Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead

I

–Why would we ever think a book on policy written nearly three decades ago remains relevant? It seems to me that the major policy and management issues, though much changed, are still characterized by high uncertainty, complexity, incompletion, and conflict (polarization), the focus of the 1994 Narrative Policy Analysis.

So that we start on the same page, issues are uncertain when causal knowledge about them is found wanting by decisionmakers. Complex when their elements are more numerous, varied and interconnected. Incomplete, when efforts to address them are interrupted or left unfinished. And conflicted, when individuals take very different positions on them often precisely because of their uncertainty, complexity and incompleteness.

–Such issues are now grouped together as wicked problems said to be intractable to conventional policy and management intervention. In the older language, the “truth” of the matter is difficult if not impossible to establish—right now when a decision has to be taken.

If the truth can’t be established or is moot—i.e., there is no truth—what then are ways in which we can establish conditions to take a decision that claims urgency and priority?

II

In answer, though narrative analyses of policy issues have evolved over the three decades, two foci of the original approach remain salient. First its terminology and second, its drive to identify narratives that underwrite policymaking, given current intractability.

–First, the terminology. It’s next to impossible to avoid terms like policy narratives. They are those stories with beginnings, middles and ends, or if cast as arguments with premises and conclusions that policy types and managers tell themselves and others in order to take decisions and justify them.

The narrative analytical approach continues to ask you to start by identifying the different types of narratives in the issue of concern—some of which are very visible—the dominant policy narratives—others of which have to be found or identified, including marginalized counternarratives.

Assume you—the policy analyst, manager, researcher or decisionmaker—find a policy narrative to be too simplistic for the complexities at hand. You can rejigger that narrative in three ways: Denarrativize it; provide a counternarrative or counternarratives; and/or offer a metanarrative (or metanarratives) accommodating a range of story-lines (arguments), not least of which are versions of the simplistic narrative and preferred counternarrative(s).

  • First, denarrativize! To denarrativize is to critique the dominant policy narrative, point by key point. The best way to do that is to bring counter evidence to each point the offending narrative holds. To denarrativize is to take the story out of the story, i.e., to disassemble it by contravening its parts. Abundant case evidence exists to call into question the Tragedy of the Commons, for example.
  • First, counternarrativize! The chief limitation of denarrativization is the inability of critique on its own to generate an alternative narrative to replace the discreditable one. In contrast, a counter-story challenges the original by virtue of being a candidate to replace it. Common property resource management is said today to be the counternarrative to that older Tragedy of the Commons narrative.
  • First, metanarrativize! A metanarrative is that policy narrative—there is no guarantee there is one, or if so, only one—which the narrator holds in order to understand how multiple and opposing policy narratives are not only possible but consistent with each other. Claims to resource stewardship is a metanarrative shared by policies based in the Tragedy of the Commons as well as in other explanations, including but not limited to common property resource management. In this metanarrative, a group—the techno-managerial elite, “the community,” the Other—asserts stewardship over resources they do not own, because they alone, so the metanarrative goes, are capable of determining and adjudicating where and in what form better management holds.

–The second advantage of the original approach continues to be its recognition that decisions have to be made. Yes, of course, taking time to deliberate, being reflective and having second thoughts remain important, but even here acting these ways can end up being a decision of real import.

So, at some point you face a choice over which is the better policy narrative. For narrative policy analysis, a better policy narrative meets three criteria:

  • The narrative—its story with beginning, middle and end, or argument with premises and conclusions—is one that takes seriously that the policy or management issue is complex, uncertain, interrupted and/or polarized.
  • The narrative is one that also moves beyond critique of limitations and defects of the dominant policy narrative (criticisms on their own increase uncertainties when they offer no better storyline to follow).
  • The narrative gives an account that, while not dismissing or denying the issue’s difficulty, is more amenable or tractable to analysis, policymaking and/or management. Indeed, the issue’s very complexity—its numerous components, each varying in terms of its functions and connections—offers up opportunities to recast a problem differently and with it, potential options. Problems are wicked to the degree they have yet to be recast more tractably.

This means that the preferred policy narrative can be in the form of a counternarrative; or it can be in the form of metanarrative; but it won’t be in the form of a critique or other non-narratives like circular arguments or tautologies.

