As in a ballet that can’t be bound to one single, authorized version

–The first words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are, “Who’s there?” Indeed.

–Recognizing uncertainty is a discursive formation is about as helpful as your recognizing a neurosis gets rid of it.

–Who would have guessed an answer to 21st century modernity is Slav revanchism and Han imperialism.

–With advances in neuroscience coming so fast, the Bayesian brain—we’re hardwired to predict the future by updating current probabilities—is beginning to look like the pineal gland in which Descartes found the soul linking mind and body.

–The mongrel world provides the best examples of repristinated nature we have ever had.

–If I had to put my reservations about the efficacy of “imagination” in a sentence, it’s the warning introducing a kdrama I’ve been watching: “Although inspired by true events, the characters and cases are fictional.” Imagination is like luck, which much of imagination is anyway: best focused on in the past tense.

–Janet Flanner, the journalist, reported from beleaguered Paris in 1945: “Everything here is a substitute for everything else.” Think: Cigarettes could be traded for food, food could be traded for shelter, shelter could be traded for. . .and so on. Everything was fungible—which is if you think about it one consequence of everything being connected to everything, as in a catastrophe.

–When does “extreme polarization” become solipsistic?

–When I read something like, “Getting the Social Cost of Carbon Right,” I have to ask: Are these people mad?

Table of key entries by major topic (new version)

Last week’s blogs: “Ongoing disasters, resilience and governance: really?,” “A whole-cycle approach to risk and uncertainty,” “The world is complex enough for all manner of counternarratives,” and “What a socio-cultural perspective on infrastructure repair adds to a socio-technical perspective

–The Big Read:When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene

(Use keyword search function to find others listed below)

Subject headings

  • Recasting big policy issues
  • More recastings in policy and management
  • Not-knowing and its proxies
  • Ignorance and uncertainty
  • Risk, resilience and root causes
  • Regulation
  • Infrastructures
  • Environment
  • Rural development
  • Pastoralist development
  • Catastrophe and crisis
  • Policy and management mess, good and bad
  • Betterment and good-enough
  • Policy palimpsests and composite arguments
  • Economism
  • Methods (for analyzing narrative, risk, triangulation, others)
  • Longer Reads
  • Something less complex?

What a socio-cultural perspective on infrastructure repair adds to a socio-technical perspective

–The terminology of one perspective is rebarbative to the other, so not much hope of “interdisciplinary synthesis” here!

The socio-cultural perspective on infrastructures finds all that talk about “managing risk and uncertainty” to stink of socio-technical solutionism and imaginaries of control and progress; those with the socio-technical perspective find “solutionism and imaginaries” to be about as imaginary as you get when a magnitude 9 earthquake rips through what had been by way of comparison working infrastructures.

That said, there are diamonds to be found for those who can put up with the terminologies. Here I focus on what a socio-cultural perspective has to say about infrastructure repair that a socio-technical perspective might wish to pursue further. The example in Part I is longer than that of Part II, and I end with a postscript on caveats.

I

Since my work is from the socio-technical perspective, it’s only fair that I not try to summarize positions but quote from their work directly:

For all of their impressive heaviness, infrastructures are, at the end of the day, often remarkably light and fragile creatures—one or two missed inspections, suspect data points, or broken connectors from disaster. That spectacular failure is not continually engulfing the systems around us is a function of repair: the ongoing work by which “order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended, and the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished” . . . .

It reminds us of the extent to which infrastructures are earned and re-earned on an ongoing, often daily, basis. It also reminds us (modernist obsessions notwithstanding) that staying power, and not just change, demands explanation. Even if we ignore this fact and the work that it indexes when we talk about infrastructure, the work nonetheless goes on. Where it does not, the ineluctable pull of decay and decline sets in and infrastructures enter the long or short spiral into entropy that—if untended—is their natural fate.

Jackson S (2015) Repair. Theorizing the contemporary: The infrastructure toolbox. Cultural
Anthropology website. Available at: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/repair (accessed 24 September 2015)

The nod to “sociotechnical systems” is welcome as is the recognition that these systems have to be managed–a great part of which is repair and maintenance–in order to operate. Added to routine and non-routine maintenance and repair are the just-in-time or just-for-now workarounds (software and hardware) that are necessitated by inevitable technology, design and regulatory glitches–inevitable because comprehensiveness is impossible to achieve in complex large-scale systems.

