Keeping it complex….

–It’s easy to see why “Keep it simple!” and “Keep it complex!” are taken to be opposites. That said, there is less a gradient between the two than a considerable overlap. “Keep it simple!” and “Keep it complex!” are both admonitions; both are more complicated than they first appear. While they actually have the same caveats, hedges and qualifications, “Keep it complex!” has one saving virtue: It more easily accommodates, reflects and answers to the complications.

–Both admonitions prove more ambiguous, equivocal and murkier and we have a noun for such properties, that being obliquity. Michael Wood, literary and film critic, helps us with the implications.

His chapter, “Seven types of obliquity” is a prism through which “Keep it simple!” and other admonitions can be parsed into less straightforward warrants for action. Indeed, the entire point is that something important that looks like a direct affirmation, instruction or query, isn’t—and in respects that matter. I crib unabashedly from Wood:

  • When someone commends, “Keep it simple!,” you might respond by taking it more as sounding out about what you think than affirming you don’t have to think much further. Just what is the “it” and how “simple” is simple, you ask? You may feel your admonisher is on the whole more right than wrong, or at least not wrong enough to avoid your taking “Keep it simple!” seriously.
  • “Keep it simple!” is also one of those instructions that seems to know us without having to know each of us. In reality, our instructor is guessing about each of us by deferring to a matter of general knowledge. Sadly and in Wood’s words, s/he ends up “ask[ing] so much work of us, and scarcely tell us where to start”. “Keep it simple!” becomes the demand to decide without knowing if it is decidable.
  • “Keep it simple!” by transforming into “Keep it simple?” ends up looking more like speculation than an affirmation or instruction. Or to put it in preceding terms, “Keep it simple!” is active only when generalization is sought or general knowledge appealed to; the second we differentiate the exclamation point, “!,” is the second it becomes a case-by-case “?”.
  • None of these caveats will, however, stop those others insisting an unadorned “Keep it simple!” is the right view to take when starting to analyze a complex issue. I’m thinking here of some engineers and economists with whom I’ve worked.

But even these occasions are opportunities “to test the view not only against its chances of being true but against the whole structure of personality which would need to hold such a view, and against a time and a place in which the view might seem banal or original, striking or even desperate”.

This means testing “Keep it simple!” as one view within its wider contexts, recognizing of course that “Test!” is as subject to caveats. An infinite regress threatens (the context of the context of…), but that is the methodological point: “Keep it simple!” doesn’t even begin to approximate a closed argument, if only because we keep reopening what others want closed.

  • There is also a sense in which we respond to “Keep it simple!” as if it were a parable about how to act. Responding to the interjection, we try to think of first-hand scenarios in which it would hold for the kind of events we know and worlds we occupy. We often “find ourselves wanting to apply [a parable], and not just interpret it,” as Wood puts it. “Keep it simple!” makes seeking out exemplars irresistible.

–Of course, the very same bulleted reservations about “Keep it simple!” can be made for “Keep it complex!” Over-complexifying a mess is just as worrisome as its over-simplification. But what sets “Keep it complex!” apart is the performative nature of undertaking and thinking through the practical caveats, hedges and qualifications. In so doing, what is complex becomes more granular and open to differentiated scenarios so that they matter even more.

To sum up: “Keep it simple!” acts as if it wants to win the argument without further ado; “Keep it complex. . .” knows the long game is about finding complex arguments that stick, at least for a while even if indirectly.

–With that in mind, let me end with a passage from the economist, John Kay’s 2010 book named—surprise!—Obliquity:

It is hard to overstate the damage recently done by leaders who thought they knew more about the world than they really did. The managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the unsuccessful pursuit of shareholder value. The architects and planners who believed that cities could be designed from first principles, that vibrant cities could be drawn on a blank sheet of paper and that expressways should be driven through the hearts of communities. Acknowledging the complexity of the systems for which they were responsible and the multiple needs of the individuals who operated these systems would have avoided these errors.

Principal sources

Kay, J. (2010). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. New York: Penguin Books

Stirling, A. (2010). ‘Keep It Complex!’, Nature Comment, 23/30 December, 468: 1029-1031

Wood, M. (2005). “Seven Types of Obliquity”. In Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (The Empson Lectures, pp. 95-127). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Related blog entries: “Keep it simple!,” “Complexity is the enemy of intractable,” “It’s better between the James Brothers”

Where distrust and dread are positive societal values

–Although typically not thought of as such, critical infrastructures are a key institutional mechanism for the distinguishing and dispersing social values.

Critical infrastructures instantiate social values not abstractly but as differences taken into account when societal reliability and security matter now. This differences—more properly, differentiated knowledge bases about and orientations to reliability at the event and system levels—are reconciled by infrastructure control rooms (where they exist) in real time and in the name of ensuring high reliability (including safety), then and there.

Trust is a good example of how a social value is specified and differentiated by infrastructures. Those in and those depending on the infrastructure must trust control room operators and their real-time instructions. Broader discussions about “trust requires shared values” miss the fact that team situation awareness of control operators is much more about knowledge management, distributed cognition, and keeping a shared bubble of system understanding than it is about “trust” as a singularly important social value. For that matter, distrust is as core as trust. One reason operators are reliable is that they actively distrust the future will be stable or reliable in the absence of the system’s vigilant real-time management.

There has been much less discussion of this positive function of distrust as a social value. In contrast, “distrust” often takes the adjective, “polarizing.”

–So too for “dread.” Widespread social dread—as in the societal dread that drives the reliability management of very hazardous infrastructures—is almost always taken to be negative. Here too, though, dread has a positive function.

