Unbracketing [Inequality]

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think, 
Incorrigibly plural.
                            Louis MacNeice, "Snow"

–Start with the familiar story about income inequality:

We live in an interconnected world brought about by intensified globalization and market deregulation (liberalization, privatization)–a world whose most pressing failures include the erosion of: strong welfare states, progressive income tax structures, and social insurance mechanisms that were to mitigate or otherwise correct for rising income inequality within countries.

Evidence supports the narrative–as far as it goes. It would, however, be irresponsible not to push it further.

–Equally evident, the forces of globalization and marketization are realized differently depending on context. We would expect and do see different practices within and across regions in response to these forces and that the practices and consequences for inequality also differ.

Australia and Canada had a notably less severe “Global [sic] Financial Crisis” than did other countries. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates a wide range of behavior in economic and social welfare response, not surprising for a world with more than 190 nations and sovereign entities.

–There are so many different programs, projects, activities and initiatives connected to “income inequality” that the immediate challenge is to compare and contrast them before drawing generalizations about anything like an [Inequality] bracketed off from really-existing variability.

The comparison challenge is not so much at the level of that country’s family support program contrasted to this country’s family support program, when it comes to a capitalized benchmark called [Inequality].

The comparison is more across many family support programs, much along the lines that no single heart is the same as another but these different and other different hearts set the stage for recognizing patterns across really-existing ones. That patttern recognition is of inequality, with a small-i.

–Note one upshot: We must also demonstrate how any macro-variable is realized through that intervening variability.

When the macro-variable is “increased interconnectivity,” as in the narrative at the outset, we are left with the hard work not only of identifying what is meant by interconnectivity, but also the different configurations of interconnectivity and their own variabilities

Which, at the risk of tooting our own horn, is what Paul Schulman and I tried to do in our 2016 book, Reliability and Risk: The Challenge of Managing Interconnected Infrastructures (Stanford University Press).

First, differentiate!

When I and others call for better recognition and accommodation of complexity, we mean the complex as well as the uncertain, unfinished and conflicted must be particularized and contextualized if we are to analyze and to manage, if only case-by-granular case.

When I and others say we need more findings that can be replicated across a range of cases, we are calling for identification not only of emerging better practices across cases, but also of greater equifinality: finding multiple but different pathways to achieve similar objectives, given case diversity.

What I and others mean by calling for greater collaboration is not just more teamwork or working with more and different stakeholders, but that team members and stakeholders “bring the system into the room” for the purposes of making the services in question reliable and safe.

When I and others call for more system integration, we mean the need to recouple the decoupled activities in ways that better mimic but can never fully reproduce the coupled nature of the wider system environment.

When I and others call for more flexibility, we mean the need for greater maneuverability across different performance modes in the face of changing system volatility and options to respond to those changes. (“Only the middle road does not lead to Rome,” said composer, Arnold Schoenberg.)

Where we need more experimentation, we do not mean more trial-and-error learning, when the systemwide error ends up being the last systemwide trial by destroying the limits of survival.

While others talk about risks in a system’s hazardous components, we point to different systemwide reliability standards and then, to the different risks and uncertainties that follow from different standards.

Principal sources

The need to first differentiate is discussed as well in blog entries, starting with “With respect to what,” “Catastrophized cascades,” and others.

Preknown, known, unknown

It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

–If we start with the commonplace that analysis and deliberation center around what is known or not, then the boundaries of the known blur not only into the unknown, but also into the preknown. The latter is the preexisting knowledge that one is born into and “takes for granted.”

In his essay, “The Well-Informed Citizen,” Alfred Schütz, the sociologist, describes it this way:

The zone of things taken for granted may be defined as that sector of the world which, in connection with the theoretical or the practical problem we are concerned with at a given time, does not seem to need further inquiry, although we do not have clear and distinct insight into and understanding of its structure. What is taken for granted is, until invalidation, believed to be simply “given” and “given-as-it-appears-to-me”–that is, as I or others whom I trust have experienced and interpreted it. It is this zone of things taken for granted within which we have to find our bearings. All our possible questioning for the unknown arises only within such a world of supposedly preknown things, and presupposes its existence.

–One consequence of ignoring the preknown, known and unknown have blurred borders is this: We end up acting as if it does not matter that it takes preknowing and knowing enough to avoid entering into the unstudied conditions of the unknown. If Schütz is right, the preknown is where we “find our bearings” with respect to the known and unknown.

–What does this mean?

It turns out that all this talk about “unintended consequences of human action” is itself unintentionally simplistic. “Unintended” when the preknown is an invisible platform that lets us find our bearings so that other factors in the known and unknown carry the weight of argument about “unintended consequences”? “Consequences” rather than the intercalated knowing, preknowing, and not-knowing we chalk up to contingency and exigency?

“Unintended consequences of human action” is a coherent phrase only by missing the rest of that overwritten palimpsest, called “human action,” off of which the phrase is cobbled together and read.

For the sake of betterment: Positive functions of social dread, blind-spots, and complication


–Here’s a conjecture. Widespread fear and dread, which were reviled by Enlighteners, have positive social functions that serve Enlightenment goals of bettering human conditions.