Nor should you think that in a planet of now 7+ billion people you have to invent a preferred policy narrative from scratch: Preferred policy narratives—note the plural—should be assumed from the get-go to exist and are being modified.

–To summarize, the policy narratives of interest for narrative policy analysis are not those used by policy types who insist they already know the truth. This approach is NOT about how various Big Lies have evolved from Goebbels through Trump, as in: The Jews were to blame before; the Blacks were to blame later; Islamists are to blame now.

Rather and to reiterate, the evolving field of narrative policy analysis over the last three decades remains relevant for those issues that policy types, analysts and researchers already admit a high degree of uncertainty, complexity, incompleteness and polarization—or again in today’s parlance the issues are wicked and intractable in their current casting.

III

–To see if we’re still on the same page by this point, assume in this simple thought experiment you are faced with two dominant environmental crisis narratives about globalization:

  • The green narrative assumes that we have already witnessed sufficient harm to the environment due to globalization and thus this narrative demands taking action now to restrain further global destruction. More research isn’t needed in order to decide that new action is required, now. This crisis scenario is certain in its knowledge about the causes and effects of globalization, in the view of many environmentalists.
  • The ecological narrative starts with the massive but largely unknown or uncertain effects of globalization on the most complex ecosystem there is, Planet Earth, now and going forward. More research isn’t needed in order to decide that new action is required, now. Here enormous uncertainties over the impacts of globalization, some of which could well be irreversible, are reason enough not to promote or tolerate further globalization, in the  view of many ecologists.

Both seek to stop harmful effects on the environment from globalization. But which is the better narrative when it comes to the next steps ahead in environmental policy and management?

Well, you know my answer. From a narrative analytical viewpoint, if future unpredictabilities—uncertainty, complexity, conflict and unfinished business—are taken seriously, the ecological narrative is the better one. Or if you are sure that in your case the green scenario is the one to start then and there, your challenge is to detail how conditions could lead to hitherto unspecified unpredictabilities in the local scenario(s).

Principal sources

Earlier blog entries: “Policy narratives,” “Better fastthinking for complex times”

E. Roe and M. van Eeten (2004). “Three—Not Two—Major Environmental Counternarratives to Globalization,” Global Environmental Politics 4(4).

It’s as if

. . .we came to Nietzsche because we loved his lieder;

. . .we know the murderer in Edwin Drood because Dickens told his illustrator: “I must have the double necktie! It is necessary, for Jasper strangles Edwin Drood with it”;

. . .Henri Bergson were the sole example of a philosopher having an unprecedented impact on everyday life, having caused the first traffic jam on Broadway in New York City;

. . .Shakespeare is to be criticized because he failed to mention that poor people, not just kings, have trouble sleeping (Henry IV, Part 2, act III, scene 1);

. . .a waterfall can’t be a commons;

. . .”it won’t happen here” is emergency preparedness;

. . .the 175 – 200 million workers in China’s factories, mines and construction industry weren’t the world’s most important proletariat;

. . .the only genuine political project is setting tax rates on the rich;

. . .everything is infinitesimal compared to a global GDP of some US$100 trillion;

. . .one does not come to the object after following the shadow;

. . .the people who question the use of GDP as a measure of health and the environment are the first to urge “Increase government budgets by x% of GDP for health and the environment and social protection and. . .”;

. . .”don’t give a man a fish, but teach him how to fish” is now: If one has to fish, ensure the ecosystem bounces back nevertheless;

. . .Andy Warhol’s work were a middle-brow modernism akin to 20th century bureaucracies;

. . .it wasn’t a bad day for practitioners when Nobel economists compared themselves to plumbers;

. . .poet Geoffrey Hill on Christian texts is not far more educating by being difficult than poet TS Eliot banging on about Christian theology;

. . .global climate change is World War III–only because the Cold War wasn’t:

. . .Walter Scott, having just learned of his bankruptcy, saying “No! This right hand shall work it all off!” is the same as the recanting Bishop Cranmer, thrusting out his hand into rising flames and saying, “This is the hand that hath offendeth. It shall be the first to burn!