Every day, nuclear explosions, airline crashes, financial meltdowns, massive water-supply collapse—and more—are avoided that would have happened had not operators and managers in these large systems prevented their occurrence. Why? Because societal dread is so intense that these events must be precluded from happening on an active basis. (It might be better to say that we don’t know “societal dread” unless we observe how knowledgeable professionals operate and manage complex critical infrastructures.)

There is such fear of what would happen if large interconnected electricity, telecommunications, water, transportation, financial services and like did fail that it is better to manage them than not have them. We’ve structured our lives to depend on these systems, at least for right now. (Thus the misleading nature of the exhortation, “Failure is not an option!” Failure, big-time, is always an ever-present reality; in fact, if it weren’t dread of such failures, we wouldn’t be managing the infrastructures as reliably as we already do in real time.)

We of course must wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged?

For the answer to that question is altogether too evident: Most of the planet already lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask precisely because the answer is that clear. Hunting and gathering societies may be the most sustainable, but I do not remember any hunter-gatherer I met in Botswana in the early 1970s who didn’t want to quit that that way of life for something more safe and reliable.

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 or seen before? Yet, if my argument about recasting policy and management holds, we’re missing a great deal that is important.

–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.

We needn’t return to the Watts Rebellion or earlier revolts. For our purposes, 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)

If so, even then 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.

–In brief, many good people with good data failed to acknowledge that the data did not go far enough and by stopping short of that, we all ended up in gross exaggeration.

Suppose, though, we had undertaken the additional research, interviews and analysis. (For all I know, some such studies were made.) Is there any reason to believe we wouldn’t have also misconstrued the new information?

Were that so, we have nothing new to say about US racism because we efface anything that is new or emergent. We insist instead on a history that, well, keeps repeating itself with “protests” and “street riots” and “looting.” Bullshit. Racism in this country remains the original corruption, that of willful ignorance willfully institutionalized.

Related blog entries

“Revolts,” “Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos and the next Constitutional Convention”

See also–

Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together”:

The words and background to “Coming Together”:

Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing “coordination”


–I come from a training with little good to say about calls for “more effective coordination.” When having nothing more to say but feeling compelled to recommend something, then comes the irrefragable “what we need is more effective coordination.” Who can be against effective coordination, period. Though sought without a tincture of what to do, step by step and in real time. Like gold in seawater, coordination is impressive, but pointing that out is of scant use.

I’m not the only one who hesitates reading further when getting to the bit where death and disaster are credited to “the lack of coordination.” Past reading has conditioned us to expect no discussion on whether this “lack” arose because the responders knew—or reasonably thought so at the time—that they were already undertaking priority activities as urgent. Nor can there be any expectation that reading more demonstrates how death and disaster would not have arisen had activities been coordinated the way of hindsight with all its “could,” “may,” “perhaps,” “might,” and that ever-ready “must!”

Of course, such detail is difficult to summon, but that it is so rarely attempted leaves us to wonder just whose inexperience is revealed—the responders criticized or the callers for more coordination.


–I think the above is still true as far as it goes, but leaving it at that is no longer good enough, if it ever was.

I propose coordination is best understood as the chief limiting factor in policymaking and management under conditions of high uncertainty, complexity, conflict and incompleteness. Calls for better coordination are unavoidable as long as pertinence of the uncertain, complex, incomplete and conflicted remains.

Coordination is limiting because no one knows how to do it, when it—or something like it—needs to be done. It is chief because, even when better management has been undertaken, pertinent issues remain causally unclear (uncertain), variably numerous and interconnected (complex), interrupted and unfinished (incomplete), and under great dispute (conflict), often by virtue of that uncertainty, complexity and incompleteness.

Calls for more coordination are unavoidable when the remaining uncertainty, complexity, incompleteness and conflict need to be reduced but are not at that point reducible: “Thus,” so it goes, “we must have better coordination.”

In this way, the call for thus-coordination is an empty signifier for our not recasting the issues to determine whether we can better tolerate their remaining uncertainty, complexity, incompleteness and conflict. That is: Recast the issue to see if the change in the amalgam of complex, uncertain, unfinished, and disputed is useful to you.

What, though, makes for “pertinence”? This is to ask: Pertinent with respect to what? In this case, it is with respect to public policymaking and management. Over our profession’s half-century of evolution, policy analysts and public managers have witnessed different amalgams of uncertainty, complexity, incompleteness and conflict arising and emerging out of really-existing but highly differentiated configurations of: cultures, socio-technical systems, organizations, types of unpredictability, performance modes, and specific cases we call “major issues of policymaking and management.” Let me unpack that.


–The great irony in taking complexity seriously is the usefulness of linear thinking in analyzing complexity. I have to quickly add: …when that linear thinking is in the form of multiple typologies considered together for analyzing uncertainty, incompleteness and conflict as well.

A two-by-two table or some such is easily criticized for simplifying a complex reality. This, though, misses what has always been the latent methodological function of typologies in the plural: to remind us that reality is indeed more complex than lines, boxes and lists can portray.

Multiple typologies are the norm in my profession, and to use them in sequence—one after another, different terms following upon different terms—is to render a major policy and management mess granular enough for differing implications to become visible. Multiple typologies are not the pieces that complete a picture puzzle; they make a puzzle detailed enough to see a different puzzle or puzzles already there.

