Table of key entries

Most Important: “What am I missing?,” “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Power”

Big Policy Issues: “Poverty and war,” “Healthcare,” “Second thoughts on income inequality,” “Surprising climate change,” “In a failed state” Forthcoming: “Interconnected?”

Recasting the intractable: “Policy narratives,” “Recastings #1,” “Loose ends, #3,” “When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel” Forthcoming: “A new take on traffic messes”

Not-knowing and its proxies: “Seeing unknowns,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Managing inexperience,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal,” “By way of distraction…”

Ignorance and uncertainty: “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Uncertain superlatives”

Risk and root causes: “With respect to what?,” “Half-way risk,” “Central role of the track record in risk analysis,” “Root causes,” “Frau Hitler, again” Forthcoming: “Stopping rules, system failure and societal values,” “A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Ten points, easily missed, on system risk and failure scenarios

Environment: “Nature,” “Tansley’s ecosystem,” “Eco-labelling recasted”

Catastrophe and crisis: “Catastrophizing cascades,” “Jorie Graham’s systemcide,” “The shame of it all,” “Next-ism,” “The future is the mess we’re in now”

More mess, good and bad: “Loose ends, #2,” “Top-of-the-list thinking,” “Take-home messages,” “Who pays?,” “Happiness: The mess”

Betterment and good-enough: “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “It’s better between the James brothers,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” “Professional, amateur, apprentice; Or, As good as Manet’s (missing) fingernails,” “‘at sea,’ ‘from on high’”

Economism: “Economism,” “Keep it simple?,” “Loose ends,” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “Short and not sweet,” “The missing drop of realism” Forthcoming: “The market failure economists don’t talk about”


–The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) states “healthcare” is one of the nation’s critical infrastructures sectors, along with others like large-scale water and energy supplies.

Infrastructures, however, vary considerably in their mandates to provide vital services safely and continuously. The energy infrastructure differs depending on whether it is for electricity or natural gas, while the latter two differ from large-scale water supplies (I’ve studied all three). Yet the infrastructures for water and energy, with their central control rooms, are more similar when compared to, say, education or healthcare without such centralized operations center.

What would healthcare look like if it were managed more like other infrastructures that have centralized control rooms and systems, such as those for water and energy? Might the high reliability of infrastructural elements within the healthcare sector be a major way to better ensure patient safety?

–Four points are raised by way of answer:

 (1) High reliability theory and practice suggest that the manufacture of vaccines and compounds, by way of example, can be made reliable and safe, at least up to the point of injection. Failure in those back-end processes is exceptionally notable—as in the fungal meningitis contamination at the New England Compounding Center—because failure is preventable.

When the perspective is on medical error, the patient is at the center of the so-called sharp-end of the healthcare system. But healthcare reliability is a set of processes that includes the capacities and performance of upstream and wraparound organizations. When dominated by considerations of the sharp-end, we overlook—at our peril—the strong-end of healthcare with its backward linkages for producing medicines and treatments reliably and safely.

(2) If healthcare were an infrastructure more like those with centralized control centers, the importance of societal dread in driving reliable service provision would be dramatically underscored.

Aside from that special and important case of public health emergencies, civic attitudes toward health and medical safety lack the public dread we find to be the key foundation of support for the level of reliability pursued in other infrastructures, such as nuclear power and commercial aviation.

It is true healthcare confronts widespread social expectations and demands for high levels of reliable and safe service with potentially high costs for lapses or error. Yet commission of medical errors hasn’t generated the level of public dread associated with nuclear meltdowns or jumbo-jetliners dropping from the air. Medical errors, along with fires in medical facilities, are often “should-never-happen events,” not “must-never-happen events.”

What would generate the widespread societal dread needed to produce “must-never-happen” behavior? Answer: Getting medical treatment kills or maims you unless managed reliably and safely.

This answer may seem perverse but it is not fanciful. Put aside the horror-story medical errors (operating on the wrong eye) and consider only illnesses that arise exclusively in medical facilities and can kill (e.g., hospital-acquired diarrhea). Or consider the wider healthcare system we already have, e.g., rising healthcare costs as a percentage of GDP threatens to consume the entire US economy at current rates of increase (when I started looking at healthcare it was 12% of GDP; now it’s some 18%).