Sallies out and sees

–I came across a quote of Teddy Roosevelt, US President: “In this life we get nothing save by effort; far better it is to dare mighty things; to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the great twilight that knows neither victor nor defeat.”

Surely that paraphrases John Milton’s Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat”?

Why paraphrase, though? Just look at Milton’s verbs and adjectives: praise, fugitive, cloistered, unexercised, and those sallies and slinks. They’re descriptive and evaluative at the same time by way of provoking the reader.

–When it comes to social experiments, surely we experiment after having seen to it that others haven’t already developed better practices. As if it were unethical not to experiment in the face of urgency, when experimenting without having searched for better practices is itself unethical—and urgently so.

–In the mid-1970s a group of physicists and political scientists met at MIT and “arrived at the conclusion that if a World Government was not implemented soon, the probability of a nuclear war before the year 2000 would be close to 100 percent” But what were their nuclear war scenarios? Without details against which to evaluate, the experts are like the early astrologer who cast Christ’s horoscope and found the end of Christianity within sight.

–In the early years of World War I, Rainer Marie Rilke wrote that “the misery in which mankind has lived daily since the beginning of time cannot really be increased by any contingency. . . Always the whole of misery has been in use among men, as much as there is, a constant, just as there is a constant of happiness; only its distribution alters.” Here too is Jean-Paul Sartre, “essentially, there is not much difference between a catastrophe where 300 or 3000 die and one where ten or fifteen die. There is a difference in numbers of course, but in a sense, with each person who dies, so also does a world. The scandal is the same.”

Rilke and Sartre avoid a major point. The numbers do matter in determining whether or not misery is a constant in aggregate or individually. “From a statistical point of view, which is that of social and political life and of history, there is an enormous difference,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty said of Sartre’s remark. We know from survey research that conclusions are drawn much more confidently from structured surveys and samples consisting of 3000 people than, say, 30 persons. I may be misremembering, but I think it was Kenneth Boulding, the heterodox economist, who felt that the greatest contribution of the social sciences to humankind was the notion of the sample survey, as imperfect as it is.

–Voltaire, along with other Enlighteners, thought Christianity a useful distraction for the masses who could not cope with the rigors of reason. If I am right, the rigors of reason were just as useful for the Enlighteners in distracting them from the nonconscious origins of the superstitions they revolted against. The Enlightenment didn’t provoke the Counter-Enlightenment; the latter has been there throughout the evolution of the human brain’s more automatic and stereotypic thinking. “Being off track” may be “on track” in more complex ways than supposed.

–Stanley Cavell, a philosopher, wrote that “there is always a camera left out of the picture,” by which I take him to mean that were we able to bring the camera into its picture a very different picture results. So too for policy issues: The analyst who looks at an issue from a perspective late in his or her career is likely to see it differently than others earlier on.

A wonderful story of the poet, Donald Hall, illuminates how bringing the camera into its picture changes it. Archibald MacLeish told him about the actor, Richard Burton, and a brother of his:

Then Burton and Jenkins quarreled over Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Jenkins said it was a bad poem: disgusting, awful. Burton praised it: magnificent, superb. Jenkins repeated that it was nothing at all, whereupon Burton commanded silence and spoke the whole poem, perfect from first syllable to last. MacLeish told me that Burton’s recitation was a great performance, and when he ended, drawing the last syllable out, the still air shook with the memory and mystery of this speaking. Then, into the silence, brother Jenkins spoke his word of critical reason: “See?

–I for one hope they throw wads of money at geo-engineering modelers, keeping them in front of their computer screens so as never to see the light of day. About as likely, though, as seeing a blue rose in the Sahara.

— Consider a passage from Virginia Woolf: 

Let us begin by clearing up the old confusion between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading, and point out that there is no connection whatever between the two. A learned man is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart.  If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers.  A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.

While claiming no connection whatever between learning and reading, her prose enables us to see one such connection, and an emphatically inverse one. 

–Start with T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land, “I can connect/nothing with nothing.” Note the ambiguity between “I can’t connect anything” and “What I can connect is nothing to nothing.” Now compare his lines to those of A.R. Ammons from his “Center:”

the noon sun casts
mesh refractions
on the stream's amber
bottom
and nothing at all gets,
nothing gets caught at all.