–The typologies in my own work come largely from sociology, political science and organization theory. In the most practical sense, you can begin with any typology, the entire point being there is no obvious macro, meso or micro start when it comes to reframing what is uncertain, complex, unfinished and disputed at the same time. The typologies I rely on include:

  • Different types of unpredictability, including measurable probabilities, unmeasurable uncertainties and unknown-unknowns (adapted from Andrew Stirling’s typology of incertitudes);
  • Different types of organizations, where production agencies for example differ significantly from coping agencies in terms of their observable/unobservable outputs and outcomes (J.Q. Wilson’s typology of agencies)
  • Different types of cases, e.g., “out there in reality” versus “the case emerges from your interaction with issues of concern” (Charles Ragin’s typology of cases)
  • Different types of large-scale technological systems whose centralized or decentralized operations vary as a result of component coupling and interactivity (Charles Perrow’s typology of high-risk technologies)
  • Different types of cultures for differentiating ways of life and policy orientations (the four cultures of Mary Douglas, Aaron Wildavsky and their colleagues)
  • Different performance modes—just-in-case, just-in-time, just-this-way and just-for-now—for the real-time high reliability management of large-scale socio-technical systems (a typology of Roe, Schulman and their colleagues)

No major issue emerges unchanged from the seriatim application of these typologies. More, all issues in this blog—inequality, poverty, war, climate change, pandemics, healthcare and more—merit application. Your typologies or like ones may be as fruitful in differentiating the amalgams of concern (e.g., “limiting factors” are treated as linear constraints in some models).

But in all this, remember the cardinal virtue of using typologies. It is to move you from the myriad types of contingent factors at work affecting a major policy and management issue—societal, political, economic, historical, cultural, legal, scientific, geographical, philosophical, governmental, psychological, neurological, technological, religious, or whatnot. It instead is to move you to the many criteria with which to identify and describe the factors that are pertinent. These reframing criteria are the dimensions (the horizontal and vertical gradients used in differentiating the cells) of each typology.


If the above is right, then calls for thus-coordination, rather than being conversation-stoppers, reflect that there is no single or final set of typologies—no last set of criteria—that resolves a still pertinent uncertainty, complexity, incompleteness and conflict. It is for that reason that my earlier dismissal of thus-coordination falls short and ended up exaggerated.

To call for more effective coordination is, in effect, to assume and to demand tolerance and forbearance. To put up with what you don’t like in terms of the uncertain, complex, incomplete and disputed is not easy.

All of this may seem like small beer, but to me it isn’t.

For it raises a question not yet posed. Elsewhere in this blog, I stress how important are the question, “What’s missing?,” and the admonition, “Be careful of what you wish for.” Put another way, it is to ask: Are we prepared to sacrifice one amalgam of uncertainty, complexity, incompleteness and conflict for another? Are we prepared to substitute the tolerance we are not altogether uncomfortable with for a forbearance about which the only thing we know is it too will be uncomfortable? Note the we.

It remains too easy, in my opinion, for us to default to thus-coordination. Our costs of doing so need to be raised. One way is to insist that “we need more effective coordination” is to insist that “more effective” be a matter of comparing amalgams. Which do we prefer, the one for today’s major mess or the one that remains after having shown “we can reframe or recast that in the following way. . .”?

Principal sources

Perrow, C. (1984) 1999. Normal Accidents. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Ragin, C. 1992. “Introduction:  Cases of ‘What is a case?'” In What is a Case? (C. Ragin and H. Becker, Eds), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Roe, E., and P.R. Schulman 2008. High Reliability Management. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Steinberg, L. (1972) 2007. Other Criteria. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press

Stirling , A. 2010. “Keep It Complex!” Nature Comment, 23/ 30 December

Thompson, M., R. Ellis, and A. Wildavsky. 1990. Cultural Theory. Boulder, Colo.: Westview

Wilson, J. Q. 1989. Bureaucracy. New York: Basic Books

Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives

We live in a basically unpredictable world, featuring histories dominated by contingency—that is, actual patterns that make good sense and become subject to interesting and sensible explanations once they unfold as they did, but that could have proceeded along innumerable alternative routes that would have yielded just as sensible a history, but that did not gain the good fortune of actual occurrence. Stephan Jay Gould, paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science

If the challenge is to identify ways to manage chronic uncertainty for more effective environmental policy and management, it pays studying those whose jobs are to do just that. Three such groups who seek to do more than cope with waves of unpredictable contingencies are discussed below.


–One group is found in the control rooms and surrounding support staff of large critical infrastructures–the villains in many environmental crisis narratives. Yet these infrastructures, particularly water and energy, are based in ecosystem processes and services and many operate under the dual mandate of maintaining service reliability while at the same time safeguarding associated ecosystems.

The more I studied control room operators, the more I learned they are far from environment’s enemy. Turn to three neglected storylines based on the practices of reliability professionals in highly complex socio-technical systems:

Practice 1: Bring ecologists, biologists & renewable energy specialists directly onto the floor of the infrastructure control rooms. If environmental specialists cannot reliably advise on real-time infrastructure operations, whose services, like large water supplies, are founded upon ecosystem processes, how then can the very same specialists be expected to correct what are later seen as mistakes made in the absence of sound real-time advice?

Practice 2: Redefine system boundaries. Wetlands have been an iconic ecosystem in ecologists’ stories. Yet wetlands serve as “ecoinfrastructures” in other system definitions. Those that moderate the effects of wind and waves on the adjacent levee structures are part of the levee system definition just as the levees provide an ecosystem service by protecting these wetlands in other adverse events.

In a storm, a single stretch of road may become an essential part of repair access for electricity lines as well as the means of access for levee floodfighting crews. In this case, the stretch of roadway becomes part of the emergency response of two infrastructures. A roadway between wildlands and the electricity distribution lines on the other side of the road can serve as a firebreak in the emergency response system for the approaching wildland fire.

