Budgets and fingernails

–Berthe Morisot, the painter, wrote:

On Thursday Degas said the study of nature was trivial; painting being an art of convention, it was better to learn to draw after Holbein—that Édouard himself [her brother-in-law, Édouard Manet], though he prided himself on slavishly copying nature, was the most mannered painter in the world, never executing a brushstroke without thinking of the Old Masters, not putting fingernails on hands, for instance, because F[rans] Hals didn’t draw them.

What if our descriptions and evaluations of significant policy issues are are as mannered as Manet’s paintings? Namely: What’s missing in our so-called realism is in an important sense systematically left out.

–In the 1970s at the advent of policy analysis as its own field, a key indicator of what is now called “a failed state” was its inability to produce an annual government budget. That happens all over the place in the US today.

What I don’t understand is why such changes are taken to be proof that things have gotten worse. We can only conclude that if we have answered: How does what’s missing in the budgeting panorama from the 1970s to the present change our picture of it?

Would bringing back Manet’s missing fingernails change the manner in which we see his paintings? Maybe not. Would finding what’s missing about government budgeting change the manner in which we think about budgeting now? Maybe yes.

But either way, “What’s missing?,” is to be asked.

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

Recasting 9/11 through a Gerhard Richter painting

–In a 2002 interview, painter Gerhard Richter was asked if he would paint the 9/11 aircraft terrorists (as he’d done earlier with Baader-Meinhof members): “Definitely not. This horrific form of global terror is something I cannot fathom”.

“September 11 bothered me more than I expected,” Richter admitted later. By 2005, when an interviewer asked about a small painting appearing to show the World Trade Center’s towers, Richter said: “These here are only failed attempts. I couldn’t get this stereotypical image of the two towers, with the some billowing out of them across the deep blue sky, out of my mind.” He went on to say that the painting in question “couldn’t work; only when I destroyed it, so to speak, scratched it off, was it fit to be seen”.

–Below is his September, a 2005 photo-painting of the event and relatively small at approximately 28” x 20”:

The image you are seeing was rendered from a photograph showing the south tower of the World Trade Center as it was hit. As to the specific photo, it was, in Richter’s words, “very typical. . .Colorful—red, yellow, fire” “I painted it first in full colour, and then I had to slowly destroy it. . .

–“I failed,” he told a friend; the painting “shows my helplessness. In German, my scheitern, failure.”

A failure? Really? What do you think? Is the painting in a failed state?

Look at September again. Do you see the active, living absence of the deep red and yellow that initially tripped Richter up? By extension, do you see the active, living absence of the new democracies to come into being this century from presently failing states, including—dare we say—parts of the US?

Principal sources


Storr, R. (2010). September. A History Painting by Gerhard Richter. Tate Publishing, London

What the “I-told-you-so” experts got wrong about the pandemic

“We told you there’d be a pandemic and you didn’t listen to us!” I’m a bit sour after hearing more than a handful of our public health experts say this again and again, even now.

So I relish this opportunity to register my own “I told you so!” to the same experts. “I’m now telling you you’ve been talking to the wrong people all along!”

–It’s clear that the people who should have been informed about the dangers of a pandemic were not among the people addressed by these experts. I have in mind the professionals who operate in real time our critical infrastructures, like water, electricity, telecommunications and transportation. No one told those men and women in the control rooms and out in the field that Covid would wreak such havoc as it did in systems mandated to be so reliable.

From our interviews in Oregon and Washington State, it’s obvious no one predicted the actual, mega-impacts and interruptions that Covid has had on the real-time operations of essential infrastructures, there or beyond. You probably already know essential workers were sent home to work offsite. Less known perhaps is the fact that those on-site had to get vaccinated, and of course some very experienced personnel left. Far less appreciated, Covid put a brake on major infrastructure investment, improvement and management activities. Said one logistic manager of his state’s response, “All [Covid-19] planning happened on the fly, we were building the plane as it moved, we’d never seen anything like this.”

“Covid was a wake-up call,” we were told again and again by our interviewees, not something you’d expect to hear had the case actually been: “We told you there’d be a pandemic and you didn’t listen to us!”

–The fact of the matter is experts were talking to the wrong decisionmakers. Too many of Covid experts seem to operate under two misleading beliefs: their public role is to convince key politicians and officials about what to do, even if privately they know the real problem is bad politics, driven by too much following-the-dollar, and run by jerks.

Both beliefs are naive in a pandemic world. We wouldn’t have an economy, we wouldn’t have markets, if it weren’t for electricity, water, telecoms and transportation being reliable. Yet to my knowledge the professionals responsible for real-time operations in the infrastructures were never specifically warned, were never specifically talked to, and certainly never had a chance to listen to our pandemic experts, intent as they were on convincing the engorged bladder of a then-president.

