Siding with the wall (updated)

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. Why does sustained analysis often deepen, rather than dispel, complexity? Answer: It’s less the “analysis” than the “sustained” we call explication. 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. Further, the more we explicate, the more we feel compelled to name the now more complicated. Surely, the brain must be hard-wired for all this.

Which side? A while back I culled old journal issues that I’d been saving. 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.

The policy analysis toolkit and complexity (updated)

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 graphics, and then memes, as in a picture is worth a thousand words. This, they said, was keeping it simple. What next on the syllabus: Telepathy? “The knowing look” in 10 seconds or less?

Livestock Non-Proliferation Treaty (updated)

–Assume livestock are toxic weapons that must be renounced in the name of climate change. Like nuclear weapons, they pose such a global threat that nations sign the Livestock Non-Proliferation Treaty (LNPT). It’s to rollback, relinquish or abolish livestock, analogous to the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT, for short).

How would the LNPT be implemented, i.e., what are the ways to reduce these toxic stockpiles of dangerous animals?

If the NPT history serves as our guide, the focus quickly becomes the feasibility and desirability of particular livestock elimination scenarios. Scenarios in the plural because context matters, e.g., the way South Africa renounced nuclear weapons could not be the same ways Belarus and Ukraine relinquished them, etc.

If the nations of the world committed themselves to abolishing climate-harmful livestock, we too would expect them to do so through multiple different scenarios, their feasibility and desirability tailored to national or regional contingencies.

Accordingly, reductions in intensive livestock production would surely be among the first priority scenarios under LNPT. Extensive livestock systems would as well be expected to have different rollback scenarios. For example, where livestock are still to be found, they would also have climate-positive impacts: They demonstrably promote biodiversity, and/or demonstrably serve as better fire management, and/or demonstrably establish food sovereignty, and/or demonstrably enable off-rangeland employment of those who would have herded livestock instead, etc.

It’s crucial to note that, when it comes to feasibility, these latter scenarios have been found to already exist and empirically documented as widespread.

In other words, wouldn’t we be right back to where we are today, without having to continue to pigeon-hole these strategies as “pastoralist only” or being defensive about other environmentally friendly scenarios based in extensive livestock production?

–In case there is any doubt about the high disesteem in which I hold the notion of a LNPT, let me be clear: If corporate greenwashing is “an umbrella term for a variety of misleading communications and practices that intentionally or not, induce false positive perceptions of an organization’s environmental performance,” then environmental livestock-tarring is “an umbrella term for a variety of misleading communications and practices that intentionally or not, induce false negative perceptions of a system’s environmental performance.”

Principal sources

Egeland, K. (2021). A theory of nuclear disarmament: Cases, analogies, and the role of the non-proliferation regime. Contemporary Security Policy, DOI: 10.1080/13523260.2021.1978159.

Houzer, E. and I. Scoones (2021). Are Livestock Always Bad for the Planet? Rethinking the Protein Transition and Climate Change Debate. Brighton: PASTRES, IDS Sussex.

Nemes, N., D. Stabinsky, S.J. Scanlan, P. Smith, T. Smith, M. Aronczyk, S.L. Lewis, A.W. Montgomery, and F.N. Tubiello (2021). An Integrated Framework to Assess Greenwashing. CSSN Working Paper 2021:1.

Terazono, E. and C. Hodgson (2021). “How methane-producing cows leapt to the frontline of climate change.” Financial Times (accessed online on October 10 2021 at https://www.ft.com/content/73e5f1fc-76ac-48b0-871a-7fa4e8bda69b).

Apocalypse and tax havens

–Novels and scenarios about post-apocalypse are typically dystopian when it comes to climate change: Nothing will be as it was before. Or if you prefer, it will be business as usual only in so far as much more greed, nasty and brutish, gangs, urban decay and vistas of desolation.

Let’s push further and assume post-apocalypse will be unimaginably different and worse.