But you are caught up in reading this poem. Also, isn’t the shared “eye” of different readers meshed in there somewhere?

–Say you are on one of the upper floors of a skyscraper, looking out on the morning. That is Reality I: You are the observing subject looking out at reality. After a point, you realize that spot in the distance is actually a plane headed toward you, this morning in the World Trade Center. That is Reality II: You become the object of reality, in that grip of the real, and no longer just observer.

There is, however, Reality III. This is of the air traffic controllers during 9/11. Neither the observer of the first reality nor the object of second, these professionals achieved the unprecedented without incident that day. They were instructed to land all commercial and general aviation aircraft in the United States—some 4,500 aircraft—and did so. Without overdrawing the point, so too do we demand seeing that professionals land those water, electricity, transportation, telecommunications, and many more critical services every day without major incident.

When good enough is better: a summary

Calling something “good enough” borders on the pejorative in the US, as in “good enough for government work.” Less so, but still found wanting, is the sense in which a second-best result is good enough only because the optimal is not–yet??–achievable (think: efficiency benchmarks from microeconomics).

Here are the conditions under which good enough is better than said optima:

  • When it comes to complex policy issues, efforts at full or direct control to achieve results may produce effects well short of what would have been the case had one managed by adapting to the inevitable contingencies in trying to get there.
    • We of mid-twentieth century US were told that an annual economic growth rate of about 3% and an unemployment rate of about 4%, while in no way perfect, were good enough compared to the grief entailed in authoritarian measures to achieve substantially better.
    • Another way to say this is that good-enough improvisers using what’s at hand are better than macro-designers who see complete control as the best way to ensure better-than-“just” good enough.
  • Second, managing for good enough in processes that adapt to contingencies can produce results even better than the initial “best-case scenario.”
    • My examples include Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela (or on a smaller, lesser known stage, Botswana’s Seretse Khama and Ketumile Masire). Each was a very imperfect person, comrade and leader, but each prevented some fresh hell on earth.
    • They were good enough to take us further than we could have expected, albeit we would want to go further still.
  • There’s also the sense in which a privileged “progress” or “growth” (economic, sustainable. . .) stops short of betterment, a really-existing good enough. They don’t take us far enough:
    • The key problem with insisting on progress or growth is that in doing so we can never be good enough today–better off today–by relying on yesterday’s standards.
    • But of course we can.

To ask, then, “Just how ‘good’ is good enough?” is to pose a systematically misleading question. “You must respond within x minutes of a call. . .” risks goal displacement, where meeting the criteria becomes the end in itself. But good enough isn’t assured once and for all. Indeed that’s the whole point: Good enough can, in its indefiniteness, last longer than progress or growth.

Principal sources: See more detailed blog entries, “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” and “Betterment (continued)”

Control, surpris’d

against policy (a tiny manifesto): The notion of “policy” presumes a state or governing apparatus which imposes its will on others. “Policy” is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs. David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

“Policy” need assume no such thing; policy with which I am familiar is about managing, because the imposition of control is not possible. Really-existing implementation, operations and shocks surprise any uni-directional, deterministic notions of control.

–More, attempts at direct control produce disruptive surprise. Think of those cases where power politics and material interests led to counterproductive outcomes never foreseen by power-makers. There surely had to be cheaper ways for the US to get the oil than undertaking two wars in Iraq.

–Surprise too can produce power. This is known, though less understood are all the surprising ways surprise leads to power. Psychologist Kevin Dunbar and his colleagues examined a handful of science labs, particularly their regular meetings involving senior researchers, postdocs and grad students:

The analysis of the 12 laboratory meetings yielded 28 research projects, with 165 experiments, and the participants reasoned about a total of 417 results. . . .When we divided the scientists’ results into expected and unexpected findings, we found that over half of their findings were unexpected (223 out of 417 results). Thus, rather than being a rare event, the unexpected finding was a regular occurrence about which the scientists reasoned.

There were, in fact, so many unexpected findings that what distinguished one lab from another was the subset of unexpected findings the labs chose to pursue (Dunbar, personal communication). In the labs examined, unexpected findings were happening all the time, and what was most interesting was how pursuit of some rather than others led to intellectual property and increased economic and/or scientific status (e.g., a Nobel).