Sociotechnical research on infrastructures calls into question any assumption that macro-designs control every important micro-operation, an assumption also very much questioned in this socio-cultural perspective, e.g., “approaching infrastructure from the standpoint of repair highlights actors, sites, and moments that have been absented or silenced by stories of design and origination, whether critical or heroic.”

Also,, the socio-technical perspective I’m familiar with focuses on the systems operating longer than some expect. A famous theory of large-scale tightly coupled, complexly interactive hazardous technologies–Normal Accidents Theory–predicts far more major accidents and failures than have occurred in critical infrastructures, to date.

Not only is this better-than-expected operation because of repair and maintenance but also because real-time system operators seek to preclude must-never-happen events like loss of nuclear containment, cryptosporidium contamination of urban water supplies, or jumbo jets dropping like flies from the sky. That these events do from time to time happen only increases the widespread affective dread that they must not happen again.

From the socio-technical perspective, the end of infrastructure operations isn’t decay, decline or entropy as much as catastrophic system failure and immediate disaster response, including seeking to restore, as quickly as possible even if temporarily, water, electricity and telecoms to survivors. In this view, any “new normal” could be endless “recovery,” or attempts to do so. Systemwide failures are often attributed to a range of socio-technical factors, from “operator error” to uncontrollable shocks like the earthquakes just mentioned (or hurricanes and tornadoes, among others).

What to my knowledge has not been pursued in the socio-technical literature is the following from a socio-cultural focus on repair:

Attending to repair can also change how we approach questions of value and valuation as it pertains to the infrastructures around us. Repair reminds us that the loop between infrastructure, value, and meaning is never fully closed at points of design, but represents an ongoing and sometimes fragile accomplishment. While artifacts surely have politics (or can), those politics are rarely frozen at the moment of design, instead unfolding across the lifespan of the infrastructure in question: completed, tweaked, and sometimes transformed through repair. Thus, if there are values in design there are also values in repair—and good ethical and political reasons to attend not only to the birth of infrastructures, but also to their care and feeding over time.

That the values expressed through repair (we would say, expressed as the practices of actual repair) need to be understood as thoroughly as the practices of actual design reflects, I believe, a major research gap in the socio-technical literature with which I am familiar.

II

Explicit consideration of an infrastructure’s life brings together the changes to an infrastructure’s material form over time and the (often unequal) embodied labor that is embedded in these transformations. Life phases identified in the literature include destruction, decay, ruination, repair, maintenance, and rebuild (Anand et al., 2018; Humphrey, 2005; Simone, 2004). While these terms are often used to capture infrastructure not “in order” or “working to standard”, collapsing these phases, or ignoring their particularities, means missing how materiality in these various phases is connected to infrastructural labor, and how fluidity and transitions between decay and repair mobilize particular affective responses and actants.

Far from a linear trajectory, the relationship between infrastructure and socio-ecological relations involves ongoing negotiations between institutions and individuals through phases of decay, maintenance, and repair. Indeed, Barnes (2017) finds that maintenance is not an “inherent good”, but rather a “field of socio-material contestation” (148). She observes that maintenance of irrigation works occurs at multiple levels: on an individual level farmers are responsible for maintaining irrigation ditches, although blockages (and lack of maintenance) may actually be advantageous depending on where along the system one farms; on an interpersonal level between farmers as they negotiate communal relationships; and between farmers and state irrigation engineers, as the latter choose how and when to “assert control” over the infrastructure through annual maintenance. Socio-ecological relations, thus formed over and through infrastructure, are not always constant or consistent.

Ramakrishnan K, K O’Reilly, and J Budds (2021) The temporal fragility of infrastructure: Theorizing decay, maintenance, and repair. EPE: Nature and Space Vol. 4(3) 674–695

Repair and maintenance of plant and equipment are often treated as part of normal infrastructure operations, e.g., under the heading, “routine outages.” So the caution about conflating the phases and missing their particularities is very well taken, in my view.