Even so, it’s that “nothing will be as it was” that bothers me. For the way things are today includes what the people do not imagine–let alone know to be the case. In what way, specifically, is it good or bad when the apocalypse rids us of what a few in the world know to be the case anyway?

–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?

–These points bode forth an interesting set of policy issues. For it must also be understood that the bad of tax havens, pre-apocalypse, is not the bad post-apocalypse.

In particular, why ever 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 it could be too little too late.

–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 are among the few things that are truly urgent, like climate change.

Something else urgent along with climate change?! In this world, urgency is a plural noun. “Urgent” can never modify a set with one truly urgent only, no matter how many times you insist, “Uncertainty is not our friend here!” It’s more complicated than that.

Principal sources

Aliprandi, G., M. Baraké, and P-E Chouc (2021). Have European Banks Left Tax Havens? Evidence from country-by-country data (Report 2). The EU Tax Observatory. Paris School of Economics.

Ciuriak, D. and A.J. Eurallyah (2021). Taxing Capital In The Age Of Intangibles. Discussion Paper, Ciuriak Consulting. (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3920763)

Fuest, C., F. Hugger, and F. Neumeier (2021). Corporate Profit Shifting and the Role of Tax Havens: Evidence from German Country-By-Country Reporting Data. CESifo Working Paper No. 8838. Munich Society for the Promotion of Economic Research, Munich.

Garcia-Bernardo, J., and P. Janský (2021). Profit Shifting of Multinational Corporations Worldwide. ICTD Working Paper 119, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton UK.

Updates and table of key entries by topic area

This week’s blog: “Risk and safety are different!”

Take another look: “Policy as magical thinking”

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

(The most recent blog 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!,” “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management (longer read),” “Begin, not end, with the radical agenda”

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,” “Recasting the policy narrative of labor-substituting technological change,” “Other alternatives,” “Apocalypse and tax havens” 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,” “Risk and safety are different!”

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…,” “Risk and safety are different!”

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,” “Livestock Non-Proliferation Treaty”

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,” “Apocalypse and tax havens”

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,” “Recasting the policy narrative of labor-substituting technological change,” 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.” “Other alternatives”

Methods (for analyzing 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 policy analysis toolkit and complexity”

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,” “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management”

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?”

Other alternatives

In policy analysis and management, we’re trained to think of events in terms of their counterfactuals (what would have happened instead) or possibilities (what could have happened). Possibilities in the form of counter-events (situations), counter-spaces (in opposition to dominant landscapes), or the counter-expected (surprises) are a few of the alternatives.

There are, however, alternatives to event-and-counterfactual that are not “possibilities” Their chief feature is they can’t be defined so conventionally:

• What’s left unsaid in your observations is that your eye cannot see itself, thereby committing all manner of silent and chronological violations (e.g., when you find out later that your being seen would have changed your observations then).


• Ada Leverson, British writer, wrote : “Looking at the poems of John Gray [poet]  when I saw the tiniest rivulet of text meandering through the very largest meadow of margin, I suggested to Oscar Wilde that he should go a step further than these minor poets; he should publish a book all margin; full of beautiful, unwritten thoughts” (my italics).


• Marcel Duchamp, the artist, coined infrathin (French: inframince), to be a concept impossible to define and for which “one can only give examples of it.” Such have included: the warmth of a seat just left; tobacco smoke that also smells of the mouth exhaling it; and the infra-thin distance at a shooting range between the noise of a gunshot and the perceived bullet hole in the target.

–Are there policy issues that are complex because their alternatives can only be posed in such ways? That is, the “we” who see them are unable to see ourselves seeing and being seen in all of this analysis. And even when seeing, we don’t see the issues from the margins (where unwritten recastings are to be made had), and where what we do see is analyzable only infra-thinly, that is, sensed inarticulately and in the immediate.

–An example?