In other words, it need not be agricultural versus urban versus environmental. From one perspective, it looks like three separate systems in competition with each other: a forest next to grazing land next to arable fields, no one of which can expand without loss to the other. From a perspective that treats them as subsystems to one ecosystem, the grazing land serves as a firebreak between the forest and arable holdings.

So too the California Delta can be seen not just as its own system but also as a buffer against encroaching urbanization from the east (Sacramento and Stockton) and west (San Francisco Bay Area), much as agriculture in South Florida and Western Netherlands have buffered against urbanization moving into the region’s “green” areas. It follows that the key issue is where that extra investment would produce the greatest positive impact on the ecosystem and landscape: planting trees and greenscapes in Sacramento or Stockton (urban ecosystems); reducing chemical agriculture on Delta islands (agricultural ecosystem); and/or constructing more wetlands around Delta islands (the environmental ecosystem).

Like examples are easily multiplied, but the point remains: Too much attention has been given to “the ecosystem only and one kind of ecosystem only.” Multiple ecosystem services may be multiple only if more than one infrastructure (system definition) is connected.

Practice 3: Act on the full implications of the infrastructure control room as a key institutional & organizational formation for ensuring the high reliability mandate of improved ecosystem services & processes. Control rooms in large critical infrastructures are one of the few institutional formations that have evolved over time and across multiple contexts to promote high reliability repetitively in the management of complex socio-technical systems.

–The implications of these practices are considerable. We keep hearing that global problems must have global solutions. If true, those solutions will never be highly reliable at that scale. There is, for example, no global water infrastructure nor a cadre of its real-time managers in the foreseeable future.

All of which explains why the shift away from global climate change models to regional ones is so significant. (We’ve embarked on doing so in California.) It is far more plausible to imagine water and energy control rooms coordinating at the regional level than globally, when it comes to collaborating on shared narratives or overlapping discourses.


–Where the latter point holds—our models must become more granular with respect to time and scale for the systems—then we have a way of recasting the debate in ecosystem management and restoration between two ideal types, the carvers and the molders. In so doing, we identify another source of future environmental narratives–and one more fitting with contingency and radical uncertainty.

Ideally, carvers see their task is to release the true ecosystem from the surplusage around it. Chip away overpopulation, chisel off the built environment, get rid of the non-natives species and ban pollution—only then does the ecosystem as it really was meant to be have a chance of being revealed. In the carving orientation, the ecosystem manager or restorer assumes the landscape has within its remit the good form and function created for it as nature, not by us.

The second type are ecosystem managers and restorers who see themselves ideally as modelers of clay (sometimes, literally). They mold the landscape by trying to press onto it contemporary versions of complexities it once had. Here there is no prospect of repristinating nature. Ecosystems have to be designed and sustained, albeit their complexity may be little like the pre-disturbance or pre-settlement states. (Indeed, the grievance that ecosystems are continually degraded signals landscapes are moldable.)

–Now comes the important part. Unsurprisingly, really-existing ecosystem managers and restorers have been stuck between these two textbook orientations—they’re ideal types after all—making due with what’s at hand and with what is then possible. What is clearer now is that this good-enough improviser is itself a third ideal type for ecosystem management and restoration.

Improvisation has its own idealized and practical benchmarks and practices. You see such, most prominently, when cities are discussed as “urban ecosystems.” Cities are highly differentiated systems with their own improvised sets of species and processes that have in some cases considerably more biodiversity than commonly supposed.

What makes cities “better or worse” improvisations when it comes to their ecosystem management and restoration is the crux just as it is for the regional climate models mentioned earlier.

Not only will there be multiple benchmarks (which actual improvisation inevitably falls short of ideal improvisation), but the scenarios of success or failure (actually, effectiveness in kind and degree) will also be with respect to different real-time uncertainties than those that perplex carver and molder. We should expect from this crucible of granularity will come new, more case-specific environmental narratives.

–What might these case-specific narratives look like and why would they matter? The widely-identified pollution in China has been credited to its coal-powered electricity plants and other hazardous facilities. That may be true as far as it goes, but here this needs to be pushed further.

I, for one, want to know more about the real-time conditions under which middle-level operators and managers in China are operating these large-scale infrastructures. Are the reliability professionals not there or are they there but operating under ever more prolonged “just-for-now” conditions? We need to hear from Chinese scholars researching regional high reliability infrastructures (including its massively significant high-speed rail system).


And the third group from which we can expect new environmental narratives? Why, that’s you, the readers. You get to choose what to make of the contingencies that befall you–and in radical ways when it comes to “environment.”

–Start with what many would consider unexceptional, a point of Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst and essayist: “Given the obvious contingency of much of our lives—we do not in any meaningful sense intend or choose our birth, our parents, our bodies, our language, our culture, our thoughts, our dreams…and so on—it might be worth considering not only our relationships to ourselves and our relationships to objects, but (as the third of the pair, so to speak) our relationship to accidents”.

Fair enough, were it not for Agnes Heller, the philosopher, concluding exactly the opposite and because of the same contingencies:

In choosing themselves, men and women choose exactly what they are, as they are. They choose their best talents as much as their physical handicaps, they choose their parents, their childhood, their country, their historical age. They choose their poverty if they happen to be born poor, and their riches if they happen to be born rich. They choose their accidental features. That which they are by accident they become by choice.

Putting it that radically, Heller stirs us to ask in what sense is her point also true. But in posititioning yourself somewhere between Phillips and Heller, you too become expert in recasting contingencies and their environments.

