entrapped in capitalist asset bubbles, and on a global scale?

7. One recasting not to favor: Anthropocene as wartime

. . .[T]he concept of wartime itself suggests a processual and extendable temporality, rather than a straightforward binary. This is the case since the division between wartime and peacetime is never as clear cut as any formal cessation of hostilities or signing of a treaty would suggest. World War I clearly did not end with the Armistice, and neither did it cease with the signing of the Versailles Treaty. For some, the World War has never really ended at all given that its promises of meaningful forms of (particularly racial and gender) equality as recompense for serving one’s country have still failed to materialize. The war had an enormous impact both upon the fabric of the earth and natural resources, while its legacy for the ways such categories as state, democracy, representation and capitalism, have become fixed parts of Euro-American political thinking, has been equally profound. It might therefore be productive to think about the Anthropocene as a form of ‘deep-war time’, both practically and intellectually. This means considering the Anthropocene as an ongoing battle over what it means to think across both planetary and global perspectives, and across the arc spanning World War I and into the present. D. Kelly (2022). Wartime for the Planet? Journal of Modern European History (DOI: 10.1177/16118944221113281)

Emergencies are one thing, like that for the climate. But not all emergencies are wars.

If the Anthropocene is recast as its own wartime, then how is this war different than all the other wars, namely, as massive engines of unpredictable, unimaginable and ungovernable contingencies? Why ever would we say wartime better captures there being no real boundary between war and peace, when the Anthropocene is also about neither human war nor human peace only?

If the “planetary” is as much a human construction as “local” and “global” are—or if you prefer, planetary and global and local are not thorough-going human constructions (remember “the irreducible particularity of being”?)—then we’re well advised not to dismiss policy and management as if they were the low and mean cunning of local and global alone.

In fact, cunning looks much the viable option when compared to: This war has to be different! Failure is not an option! We just have to have the political will to make it happen! These claims to exceptions deny that we can better prepare for other unavoidably broad patterns we see and other unavoidably local scenarios we face, when both clearly contradict “There is no alternative but to do it this way and no other way. . .”

8. Redescribing “alert distraction”

–It is said attention implies an economy of attention: As you can’t attend to everything, you must focus. It’s better, I think, to say attention implies a reliability in attending: Attention is more a sweeping searchlight that is continuous and secure even when distracted. Having to focus misses the importance of distraction’s role in refocusing to elsewhere.

Jean Dubuffet, the painter, talked about distraction as an occasion for “attentive inattentiveness:” “[I]n this distracted state. . . it is a matter of paying great attention to inattention, of being very attentive to transcribing as skillfully and faithfully as possible what happens when an object is viewed without great attentiveness”. To put the point my way, a reliable searchlight is one that is alert to sweeping more than fixed circuits.

–There are of course the negative distractions of others that are good for you: Never interrupt your enemies when distracted by the mistakes they’ve made, to adapt Napoleon. But what if it is about distracting you from your own dead-end focus? That would be a positive distraction, an alertness to other things that end up mattering more.

Boris Pasternak, the poet, is reported to have said that life creates events to distract our current attention away from it, so that we can get on with work that cannot be accomplished any other way.

–A classic example of positive distractions are those unplanned but productive blots and blurs of composition. Max Ernst, the painter, put it: “Leonardo observed that all such mysterious effects that we find in nature—such as the stains of humidity on an old wall—can suggest to us a landscape, a face or any other such subject…To two different artists, the same chance stain can suggest two entirely different works. . .”

So too for Rossini, the composer: “When I was writing the chorus in G Minor, I suddenly dipped my pen into the medicine bottle instead of the ink; I made a blot, and when I dried it…it took the form of a natural, which instantly gave me the idea of the effect which the change from G minor to G major would make, and to this blot all the effect—if any—is due”. Here too a kind of alertness is working here.

–So what?

Much has been made of the distinction between Type I or System 1 thinking—it is nonconscious and all but automatic, rooted in fear and emotion—in comparison to Type II or System 2 thinking that is conscious, deliberative, and not rooted in emotion or instinct.

I’m asking you to recast conscious deliberation and analysis as positive distractions, that is, diversions from acting otherwise stereotypically or worse, where we are more likely to revert to the latter when responding to unknown unknowns, inexperience and great difficulties. In this way, thinking is being more alert and attentive.

9. Macro-design is “not noticing” (from poet, Robert Lowell)

–“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it encourages the notion one can macro-design the micro. Anyone who has tried to implement as planned—today’s version of clockmaker God and the echt-rational—knows how plug-and-play designs don’t work, as contingency and context invariably get in the way.