We hear much about those stopped up short by “the unimaginability of any alternative to the neoliberal status quo.” Surely that’s a glove pulled inside-out. Isn’t it better to say neoliberalism generates so much contingency and uncertainty that it undermines a conventionally understood “status quo’? There is no place that fixes (both senses of the word) our understanding or unease. It’s the status quo as full-stop-stable that is unimaginable. Or to put the same point from a direction some insist is imaginable: “A crisis is defined as ‘stable’ if neither side has or perceives an incentive to use weapons of nuclear weapons first out of the fear that the other side is about to do so.”

–That is, more of us are in the margins than we know, and that is where we best belong. Think of it this way. “I met young and very English students trying Englishly not to be English.” The wit could have said much the same for front-stage policymakers and managers. As if we can rely on them to know where the action and centers are.

Begin, not end, with the radical agenda

The Yale Law Journal recently published an important article, “Building a Law-and-Political-Economy Framework: Beyond the Twentieth-Century Synthesis,” by Jedediah Britton-Purdy, David Singh Grewal, Amy Kapczynski and K. Sabeel Rahman (2020, 129: 1784 – 1835). It concludes with a call for action (here quoted without their footnotes):

If it is to succeed, law and political economy [i.e., the framework in the article’s title] will also require something beyond mere critique. It will require a positive agenda. Many new and energized voices, from the legal academy to political candidates to movement activists, are already building in this direction, calling for and giving shape to programs for more genuine democracy that also takes seriously questions of economic power and racial subordination; more equal distribution of resources and life chances; more public and shared resources and infrastructures; the displacement of concentrated corporate power and rooting of new forms of worker power; the end of mass incarceration and broader contestation of the long history of the criminalization and control of poor people and people of color in building capitalism; the recognition of finance and money as public infrastructures; the challenges posed by emerging forms of power and control arising from new technologies; and the need for a radical new emphasis on ecology. These are the materials from which a positive agenda, over time, will be built.

I agree with this agenda and ask you to do the same for the following thought experiment.

–Assume I start my own article with the above quote. Where do subsequent paragraphs lead? In what directions do I–or you–drive this agenda? To make this interesting, I sketch five extensions that most differ, I believe, from what the authors seem to assume:

  • Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the implementation challenges, I’d ask: Where are the activities already underway? What are the better practices there that can be modified and applied here, or if not, then elsewhere? The point is that this agenda is too good to be restricted to the US only.
  • Instead of thinking the agenda stands or falls on how I pre-define key terms (capitalism, power, democracy. . .), the better practices identified in the preceding do the next best thing: entail the ends sought by the means used. Here, behaving democratically is with respect to these practices to achieve those outputs or outcomes. There, power is supposed to be control by these means for those ends; elsewhere, power is managing in these rather than those ways as control is no longer (if ever) possible.
  • Instead of starting by prioritizing what do first, second and afterwards, I’d stay with the mess of interconnections and see where they lead. Think of the agenda as a composite argument read off a very layered and overwritten palimpsest of earlier arguments about power, capitalism, democracy and more, each new argument assembled from older ones effaced in the process. Resurfacing earlier erasures is one way to signal where to go with my paragraphs. E.g., toward those willfully ignored cases where capitalism looks less like control and more like negotiation and bargaining among, yes, unequals.
  • Instead of trying first to reduce the agenda’s uncertainties and complexities, I’d see if there were analogies that recast its tasks differently. For example, a longstanding analogy has been that of “being at sea,” as in challenges likened to: keeping balance while stepping through a muddy shoal, treading water with no bottom to touch, tacking into unpredictable winds, repairing the ship at sea with only what is at hand, no safe harbor to return to in the storm, and keeping your head above the rushing tide-race. That to my mind is the view-scape within which or on which the positive agenda, over time, will be based. Better to know this than delude ourselves in thinking it’s about “Reduce uncertainty” or “First, simplify”!
  • Instead of seeking to integrate the agenda into a coherent single narrative, I’d look for narrative discrepancies that indicate where other more useful narratives are complicating matters. For instance, it’s not surprising as someone who writes on critical infrastructures that I’d trip over the conflation of stock (e.g., facilities) and flow (e.g., money to run the facilities) in the quote’s two references to “infrastructures.” But this then raises a productive question: Are there in fact conditions under which money is an infrastructure just like large-scale water supplies and electricity grids? Here’s one such set of conditions: when government releases emergency funding to recover from those disasters that have destroyed the infrastructures upon which we survive. In this case, money and assets are fungible. By extension, think of the radical agenda as massive emergency responses to recover and repurpose critical infrastructures (like that for justice and education) failing us.

