If dollars could talk, this is what we’d be hearing

–Aren’t there better stories to tell our people?

At one extreme, we have this story: After three decades of grounding (down) macroeconomics into microeconomics, there are the legion of still-breeding Lord Voldemorts and their trillions in wealth destruction. At the other extreme are stories about the neo-Keynesian Mad Hatters, where the worst possible thing you can do when things get bad is to save for when things go worse and the best possible thing to do is to spend wads of money you don’t have.

–My counter-story starts this way:

You don’t know it, but each dollar bill talks and what it talks about is how it passes from hand to different hand, multiplying its uses and impact. The dollar bill reports so many stories, each of which reads differently but all of which sound the same–that is, to the economy.

The economy, you see, is stone-dumb to any of this, assuming the dollar bills behind follow the dollar bills ahead, as if those ahead must know what they’re doing. And this, the economy calls, always-late capitalism.

If the economy would listen to the dollar bills, it might learn something. Like what? Like dollar bills are all about ensuring that things be diverse and not end any time soon (i.e., ensuring that in the long run there’s more short runs).

Now, if the economy weren’t so dumb it might insist that this just can’t go on. But the dollar bills are saying, in their cacophonous way, that the buck doesn’t stop–here or anywhere for that matter. Always-late capitalism has been going on for so long, it might be better to assume what stops first will not be late capitalism but calling it such. . .

The “no” in innovate (updated)

–“First off,” the project designer tells us, “I’m always working in unstudied conditions. Every major project, I’ve got to make assumptions.” I counter: The challenge of project designers is to find out what are the better practices for starting off complex project designs. I mean the really-existing practices that have emerged and been modified over a run of different cases and shown to be more effective for design implementation.

“But how can a field or discipline grow if it doesn’t do something the first time…” This response is often stated as if it were established fact. Here too better practices are to be first searched for. Or where they aren’t found, then, yes, systemwide innovation should not be undertaken if it reduces options, increases task volatility, and diminishes maneuverability in real-time complex system operations.

“But, there always has to be someone who does something for the very first first-time, right?” The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate this, indeed, is the very first time. This is a planet of 7 plus billion, after all.

“But still,” our friends, the economists, press: “What about the pivotal role of innovation in the economy?” Well, yes, but so too are the infrastructures upon which the innovation economy depend. To treat innovation as more important than the infrastructures (without whose reliability there wouldn’t be most innovations) risks Mercator’s projection: It over-enlarges the already large.

–So what’s wrong with innovation at its limits? Innovation evangelicals would have us believe that everything existing is already an anachronism. The form in the stone is out-of-date because there’s surely something better than stone. But why is it better to innovate as the next step ahead rather than improve the step now taken?

The wider point here is about the unique contribution of reliable infrastructure management to innovation: The former provides the ground and context for determining if and how innovation turns into innovation-positive or innovation-negative without being pessimistically dystopian with respect to technology or overly utopian with respect to economic growth.


–Go look at one of those early 20th century American landscape paintings by Redmond Granville, of wildflowers spreading across California fields, or Edgar Payne of a remote lake in the snowy Sierras. Then look at virtually the same painting, but this time also with having a young woman in her calico dress or cowboy on a horse. In an instant, this painting dates the preceding one.

What had been an “idealized-now” flips to an “historicized-then.” Public policy is full of these flips: reforms that work on paper but date immediately when real people with real problems in real time enter the picture—both as subject and as frame.

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

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

But we don’t start all over again, and two sets of opposing pressures drive the anxiety of having to sort things out: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know and the centrifugal pressures of opening out to recast what has been taken for granted.

–Apprenticeship is when the amateur starts in the expectation that “risks” or “tradeoffs” or “costs” are out there to be identified, only to realize in the field that each has to be specified in more detail (as opposed to? with respect to what failure scenario? under what conditions? just what is it a case of?). And then, over the course of a career, he or she recognizes the challenges arise because what is out there depends on how “it” is defined and managed in the first place by actually-existing human beings in the actually-existing systems in which they find themselves.