Perhaps the closest we get to something like a healthcare system that kills us unless managed so as not to is the spread of deadly contagious diseases through lapses in quarantine security in the public organizations concerned. But that again is in the public health sector rather than the focus here, which is the healthcare sector as a whole. But this of course raises the counter-prospect of considering all healthcare to be in the public health sector. . .

(3) To mention “the patient” within the infrastructure perspective offered here raises a major question: To what extent is the patient his or her own reliability manager in healthcare?

True, one important role of patients and their support groups is to combat any complacency in patient treatment by healthcare professionals. That said, the patient does not share the same situational awareness that his or her team/network of healthcare professionals may have about the him or her, and even then, the healthcare professionals may not have team situational awareness like that we have observed in water or electricity control rooms.

More, the electricity or water user is a reliability manager typically only during severe water or energy shortages, when their participation and collective mindfulness in rationing is critical. Is a reliable patient necessary for a reliable healthcare system during high demand times (and again not just in a public health emergency) in the same way as energy-conscious or water-conserving consumers need to be during their high use times?

How a reliable and safe healthcare system encourages a more reliable healthcare consumer would be akin to asking how does a reliable grid or water supply encourage the electricity or water consumer to be energy or water conscious. Presumably, the movement to bring real-time monitoring healthcare technology into the patient’s habitation is increasingly part of the calculus.

(4) In all this focus on the patient, it mustn’t be forgotten that there are healthcare control rooms beyond those of manufacturers of medicines mentioned above: Think most immediately of the pharmacy systems inside and outside hospitals and their pharmacists/prescriptionists as reliability professionals. Similarly there have long been efforts to bring “real-time operations centers” directly into the hospital and selected units.

–One response to preceding points is to resist their implications and insist on treating healthcare from the doctor’s or specialist’s perspective as a craft or crafts surrounded by infrastructure elements.

In this view, the doctor and nurse/specialist and pharmacist are craftspeople, while the rest is the support end or business side. Healthcare, accordingly, isn’t nor could it ever be like other “infrastructures.” (I’ll leave aside the fact that control room operators in major infrastructures are themselves craftspeople responsible for far more lives in real time than hospital staff!)

To see healthcare as “all about the patient” is, however, to imply that reducing medical error at the sharp-end is a priority, even when this focus dilutes attention and diverts management from the prevention of key production and distribution errors in healthcare without which patient safety doesn’t stand a chance.

Further, it isn’t just that there may be a “bigger bang for the added buck” in reducing some kinds of error in the strong-end of healthcare than in the sharp-end. It is also that some of the more routine or engineered processes in the infrastructure-end can be enhanced to standards of high reliability while those at the sharp-end cannot.

Note: I believe much of the above holds for parts of veterinary care and the public health sector, but leave that discussion for another time. I thank Paul Schulman for many discussions, suggestions, and points; the provocations that remain are mine alone.

Good-enough dreamers

–When the self comes as a version of the carver, Michelangelo famously put the task as liberating form from stone. The real self is the revealed form that already exists, when you chip away the surplusage.

Adrian Stokes, art critic and poet, took the distinction and extended it. For Stokes and in contrast to the carver, the modeler fashions the self. The modeler of clay has the more labile enterprise of molding, where the form is “not uncovered but created.” “The modeler realizes his design with clay. Unlike the carver, he does not envisage that the conception is enclosed in his raw material.” In comparison to stone, “the plastic material has no ‘rights’ of its own. It is a formless mud used, very likely, to make a model for bronze or brass. Modeling is a much more ‘free’ activity than carving”. (Think of “modeling” not as computer simulation but as Stokes did, molding).

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips returned to Stokes’s distinction as two distinct approaches to an individual’s selfhood and experience: “It is as though there are things that are always already there which we may or may not find; and there are things which we make, which we put there and by so doing add something to the world that wasn’t there previously”. What interests Phillips is that “[e]ach of these two versions involves us in telling a different kind of story about the self”. The modeler “uses his art to expose, to extend, to fashion himself”, while the carver abstains from promoting the self in favor of responding to the otherness of the object. Yet in both, a version of the self is operating—“the carver forgets himself…the modeler endorses himself”.