–Such would be the leads in the Results section of my paper. I’m in no position to sketch a follow-on Conclusion, but the first point in the Discussion section following the Results is obvious to me: Why accept anything less radical than the starting agenda? The standard retort of gradualism, “Well, here we want something more modest having greater chances of being achievable,” makes sense only if other really-existing practices in like situations weren’t more successful. Have the experts in planetary interconnectivity undertaken that canvassing? I don’t think so.

–It’s not just the contingent (idiosyncratic), complex and uncertain remain unavoidable whatever the agenda; it’s not just that the unfinished may be unfinishable. It’s also because your radical differs from my radical, while radical responses are to be expected regardless. Because, from the perspective here, people-in-contexts differ in their inexperience, difficulties and not-knowing, and those differences matter now as you read these very words.

If people are as equal as the teeth of a comb, the numbers of different combs are too many to add up.

Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management (longer read)

We need no further reminder than the 2021 Texas grid collapse and shutdown of the Colonial pipeline for how essential the real-time management of infrastructures is to people’s lives and livelihoods. Yet that management is the missing middle of President Biden’s mega-plan for new infrastructure construction and renovations. Nor is real-time management central to other initiatives like a National Infrastructure Bank, proposed in 2007 and resurfacing in the policy mix through 2020 legislation.

Providing the missing management means banking expertise the nation already has to operate these large, changing systems. They range from energy grids, urban water supplies and flood protection to telecommunications, vessel transportation and aviation, along with others. If anything, the legislation and initiatives will increase the need for real-time professionals to correct for inevitable shortfalls that jeopardize systemwide reliability and safety.

A National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management would remediate the nation’s infrastructure crisis by enhancing and advancing that high reliability management. The management challenges are beyond the domains of engineering, economics and systems modeling, but of equal priority and urgency as those of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

RELIABILITY PROFESSIONALS

High reliability management is understood in real-time infrastructure operations as the continuous and safe provision of what are considered to be critical services, even during (especially during) turbulent and changing times.

The Academy would bring together an under-recognized class of experts in that real-time management from around the world. These reliability professionals include, most important, infrastructure control room operators (often with long experience and variable formal education), along with their managers and their immediate expert support staff (more likely to have higher formal degrees).

The Academy would promote their participation through projects, studies, and other advisory and convening activities. The mission is to examine, assemble and advance evidence-based findings for real-time reliability and safety management of infrastructures under 21st century conditions. In doing so, the Academy would provide the heft in facilitating research access to major control centers whose entry has been restricted for proprietary or security reasons.

Why an Academy for infrastructure management? As demonstrated repeatedly, large critical infrastructures must be managed beyond their technology, formal designs, and published regulations. The Academy challenge is to ensure that the tasks and demands of the rapidly changing infrastructure technologies are matched to the people with the skills and expertise to manage them beyond inevitable glitches and contingencies.

As the Academy gained knowledge, it would foster the management expertise to better navigate the interdependencies and interconnections of critical infrastructure sectors. Doing so requires two tracks. Not only is the Academy’s attention on ensuring critical national services like water, electricity and natural gas, hazardous liquids transmission, and aviation, are provided when most needed, always right now without incident. It also means focusing on ensuring their reliable and safe interconnectivity: Natural gas is used for electricity provision, which supplies the water needed by refineries that process the hazardous liquids, including Jet A-1 fuel for aviation.

VALUE-ADDED FOR INTERCONNECTED CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURES.