–Let’s try a different way to make the same point. Compare algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM) and the current technology for gene editing known by the acronym, CRISPR. When it comes to ADM, the worry is that we don’t know how the algorithm works; it’s all murky. What’s happening in the algorithm, we ask, because of the cultural biases imported via the original data? When it comes to CRISPR, the worry is that, even when we know that this rather that gene is being edited, we’re still not sure it’s right thing to do. The deaf community is not so hot on getting rid of “the deafness gene,” when deafness is its own culture.

Suppose we had a CRISPR analogue for ADM, i.e., we could go into the algorithm and excise cultural bias. We’d still worry about, e.g., what is bias to some is not to others. Also, is there any doubt whatsoever that some new mechanism promising greater control in addressing one worry wouldn’t produce another worry, equally if not more important? Control cannot answer the questions control poses.

–Still, we see more and more attempts to control directly. Still, people conclude: “Studies of resistance in organizations have largely concluded that it is impossible to effectively resist contemporary regimes of control.” Still, people talk about taking back control from those who are better described as being out of control in the first place.

So, to be clear as possible, this is my point: You have to take control seriously enough to realize it’s–surprisingly–about much more than control. It’s about managing surprise because you can’t control, much as when negotiated bargains replace contracts that cannot be renegotiated.

Principal sources

Courpasson D, Younes D, Reed M. (2021). Durkheim in the neoliberal organization: Taking resistance and solidarity seriously. Organization Theory. doi:10.1177/2631787720982619

K. Dunbar, personal communication, and also: Dunbar, K., and J. Fugelsang (2005). Causal thinking in science: How scientists and students interpret the unexpected. In M. E. Gorman, R. D. Tweney, D. Gooding, & A. Kincannon (Eds.), Scientific and Technical Thinking (pp. 57-79). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Leonard, D. K. (2013). Social contracts, networks and security. In Tropical Africa Conflict States: An Overview, IDS Bulletin 44.1, Brighton: IDS

The good mess in no single, right reading and in the many (more or less) wrong ones

–An illustration that itself performs the difficulty in telling the difference between knowing what are wrong readings of a text while still not knowing what is the right one is that of literary critic, I.A. Richards. I quote from his letter to T.S. Eliot, where Richards free-associates the challenge:

This problem,—that a single line [of poetry] need have no one right reading, yet will have innumerable wrong ones; that among all the many “right” ones some at least will carry, primarily, very different interpretations. . .and yet that we must take some partial meaning, and make it deputize for the whole but without forgetting that we do so—this problem which almost every sentence of good poetry represents to us seems to me a paradigm for all the problems, big and little of life and thought. . .

By “wrong,” Richards means those “that close down other possibilities [i.e., other readings],” not least of which are the exclusionary readings that “claim to be the only right ones”. (I’d add more or less wrong to reflect the more or less complex interpretations.)

–Eliot had an example. While Goethe’s writings on science, particularly the work on plant morphology and color, have been criticized by scientists, Eliot asks:  “Is it simply a question of who was right, Goethe or the scientists? Or it is possible that Goethe was wrong only in thinking the scientists wrong, and the scientists wrong only in thinking Goethe was wrong?”

I take this to be an implication of Eliot’s point: Goethe and the scientists may have been more or less “right” as far as they went, but they in their respective ways did not go far enough, and by falling short both end up with interpretations that were “partially right” in multiple senses of that word “partial.” Seeing that and going further is a good mess to be in.

–So what? It seems to me then that we are looking for professionals less keen on “the right person asking the right questions at the right time—for the right price!—and with the right policy” and more keen on the multiple ways to go more wrong and the good messes of being less wrong and more right, case-by-case.

Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?

Begin with the strategic orientations many have with respect to resilience and anticipation as distinct from each other. Resilience is said to be optimizing the ability to absorb or rebound from shocks, while minimizing the need to anticipate these shocks ahead of time. Anticipation, in contrast, is to optimize the ability to plan ahead and deal with shocks before they happen, while minimizing having to cope with shocks when they do occur. Consider the resulting Table 1:

System designers would like managers to be both optimally anticipatory and resilient at the same time—indeed that managers maximize their “readiness” for whatever arises, whenever. These all-embracing demands can, however, reduce the managers’ much-needed capacity to balance anticipation and resilience case by case.