So too the point about the wider dependencies that form with respect to infrastructure users and nonusers. A “road transportation catastrophe” due to a massive earthquake isn’t just about that infrastructure. Large socio-technical systems, like roads, have evolved over time, one feature of which has been their evolution of worker schedules (x weeks on, n days off) and remuneration packages that made pre-disaster commutes worth it.

A socio-technical perspective must ask: Are these arrangements still worth it? How are the latent and manifest vulnerabilities posed by new arrangements, post-disaster, more compatible? Answers would require careful attention to vulnerabilities arising out of designing new infrastructures as well as arising out of infrastructures as they actually have been repaired, restored, recovered and maintained before and after previous disruptions and disasters.

—-

Two ending caveats. I write from a socio-technical perspective and know there is no one single dominant socio-technical view on infrastructures. What I read from the socio-cultural side tells me the important differences in views also hold there. To be clear, in no way do I claim I have read in their field as thoroughly as I have mine.

Second, while appearing to be the opposite of each other, both perspectives do actively focus on equity concerns and the social construction of their respective infrastructure realities. Less sanguine, each seems to be premised on the assumption that no one really addressed these concerns the right way until it did.

A whole-cycle approach to infrastructure risk and uncertainty

–Taxonomies of risk and uncertainty are all but irresistible. Assuming the probabilities and consequences of failure are independent and assuming you can differentiate known from unknown values of each is a great starting heuristic, especially when it comes to what makes unknown unknowns so comparatively special. I will continue to use this taxonomy.

There are, of course, other ways to think about risk and uncertainty relevant for major policy and management. I’d like to introduce one of those here, namely, a whole-cycle approach to risk and uncertainty in society’s critical infrastructures.

I

–The terms, risk and uncertainty, are used all the time by real-time infrastructure operators without meaning or referring to “expert probability estimates,” be the latter Bayesian, based in frequencies or otherwise. But their operational usages of risk and uncertainty differ depending on where the operators are in the cycle of infrastructure operations and the standards of effective management at those stages.

–In critical infrastructures that are managed with high reliability (i.e., safe and continuous provision of the critical service, even during–especially during–turbulent times), the types of risks to be managed follow from the standard of high reliability being managed to: Certain events have to be prevented from ever happening.

This means that the risks arising out of becoming complacent, or having to think about too many balls in the air at once, or backing the control room into a corner rise to the fore and must be managed in real time. The temptation is to quibble about whether the precluded events standard of reliability is deterministic or “really” probabilistic, but the crux here is the control room knowing as much about cause-and-effect, tacitly and otherwise during these operations.

II

–Infrastructures however can and do fail systemwide, even though not as often as outsiders seem to expect. A complex socio-technical system in failure differs vastly from that system in normal operations under standards of high reliability management. This means infrastructure risks and uncertainty also vastly differ when the infrastructure is in systemwide failure. For example, in earlier research control room operators we interviewed (during their normal operations) spoke of the probability of failure being even higher in recovery than during usual times. Had we interviewed them in an actual system failure, their having to energize or re-pressurize line by line may have been described in far more demanding terms of operating in the blind, working on the fly and riding uncertainty.

Note the phrase, “more demanding;” it is not “the estimated risk of failure in recovery is now numerically higher.” It is more demanding because the cause-and-effect of normal operations is moot when “operating blind” in failure. If there is urgency, clarity and logic in immediate emergency response it in no way obviates the need for impromptu improvisations and unpredicted, let alone hitherto unimagined, shifts in human and technical interconnectivities as system failure unfolds.

–What was cause-and-effect is now replaced by nonmeasurable uncertainties accompanied by disproportionate impacts, with no presumption that causation (let alone correlation) is any clearer in that conjuncture. What had been the high reliability standard of precluded events has been replaced by a requisite variety standard of effective emergency response, that is, then-and-there task demands are matched by then-and-there resource capabilities, even if only temporarily. Trade-offs are everywhere in infrastructure failure and differ considerably from those in normal operations where systemwide reliability and safety cannot be traded-off without jeopardizing the entire system and users.