The challenge continues to be how to analyze and improve the interconnectivity as it is navigated in real time. No one is responsible for that high reliability management picture. An example illustrates the huge stakes in getting this right. Assume an explosion at a major natural gas reservoir has occurred. Presently, the disaster leads to root-cause analyses, a process of zooming down to determine why and what precipitated the explosion. This is the responsibility of staff in the infrastructure and its regulator of record.

Identifying causes of the explosion is obviously important to prevent further explosions from happening at this and other reservoirs. But knowing causes does not go far enough in making sure that other systems are managed reliably and safely in light of the disaster. Required at the same time is zooming up the system and across systems with which it is interconnected.

What happened to the real-time operations of the natural gas transmission as a whole during and after the explosion? What happened to infrastructures depending on natural gas for their own operations during the explosion and in their next steps ahead? To my knowledge, the regulators of record do not work together to answer the latter question, routinely or as a matter of priority.

Such questions would be of core concern to the new Academy. Was the control center for natural gas transmission able to compensate for loss of the reservoir in real time? Did the control room keep the crisis from spreading to other parts of its transmission and distribution systems, including the variety of end-use customers? How did the control room compensate, where did it stumble, and what are other parts of its system were vulnerable or not?

But more than zooming up through the system is required. In the same instant, we must know what happened because of the explosion to the critical infrastructures depending on its natural gas. Some may also have control centers: Were their operators able to maintain their respective system’s reliability and safety in the face of that explosion? Since natural gas is often interoperable with electricity, it is critical to determine if or to what extent the electricity infrastructure was affected by explosion.

These assessments are also necessary to keep infrastructures interconnected under complex and changing conditions. It’s safe to say that zooming down for a root-cause analysis has been far more common than zooming up and across. But only the former assessments highlight major vulnerabilities introduced when root-cause analyses are the basis for systemwide recommendations to ensure the disasters don’t happen again.

What is missing in root-cause analyses are the negative impacts, if any, of the recommended changes on high reliability management at the system and inter-system levels. Will the changes, when implemented, undermine the capacity of the infrastructure’s control room to prevent disruptions, such as explosions, that it had prevented in the past from cascading across the natural gas system or beyond?

No regulator of record or national body is tasked to answer that question about cascade potential and those entailed with it. That there are answers would be the purview of the new Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management.

REMODELING INFRASTRUCTURE CASCADES

Infrastructure cascades are understandably of central concern, where failure in one system leads to failure in others. But system engineers and modelers often have a very different view about these than control room operators.

One objective, for example, of network of networks modeling of infrastructures has been identifying which nodes and connections, when deleted, bring the network or sets of networks most immediately to collapse. But not failing immediately is what we expect to find in managed systems. In fact, the datasets we have on really existing infrastructure disruptions show that most are managed so as not to cascade over into other infrastructures and that certain infrastructures, most notably in energy, have a greater potential for cascading.

Modelers defend their focus as one of identifying worst-case scenarios (e.g., in today’s highly charged cyber-security arena). But control room operators and staff live in a real-time world where “what-if” scenarios cannot be the only way to treat probabilities and consequences.

Real-time reliability of their systems as systems must also account for the run of cases and frequencies of past or like events and their precursors. Real-time operators wouldn’t be reliability professionals if they ignored that, in their systems, brownouts at time precede blackouts, some levees are seen to seep long before failing, and the electric grid’s real-time indicators of precursors to disruption or failure typically increase beforehand. Reliability professionals (not least of whom in major control centers that face thousands and thousands of daily cyber-attacks) have to be skilled in both systemwide pattern recognition and in localized “what-if” scenario formulation.

Their expertise also reflects its own real-time indicators of effectiveness. These indicators are rarely if ever recognized by the regulators of record or system models of interconnectivity. The Academy would be the nation’s advocate for that expertise and early warning signals.