In this way, the uprush of experiences render doubt a kind of knowingness—and knowingness, up-piled, is professionalism.

Surprised by the Battles of Waterloo

Scene 1

It’s said that Lord Acton despaired over ever finding French, German and British historians who would agreed on an account of the Battle of Waterloo. So too others.

In The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal recounts the misadventures of Fabrizio, who makes his way to Waterloo on the eve of the battle. Everything turns chaotic, with confusion around. “A few minutes later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead of him a ploughed field, the surface of which was moving in a singular fashion. . . .[O]ur hero realized it was shot from guns that was making the earth fly up all around him. . . . ‘But is this the real battle’,” he asks a sergeant”.

Friedrich von Hayek, Nobel economist, picks up the story and asks, “Was the man plowing his field just beyond the extreme wing of Napoleon’s guards part of the Battle of Waterloo?. . .To follow up this kind of question will show at least one thing: that we cannot define a historical fact in terms of spatiotemporal coordinates”. Literary critic, Nicola Chiaromonte, revisits the narrative: “Certainly the Battle of Waterloo that Napoleon saw and directed (or thought he directed) is not the event Fabrizio wanders into. Nor is the explosion of incidents in which Fabrizio finds himself the same event as the mortal engagement of the soldiers who jeer at him. . .The Battle of Waterloo was all of these, separately and together, plus countless other happenings.” And by no means the last one, a more recent Fabrizio, Tod Hackett, runs to watch the chaotic, confused and eventually disastrous filming of the Battle of Waterloo in Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust

This “Battle of Waterloo” is very much the power that political scientist, James G. March, long ago described as “different parts of the system contribut[ing] to different decisions in different ways at different times”. Of course, it can and should be countered that war and capitalism are their own powerful engines of contingency, but so too it can and should be said of, say, evolution and that irreducible particularity of being.

Scene 2

Contingency is the chief feature of battle and the chief feature of contingency is surprise—not that power defined as the ability of A to get B to do something B would not have done.

To appreciate this point better, puzzle over the power that contingency plays in A getting A to do what A would not have done otherwise. Here is the poet and literary critic, T.S. Eliot:

“My writings, in prose and verse, may or may not have surprised other people; but I know that they always, on first sight, surprise myself. I have often found that my most interesting or original ideas, when put into words and marshalled in final order, were ideas which I had not been aware of holding. It is ordinarily supposed that a writer knows exactly what he wants to say, before he sits down at his desk; and that his subsequent labours are merely a matter of a better choice of words, a neater turn of phrase, and a more orderly arrangement. Yet I have always discovered that anything I have written—anything at least which pleased me—was a different thing from the composition which I had thought I was going to write.”

Stay with the range of evidence that those “most interesting or original ideas”—those most powerful ideas—are the ones you don’t know until you set them down before you:

  • “A writer doesn’t know what his intentions are until he’s done writing,” says poet, Robert Penn Warren. Even when the writing is done, poets “are apt to discover that what they decide to express is not everything their poems say,” writes Anne Stevenson, herself a poet, adding: “Nothing in my experience is more important about the writing of poems than that they should surprise you; that while you are submitting to their rigorous demands of rhythms and sounds they find a way of saying things you never meant to say or never knew you knew.” “I never consider a poem done until a friend has seen it and put that extra glare of light on it,” said poet, C.K. Williams. “It’s a very strange thing—as soon as you give the poem to someone else, even before they read it, it shifts a little, it becomes slightly something else from what you had thought it was, and you begin to look at it in a slightly different way.”
  • “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” asks a character of novelist, E.M. Forster. “Therefore, till my work is finished, I never know exactly what result I shall reach, or if I shall arrive at any,” wrote Alex de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill. “I do not know what I think until I have tried to write it,” said political scientist Aaron Wildavsky.
  • “You never know what you’re filming until later,” remarks a narrator in Chris Marker’s 1977 film Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge. “You start a painting and it becomes something altogether different. It’s strange how little the artist’s will matters,” adds Picasso (and any number of other artists). In like fashion, “one important reason for making drawings, I imagine, is not to draw a likeness of what one sees, but to find out what it is you see,” adds poet and art critic, James Schuyler.
  • Harrison Birtwistle describes his process of composing a piece of music: “I know what it is before I’ve even written it, but in other ways I don’t know at all. As I unravel it, it never turns out to be what you think it’s going to be”. J.M. Coetzee, Nobel novelist, manages to make all this sound commonplace: “Truth is something that comes in the process of writing, or comes from the process of writing”.