…and raise my taxes!

We don’t need more justification for raising taxes. The reasons for doing so–not least of which are the needs of infrastructures upon which survival depend–have been evident for some time here. “What’s been missing all along is the political will to do so,” you might expect me to write next But it’s better to say that we’ve had too much political will insisting on this, that and everything else.

–For my part what’s missing are compelling details for (re-)allocating resources to and in public sector, including but not limited to tax revenues.

Political historian, F.S. Oliver, pointed out what was evident ages ago: “One of the discomforts of living in a progressive society is that new fiscal methods are constantly required in order to cover the rising expenditure. . .What weigh most, however, with Treasury officials, when they are seeking to balance a budget, are not so much considerations of abstract justice, as the knowledge that old sources [of tax revenue] will dry up if an attempt is made to draw too much from them.”

To adapt his point, what is missing are scenarios sufficiently granular to differentiate among fiscal instruments for shifting government expenditures across old and new budget categories. The aim of these (re)allocative mechanisms would be to ensure the productivity of infrastructures vital for both economic growth and human well-being. Without reliable market infrastructure, there wouldn’t be markets; so too for other infrastructures and the economic activities that depend upon them.

–To reiterate, the fiscal instruments necessary (sufficient?) for productive infrastructures will include, but are clearly not limited to, mechanisms for raising tax revenues.

Or to put the case from another direction, one key mechanism must be reducing illegal tax evasion and “legal” tax havens–a huge national and global issue though typically under-acknowledged or misunderstood. Contrary to public choice theory, such tax avoidance on your part is not free-riding on those of us who do pay taxes. Rather, the point remains that of Colin Strang, the philosopher, who long ago demonstrated that the real defect lies with those whose institutional—read infrastructural—duty is to prevent tax evasion of all sorts.

In other words, be on the look-out for how effective reducing ongoing tax avoidance is for the same governments wanting to raise taxes because of COVID-19 impacts. The capacity to implement one has something to do with the other, right?

Principal sources

Oliver, F.S. (1930, 1931, 1935). The Endless Adventure. 3 Vols., Macmillan and Company: London

Strang, C. (1970). “What if Everyone Did That?” in Baruch Brody (ed.), Moral Rules and Particular Consequences, Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ

Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control

A portrayal of this sort involves the identification of a sequence of concatenated ideas and propositions whose final outcome is necessarily hidden from the proponents of the individual links, at least in the early stages of the process; for they would have shuddered—and revised their thinking—had they realized where their ideas would ultimately lead.

A.O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests

–In the social sciences, “policy palimpsest” is the notion that longstanding controversial policies are themselves the overwritten arguments and narratives accreted through time. A composite argument read off or from an issue’s policy palimpsest reads as if it were sequential—sentences have nouns and verbs so that sense is made. But the arguments assembled from the palimpsest have been blurred, intertwined and re-rendered for current (often controverted) purposes. None of the previous inscriptions shine clear through the palimpsest’s layer of effacements and erasures.

The challenge is to read any composite argument with its blur visible in order to acknowledge and probe what has been rendered missing. Once you identify what is missing from the composite argument but was in the palimpsest being read off (no guarantees here), you have identified possible means to recast complex the issue in new (renewed) ways.

How does this work and with what consequence?

–Before we get to our example, consider the assembling strategy of the early 18th century French painter, Antoine Watteau. His was to compose a painting from separate sketches in his albums. Art historian, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, records how Watteau was an inveterate drawer of people—soldiers, women, children, their hands—in different poses and positions. A single sheet of paper may have many such figures complied over time by Watteau, where his

drawings constituted a vast visual repertory from which he was known to have pulled figures and motifs at random, often transferring them mechanically…onto the canvas. Figures drawn on different sheets at different moments in time and without the intention of ever being linked together would find themselves paired in paintings, often in such intimate interactions that it is difficult to imagine they had not been sketched in such configurations in the first place.

Let me repeat that last part: “…often in such intimate interactions that it is difficult to imagine they had not been sketched in such configurations in the first place.”

Such is why we need to rethink time and space in a composite argument. While the sentences in a composite argument look to be linear and specific, time and space are actually the result of adjacent sequencing of discrete texts from elsewhere in the policy palimpsest, with temporal and spatial interactions arising out of that specific sequencing together.

Time and space emerge from the composite argument. A familiar example is tagging onto today’s major policy arguments variants of that single phrase, “…in a world threatened by the menace of catastrophic climate change.” Any such adjacency rejiggers everything before and after it. (The tagged-on menace could be global species extinction, late capitalism, planetary pandemics, post-pandemic apocalypse–you choose, but with the similar effect.)

–The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, helps us see more clearly what is going on. He writes in The Big Transcript:

In a story it says: “After he said that he left her, as he had done the day before.” If I am asked whether I understand this sentence, there’s no easy answer. It’s an English sentence and in that respect I understand it. I would know, for instance, how one could use this sentence. I could come up with a context of my own for it. And yet I don’t understand it in the same way I would understand it if I had read the story up to that point. (Cf language-games.)” [7e]

Replace “if I had read the story” with “if I had read the palimpsest,” and you get to the crux. The palimpsest can be read in two forms: effaced and filled in (neither of which assumes the palimpsest’s complete surveyability). In the first sense, the spaces in between the words, “After he said that he left her, as he had done the day before,” are just as important, if not more so, than the actual words read in the sense that the spaces signify all that has been left out. Not to see this is a failure of understanding what you are reading.