NEW INDICATORS FOR PREVENTING INFRASTRUCTURE COLLAPSE, NOW

It’s important to establish from the outset that the Academy would be advancing leading (not lagging) indicators of systemwide collapse. Just as important, the indicators already exist for monitoring critical infrastructures operating at, or beyond, their performance edges, e.g.:

  • The infrastructure’s control room is in prolonged just-for-now performance, which means operators find it more difficult to maneuver out of a corner in which they find themselves. (“Just keep that generator online now!” even though the generator is scheduled for outage maintenance).
  • Real-time control operators are pushed into working increasingly outside their established bandwidths for operations, in effect having to work outside upper and lower bounds of competent performance.
  • Control room operators find that a chokepoint in its infrastructure (a major bottleneck that cannot be worked around) is failing adjacent to the chokepoint of another infrastructure with which it is functionally interconnected.
  • The decision rules operators reliably followed before are now reversed: “Prove we can launch” becomes “Prove we can’t launch” (Challenger Accident); “Ensure a capital cushion to protect against unexpected losses” becomes “From now on, manage for expected losses” (2008 financial crisis).
  • Measurable real-time operational redesigns (workarounds) are no longer effective. Nor can systemwide patterns be recognized or what-if scenarios formulated with the level of granularity as in the past.
  • Instead of being driven by wide social dread of having a next major failure ahead, control room professionals are told their track record up to now is the benchmark for reliability.

No one has the institutional niche and wherewithal to direct and sustain the nation’s attention on measuring and monitoring these real-time tipping points and transitions. The Academy would find it an easier task to cut through all the noise, including typical objections about control rooms and their operators, so as to augment, update and prioritize the indicators list.

POSSIBLE OBJECTIONS

In my judgment, the principal objections to an Academy would not be its cost or clout, both of which would be very real. Rather, the real objections originate in complaints from other disciplines in infrastructure development: “Control room operators aren’t really experts, like the engineers and economists with whom they work” and “Control rooms aren’t innovative; in fact, they’re the opposite.” (The latter misconception is addressed in the next section.)

Major cultural differences have plagued engineers and control room operators and, more recently, “Ops (Operations)” and “IT (Information Technology)” staff. One engineer we interviewed called the control room, “neanderthals.” Economists and engineers assured us: Generally speaking, having to operate in unstudied conditions is a “risk” society must take in order to benefit from major technological advances.

Yet, control room operators continue to press for the specifics—What if this piece of new marketing software fails during the phasing out of those backups?—something we heard again and again, as one “go-live” date had to give way to another in an executive initiative to replace legacy systems in a major state control room. 

There are, of course, exceptions to such behavior. But no one reading should doubt the outsized importance of engineers, economists and system modelers relative to real-time system operators and wraparound support, at the center and in the field, when it comes to major infrastructure change and reform here.

The professional orientation of control operators to prevent systemwide failure is clearly orthogonal to disciplines and professions insisting it’s all but impossible to innovate if you’re not prepared to fail.

Equally telling, calls for new technologies and software to correct for “operator error” are routinely made (1) in the absence of calculations by economists of the everyday savings of disasters averted and (2) in spite of a system model focus on two states of operation, normal and failed, when it is during the intervening state of temporary service disruption that operators demonstrate their skills and use of indicators in restoring service back. These and other differences in professional orientations would be treated far more constructively by a free-standing Academy.

CONTROL ROOMS AS CENTERS OF INNOVATION

Control operators, to the extent they are acknowledged for their expertise, have been disparaged as hidebound with a “don’t fix what’s already working” mentality. The reality is that because things are not working in real time, control operators must innovate so as to maintain system reliability and safety then.

Three domains of control room innovation are core to the Academy’s mission:

  1. Control rooms as unique centers of systemwide innovation and evolution

It is not sufficiently understood by engineers, economists and system modelers that infrastructure control rooms are an historically unique organizational formation. (Here as elsewhere, I thank my research colleague, Paul Schulman, for the insight.) They have evolved over time to take hard systemwide decisions under difficult societal conditions that require a decision, now.