The difficulty with the carver is that, in seeing herself as releasing what is already there, she renders herself oddly immune to criticism by a world that responds nevertheless; it is as if she submerges her own egotism in the name of making what is revealed wholly visible as its own, regardless. The difficulty with the molder (our modeler) is the reverse. It is her hubris, her own truth that is imposed upon a seemingly labile reality. She acts as if reality knows it’s worse off for not having this truth. In such ways, while carver and modeler gravitate around different versions of the self, both have an acute sense of being better than just good enough. And these selves—the ones that are already there or must be created to be there—are increasingly appealed to in human rights and sustainable development.

–What works better, carving or modeling? It depends. It’s not one or the other; rather it is, “yes, but” or “yes, and.” It is premature to choose between the two versions of self when other selves exist from which to elect. To carving stone and modeling clay, we must at least add improvising the self from what is at hand, which involves something different—good-enough but in ways that matter better still than stone, clay and such, if you will.

What Phillips calls “the contingent self” is one who makes use of luck, accident, and coincidence—those surprises we have been discussing throughout the blog—that befall him or her. S/he improvises a life within a network of others that improvises them. And what can be more good enough, for improvising humans, than “just at hand” contingency to be made use of?

–Carving, modeling, and now, good-enough improvising: Which works better overall? Or to put it from the other direction: What other self/selves are we missing? In answer, start by slotting carving, modeling and improvising into a two-by-two typology for versions of the self.  One dimension is the degree to which the external world resists your agency (that imposition of your version of the self onto the world); the other dimension is the degree to which your agency independently seeks to impose control on the external world:

In this way of thinking, the carver has no choice but to reveal the self that is already there even as the world resists this imposition. In contrast, the modeler actively molds his or her own image onto a world that seems to little resist this imposition. The improviser takes what the world throws forth and deliberately recasts it, if not audaciously then good enough as and when it matters.

–But what version of a self, if any, fills the fourth cell, one where there is low agency and little external resistance? I can think of several candidates but for our purposes here, think of that fourth cell as Dreaming.

The dreaming self, as I see it, differs orthogonally from the versions of carver, modeler and good-enough improviser. When one dreams, one’s selfhood “holds fast” without really seeming to try. Dreaming is not just there, it’s all that is there, or so it seems at the time. Dreaming is paradigmatically “low agency and little external resistance:” It is not being in full control internally while external factors are not in full control either.

–Now to blur the gridlines in order to see better. I want to suggest good enough is about good-enough improvisers and their dreams not being in complete control. This in turn contrasts with carvers or modelers with their sense of seeking better-than-just good enough.

Unlike progress or economic growth which promises a magic of rising tides and bigger pies, good enough works on the premise that if policy and management are about fulfilling our dreams, then it is far better to think of policy and management as that magic animal skin, which in the process of realizing each new wish, shrinks smaller and smaller—until nothing is left to realize what is wished for by way of policy or by way of management.

Each enacted wish—each dream-in-action—could turn against you, waylay and maroon you on the shoals of simplification or the overly complex, requiring all kinds of subsequent corrective wishes—and before you know it, you’ve run out of options.

But that’s the very point. To mindlessly lose options is: Just. Not. Good. Enough.

Principal sources.

Phillips, A. (1994). On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

————– (2004). On not making it up, Or the varieties of creative experience. Salmagundi, no. 143 (Summer): 56-75.

Stokes, A.  (1978). The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, Volume I: 1930-1937, Thames and Hudson: GB.

Managing inexperience

Inexperience is identified as a major factor in other financial crazes than that of the 2008 financial meltdown. To see this we turn to an account of the 1720s financial fiascos of the South Sea Bubble in Great Britain and France’s counterpart, the Mississippi Scheme, by historian Frederick Scott Oliver in his 1930-1935 The Endless Adventure.

The three volumes of The Endless Adventure–long out of print, dated in some of its language, but much worth reading still–were well-regarded by the reading public and luminaries, like T.S. Eliot. The passage in question is quoted at some length in order to draw out a key point about inexperience (and anyway, I miss these high-alpine views of history):

At the present day the simplest investor or the most junior Treasury clerk would be suspicious of such over-generous promises; but in 1720 even less was known than is known now of the mysterious laws that control the currents of a nation’s prosperity. Our own generation, as it glances backward and downward into the eighteenth century, can of course discern without difficulty the points at which an earlier race of statesmen blundered off the highway and fell among brakes and briars and morasses. Viewed from our present altitude, the road of safety shows so white and unmistakable in the foothills below us that we find it hard to understand how men of intelligence and probity could possibly have allowed their steps to stray. The most facile explanation is corruption, or else of shameful ignorance.