To see how this matters, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and a gloss on it by Helen Vendler, the critic. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering as it does around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:


The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm –
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

The doctor is forgotten now
like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name.
I am free
to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train
and copy on the back of a letter,
as if alone:
“When the trees close branches and redden,
their winter skeletons are hard to find—”
to know after long rest
and twenty miles of outlying city
that the much-heralded spring is here,
and say,
“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Then home – I can walk it blindfold.
But we must notice –
we are designed for the moment.

–I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:

In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet seems to XXX that ‘we are designed for the moment’—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, ‘we are designed for the moment’ of noticing.

–What Lowell is doing in the last two lines is also revisiting, I’d like to think, the second line, “We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm” and making this point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in at least one major respect.

We notice the ideas-that-design because noticing is not an idea. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because noticing is a kind of momentary alertness—“Is this what you would call a blossom?”

–So what?

Macro-designs imposed upon the world are best described as forms of not-noticing. Just as the law has not eyes, so Xenophon’s Cyrus seemed to argue. I was once involved in an urban environmental project, where what college students were taught and what they found on the ground were not just different but orthogonal:

  • Vacant lots were said to be ideal for community gardens but could not be used for gardening because prior use had rendered the soils toxic (that is why they were vacant);
  • Daylighting city creeks was recommended to improve public access to a restored natural area. Local residents preferred instead leaving creeks inaccessible rather than opening them to out-of-sight criminal behavior;
  • A clean-up campaign to reduce street litter became something more when the gloves distributed for the effort were pierced by discarded injection needles; and
  • Planting more trees along the street was touted as an ideal urban improvement, but in practice doing so raised liability issues, ranging from tree roots buckling the sidewalk to cutting away those roots rendering the trees more prone to falling.

Had I taken time to notice what other people had already noticed, things might have been different.

10. Missing racism

It’s difficult to believe anything important has been missed about race and racism in the United States. What hasn’t been said? Yet we’re missing a great deal that is important when it comes to recasting them.

To see how, I focus on a past period about which we now know more than we did by way of what we missed then.

–Go back to the late 1990s to the mid-2000’s. As an optic, it’s not so far past that some readers won’t remember it, but far enough away for added perspective. Start with some statistics reported then about African-Americans:

Black Americans, a mere 13 percent of the population, constitute half of this country’s prisoners. A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 35 are in jail or prison… (cited 2007)

Something like one third of our young African American men between 18 and 25 are now connected to the juvenile justice system or the federal justice system. They’re on probation, they’re in jail, they’re under indictment or they’re incarcerated. (cited 2002)

…the most striking thing is the high portion of black men with zero reported income: about 18 percent of black men, compared to about 7 percent for whites and Hispanics. (cited 2007)

After declining throughout the 1980s, employment rates of young, less-educated white and Latino men remained flat during the 1990s. Among black men aged 16 through 24, employment rates actually dropped. In fact, this group’s employment declined more during the 1990s (which fell from 59 percent to 52 percent) than during the preceding decade [of lower economic growth]… (cited 2004)

The most dramatic, the most unfortunate of the several disastrous outcomes is the high rate of paternal abandonment of children: 60% of Afro-American children are being brought up without the emotional, economic or social support of their fathers. (cited 2002)

Even then, though, you’d have had to ask: Why ever were we not interviewing those nine-tenths of young black men who were not in prison, those two-thirds who were not enmeshed in the criminal justice system, those four-fifths who did not have zero income, that half who were employed, and those four out of ten who had not “abandoned” their children—all in order to find out what they are doing right?

–One well-meaning observer said that, if he had a magic wand, he’d wave it so that every black would have a master’s degree, as degree holders were more likely to have higher incomes, better health and more positive outcomes. Before I waved any such wand, I’d want to know what kinds of educations were to be made missing.

11. Doing more in the climate emergency

Anyone who studies emergency management in large disasters and catastrophes, at least in the US setting, knows recovery is the second part of emergency management. The first, very formidable phase is immediate response. This matters because: Just what is immediate response in the climate emergency?

One article starts with: “The climate crisis calls for a massive and rapid retooling of our economy and society.” Yes, surely that and more; but what do we do immediately?

In answer, I don’t think I’m doing an injustice to those who insist what we should do now, and in a very big way is: stop using fossil fuels, stop cutting down trees, stop polluting the seas, stop using these befouling planes, vessels and vehicles.

We could respond, “Just how immediate is immediately?” Here though, let’s take these “Stop’s!” as sufficient calls for now-action.