How so? Immediately after the above quote, Wittgenstein asks us to think of the sentence as if it were a painting:

What does it mean to understand a painted picture? Here too there is understanding and a failure to understand! And here too ‘understanding’ and ‘failure to understand’ can mean different things. –The picture represents an arrangement of objects in space, but I am incapable of seeing a part of the picture three-dimensionally; rather, in that part I see only patches of the picture. . .[M]aybe I know all of the objects, but – in another sense – don’t understand how they’re arranged.” [7e]

So too we understand the words in a composite argument but fail to understand the three-dimensionality of the palimpsest from which the composite has been patched together and arranged.

In actuality, each composite reflects that three-dimensionality. It does so by having rearranged the palimpsest’s elements-with-effacements from different contexts into, literally, the straight lines we call sentences. These linear, sequential and continuous expressions are in fact the twisting and turning meshes of interrupted time and space. The challenge for better understanding is to read each composite argument as carrying the entire policy palimpsest with it.

–Now to an example. Consider what was a commonplace for years: “Nazi and communist totalitarianism has come to mean total control of politics, economics, society and citizenry.”

In reality, that statement was full of effacements from having been overwritten again and again through seriatim debates, vide: “……totalitarianism        has come to mean…….total control               of politics                  ,citizenry and economics………”

It’s that accented “total control” that drove the initial selection of the phrases around it. Today, after further blurring, it’s much more fashionable to rewrite the composite argument as: “Nazi and communist totalitarianism sought total control of politics, economics, society and citizenry.” The “sought” recognizes that, when it comes these forms of totalitarianism, seeking total control did not always mean total control was achieved. “Sought” unaccents “total control.”

Fair enough, but note that “sought” itself reflects its own effacements in totalitarianism’s palimpsest, with consequences for how time and space are re-rendered. Consider two quotes from the many in that policy palimpsest, which have been passed over when it comes to the use of a reduced-form “sought”:

I always thought there must be some more interesting way of interpreting the Soviet Union than simply reversing the value signs in its propaganda. And the thing that first struck me – that should have struck anybody working in the archives of the Soviet bureaucracy – was that the Soviet leaders didn’t know what was happening half the time, were good at throwing hammers at problems but not at solving them, and spent an enormous amount of time fighting about things that often had little to do with ideology and much to do with institutional interests.

The camp, then, was always in motion. This was true for people and goods, and also for the spaces they traversed. Because Auschwitz was one big construction site. It never looked the same, from one day to the next, as buildings were demolished, extended and newly built. As late as September 1944, just months before liberation in January 1945, the Camp SS held a grand ceremony to unveil its big new staff hospital. . .

Inadvertently, [construction] also created spaces for prisoner agency. The more civilian contractors worked on site, the more opportunities for barter and bribes. All the clutter and commotion also made it harder to exercise full control, as blocked sightlines opened the way for illicit activities, from rest to escape. . .

Some scholars see camps like Auschwitz as sites of total SS domination. This was certainly what the perpetrators wanted them to be. But their monumental designs often bore little resemblance to built reality. Priorities changed, again and again, and SS planners were thwarted by supply shortages, bad weather and (most critically) by mass deaths among their slave labour force. In the end, grand visions regularly gave way to quick fixes, resulting in what the historian Paul Jaskot, writing about the architecture of the Holocaust, called the “lack of a rationally planned and controlled space”. Clearly, the popular image of Auschwitz as a straight-line, single-track totalitarian machine is inaccurate.

I am not arguing that the quoted reservations are correct or generalizable or fully understandable (the quotes obviously come to us as already overwritten). I am saying that they fit uncomfortably with popular notions “local resistance,” when the latter is about “taking back control” in a policy and management world where time and space, if you look more closely, are (re-)rendered sinuous and interstitial.

–So what? So what if time and space are this way rather than that way? Well, the difference is a very big deal! It means that no single composite argument can galvanize the entire space-and-time of a palimpsest. It means matters of time and space have to be reconsidered with each argument we read off for a major policy.

Why? Because reconsiderations of how time and space play out offers up the prospect of different objectivities and realisms, the very stuff of space and time.

For instance, an earlier blog entry noted how “catastrophic cascades” are almost always described as having virtually instantaneous transitions from the beginning of a cascade in one infrastructure to its awful conclusion across other infrastructures connected with it. But in the terminology presented here, a catastrophizing cascade isn’t so much a composite argument with a reduced-form middle as it is a highly etiolated palimpsest where infrastructure interactions taking more granular time and space have been blotted out or leached away altogether.

To see the palimpsest, right from first, is to defamiliarize any reading off it; to see that reading one must first see it not as a straightforward or coherent argument on its own but for what it is: different phrases and images from different parts of the palimpsest conjoined together, in formal terms, asyndetically or paratactically.

In stopping short by going no further than the “merits of the argument on its own” we once again end up in gross exaggeration of the complexities that free us. We get to probe what to make of the spaces between the words.


My introduction to the policy side of pandemics was in 2005, when I read two articles, “Preparing for the next pandemic” by Michael T. Osterholm and “The next pandemic?” by Laurie Garrett, both in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2005). I think any reader today would find these articles prescient indeed. While some numbers haven’t turned out as supposed, the articles are spot-on in my view when it comes a COVID-19’s major first-order impacts on mortality rates, medical shortages, security, food systems, finance, trade, and economics.

The problem is, to telegraph ahead, other newer understandings of the current pandemic may be obscuring the very idea and necessity of pandemic preparedness.