III

–In short, instead of different types of risk and uncertainty being compared by virtue of an overarching taxonomy, risk and uncertainty here are to be distinguished comparatively in terms of an infrastructure’s different stages of its operations. Once we also understand that the conventional notion that infrastructures have only two states–normal and failed–is grotesquely underspecified for empirical work, the whole-cycle comparisons of different understandings of infrastructure risk and uncertainty become far more rewarding.

For example–at this may be too simple for other cases–assume a major infrastructure has witnessed operations that were normal, disrupted, restored back to normal or tripped into outright failure, immediately responded to when failed (e.g., saving lives), followed by restoration of backbone services (electricity, water, telecoms), then into longer term recovery of destroyed assets (involving far more stakeholders and trade-offs), and afterwards the establishment of a new normal, if there is to be one.

It is my belief that what truly separates the risks and uncertainties of longer-term recovery from risks and uncertainties found in a new normal isn’t that, e.g., the politics have changed, but rather when or if infrastructures adopt new standards for their high reliability management.

This may or may not be in the form of different standards seeking to prevent specific types of failures from ever happening. We already know that major distributed internet systems, now considered critical, are reliable precisely because they expect components to fail and are better prepared for that and other contingencies. Here each component should be able to fail in order for the system to be reliable unlike systems where management is geared to ensure some components never fail.

IV

More has to be said, but let me leave you with is a concern, namely, commentators who assume “the new normal” is at best endless recovery, with far more having to cope than proactively managing. There are of course no guarantees in the whole cycle, but at least its format doesn’t, e.g., miss Dresden-now by stopping the cycle at the highly controversial Allied bombings and devastation of 1945.

Also, in case it needs saying, new-normal high reliability brings with it dependencies that are both positive and negative, then and thereafter in operations. If you insist that all such dependencies are vulnerabilities, then you have to explain why people are pulled, not pushed, to vulnerabilities and what would the counterfactual be instead.

Principal sources: See also the earlier blogs, “Recasting ‘low probability, high consequence events'” and “Ongoing disasters, resilience and governance: really?”

In policy advocacy, it’s the recommendations that must have practical torque

–Cut and pasted below, without edit and in full, are recommendations I fully support. I hope you do so too. They concern the clean energy provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) initiative and the Justice40 initiative that seeks to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

The recommendations are quoted at length because their message is central to the climate emergency and racial justice:

RECOMMENDATIONS

As a cornerstone of federal climate policy, the design and implementation of clean energy tax credits are critically important for ensuring equity and justice in the climate transition. In this light, and with the aim of improving the tax credit program as proposed in BBB—or as modified, potentially, by other proposals—we conclude our analysis with a suite of recommendations primarily focused on oversight of the program.

In addition to the positive reforms outlined above—which have already been proposed by legislators—addressing inequities in a tax program on this scale should start with oversight and programmatic evaluation from the Department of Treasury. In fact, many of these changes are similar to reforms proposed for Opportunity Zones in a bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) (Opportunity Zone Reporting and Reform Act 2019). This legislation requires, among other things, public information reporting from Opportunity Zone investors, terminating zones that are not low-income or impoverished, and prohibiting non-beneficial investments that drive gentrification, such as stadiums and luxury hotels and apartments. For energy tax credits, the following changes could—and should—be adopted:

  • Corporations, developers, and other project sponsors claiming investment and production tax credits should have reporting requirements to provide information for assessing equity impacts of the resulting clean energy buildout.
  • The Department of Treasury should also develop robust and measurable beneficial project criteria, not only for the low-income community solar program (although that is most critical) but for all projects seeking credits from the program. Credited projects are not location- or community-neutral, and that principle should be codified in Treasury policy to maximize equity impacts of energy tax credits and especially racial equity impacts. To this end, the function of developing beneficial project criteria could be shared with other agencies as well as states and localities.
  • Oversight of individual energy credits should include evaluating distributional impacts, considering both income and race, and this should inform programmatic changes or revisions of the law that will reduce persisting disparities in the program.
  • Credits for eligible energy sources and technologies considered harmful by environmental justice advocates should be subject to local or community review and accountability. Treasury guidance on community review and conditions for revocation and/or repayment of credits should be developed if unavailable, and consistently utilized. This should include pollution and public health reporting requirements for corporations or other businesses owning/operating energy facilities that emit local pollution or otherwise pose local health risks.
  • Energy tax equity investments should be profiled for climate and community impacts.
  • No corporation currently or previously found to be in violation of environmental laws or labor and workplace safety laws should be eligible for credits.
  • And finally, given the troubled distributional track record of tax credit policy generally and clean energy tax credits specifically, the question of how Justice40 applies to climate-related Treasury programs—especially one on this scale—deserves consideration by the Biden administration and more attention from advocates.