Our amazement, however, will be lessened, our censure may be tempered, if we pause to consider a nearer past, or if we turn our gaze forward and upward, where the as-yet-unbeaten track of the twentieth century winds out of sight among mists and mountain peaks. What lies immediately behind us is only trifle less obscure than what rises up in front. We are not yet come high enough to survey the last fifteen years in a flat projection. We have travelled, as it were, by a forest path very baffling to an ordinary man’s sense of direction; by a steep ascent, at times darker than twilight, with many a corkscrew turn and hairpin bend. We can recall in a confused and broken memory that we have come through a period of miscalculations without number and that, time and again, the predictions of the wisest statesmen and economists have been proved false by events that followed shortly after. Our guides misled us, though they were for the most part honest men who knew by rote the maxims of their financial craft as it was practised by the civilised world at the beginning of the year 1914….

But new and undreamed-of conditions produced universal derangement. Discredit fell upon the most approved principles, and so many strange heresies appeared to thrive, that mankind, panting for a new heaven and a new earth, was not unwilling to listen seriously to new guides, who vaunted the efficacy of specifics hardly less fantastic than the Mississippi Scheme and the South Sea Bubble. Those new guides were possibly as honest as the old ones, but it was certainly no less dangerous to follow where they beckoned. In doing so how often have we lost our way and been obliged painfully to retrace our steps! And yet it is not unlikely that, a hundred years hence, every political writer, every man of business, every intelligent undergraduate will be able to discern clearly the causes of our recent and present troubles. The road to safety may then appear to them so obvious, that our own failure to find and follow it will excite not only their amazement but their suspicions. They may find it as hard to believe that our faults were nothing worse than the innocent blindness of inexperience, as we do to believe that the French and English nations in the year 1720 were not criminal lunatics, or as we do to acquit the statesmen of those two countries of complicity in a series of gigantic frauds.

“Quite right!” I say, but then again, the quizzical eye turns to that reiterated honest men duped by inexperience.

Does this mean our officials should get a free get-out-of-jail card because they are inexperienced? Stay with Oliver a bit longer.

For Oliver, politics as governing requires apprenticeship because governing is intricate: “Methods that experience and necessity have evolved by slow degrees are bound to be complicated…”, and it takes time to learn what is complicated and how to deal with them. Second, much of what passes for current administration conspires to distance the politician (and senior officials) from gaining more experience:

To-day, when a man of business or a cabinet minister is in doubt, or is at issue with his colleagues, he calls for a report. A host of technical advisers stands at his beck and call. A vast machinery lies ready to his hand. . . .[N]early everything he learns is learned at second hand, so that the true nature of the problem is rarely visible to his eyes. When his colleagues ask him questions—sometimes pertinent and sometimes foolish—he can neither satisfy them out of hand with sound reasons, nor can he answer them according to their folly. He promises a supplementary report; and so the game goes on.

We know that few investors or traders in the mid-2000s leading up to the 2008 financial crisis had any shared institutional memory or working knowledge of the preceding major financial debacle, the 1998 collapse of Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund. We also know that the turnover in political and business experience has been shortening over the last decades, in the one case due to term limits and political burnout and in the other case due to economic churn. The only redemptive feature in this is a messy this-worldly realism, according to Oliver:

If we eventually escape from our present perplexities, it will not be because theorists have discovered some fine new principle of salvation; or because newspapers have scolded and pointed angry fingers at this one or that; or because we, their readers, have become excited and have demanded that ‘something must be done.’ It will be because. . .have ‘jumbled something’ out of their contentions that will be of advantage to their country.