First the earlier prescience. Here is Laurie Garrett in 2005: “some countries might impose useless but highly disruptive quarantines or close borders and airports, perhaps for months. Such closures would disrupt trade, travel, and productivity. No doubt the world’s stock markets would teeter and perhaps fall precipitously. Aside from economics, the disease would likely directly affect global security, reducing troop strength and capacity for all armed forces, UN peace keeping operations, and police worldwide.” Michael Osterholm ends his 2005 article with: “Someday, after the next pandemic has come and gone, a commission much like the 9/11 Commission will be charged with determining how well government, business, and public health leaders prepared the world for the catastrophe when they had clear warning. What will be the verdict?”

Many have an idea already about the verdict. What is by no means clear, though, is what’s happening to the 2005 version of the next-pandemic. That policy discourse is being scored over by all manner of other issues at best only touched upon by the likes of Osterholm, Garrett and others 15 years ago. Nor is this a criticism of the earlier warnings, implying that their prescience wasn’t prescient at all.

To see what this means, turn to the tide-race of articles on what to do about COVID-19. Below are titles of only a few among many reports to be found in the COVID-19 folder of the international aggregator,, over six days between April 23 – 30, 2020:

Tech Giants Are Using This Crisis to Colonize the Welfare System

The COVID-19 Pandemic Crisis: The Loss and Trauma Event of Our Time

Migrant workers face further social isolation and mental health challenges during coronavirus pandemic

‘Calamitous’: domestic violence set to soar by 20% during global lockdown

The Fog of COVID-19 War Propaganda

The Case for Drafting Doctors

Covid-19 Threatens to Starve Africa

Covid-19: the controversial role of big tech in digital surveillance

For a more equal world: Coronavirus pandemic shows why ensuring gender justice is an urgent task

COVID-19 in the Middle East: Is this pandemic a health crisis or a war?

Urban Warfare: Housing Justice Under a Global Pandemic

New Age of Destructive Austerity After the Coronavirus

The Coronavirus and the End of Economics

Covid-19 is ‘an affront to democracy’

Health vs. Privacy: How Other Countries Use Surveillance To Fight the Pandemic

World Bank warns of collapse in money sent home by migrant workers

Coronavirus: will call centre workers lose their ‘voice’ to AI?

How Can Low-Income Countries Cope With Coronavirus Debt?

Is Our War with the Environment Leading to Pandemics?

The World Order Is Broken. The Coronavirus Proves It.

The West has found a new enemy: China replaces Islam

Will COVID-19 Make Us Less Democratic and More like China?

Pandemic Science Out of Control

Tech giants are profiting — and getting more powerful — even as the global economy tanks

The Legal and Medical Necessity of Abortion Care Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Will a child-care shortage prevent America’s reopening?

Covid-19 or the pandemic of mistreated biodiversity

Coronavirus, war, and the new inequality

Firms in EU tax havens cannot be denied Covid bailouts

This Crisis Demands an End to Mass Incarceration

I suspect you’d have to search long and hard in earlier warnings of the next pandemic for the above specificities–which by the way are but the tip of the iceberg of COVID reportage at the time of writing.

Of course, you’d be right to conclude that these titles reflect the widespread and deep impacts of the corona crisis for society, economy, culture and more across the world. You’d also be a fool not to see pre-existing policy agendas glomming onto the crisis as of way of furthering their own important priorities—be they inequality, climate change, labor, migrants, and the rest—that have risen to more attention and visibility since 2005.

So what, you press. We need a 2020 version of “the next pandemic,” not one from 2005. True, but let’s push your point a bit further. Before agreeing with you, I’d first want know what is downplayed in this “updating” from what we took to be settled knowledge about pandemics from roughly 2005 on until recently.

Here’s an example of what I mean. We are fortunate that both Garrett and Osterholm are around to write about COVID-19. Both are talking about follow-on COVID-19 infections, Osterholm by way of warning about “the next waves of infection that are bound to hit” and Garrett understandably turning her attention to the urgent need for vaccine, adding however “If an effective Covid-19 vaccine is developed, its targets will include almost eight billion human beings, with nearly three-quarters of a billion living in conditions of extreme poverty”.

In other word, what if the next pandemic is the one we now have?

That is, what if “preparedness for the next pandemic” reduces to better real-time responses in the one pandemic that is indefinitely underway at present?

Not only is it understandable that Osterholm, Garrett and others are caught up in real-time operational messes around COVID-19 response, forgoing for the duration longer-term preparedness as called for in the 2005 Foreign Affairs. It’s also the case that the future is very much the crisis we are now in; today all but ensures the lack of sufficient preparedness for future different pandemics. Again and importantly, we are quite unprepared for the massive immunization program necessary for the COVID-19 vaccine that has yet to be prepared.

More, how could we be better prepared for the future if now, visibly more so than in 2005, we insist pandemics are caused by unresolved, interrelated issues over, inter alios, climate change, the international order, neoliberal economics, poverty, inequality, national welfare systems, global and local injustice, privacy rights, gender and reproductive rights, biodiversity loss and species extinction, geopolitics, cross-border migration, along with other claimants listed above and more?

Assume Osterholm’s equivalent to a 9/11 commission (or a global version of it) isn’t put on hold and comes sooner than later. We then face the prospect of identifying those to blame for the current crisis without at the same time drawing all the lessons we need to better prepare for pandemics different than COVID-19.

You still may say such isn’t premature. To me it sounds like the blame-game being the only mechanism for thinking ahead about anything close to a 2005 version of preparedness. In the extreme, scapegoating will have to do all the heavy lifting. If so, then that is a very real loss.