Which means in the US setting, activating a city or county emergency operations center and/or incident management teams at the department level to coordinate immediate response efforts. States also do the same with respect to their own EOCs, IMTs or equivalent.

This activation is done all the time, when high winds, ice storms, wildfires, heat dome effects, flooding and their combinations take down essential services, particularly backbone infrastructures of water, electricity, roads and telecoms.

–Now the thought experiment: Activate the EOCs and IMTs, or at least the ones which know we are the climate emergency. And who are the distressed peoples and sites? Well, that’s not something you can answer a priori or universally. It’s up to the EOCs and IMTs, who recognize the climate emergency is leaving local people hungry, making local spaces uninhabitable, taking away local employment. . .

In thinking these things through, the stakes become clearer for both recovery and for immediate response.

First, much of what outsiders recommend for now-now clearly belongs more under “long-term recovery” than immediate response, e.g., those net-zero emissions promises or those altogether different, more resilient infrastructures. Note what many others have said about this longer-term: It is inevitably political with many stakeholders and in little or no way has the same logic, clarity and urgency that immediate response has, e.g., disaster declarations that trigger immediate release of government funds.

That said and second, those aforementioned “stop-this-and-that” immediately hit a major obstacle. In really-existing emergency response, fossil fuel is needed to evacuate people, ship goods and services to distressed areas, keep the generators running when electricity fails, and so on. Cutting down trees, distribution of water in plastic bottles, and wide use of readily available gas-guzzling vehicles, in case it needs saying, are not uncommon.

–Rather than focusing concern around the greater reliance on petrol or like, we might instead want to think more productively about two empirically prior issues.

First, where are those EOCs and IMTs activated in response to the climate emergency? The aforementioned activation for wildfires, flooding and abrupt seasonal events have been increasing and increasingly responded to by all manner of city, county, state and agency EOCs and IMTs. These are climate emergencies—lower-case speech matters in a polarized US—even for those would never say the phrase, “Climate Change,” out loud.

Second, where EOCs and IMTs have been or will be activated, are they responding in ways that are climate-friendly? Or to put the response challenge correctly: Where are the logic, clarity and urgency of the climate emergency requiring immediate eco-friendly response even before longer-term environmental recovery?

I ask the latter question, because it seems to me much more thought has been given by far many more people to the use of eco-friendly stoves, toilet facilities, renewable-energy generators, and like alternatives. Years and years of R&D have gone into studying, prototyping and distributing more sustainable options.

Shouldn’t we then expect and want their increased use in immediate emergency response as well, especially when (not: “even if”) expediting them to the distressed sites and peoples means, e.g., using petrol to get them there?

12. COP26 and intermittence

COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, was for many (myself included) a failure to do the needful in limiting temperature rise. Let’s say that is true (at least up to that point).

Even then, the crux is not: “Thus,” alternative voices were left out and alternative politics side-lined. You can no more essentialize those voices and politics than you can essentialize the conference. For it first has to be asked: Which COP26 failed?

Such a conference is never altogether there, if only because those attending in Glasgow are being themselves in one venue while being other selves in other venues there. COP26 is and was riddled with this intermittence and who’s to say the earlier or later versions between October 31 and November 13 2021 are not its upside?

This intermittence (like surprise) carries with it a great deal of information. (These shifts have in the parlance, “high-level informativity.”) Which is to say: I’m sure I’ve left far too much out in stopping short at COP26 as an overall failure.

13. There is no workaround for improvisation

–Consider the quip of a fund manager in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis: “The fact that the risk was diversified was a good thing. Now everyone is panicking because they don’t know where it is”.

But what kind of “it” was this risk? What kind of “diversified” is it if the risk includes unknown-unknowns?

–As the answers are not clear, what reformulation could produce more useful insights? One answer: a reformulation of the situation entailing different messes, differently good and bad than those posed by the fund manager. As in: one that did not revolve around “knowing where the diversified risks are.”

What could such a reformulation look like? To that end, undertake a thought experiment. Assume we are actively in the lead-up to another huge financial meltdown and fund managers are making the same or similar points as in the last one. Ask now: What would be success or effectiveness for these managers under the now-current conditions?

–There are many possible answers. The one I highlight is that of a senior emergency manager who recently told us: “Success in every disaster is that you didn’t have to get improvisational immediately. You can rely on prior relationships and set up a framework for improvisation and creativity.”

More formally and back to our thought experiment, management success in this lead-up to the next financial meltdown is no longer just one of preventing that meltdown from happening. It’s better to think that this lead-up is its own disaster and now ask: Where is effective emergency response gong on presently or should be going on?