More, the ideal of stabilizing the task environment so as to minimize the need for both anticipation and resilience—a common enough premise (promise?) of macro-designers—is as impossible to realize as it is irresponsible to promote, when the aim is high reliability in real-time operations.

Good-enough criticism

Oh that’s perfect Edmund: you American puritans, you’re always inventing diseases. And one that singles out blacks, drug users and gays – how perfect! Michel Foucault, philosopher, criticizing novelist Edmund White, when warned about AIDS early on

Praxis. . .appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what is being criticized. Theodor Adorno, a very different philosopher

–For the policy analyst, being relevant means offering an alternative to what is criticized. But there are other ways for criticism to be good-enough, that is, above and beyond the usual kvetching. (And in case it needs saying, offering an alternative is of little use, when no one is listening or couldn’t care less.)

What’s good enough here? Criticism is relevant even when solutions are not in the offer, if the very idea of “offering solutions” would make bad messes worse. There is also the honorable march of permanent critique, which resists anything like aiding and abetting sanctioned modes for “acting practically.” And then there’s bearing witness, which can make silent criticism very loud (e.g., the Black Sash in apartheid South Africa).

It seems to me that that criticism is good enough when it provokes even if discourages, disturbs even when debatable, and sharpens attention even because it goes no further.

–An example. Science and economics have been much chastised as: religion (e.g., each with metaphysics); imperialist (e.g., colonizing the traditional “why” and “how” questions of the humanities); and for being “just” socially-constructed. Also, critiques of science and economics as Big Business stress their producing sufficient Bad as to shadow whatever the Good.

But any weaknesses in such criticisms can serve in the same instant as their strengths, and this isomorphism is too frequently ignored, when not altogether missed–or so it seems to me.

When focusing on downsides of science and economics, you needn’t be: denying the strengths each has; nor arguing that the blind-spots “cancel out” the strengths; nor saying something like the costs outweigh the benefits. I am saying that what works to the Good also works to the Bad and this happens irrespective of context more than supposed. As is well-known, digital surveillance technologies can be, at the same point in time, a source of harm (as in identity theft) and a source of care (as in medical monitoring during and after treatment). (In fact, think of “context” in large part as the contingent interplay of strength <–> weakness.)

–So too for complexity’s chief synonyms: difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing. It stops short to say the three spancel the analyst and hobble analysis: They are also the strengths of analysis and at the core of the analyst’s practice. To see the interchange between Foucault and White as anything less than really-existing difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing—MF was wrong! EW was right!—misses the force-field and torsion of blind-spots.

Good-enough criticism, I think, wants to admit this. It differs from the kind of criticism that wants to buttonhole people once and for all. It’s good enough because the other side of a criticizing “no” is “yes, but”.

What you need to know: Big System Collapse! or not

Here are early warning signals–typically not recognized–that the major critical infrastructures upon which we survive are operating at, or beyond, their performance edge:

  • The infrastructure’s control room is in prolonged just-for-now performance, which means operators there find it more difficult to maneuver out of a corner in which they find themselves. (“Yes, yes, I know this is risky, but just keep it online for now!”)
  • These real-time control operators are working outside their de jure or de facto performance bandwidths, in effect having to work outside their unique domain of competence.
  • The decision rules operators reliably followed before are turned inside out: “Prove we can do that” becomes “Prove we can’t!;” “Ensure a capital cushion to protect against unexpected losses” becomes “From now on, manage for expected losses!”
  • Real-time operational redesigns (control room “workarounds”) of inevitably defective equipment, premature software, and incomplete procedures are not effective as before.
  • Their skills as reliability professionals in identifying systemwide patterns and undertaking what-if scenario become attenuated or no longer apply.
  • Instead of being driven by dread of the next major failure ahead, control room professionals are told that their track record up to now is to be benchmark for system reliability ahead.