–So: Pandemic experts, the next time around it’s you who are going to fail because those who didn’t listen were those you didn’t care to know, let alone talk to.

Authoritative website for real-time decisionmaking on pastoralists and pastoralisms

–I’m proposing there be an authoritative website established for real-time decisionmaking concerning livestock herders and their systems worldwide.

–An authoritative website provides sought-after, up-to-date and linked knowledge so quickly and reliably that it is continuously browsed by increasing numbers of users who click on the website early and often in their search for on-point information, in this case about pastoralists.

  • These websites do not pretend to provide final or definitive information, but rather seek to assure and ensure the quality of the topical information continually up-dated.
  • The website serves as a clearinghouse that encourages cross-checking and tailoring of information on, e.g., pastoral development, while also acting as a springboard for future information search and exchange. It is popular because it shortens the number of steps to search for salient information.
  • Well-known U.S. example: Going online to http://www.mayoclinic.org after an initial cancer diagnosis.

–In our illustrative scenario, the policy type, analyst or manager starts her analysis on pastoralist development by searching–let’s give it a name–http://www.Multiplatform_Pastoralism.org

  • She goes to this website on the well-established better practice that information becomes increasingly policy or management relevant when the people gathering the information are the ones who actually use that information.
  • That is, the authoritative website is constructed and maintained as a platform to make real-time searching and browsing easier for searchers, not least of whom are project and program managers.
  • It is authoritative because: (1) it is online, that is, can be kept up-to-date in ways other media can’t; and (2) it is digital, that is, can be curated for salient multimedia, including but not limited to: video, podcast, blogs, reports, articles, chatrooms, graphics-rich tutorials, advice line (“ask the professionals”), and its own YouTube channel.

–Who funds, provides content, and curates such a website is, of course, the question, e.g., a consortium of researchers, centers, journals and foundations. Language will of course be an obstacle, insurmountable in some cases.

But the broader point I’m making here remains the same:


Another take on livestock pastoralists

  1. Pastoralists are intermedial.

Where pastoralist activities resist fuller point-in-time description, then:

  • Not only is more longitudinal study appropriate, e.g., to see at work a pastoralist’s multiple roles—herder, livestock marketer, youth/elder, etc.
  • Multiple media are also needed to capture the multicursal diversity, e.g., media ranging from participatory mapping to documentaries, with other representational modes in between and beyond.
  • The aim would be to create an intermedial composite of pastoralist activities over time.

Why “intermedial pastoralist”?

  • A composite depiction questions reduced-form development narratives while at the same time calls for more complex ones on which to proceed.
  • A limitation with the current (written/verbal) medium is that if you mention something positive about pastoralist practice, like “managing uncertainty better,” someone—even a colleague—feels compelled to counter, “But you also have to foreground all the threats to pastoralists. . .”
  • An intermedial depiction can usefully complicate any tit-negative for tat-positive interchange.

To rely on single-media of representation, as in conventional research (even with the occasional photo) risks studying not pastoralists, but pastoralists, a trace marker or spoor for what eludes us.

  • So what’s the problem?
  • Answer: Pastoralist are multidimensionally, demonstrably complex—just as are some policy types who disparage them.

  1. Pastoral areas are platforms for meeting and contact in spatially and temporally distributed networks.

It isn’t just that pastoralist households have off-site activities with household members elsewhere who contribute from there to on-site pastoralist activities.

Rather: It’s more appropriate to say that a good deal of the pastoralism is done off-site in some cases, just as what was once platform trading on the floor of a stock exchange is now done elsewhere on a different platform (e.g., the Hong Kong Stock Exchange).

Or to shift the analogy: If one were writing up a history of pastoral activities at the home site, it would be like writing the history of the UK Parliament isolated to the structure on the Thames. It’s more accurate to say the UK Parliament is a meeting platform or contact zone for members whose parliamentary activities are importantly dispersed. So too pastoralist home sites.

  1. Pastoralist practices, not pastoralism.

Any whiggish temptation is to be resisted when assessing pastoralist systems, i.e., “they have evolved to this point for the better—no, for the worse!” “Better” and “worse” need to be made explicit with respect to pastoralists as intermedial composites networked with changing pastoral sites as hubs for contingent interaction.

This means that extra-care is needed to reflect the fuller set of actually-existing practices that follow from recasting pastoralist areas as meeting platforms and pastoralists as intermedial. How so?

  • I’m not sure everyone would agree that pastoralist better practices include all those unofficial (read: clandestine) networks that sub-Saharan migrants to Europe and elsewhere rely on to resist surveillance and capture.
  • The practices have included encrypted communications, secret locations and multiplicity of efforts to counter the informatics of domination and the technologies of coercion.
  • Note the practices fit in—uncomfortably—with the reduced form narratives of national policy types that resident pastoralists are “outside the state’s control.”