Reflection and sensibility


During her last years, artist Joan Eardley (1921-1963) painted seascapes at Catterline, a fishing village on Scotland’s coast. I especially like her The Wave (1961), Seascape (Foam and Sky, 1962), and Summer Sea (1962). What intrigues are the recurring smudges of light and cloud—center or just off center, at or above the horizon. (In other paintings, her glimmers are recognizably moon, sun, blue sky, or sea-spray.)

Four examples give an idea of what I’m talking about (mindful here of the variable quality of digital reproductions):

Summer Sea
A Stormy Sea No. 1
The Wave
Seascape (Foam and Blue Sky)

My eye locks on the rush and scatter of waves, but I’m distracted by those lit clouds above.

I end up thinking about the smudges and glimmers, where the thinking is itself a distraction—in this case the distraction of leaving the painting too early. I stay awhile. From where I look, the clouds are luminous and I wonder, what kinds of reflections do they cast on the seascape below, or on me, out of sight?


My hesitation is less indecision than a sensibility, I think. It’s not quite the Coleridgean willing suspension of disbelief or a Keatsian negative capability (“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reasons”).

This version of sensibility needs to be pushed further than that. It’s more like the matrix of conscious connections that would not have otherwise been made were it not for the distraction and an attentiveness to that distraction. Out-of-sight reflection at its best?


Let’s see if we agree and if we can push the point further.

Below are links to three brief performances. The clips show performers and music taking place on stages of sort, with instruments of sorts. I wager that you’ve not seen the clips before and that if you have seen something like them, you’ve never imagined them in this sequence.

I’ve chosen them because the individual pieces seem to reflect–and reflect on–one another, e.g,, Kyung Namchul’s fingers moving across the strings parallel the hands and feet of Denis Matvienko and Leonid Sarafanov moving across the floor parallel Lin Yi’s fan and body flicking together.

Please watch each in its entirety. (The last piece is a link you have to click on in order to access the video clip; as in above, I claim no copyright privilege over the below.)

While the performers are known in their own right, the sequence serves as one intertext: Sarafanov plucks floor and air, Kyung flicks the strings, Li dances the fan. Each is inscribed onto the music. Each illuminates the other, and each-together reflects back onto me, its out-of-sight viewer.

That sensitivity feels very much like a sensibility to me, while cognitively the resonance is very much like reflection. Refracted through the human prism, it is difficult to tell if what’s written is “live” or “love,” “hype” or “hope,” “could” or “would.”

Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…

Alexis de Tocqueville is quoted saying it’s easier for the world to believe a simple lie than a complex truth. As with so much else in this same world, that statement is true only as far as it goes; here too we need to push his point further.

What we weren’t told is that for you to know what is a simple lie or not, you must be able first to distinguish complex truths from what they are not. This means you need to know how to spot a complex issue from ones that have been overly complexified, not just simplified. Attention to dumbing up, not just to dumbing down, is required.

Both the overly simple and the overly complex are their own kinds of exaggerations, and the duty of care of those who take complexity seriously is not to make already difficult issues of politics and policy more or less complex than they are. This holds for war, inequality, the environment, healthcare, poverty, finance, and the broader issues of politics, society and economics core to this blog.

–The litmus test that an issue is overly complexified or simplified is the surprise that comes with recasting that issue in ways that admit its complexity but in the process stimulate and open up new options for action. If the simple lie can be recast as complex in ways that excite thinking about fresh interventions or if the issue thought to be so complex—“wicked,” in today’s parlance—that no further action is possible can be recast to demonstrate otherwise, then the matter has been pushed and pulled in unexpected ways beyond their respective exaggerations. We know something is the case as far as it goes but needs go further when it is surprise that pushes us further.

–The stakes have are high in all his. I’m at a Washington D.C. science conference listening to a public affairs panel exhort government-sponsored researchers to recast our findings into take-home messages that politicians can digest—and fund further.

It’s up to us, the panelists press, because policymakers and their staffs don’t have time for anything more. “…And whatever you do,” panelists insist, “don’t tell them it’s more complex than they know!”

There it is, I tell myself: the late-stage cretinization that comes with doing policy research for Beltway U.S.A. Later it occurred to me that the panelists were pleading with us not to make things more complex than they already are. Doing so drives Congressmembers and their staff to even worse simplification.

–How do we fulfill our duty of care to decisionmakers in telling them, “complex is about as simple as it gets, and here’s what you can do”?

The answer in this blog has been: If insisting that “complexity” is today’s conversation-stopper—Whatever you do, don’t tell them it’s complex!—we must instead excite far more focus on its close cognates so to fulfill our duty of care to decisionmakers. The cognates I have in mind in this blog are: not-knowing, inexperience, difficulty, distraction, analytic blur, and good-enough. Each, and other optics, are used to recast overcomplexified or oversimplified issues more tractably. (Truth told, many defenders of complexity haven’t done justice to complexity.)

–My aim is to convince the reader of the great merit in insisting: “What we say about many political and policy issues could well be true as far as it goes, but—and yet—we often don’t take that truth far enough. Even when true, what’s been said needs to be pushed further and here is how…” As in: Yes, of course, power interests determine and constrain policy, but that is true only as far as it goes, and in these cases, it must go farther and here’s what we can do once we do push further…”

–It needs underscoring that to stop short at what is “true as far as it goes” is to end in gross exaggeration. When it comes to politics, policy and management, in saying too little or too much we end up saying not enough. We end up tacking on an implied “&c” without filling in the details—and details are what separate the granular wheat from the buzzing chaff. Far too much satisfaction has been taken in separating truth from error, while failing to recognize the cases where spotting and probing both don’t go far enough.