Good messes to be had from their catastrophism

It  is  an  interesting  fact  about  the  world  we  actually  live  in  that  no anthropologist, to my knowledge, has come back from a field trip with the following report: their concepts are so alien that it is impossible to describe their land tenure, their kinship system, their ritual… As far as I know there is no record of such a total admission of failure… It is success in explaining culture A in the language of culture B which is… really puzzling.
                                                   Ernest Gellner, social anthropologist

The overall skeptical argument that we know nothing at all about other people’s minds, for instance, is painless, because it is totally theoretical; it is more disturbing to consider that perhaps we know something about other people, but a lot less than we suppose.
                                                 Bernard Williams, philosopher

–Start by observing that, “There is no alternative but to experiment,” imports a silent clause for catastrophists: “There is no alternative but to experiment, even if the consequences of doing so are uncertain.” We face certain catastrophe if we don’t experiment, no matter what.

A parallel exists in psychoanalysis: Just as a traumatic dream represents for Freud an exception to dreaming as wish fulfillment, so too does catastrophism, their wide-awake trauma, represent an exception to thinking more before acting.

–But do think about it. The business of Empire and Finance is to ensure The End continues. For disaster capitalism and speculative finance, more catastrophism means more ways to make a buck (think: artificial pollination after the bees go extinct).

–So, the policy analytic challenge–the challenge of thinking–isn’t to come up with new money-making crisis scenarios for profiteers. It is for us to think through what is instead-of-catastrophism or how the profiteers’ preoccupation with their catastrophism poses good messes for the rest of us.

***

–What are some good messes to be had in the catastrophism of others? Let me suggest a few:

Who wouldn’t be right in resisting burn-out, early or late, if told repeatedly they haven’t “taken control” of climate change, species extinction and biodiversity loss?

It would be good to know if we are, as some say, nine missed meals away from civil unrest, or is it only four missed meals, as others say.

Isn’t everything-connected-to-everything-else an odd kind of stasis rather than always-primed for worse?

Hasn’t surviving the remains of war been the only real place where everything is directly connected to everything else by virtue of barter (e.g., your fuel for my food)? If, as novelist Henry James put it, what is real is what remains, then the playwright Samuel Beckett’s “nothing” in “Nothing is more real than nothing,” is what remains—before or after—everything has been directly connected? It’s dangerous to assume we don’t manage different interconnections differently, and with different effect.

Conversation stoppers like “human fallibility” and “radical uncertainty” reverberate with original sin and basic evil. Better to say we still find it reasonable to assume we’re not as rational as we thought, even now (a good indication, btw, that the Enlightenment continues).

To say endemic crises have many causes and are overdetermined is like saying there’s too much wind-up for the pitch thrown.

And since when has inequality been best described as a crisis only or even primarily? Norms are different from crises, and inequality is very much the norm. Inequality is better understood as the scandal of the status quo. Shaming, humiliating and ostracizing the profiteers don’t solve crises, but together they are a very important way to respond to inequality.

Compare economist, George Akerlof, who put it that the most efficient way to look as if you’re honest is to be honest, to the poet, Frank O’Hara’s “It’s easy to be beautiful; it’s difficult to appear so”. Can we say that only when it is difficult to be honest does honesty, let alone efficiency, appear beautiful?

How many times have we heard that we must never rely on those who created problems to help solve them. That rules out those working on reducing global climate change who use water from the tap, turn lights on, and run appliances—the very same people who insist on having reliable infrastructures so they can get on with the necessary environmental work

“Would it really be incoherent, then, or an affront to fairness, to impose a penal draft—i.e. to randomly select citizens to serve their country as inmates, probationers or parolees, perhaps under the (all too familiar) pretense that they must be guilty of something?. . . .What better way could there be than some form of ‘prison duty’ to embody our commitment to protecting the guilty from unjust punishment?” (Benjamin Ewing, “Socializing Punishment,” in The Point Magazine)

A doctor tells me that I have 1 out of 5 chances of having a heart attack or stroke within the next ten years. But for the life of me I can’t explain why the lines of poet, A.R. Ammons, seem much more certain:

                                     though I
have not been here long, I can
look up at the sky at night and tell
how things are likely to go for
the next hundred million years:
the universe will probably not find
a way to vanish nor I
in all that time reappear.