I wouldn’t change a word, and every word nails down what are to many of us obvious and true needs and concerns.

–But, oh, the verbiage surrounding the “Recommendations”! All that rah-rah about what perhaps, may, can, could be, and should be, all this magicked-up bromide that the only genuine political project is to set progressive tax rates and redistribute, and not even a homeopathic whiff of what has actually worked for achieving the ends sought for and by those obviously vulnerable.

IMHO, the author-advocates would have been better off publishing the much-needed recommendations on their own.

Principal source

Daly, L. and S. Chi (2022). Clean Energy Neoliberalism: Climate, Tax Credits, and Racial Justice. Issue brief in the All Economic Policy Is Climate Policy series. Just Solutions Collective and The Roosevelt Institute. Those interested in the brief’s very apt proposals can download the document at https://rooseveltinstitute.org/publications/clean-energy-neoliberalism/

Ongoing disasters, resilience and governance: really?

–Separating pre-disaster mitigation, preparedness and prevention from actual disaster response and initial service restoration has been fairly common for emergency planning purposes.

This divide across pre-disaster/disaster/post-disaster becomes more complicated when you talk to practicing emergency managers. They can go into great deal about efforts to “prepare for,” “mitigate,” and “prevent” situations even when in immediate response and restoration, and not just beforehand.

–It would however be a mistake, I think, to see preparation, mitigation and prevention as continuous variables, punctuated from time to time for whatever reason.

To telegraph ahead, what changes over time, more formally and specifically, are different configurations of socio-technical interconnections around which ongoing prevention, preparedness and mitigation efforts are coordinated—from now into and across immediate response and initial restoration of services.

–To see how, start this way.

Some infrastructure operators and emergency managers we interviewed say they are best in response and restoration when following plans, while others say they are at their best when surprised by the unexpected. This means operations people may look like cowboys to the engineer department because both cognitively understand the same system differently: “I don’t think you respond to 92 breaks in 13 days without having the ability to adapt on the fly,” said a city’s water distribution manager.

–But this may be less a matter of different professional orientations as commonly understood and more about orientations with respect to different “scales of operation,” even within the same city.

For engineers, seismically retrofitting a bridge represents efforts to manage ahead latent interconnectivity so that it does not become manifest during or after an earthquake, e.g., the bridge holds and traffic is not disrupted there. For operations people, even if the seismically retrofitted bridge does fail in the earthquake and traffic disrupted, improvisations are still possible, both by the city departments involved and by commuters who individually or collectively organize alternatives. The respective interconnectivities, before and after, of course look very different.

Improvising after failure may seem like weak beer compared to the promise of better avoiding failure in the first place, but not foregrounding the necessity of improvisations (and improvisational skills) leads to confusion about “building in resilience” and its role in emergency management. All the money and political will beforehand won’t get rid of the key role of improvisation in emergency management. There is no planner’s workaround for improvisation.

–So what? Isn’t that obvious?

If the necessity of improvisation in emergency management is obvious, not all the implications are.

A very major issue emerges when it comes to the role of politics after immediate response and initial service restoration, i.e., that is, as you move into longer-term recovery. For some interviewees, the transition out of a (more or less) command-and-control response, with its own clarity, logic and urgency, into a more inclusive, more politicized (read, more conflicted) recovery raises unavoidable governance issues.

What, they ask, are the organizational and management markers and decisionmaking criteria for resuming (bettered) civic operations? “At this point, it’s not been determined,” said an interviewee with long experience.