In fact, the evolutionary advantage of control rooms lies in the skills, expertise and team situation awareness of its operators to redesign in real time what prove to be incomplete or otherwise defective technology, design and regulation. More, meeting the high reliability mandate must be done so as not to threaten the limits of the system to operate as a whole. There are no guarantees here, but the expertise is required when “fool-proof” technology and designs are found, too frequently, to be otherwise.

The Academy would treat these specifically organizational and management practices, skills and core competencies with the priority and resources the nation deserves.

2. Importance of the reliability-matters test for other major technological innovations

It’s indisputable that innovations for infrastructures proposed by outside experts and consultants are required. To ensure viability, they must pass the reliability-matters test. Would the innovation, if implemented, reduce the task volatility that real-time operators face? Does it increase their options to respond to task volatility? Does it increase their maneuverability in responding to different, often unpredictable or uncontrollable, performance conditions?

Among many control room operators interviewed, I never met one who was against any innovation that increased options, reduced task volatility and/or increase performance maneuverability across changing conditions. I have, however, met economists, engineers and others who dismiss this reliability-matters test, as they also dismiss “only workarounds,” as proof of a control room’s “resistance to change.”

The Academy will not be able to stop the premature introduction of novel software and hardware into systemwide operations, but it can monitor their real-time management impacts and interconnected knock-on effects (as in the natural gas example and indicators list).

3. Control operators and support staff as innovators in systemwide risk assessment

Talk of “trade-offs” is ubiquitous when discussing new designs and technologies. Control operators and wraparound support see the real-time demands of their high reliability mandate along different lines. 

For them—as for the infrastructure-reliant public—reliability in real time becomes “non-fungible.” That is, high reliability can’t be traded off against cost or efficiency or whatever when the safe and continuous provision of the critical service matters: again, right now, without failure. No number of economists, engineers and system modelers insisting that reliability is “actually” a probability estimate of meeting a standard will change the real-time mandate that systemwide disasters must be prevented from ever happening.

Nuclear reactors must not blow up, urban water supplies must not be contaminated by cryptosporidium or worse, electric grids must not island, jumbo jets must not drop from the sky, irreplaceable dams must not breach or overtop, and autonomous underwater vessels must not hazard the very oil rigs they are repairing. That disasters can or do happen reinforces the dread and commitment of the public and control operators to this precluded-event standard.

The better practices for high reliability management developed and modified across runs of different cases and infrastructures would be the Academy’s principal subject. The Academy’s ambit would be worldwide in this regard and well beyond published best practices of professional societies and industry associations only.

Infrastructure mandates for managing and innovating reliably and safely are, in short, not going away. Nor can they, even when systems are necessarily smaller, more decentralized, less interconnected, and more sustainable. Those systems too will be managed as if peoples’ lives and livelihoods depend on it—because they do.

Principal sources

High Reliability Management and Reliability and Risk (2008 and 2016 respectively from Stanford University Press and co-authored with Paul R. Schulman). A summary can be found in E. Roe and P. Schulman (2018). “A Reliability & Risk Framework for the Assessment and Management of System Risks in Critical Infrastructures with Central Control Rooms,” Safety Science 110 (Part C): 80-88

For a shorter version of this blog, see “A National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management.” Issues in Science and Technology (August 3, 2021), accessed online at https://issues.org/national-academy-reliable-infrastructure-management-roe/

Recasting the policy narrative of labor-substituting technological change

–Developments under the rubric of AI (artificial intelligence), including machine learning, Big Data, and algorithmic management/decisionmaking, are often deployed to reinforce a longstanding narrative: Important forms of technological change are labor-substituting by displacing workers and their livelihoods. Given the issue has always been complex, evidence continues to be provided both in favor of or against the narrative. In fact, new articles on “the impact of automation” repeatedly rehearse the same arguments for and against.

What is less recognized, I believe, is that specifics are often erased or palimpsested over by continuing to maintain versions of the generalized narrative. This matters when the specifics of earlier debates—particularly, options and insights offered but not followed up–can, if resurfaced, question and recast in useful ways the current debate.