There of course are no guarantees. More important is this for Oliver: It isn’t that experience in the craft of politics enables the practitioner to better see the future. Rather, experience enables the demanding present to be seen more for what it is, now:

The circumstances that surrounded were complicated and bewildering; the gleams that guided him were intermittent and often of a twilight dimness. A statesman so situated must do much by guess-work… Prophetic statesmen are a fairly common variety of the species, but those who not only foresee things but foresee them truly are among the rarest of human products. [The chief minister] made no pretensions to the gift of prophecy. Man of genius though he was, he owed little to his imagination. He excelled his colleagues, and opponents, and indeed every statesman in Europe, not in penetration of the hidden future, but in the clearness with which he saw things present, and in the accuracy with which he could judge by the lights or darkness of the horizon what weather might be looked for on the morrow. And he excelled them most of all in the rapidity with which his mind arranged in their true proportions the most diverse and unexpected events. (my bold)

Whether this description of the chief minister in question has stood the test of time, I can’t say.

What the passage does still describe, however, are professionals who confront and balance experience and inexperience and have a track record of learning what they do and do not know to avoid worse. If we are to trust people to manage later they must be managing now. Their leadership, if you want to call it that, is the management of today’s inexperience with a tomorrow yet-to-come but in light of past experience in having done so before. They must be experienced enough to manage inexperience. Note the corollary: Yes, it’s true that inexperience may well start in the individual, but experience may just as well end up across individuals, untraceably distributed and shared.


Scene 1

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

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

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

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

Scene 2

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

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

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

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

  • “A writer doesn’t know what his intentions are until he’s done writing,” says poet, Robert Penn Warren. Even when the writing is done, poets “are apt to discover that what they decide to express is not everything their poems say,” writes Anne Stevenson, herself a poet, adding: “Nothing in my experience is more important about the writing of poems than that they should surprise you; that while you are submitting to their rigorous demands of rhythms and sounds they find a way of saying things you never meant to say or never knew you knew.” 
  • “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” asks a character of novelist, E.M. Forster. “Therefore, till my work is finished, I never know exactly what result I shall reach, or if I shall arrive at any,” wrote Alex de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill. “I do not know what I think until I have tried to write it,” said political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. “I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would,” confesses Stacy Schiff, biographer.
  • “You never know what you’re filming until later,” remarks a narrator in Chris Marker’s 1977 film Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge. “You start a painting and it becomes something altogether different. It’s strange how little the artist’s will matters,” adds Picasso (and any number of other artists). In like fashion, “one important reason for making drawings, I imagine, is not to draw a likeness of what one sees, but to find out what it is you see,” adds poet and art critic, James Schuyler. Goethe noted “my tendency to look at the world through the eyes of the painter whose pictures I have seen last”.
  • Harrison Birtwistle describes his process of composing a piece of music: “I know what it is before I’ve even written it, but in other ways I don’t know at all. As I unravel it, it never turns out to be what you think it’s going to be”. J.M. Coetzee, Nobel novelist, manages to make all this sound commonplace: “Truth is something that comes in the process of writing, or comes from the process of writing”.
  • More, there are other ways to “write as thinking.” Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss would record different points on separate note cards and then deal “them out randomly in the hope of finding unexpected correlations”. “As Beatrice Webb [UK reformer] rightly said, the very process of shuffling notes can be intellectually fertile. It helps one to make new connections and it raises questions to which one must try to find an answer,” writes historian Keith Thomas. Those who, as sociologist C. Wright Mills commended, sort out their files can have just this sense of making hitherto-unseen associations and connections.

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

Scene 3

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

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

For me, it’s not good enough to say power is primarily about that A making that B do something instead. Nor is it good enough to say power is primarily about controlling the decision agenda or determining peoples’ interests without them knowing it. At least when it comes to the policy and management issues with which I am familiar, power isn’t concentrated or dispersed by interests, full stop. The power I am talking about lies in surprise and, since surprise is that chief feature of complexity, surprise and its power should be thought of as complex from the get-go. Again: Complex is about as simple as it gets.

Scene 4

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

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

The objective correlative of contingency is power. Where so, the great threat to addressing power is to think there is an outside to contingency and to assume that asking a question requires first knowing what qualifies as an answer. Some of the most potent answers start out, provisionally, as distractions from the original question. When you think about it, these distractions are a bit like asking, “What is more important, power or contingency?”, and being told, “But that’s like asking which chopstick is the fork…”

Central role of the track record in risk analysis

–Assume you, a competent specialist, have been tasked to undertake a risk analysis for an energy utility that provides electricity, natural gas, or both to a large region of major urban, agricultural and natural resource users.