Nor is that question, along with the like question “When is ‘resilient-enough’ enough?,” in fact not determinable. Why? Because the granularity about the (latent and manifest) interconnectivities necessary in coordinating immediate response and initial service restoration is simply not possible, prospectively, for longer-term recovery.

(Please also see blogs, “A whole cycle approach to infrastructure risk and uncertainty” and “Recasting ‘low probability, high consequence events'”)

The world is complex enough for all manner of counternarratives

–“The discourse of apocalyptic climate change-induced mass migration is now past its prime. Particularly since the early 2010s, it has been extensively critiqued (see Hartmann 2010; Bettini 2013; Piguet, Kaenzig, and Guélat 2018; Wiegel, Boas, and Warner 2019), and the majority of migration scholarship no longer expects a linear, massive and world-transforming movement of people under climate change. Indeed, an ever-rising number of studies shows the opposite is the case: that relations between climate change and human migration are often indirect, small-scale, and taking shape in context-specific ways, influenced by a host of other socio-economic and political factors. The ways in which people move in a changing climate are diverse, and typically consist of relatively local mobilities (for overviews see: Black et al. 2011a; Foresight 2011; McLeman and Gemenne 2018; Hoffmann et al. 2020; De Sherbinin 2020).”

–“Between 2010 and 2019, over 2 million people have crossed the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Europe, escaping conflicts, persecution and poverty and looking for a better chance in life (D’Angelo, 2018a; UNHCR, 2020). Since the mid-2010s, this phenomenon, widely labelled as a ‘Refugee Crisis’ (Crawley, 2016), has been at the centre of media and academic debates, with considerable attention being devoted to the humanitarian concerns over search and rescue at sea and the implementation of the European Asylum System (Crawley et al., 2017; Spijkerboer, 2016; Vassallo Paleologo, 2016). . .Specifically, the current mainstream narrative is one that looks at these people as passive components of large-scale flows, driven by conflicts, migration policies and human smuggling. Even when the personal dimension is brought to the fore, it tends to be in order to depict migrants as victims at the receiving end of external forces. Whilst there is no denying that most of those crossing the Mediterranean experience violence, exploitation and are often deprived of their freedom for considerable periods of time (Albahari, 2015; D’Angelo, 2018a), it is also important to recognize and analyse their agency as individuals, as well as the complex sets of local and transnational networks that they own, develop and use before, during and after travelling to Europe.”

–“1.6% — The decline in global remittances, or money that foreign-born workers sent back to their home countries, to low- and middle-income nations last year. That drop was far less than the 20% decline projected by the World Bank early in the pandemic. Migrant remittances have become crucial economic lifelines as the recoveries of rich and poor countries diverge.”

–“Remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries in 2020 as a whole remained resilient, contrary to initial projections and despite having recorded a strong decline in Q2 2020. The latest available data shows remittances are estimated to have reached USD 540 billion in 2020, just 1.6% below the 2019 total of USD 548 billion. . .The decline was smaller than that recorded in 2009 during the global financial crisis. Fiscal measures in migrants’ host countries, including cash transfers and employment support programmes implemented in many large economies, the widespread use of remote work, and migrants’ commitment to continue providing a lifeline to families by cutting consumption or drawing on savings contributed to this better-than-expected outcome. However, there are important regional and intra-regional differences, including between the countries covered in this study.”

–“The economic narrative according to which the welfare state is a luxury that only growth-rich societies can afford can thus be turned upside down: the welfare state has been the backbone of developed economies in the past 70 years, especially European ones, and a major source of economic growth for more than a century. Nevertheless, the European welfare state has gradually developed a growth dependency.”

–“Results reveal no evidence for a magnet effect to the most generous welfare states in the world net of other recognized factors, and even suggest a negative influence linked to the region’s high cost of living. Migrants are instead drawn by the promise of social and political inclusion, migrating to destinations where co-ethnics have become full-fledged citizens.”

–“The analysis identifies seven different but overlapping narratives of digital sovereignty in the German discourse that serve to promote partly contradictory political agendas. We argue that this diversity is not a bug, but a feature. Specifically, it supports rich internarrative linkages which benefit the broader resonance of each individual narrative. It also enables a broad set of political actors to enlist digital sovereignty for their specific priorities.”