Missing racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–If one out of every two African American males between 18 and 45 were enmeshed in the criminal justice system, as in some of large American cities then, why ever wasn’t that other African-American male on the cover of Newsweek and Time—rather than O.J. Simpson—as a model for us all if only because here is someone who survived against very high odds?

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

Bringing the frame into the picture

Stanley Cavell, the 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 it in, a very different picture would result.

A wonderful story passed on by the poet, Donald Hall, illuminates the point. 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?

And do you?

Systemcide in the poetry of 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

The mutability of intractable

–I can’t be the only one struck by the affinity between those 19th century novels whose plots were driven by coincidence after coincidence all the way to a happy ending and today’s crisis narratives where one mistake after another has led to certain disaster.

–Too often “do-something-now!” is said with the same urgency felt by a 19th century Yankee poet wanting to commemorate another Civil War battle.

–New defense mechanism? We plan so as to avoid realizing we confront not discrete events with causal consequences but contingencies with disproportionate effects about which we little or no causal understanding.

–The obstinate truth remains that the costs to society of confronting limitless disaster scenarios is set by the dangers of ignoring vicious, cratering disasters easier to identify, assess and know.

–The painter Gérard Fromanger pointed out that a blank canvas is also ‘‘black with everything every painter has painted before me’’. If also, as the painter František Kupka felt, “to abstract is to eliminate,” then stripping away the layers of black-on-black is akin to abstracting blankness.

Yet how do many react when confronting the obscured canvasses of policy? Let’s sweep the table clear, make a clean slate, start over again, strip it all clear. Few see these for the dangerous abstractions they are.

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

The messes that are happiness

–Psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, writes the “problem is that people seem pleased to use this one word [happiness] to indicate a host of different things, which has created a tremendous terminological mess on which several fine scholarly careers have been based”. He adds: “If one slops around in this mess long enough, one comes to see that most disagreements about what happiness really is are semantic disagreements about whether the world ought to be used to indicate this or that. . . “.

Let’s think more of happiness as a mess. “How can that mess be managed better?” is an important policy question then, if only because public policy has something to do with making people happy.

–Start with the macro-design node for happiness. For years, we have been told that it is a right, or at least the pursuit of happiness is self-evident truth. We’ve also been told that the more income—purchasing power—we have, the happier we will be.

Yet the systemwide patterns recognized, our second node of analysis, consistently fall short of these macro-principles. Vast swathes of the world don’t agree on what that right to happiness means. Data showed that, after a point, more income does not mean we become happier. “People in rich countries are generally happier than people in poor countries. But once basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are more or less universally met—high gross domestic product does not seem to make societies happier,” John Kay, Financial Times economist, once put it. When a country passes a threshold level of income, the correlation between the happiness of its people and the nation’s aggregate wealth has been weak, studies found. Worse, affluence can make people unhappier. It was reported that in the US as income doubled or more, yet the percentage of people saying they were very happy remained by and large constant.

Nor do localized scenarios of design principles, our third node of analysis, conform to their originating macro-design assumptions. Specific regions of the world are happy in unprincipled ways, it seems, with (1) Latin American countries registering far more subjective happiness than one would have predicted from their economic status and (2) Africans optimistic in the face of documented travails.

This takes us to the last node, the level of individual micro-operator. We were told for years that happiness, like personal utility, was next to impossible to compare with others. Even as social-psychological measures improved for the comparison of interpersonal happiness, strong evidence remained that individuals often are not very good at predicting what will make them happy, or unhappy for that matter.

–Almost just as worrisome, the temptation has been to jump from pattern recognition to macro-design bypassing all the mess in between. Since the marginal utility of a dollar is higher from poorer people that for richer, since the gains in happiness are palpably greater among poorer people than losses are among richer people, since more affluence above a point can make people unhappy and since people care a great deal about their relative income, therefore it is better to tax the rich (if simply to contain their unhappy rat race), transfer that money to the poor, and make incomes overall more equal. Many still believe these syllogisms.

I’d rather first know just what those in the middle of these four nodes are doing about sorting out this happiness mess. Who reliably translates the systemwide patterns and localized scenarios into what we can call happiness or provide those services that lead to that happiness?

–Typically, the initial answer is our network of family, friends, partners—those immediate social relationships that matter for personal happiness. Less typically mentioned is the networked wraparound of large infrastructures for water, electricity, transportation and telecommunications, without which society-wide happiness would be even more of a gamble.

Who would have thought that, as these wraparound services wither in the name of hollowing out the state, individual happiness reduces to the techno-speak of being one’s own full-time “infrastructure” manager!