Part of that answer is identifying where sets of working relationships (and allied resources) are in place for better matching now-and-here resource capabilities to the now-and-here task demands of financial management, today as you read these words. In other words, you’d expect to see a great deal of collective improvisation under these circumstances requiring real-time requisite variety.

Of course, there are their own messes that have to be managed in seeking to real-time requisite variety on the task demand and resource capability sides. (In fact, that’s the point!) But in this reformulation you’d be drawing from a cumulatively diverse and established body of literature on responding to socio-technical emergencies rather than relying on, say, “macro-prudential regulation of systemic financial risk.” (Is that even a field by way of comparison, let alone a craft?)

While the devil is in the details, what could this “immediate emergency response” look like on the ground? No detailed failure scenarios are possible here, but the thought experiment can be extended in illustrative ways. For example, assume all or several of 12 US Federal Reserve Districts and their respective Banks officially activate as Emergency Operations Center under the Incident Command System. Each Bank retains its mandates for price stability, maximum employment and interest rate regulation within its specific, widely varying regions. What then could/would/should each Bank-EOC do differently in the next two months?

–So what’s the bigger point?

In this reformulation, “knowing where the diversified risks are” is in no way dispositive for requisite variety or improvisational behavior. All that more knowledge on the risk management side brings you is greater recognition of just how transparently complex are the risks and uncertainties in the lead-up. But that is not the point from the perspective of this reformulation.

Which is: When it comes to immediate response to this disaster called the lead-up to the next financial meltdown, there is and can be no workaround for improvisation.

14. Rethinking emergency management through the shipwreck metaphor

–What has been called the “shipwreck metaphor” is actually several that have evolved from Roman times (if not earlier) to the present. To simplify, in crises we are like:

  • spectators safe on the shore looking out to the storm-tossed ship; or
  • survivors trying to keep afloat by clasping onto a plank or other debris, only later to be tossed up on the shore, if at all; or
  • those who keep rebuilding the ship while at sea, storm after storm, as returning to port is not possible nor is finding a nearby shore.

These, and their variants, are used here to rethink and extend in new ways some of the proposed responses by the key infrastructures (water, electricity, telecoms, and road transportation) to a magnitude 9.0 or greater earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone just off Oregon and Washington State.

–Five points about infrastructure operations come into rapid view via the shipwreck optic:

(1) Clearly, there are major occasions when infrastructure staff and emergency managers grab whatever is at hand and improvise a solution, just like they undertake workarounds during normal operations or temporary disruption of services. Staff also continue to build upon already patched up infrastructures (think of the Y2K fears at the turn of the century related to the millennium bug).

What hasn’t got as much attention is how new construction for pre-disaster mitigations, say retrofitting bridges and levees, are nevertheless still patchwork learned from prior failures and–really when you think about it–little or no different from workarounds generally.

(2) When it comes to retrofitting, our interviewees have two primary views. In one, it looks more like dry-docking the ship back at port and significantly upgrading a key part. In the other, retrofitting the bridge takes place while the road infrastructure as a whole is still in operation.

But acting as if you can dry-dock the ship back at port is by definition not an option nor is that retrofitting in the sea of operations seen as patchwork or standard-normal workarounds.

To say then that retrofitting is part and parcel of non-routine maintenance and repair, given a shipwreck is always possible, is very different from claiming that retrofitting is “building in resilience” for the shipwreck ahead (as many argue).

(3) That informed people still stay at sea (and in known earthquake zones) even if they can get away tells you something about their preferences for safety with respect to the known unknowns of where they live and work versus safety with respect to unknown-unknowns of doing otherwise.

It simply isn’t sufficient to counter: Even if people could move out (and, to reiterate, many can’t), they move to new risks and trade-offs. These aren’t risks; they are unknown unknowns. Hence the counterfactual, “what would have happened if you had moved to different seas,” looks to be based in very worrisome assumptions about any ability to pre-identify, let alone specify, that “would.”

(4) A two-week readiness program (i.e., you have two weeks of supplies on hand to survive the earthquake) is hopefully one plank to grasp once the earthquake happens. On the other hand, a raft or its analogue keeping a group afloat (after abandoning ship or, if you prefer: the ship abandoning them) would be better, e.g., a neighborhood generator to be used by households on the block.

(5) Note that this shift in the unit of analysis from ship-as-infrastructure to survivors-as-individuals is major. Efforts to restore critical infrastructure services, even if temporarily during immediate response (e.g., through placement of mobile telecommunication towers), becomes a key operational interconnection between the individual as unit of analysis and the infrastructure as a resurfaced unit of analysis.

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