The utility wants to identify risks and uncertainties that, if left (further) unaddressed, would have severe consequences for its operations (think: induced wildfires or pipeline explosions). Utility operations, including the technologies, are so complex that “accidents are waiting to happen,” when unidentified and/or unattended.

Your analysis begins conventionally by identifying and isolating weak or vulnerable elements in the utility operations, be they in physical structures or in specific tasks (think: corrosion in pipes or so-called operator error). No chain is stronger than its weakest link, so the wisdom goes, and if the utility doesn’t know the weakest, then operations are in an important respect merely failing to fail.

That conventional point of departure focusing on the weaker or weakest links no longer takes risk assessment and management far enough, and honestly it would be irresponsible to stop there.

In the first place, you are not dealing with chains of processes and technologies only. It is the system of operations that is the unit of your risk analysis, and indeed the utility operates its electricity or natural gas system as a system. This means that if it loses an element it frequently has another way or ways to maintain service across the system as a whole. This applies as well when the lost element is the weak link—not always, of course; but more frequently than you might suppose.

Which leads to our second problem with a weak-link focus on the part of the risk analyst. Not only was the utility’s system originally designed to have back-ups for handling contingencies and failures, the important point is managerial: The strength of the utility’s operations derives in good part from its weak links, and not in spite of them. The gas operations of the utility are as reliable and safe as they are because it is known that those pipes corrode that way under these conditions. Not only is the weak link frequently known, it has many eyes focused on it, particularly if it is already recognized to be a chokepoint for real-time systemwide operations.

–In fact, when conventional analysis is pushed further, risk isn’t the “negative” that determines the standard or remedy to correct; the standard of safety and reliability adopted determines the risks requiring managing to meet that standard.

Standards, to be standards, need constant testing to ensure they are not overly simple or overly complex with respect to the safety and reliability mandated. That is, the standards of service reliability and safety—in order to function as standards—require managing the entailed risks and uncertainties as the chief way to test the efficacy of the standards. This makes risk a positive, not a negative, when it comes to management.

–When so, the logical and empirical prior question that the analyst in our thought experiment has to answer becomes this: Have the utility managers demonstrated a real-time track record by way of experience and training in addressing circumstances under which (1) they didn’t know what they initially thought they knew, (2) they in fact knew more than they initially thought, (3) or both?

If the track record is one of success (measured in terms of ensuring system reliability and safety), then the analyst can better trust the utility’s system operators and immediate support to know and appreciate how inexperienced they still are when it matters. But the existence of any such record must remain an open question for the analyst.

I cannot over-stress the importance of this track record. For the major risk factors may already be well-known by real-time system operators. It’s not a matter that key risks are unknown or invisible to them. Which is to say that it’s the track record that is the proper unit of analysis for our inquiring risk analyst.

Is there a track record of learning-and-unlearning by utility operators and support staff around, say, meeting the challenges their equipment fires pose to system reliability and safety? Or are equipment fires something consultants and others worry more about than utility operators, who worry about different risks over which there is a track record of more real-time learning/unlearning? Or are some utilities under such pressure to change as systems that track records of any important sort become more and more difficult to establish?

Related entry: “Seeing unknowns”

Betterment as “yes-but” through “yes-and”

“I in fact believe that we possess valid criteria for judging when criticism is good and when it is bad…But I also think it is a mistake to assume, and self-defeating to pretend, that these criteria are simple and obvious….To get progressively clearer to the multiple and interdependent discriminations involved requires the evolving give-and-take of dialogue…[W]hen a proponent says, ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ his interlocutor will reply, ‘Yes, but. . .'”   M.H. Abrams, literary critic

“The motto on his shield is a bold ‘YES BUT—.’” Dwight Macdonald, the critic writing of himself

“Remember, I started out learning and appreciating literature at the time of the Black Arts Movement, when people were saying, ‘Look at what’s around you. Look at the people around you. Look at all that music around you.’ I was learning poetry at that time. So I was learning poetry when people were saying, ‘We don’t need no poems about trees. We need poems about the people.’ That was one of the things that you would hear from the people who wanted a certain kind of community poetry. But see, you’ve got a guy like me who’s listening to that, and I’ve been twelve miles out on the Bermuda reef and working in Alaska. My job was with nature. So when I picked up the Black Arts Movement, I picked it up with, ‘Yeah, yeah. But—.'”  Ed Roberson, poet