–“An often-overlooked fact about the US labor movement is that a majority of all union members live in just seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington.”

–“‘The standard story when I was growing up is that there really was no growth in antiquity, or the growth was so minuscule as to be irrelevant, and that what we really needed to explain was why was there no growth. Well, now it turns out we need to explain why there is growth.’ The estimated growth was really dramatic. By measures of consumption and population density, Greece in the age of Aristotle looked something like 17th century Holland, the gold standard of a pre-modern economy before the industrial revolution. ‘So it’s not just growth, it’s a lot of growth. So now that becomes the thing to explain.’”

–“Finally, the Dutch case offers an important rebuke to certain nationalist critiques of the European project, either from the left or the right, in which the European Union is cast as the domain of unelected Eurocrats, who endanger national sovereignty and enforce market discipline on unwilling nation states. . .The Dutch case, in contrast, shows how a strict, rule-based form of austerity policy was first the product of a largely domestic transformation, which was then transposed to the European level. It dovetails with interpretations of European political culture as a composite, defined more by the particular trajectories, ideas and interests of different national elites rather than a single supranational logic”.

–“These findings potentially also shed light on why the South went to war: the sharpening inequality between free southerners was increasingly politically untenable; for slavery and yeoman farming to co-exist, territorial expansion was required. Indeed, Williams (2010) argues that one of the reasons southern states seceded from the Union and went to war was that slaveholders realized that increasing inequality among whites threatened their position of political authority. They feared the possible sharpening of these inequalities thanks to the new federal government’s opposition to slavery’s expansion, constraints that could only be overcoming by seceding from the Union.”

–“By using a battery of structural vector autoregression (SVAR) models, we show that macroeconomic uncertainty shocks lead to lower inequality in income, earnings, and consumption. A one standard deviation uncertainty shock reduces the Gini coefficient for income after one and a half years, reaching a trough of 0.5% within 4 years. Consumption inequality drops faster, after only two quarters from the shock, while it reaches its maximum decline of 0.6% in 2 years. The response of the wage measure is also negative. It takes 4 years for the Gini of gross wage to reach its maximum drop of −0.25%. The response of all measures to the shock is negative, significant, and persistent for a long time.”

–“Surprisingly, we find that an intra-annual temperature volatility shock produces adverse effects on aggregate productivity in more developed regions (i.e., Europe and North America). In contrast, there are no significant evidence of temperature variability affecting productivity growth in South America and Africa. Unexpected changes in intra-annual temperature volatility come instead with good news in Asia.”

–“Today, it is almost impossible to identify an area of life that has not been radically transformed by the presence of petrochemicals. Whether as feedstocks for manufacture and agriculture, the primary ingredients of construction materials, cleaning products and clothing or the packaging that makes transport, storage and retail possible—all aspects of our social being are bound to a seemingly unlimited supply of cheap and readily disposable petrochemicals. Synthetic materials derived from petroleum have come to define the essential condition of life itself; simultaneously, they have become normalized as natural parts of our daily existence. This paradox must be fully confronted if we are to move beyond oil.”

–“Let us take the example of gender equality in the transmission and acquisition of citizenship. Women have long been deprived of the right to confer citizenship on their children and spouse on an equal basis with men. The introduction of discriminations towards women (DTW) in nationality laws followed distinct patterns and timeframes from one country to another. As Betty de Hart explains (2006: 52), DTW are less the ‘result of age-old patriarchal thinking’ than an ‘invention of the late-eighteenth century’, often driven by migration concerns. For example, in the United States, it is not until 1907 that authorities passed a law to deprive of their American citizenship women who married foreigners.”