Managing this mess called thinking in these ways becomes the way the pell-mell of distractions and their insights control you. Nor does any of this stop us from ghostwriting our earlier thinking later on.

Scene 3

If your point of departure in thinking about power is that ability of A to influence B to behave otherwise, then the person I am after having learned what I really know or think has enormous power over the person I was before being distracted and surprised by that discovery.

Conversely, there is an enormous powerlessness in not being able to think or know when few if any words or images exist for the purpose—“the language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, neither Italian nor Spanish, but a language none of whose words is known to me,” despairs von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos.

But for me, it’s not good enough to say power is primarily about that A making that B do something instead. Nor is it good enough to say power is primarily about controlling the decision agenda or determining peoples’ interests without them knowing it. Nor is it good enough to equate power to complete control.

At least when it comes to the policy and management issues with which I am familiar, power isn’t concentrated or dispersed by interests, full stop. The power I am talking about lies in surprise and, since surprise is that chief feature of complexity, surprise and its power should be thought of as complex from the get-go.

Scene 4

Better to say the power I am talking about is the power of surprising connections.

It is thinking through the reverberations that, in my mind, connect Adorno starting an opera on Tom Sawyer, Picasso painting Buffalo Bill Cody, Sartre preparing a screenplay on Freud, Benjamin Britten facing the prospect of becoming a bandmaster (or Samuel Beckett considering being a commercial airplane pilot), Coleridge and fellow poet Robert Southey planning an egalitarian community on shores of the Susquehanna, Goethe’s plan to clean up the streets of Venice, Kafka drafting rules for a socialist workers’ cooperative, and Abraham Lincoln and Hedy Lamarr securing their respective patents. More than “w” as in war links Walt Whitman the medical orderly, Max Weber the hospital orderly, and Ludwig Wittgenstein the dispensary porter.

The objective correlative of contingency is this power to connect differently. Where so, the great threat to addressing power is to think there is an outside to contingency: as if asking, “What is more important, power or contingency?”, and being told, “But that’s like asking which chopstick is the fork…”

4 things not learned at the start

1. My perspective on being a policy analyst and researcher is unexceptional in three ways that hold for other careers:

  • I work from within pre-existing structures (language, organizations, networks, the hardwired brain, my profession. . .) that I did not create;
  • My perspective on these structures is not wholly determined by them, since I and others are also products of contingencies (accidents, luck, happenstance, conjunctures, chance); and
  • Our perspectives do matter, but differently. Some bear witness to that which they cannot change; some criticize and critique conditions that must be changed; some provide longer-term alternatives to work toward, even if shorter-term interventions prove infeasible; some express the person I am, regardless of intent or consequence.

2. A significant category mistake is committed when conflating (1) the unfolding and interrelated consequences on life, property and markets of, say, a hazardous liquids pipeline explosion on adjacent populations and property and (2) the explosion’s consequences for the interconnected critical infrastructure system for those hazardous liquids, which includes not just these pipelines and associated refineries, but also just as significantly the electricity and water infrastructures that the former depends upon in real time.  

To equate the relevant system definition with the spread and interaction of knock-on population-and-property consequences of failure (Cf) is to identify as a problem the lack of systemwide management of Cf. As when: Jurisdictions don’t coordinate in managing the spread and consequences of the explosion.

Even so and at the same time, that interconnected critical infrastructure system, which includes but is not limited hazardous liquids, may in fact be managed by the control rooms of the respective infrastructures. They do so because they have to share the same real-time variables like pipeline pressure and electrical voltage. As when: Infrastructure operators and emergency managers coordinate to restore the backbone infrastructures of electricity and water supplies lost because of the hazardous liquids’ explosion.