This entry’s upshot: Betterment is the realization that very difficult issues of politics and policy where inexperience still matters are made sense of and advanced by getting to point of having to say, “Yes, but” or more “Yes, and.” “Yes, it is complex; but it’s worth pushing this matter further…” The part that is “yes” is affirmation that taking a decision does matter; the part that is “but” or “and” is the insistence that the follow-on also matters. Another way to put it is that the “not-yets” we end up calling the future are opened up and preserved by insistent “and-yets” of the present. Our duty of care is to say and show how “even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it needs to be pushed further if we are to see what can be done…”


A great deal of US politics and policy is caught up in the yes’s as against the no’s of pros versus cons, advantages versus disadvantages, and costs versus benefits. But there has never been consensus on making this either/or. Lionel Trilling famously said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. For Robert Frost, neither exists in its own right—“yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” That is difficult to answer, Bolaño describes:

“And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.”

Bolaño’s translator (Natasha Wimmer) asks, did this Simonel mean “Absolutely”? For my part, I’d like to think simonel insists “yes” and “no” matter when followed by “but” or “and,” the first as a caution and the second as encouragement.

Betterment happens, when, after someone says to us, “Isn’t this so? Isn’t this the decision we must take?,” we respond, “Well, yes but…” or “Yes indeed, and…” The former may be a call for second thoughts before proceeding; the latter may be the guarantee of another time and place to reconsider a decision once taken or its consequences. Either way, the insistence on yes-but or yes-and is itself a decision that what is missing now requires further inquiry. It is the insistence that we can still make decisions when pushing the truth further and having made that decision, we can and will do so again.

Here’s an important example.

In his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, Flaubert defined (at the time, scandalously) “budget” as “never balanced.” That holds also for the public debt. If I am reading historians Istvan Hont and Michael Sonenscher correctly, 18th century thinkers wrestled again and again with the constitutional means for reining in the bad-‘no’ side of public debt (e.g., rulers use monies to go to war), while promoting the good-‘yes’ side of public debt (e.g., rulers build the infrastructure Adam Smith and even others saw as the appanage for betterment). To put it another way: If the future we cannot now predict is the mess we are currently in—or, if you prefer, we are constantly trying to foresee what the present is all about—why ever would we think we can manage the public debt better than the yes-buts and yes-ands of today?

But what are those yes-buts and yes-ands?

We arrive at an answer when we differentiate the time horizons and responses with respect to the “public debt crisis.” Which current public debt crisis—one, more, or all—are we talking about for managing better? Is it that the current problem with the public debt is: that we can’t predict the kind of interventions and states of affair are necessary to adapt better to future debt conditions; that increases in the public debt (including interest payments) are unsustainable; that our latest shop-window budget avoidance vaporizes like all fads; and/or not that the debt crisis will worsen, but determining when it will be catastrophic? Each of four represents a different kind of “present.”

Betterment comes to the fore not by having to choose which of the four presents (or in combination) “better” represent reality; rather it is by insisting that each must be interrogated by asking the further question: “What are the implications of not-knowing the present being identified or surmised in each?” Doing so is to insist “yes-but.” As in: What if “not knowing the present” is the only practical way to keep ourselves open to the possibility of different long-terms with respect to, in this case, bettering ourselves when it comes to the public debt?

If the discounted net present value of obligated public and private pensions threatens to swamp projected resources to fund them, then the first question is not, “Omigod, what do we do?,” but instead: “What do we really know about these estimates?” For that matter, what sense do categories like NPV and discount rates make in a contingent world?

More specifically, what if not-knowing—not-knowing really—is the way we keep options open or in reserve, if only because we rightly insist that affairs constellating around the public debt remain difficult after three hundred years grappling with its yes’s and no’s of inexperience? I am insisting that most everything said about the pros versus cons of the public debt today are best treated as stopping short of what could be pushed further. Taking decisions about the public debt while admitting its complexity is the way we open ourselves to redefining just what the public debt is to us, now and ahead. More, if you did further differentiate the public debt as a set of categories for action, you would identify cases much closer to the yes-and-no’s—our simonel—we have also been talking about for centuries, one of which I call betterment.