–Here’s one illustration. Schlögl, Weiss and Prainsack (2021) undertook a review of relevant literature from 2013 – 2018 on the policy topic, “Future of Work,” concluding in part:

Our findings show the dominance of a specific narrative within the grey policy literature on [Future of Work]. It starts with the assumption of unprecedented, rapid technological advance that, embedded in demographic and ecological transformations as well as globalisation, creates opportunities and risks. The main opportunities are gains in productivity, new jobs and higher living standards. The risks are new inequalities, pressures on social security systems, and the costs of transition and disruption for various groups. The answer to these challenges lies in the re- or upskilling of the workforce and adjustments to social and labour market policies [according to the document review].

Assume this storyline is correct as far as it goes.

The problem is that narrative discrepancy, “unprecedented,” in the preceding quote. This technological change is not unprecedented. The unprecedented is happening all the time when it comes to this narrative. The authors themselves point out that “U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson even set up, in 1964, a ‘National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress’. Transformations and crises of work as a result of technological progress are a recurring theme throughout modernity.”

Therein, I submit, lies one clue to rethinking the policy narrative of unprecedented change and recurring impacts on labor.

–If you actually go to the referenced final report of that National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress, Technology and the American Economy, you’ll find the labor-substituting narrative in terms that still resonate even when in outdated terms, e.g., “technological change would in the near future not only cause increasing unemployment, but that eventually it would eliminate all but a few jobs, with the major portion of what we now call work being performed automatically by machine.” (If in doubt about the continuing salience of the latter, search the web for today’s “fully automated luxury communism”.)

It’s not however the report’s resonances, but specifics that are striking. On the downside, the report is full of terms and references to no longer existing programs. On the upside—and this is what I want to emphasize—it offers up specific proposals that read more like “lost modernities,” i.e., pathways to addressing the narrative in ways that we no longer think about today:

We recommend that each Federal Reserve bank provide the leadership for economic development activities in its region.  The development program in each Federal Reserve District should include: (1) A regular program of economic analysis; (2) an advisory council for economic growth composed of representatives from each of the major interested groups within the district; (3) a capital bank to provide venture capital and long-term financing for new and growing companies; (4) regional technical institutes to serve as centers for disseminating scientific and technical knowledge relevant to the region’s development; and  (5) a Federal executive in each district to provide regional coordination of the various Federal programs related to economic development.

Nothing came of this recommendation as far as I can determine (a few commission members, from the then right and left, objected to it). But just think about the “what if’s”!

What if the recommendation had been adopted and implemented then? What if it were enacted today, in light of the Fed’s now longstanding mandate for promoting price stability and maximum employment? (The US Fed was legislated to promote maximum employment in 1977.) Even with inevitable caveats about politics, dollars and jerks, the question still compels: What if, indeed!

–The point is that one consequence of keeping the dominant policy narrative in general terms is to willfully avoid specifics where counternarratives, if they exist, are to be found. The starting assumption must be: For any complex policy and management issue, counterexamples are to be expected. The duty of care is to read closely and find them.

Principal sources

Schlögl, L., E. Weiss, and B. Prainsack (2021). “Constructing the ‘Future of Work’: An analysis of the policy discourse:. New Technology, Work and Employment: 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/ntwe.12202

U.S. National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress (1966). Technology and the American Economy, Vol 1. Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. (Accessed online on July 17 2021 at: https://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/images/ourwork/blockchain/Equitable_Futures_Lab/National_Commission_on_Technology__Automation_and_Economic_Progress_1965.pdf)

Blog entries under the topic, “Policy palimpsest,” including: “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states” and “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II”

The policy analysis toolkit and complexity (updated)

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 graphics, and then memes, as in a picture is worth a thousand words. This, they said, was keeping it simple. What next on the syllabus: Telepathy? “The knowing look” in 10 seconds or less?