–“While platforms in the gig labor sector have undoubtedly amassed considerable power, these approaches run the risk of overstating it. In contrast to Facebook, Google, or Amazon, most gig labor platforms offer in-person, local services for which network externalities are limited, thereby reducing a potent source of monopolistic power. Furthermore, many of them have not yet been capable of earning profits, which may limit their future reach. With respect to algorithmic control, a growing literature reveals the ways in which earners can learn to resist and “out- smart” algorithms . And as we note below, our research finds that the ability of algorithms and ratings to discipline and control workers varies considerably, both within and across platforms. With respect to the precarity approach, it downplays the technological innovations associated with platform work. It also tends not to recognize the ways in which gig earnings that supplement other sources reduce workers’ overall financial precarity, rather than increase it.”

–“A central political consequence – acknowledged in the report, but not explicitly addressed in the recommendations – is that more research, especially research designed to promote solar geoengineering activities, might raise expectations about solar geoengineering which could discourage emissions reductions and the societal transformation away from fossil fuels. This risk is termed ‘mitigation deterrence’ (McLaren 2016), and arises through political, social and economic tradeoffs. The risk of mitigation deterrence is demonstrated acutely by the increased interest in solar geoengineering among those opposed to investing in mitigation and those resisting efforts to reduce fossil fuel reliance (Ellison 2018).”

Sources. These are verbatim extracts from publications, mapeer-reviewed. If your interest has been piqued, citations are available on request.

Systemcide and the poet, Jorie Graham

–I liken one of our complexity challenges to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic).

So too the challenge of reading the first sequence of poems in Jorie Graham’s Fast (2017, Ecco HarperCollinsPublishers). This is an extraordinary 17 pages, not just because of pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes. In her words, “we are in systemcide”.

–To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others—is to experience all manner of starts—“I spent a lifetime entering”—and conjoined ends (“I say too early too late”) with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”)

Because hers is no single story, she sees no need to explain or explicate. By not narrativizing the systemicide into the architecture of beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

action unfolded in no temporality--->anticipation floods us but we/never were able--->not for one instant--->to inhabit time… 

She achieves the elision with long dashes or —>; also series of nouns without commas between; and questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running.

–Her lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths.

The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is my experience of the rush of crisis. I even feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since this is my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is a catastrophizer or not.

–I disagree about the crisis—for me, it has middles with more mess than beginnings and ends—but that in no way diminishes or circumscribes my sense she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

See also: Valery P. (1954). “Poetry and abstract Thought. The Zaharoff Lecure for 1939 at Oxford University,” Trans. Charles Guenther, The Kenyon Review 16(2), p. 211

Economics suspended in a jelly of verbiage

Economists insisted that heroic stakes were framed around Market Competition versus State Planning, with Competition winner of the palm. Who needs Illiquid Government when you have Liquid Markets?

Odd then when economists pointed out that their storied perfect competition (all price takers and constant returns to scale) would have undermined entrepreneurial capitalism.

Odd that always-late capitalism would not have been possible without imperfect competition (some price makers and increasing returns to scale) and without an important role for—what!—government policies fostering technological change. Odd too that liberalized capital markets turned out to mean the rougher seas of financial instability.

Odder was that criticism economists leveled against price-setting by planners who couldn’t possibly process all that complexity when everyone knows that price discovery through markets does so much better. Only later did they admit that basic market mechanisms like auctions can’t work because of the sheer complexity of the financial instruments to be auctioned. Which meant the planners had to get involved anyway.

Not odd then that Samuel Beckett’s “failing better” and Theodor Adorno’s “living less wrongly” have the better record.

Nothing’s ready-to-wear

–Contingency and complexity are everywhere and affect both intention and consequence. It’s not just that my good intentions may end up achieving the opposite; it’s not just my thoughtlessness may save others and myself from worse. It’s being uncomprehending of the why’s and how’s in either case. The self-cure is to be pre-occupied by other things.

–To be distracted from these preoccupations means hesitations and scruples over: what we know and do not know; what we experience as inexperience; and what we come to know as the very different kinds of difficulty. This is the alertness in finding something complicated, something no longer familiar or taken-for-granted, as when making unfamiliar connections that nonetheless resonate wildly.

–For example, what is missed in a preoccupation with existential threats, when the only ones are the two of being forced to leave because of one threat but forced to stay because of another? Climate migrants are driven out, but have nowhere else to go or wherewithal to do so. What’s missed is all the evidence that they don’t see themselves as victims.