3. In order to say something new about an intractable policy issue or see it afresh, change the genre within which you think and write about it. The academic article, a short blog, a play, the “I-believe” manifesto–all and more have their own conventions. To take a major policy issue you worry about and then focus the dense dark beam of altogether unfamiliar conventions over it, is to see what is left to glimmer there.

If something does glimmer, it’s probably because of the ambiguities any major issue brings with it—namely, those elements present in any major, longstanding policy issue but missing (effaced) in the dominant arguments of the day. The good news is that ambiguity, like any metaphor, cries out to be evaluated.

4. When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)?

Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. The counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, ask critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?” (my italics)

The first to pay

–Undertake a thought experiment: Assume that the politician and policymaker for the California Delta get exactly what they want. They—we—get that first-ever waterway, the never-before governance structure, and uniquely comprehensive ecosystem planning and management. The dreams of Delta carver and modeler are fulfilled unconditionally. Lasting governance, environmental restoration and water conveyance infrastructure in the Delta have been achieved.

Oops…what’s that lasting mean?

–What are the consequences of unprecedented construction, governance and environmental initiatives now here to stay into the foreseeable future? Who pays for establishing path dependencies that really do last, well, indefinitely?

Had we heeded that universal caution—Be careful what you wish for!—then one question to always ask is: Who should be the first to pay for what turn out to be long-lasting (irreversible?) interventions that achieved only what was initially wished for them, regardless of subsequent needs?


–A popular reduced-form narrative pivots on the three factors grinding Western economies into the ground.

For a Nobel laureate in economics, the three are: rising income inequality, money power in politics, and systemic tax avoidance by the superrich and globalized corporations. For a German sociologist the three are: that rising inequality in income and wealth, but also the declining economic growth in the West and the equally persistent rise in overall indebtedness in leading capitalist states. Not quite so for a community organizer from Ohio: In addition to inequality and economic stagnation, there’s the third, global climate change.

–And then there’s your List of Three, and my List of Three, and all those other Three’s, when the fact—the patently obvious fact—is that any such top-of-the-list thinking stops short of any needful. Do said factors explain 90% of the variance, or most, much, maybe? In the absence of any such qualification, we end on par with those who talked of the pantheon of seven wise men—for sure, there were seven, though just who they were we still can’t agree.

–But, still, there’s that special fourth in both series. . .

War or peace?

Actually, neither.

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

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

–For my part, a better question is: What is neither peace nor not-peace? One answer would be a world so complex that the determination of what is “peace” versus “not-peace” is not possible. How so? Because right now nothing has been reconciled, yet.

It’s as if when reading World War II entries in John Colville’s Downing Street Diaries, you were also experiencing real time today. It would be to read Hardy’s 1912 poem, “Convergence of the Twain,” as if it were still part of the news about the Titanic sinking the month before.

What is so concluded that we can say it’s concluded?

Someone asserts that something holds broadly, and that triggers my asking:

  • Under what conditions?
  • With respect to what?
  • In contrast to what? As opposed to what?
  • What is this a case of?
  • What are we missing?

Under what conditions does what you say actually hold? Risk or uncertainty with respect to what scenario? Settler colonialism as opposed to what? Just what is this you are talking about a case of? In other words: What are you and I missing that’s right there to be understood but isn’t?

What has been concluded that we should conclude about it? William James, philosopher and psychologist

The evolutionary advantage of positive distraction

–There are the negative distractions of others that are good for you: Never interrupt your enemies when they’re distracted by the mistakes they’ve made, to adapt Napoleon. For many people, however, distraction diverts from concentration. But what if it is about distracting you from a dead-end concentration?

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”. That is what I mean by positive distraction here. “Illumination,” novelist Nicholas Mosley put it another way, “comes not through analysis, but as a by-product of alertness.”

–Positive distraction, as such an alertness, is recovering from a kind of stumbling and then proceeding on even better. Boris Pasternak, the poet, is reported to have said that life creates events to distract our 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 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”.

–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/or great difficulties.