The large-scale systems for betterment–whether defined around markets at one end or social protections at the other–are managed in large part because of widespread societal dread over what happens when they aren’t managed reliably and safely. Critical infrastructures for energy, water and healthcare (among others) are so essential that they mustn’t fail, even when (especially when) they have to change.

That they do fail, and materially so, increases the very real sense that it’s too costly not to manage them. This proves true even when betterment, rather than human perfectibility, is the objective. (In fact, the enemy of high reliability is the true believer in perfectibility through macro-design.)

–I’d like to believe that if we were to read more closely the early Enlighteners who focused on the drivers of inexperience, difficulty and not-knowing in the pursuit of human betterment, we’d see that the blind-spots of negative fear and social dread are their positive functions (and vice versa).


This Janus-faced nature of blind-spots–strengths and weaknesses are inseparable–is the useful complication which erodes so many ersatz dichotomies, such as Enlightenment versus whatever.

I can, for example, make the case that the manifest marker of a globalized modernity is the betterment described in this blog. I can also make the case that modernity’s latent marker, massive tax avoidance and evasion worldwide (throw in the billions and billions of wages stolen by employers, etc), is causally related to betterment. That is not a “paradox” or “dilemma”; it reflects a blind-spot that indexes complexity to be managed, not resolved.

–Some people do not like the complications; I do.

Consider those who are stopped short by “the unimaginability of any alternative to the neoliberal status quo.” Surely that’s a glove pulled inside-out. Neoliberalism generates such contingency and uncertainty as to undermine a conventionalized “status quo.” It’s the status quo as has been understood that is unimaginable.

And here’s what’s helpful in that realization. When have status quo’s ever been as real in practice as they are in theory? (We might as well try extracting sunbeams from cucumbers as in Gulliver’s Travels.) To paraphrase the international relations theorist, Hans Morgenthau: Excuse me, but just what status quo have the people committed themselves to? They haven’t, and that must be the place to start. That is hope not worn-thin by mis-use.

Appeals to anything like prolong stability in the midst of collectively-evident turbulence have to be read symptomatically if they are be of value to something as complicated as actually-existing betterment.

Principal sources

See the blog entries, “Betterment (continued),” “Good-enough criticism,” and “Where distrust and dread are positive social values”

Mercator’s projection

For who makes rainbows by invention?
And many standing round a waterfall 
See one bow each, yet not the same to all, 
But each a hand’s breadth further than the next.   
                             Gerard Manley Hopkins

What good is trial and error learning when a system’s massive error means no trials possible thereafter? You do not want to push an infrastructure’s control operators into prolonged unstudied conditions and then wonder why they aren’t reliable.

Some think this concern a 21st century Luddism. “First off,” the project designer tells us, “I’m always working in unstudied conditions on every new project. I’ve got to make all manner of assumptions…” I counter: Surely, the challenge of the project designer and like professionals is to find out what are the better practices for starting off complex project designs? These are the practices that have emerged and been modified over a run of different cases and shown to be more effective.

Someone still pipes up, “But how can a field or discipline grow if it doesn’t move into unstudied conditions by doing something the first time…” This is often said as if it were established fact. Here too better practices are to be first searched for. Or where they aren’t found, then, yes, systemwide innovation should not be undertaken if it reduces options, increases task volatility, and diminishes maneuverability in real-time complex system operations.

“But, there always has to be someone who does something for the very first first-time, right?”

Dutch bluntness is now called for: “That in no way absolves you, the professional, from the burden of proof that when you say you’re doing something for the very first time it indeed is the very first time it has ever been do. . .” You’re an adult; get a grip; this is a planet of 7 plus billion, after all. You don’t get to buy indulgences to lapse where others have learned better.

“But still,” our friends, the economists, interrupt. “What about the pivotal role to society of the innovation economy—of creative destruction?” Well, yes, that’s important–yet so too are the infrastructures upon which capitalism and the innovation economy depend. To treat innovation as more important than the infrastructures without whose reliability there wouldn’t be most innovations risks Mercator’s projection: It distorts by over-enlarging the already large.

Innovationists don’t see it that way. The risks they take end up the price few of the rest of us ever thought we’d have to pay.

What to do when policy articles keep ending where they should’ve started

At some point, you’ll have read hundreds of articles that end where they should begin. In an analysis of 35 recent literature reviews on security implications of climate change, the authors point out-

A frequently voiced recommendation in reviews of the climate–conflict literature concerns a need for increasing methodological diversity and rigor. This research priority has multiple dimensions and, at the core, applies as much to the wider research field as to any individual study, given inherent complexities of combining diverse research methods and epistemologies within a single integrated analytical framework. Common calls include (1) application of mixed-methods research designs, (2) in-depth analysis of influential data points to trace the causal processes at play and to (3) triangulate and validate findings from the quantitative empirical literature, as well as (4) out-of-sample prediction to evaluate the generalizability of particular results and to explore long-term implications of alternative scenarios.

Calls for methodological diversity in the study of complex policy issues are a fixture to such an extent you have to wonder why new research doesn’t begin with that observation and follow through. Instead, the calls are a repeated finding to be dealt with whenever.

–One reason is that no such research could be funded for or undertaken by researchers as singletons. Not only would you need that imaginary of the interdisciplinary team with that long-term commitment, you’d need the funding of large foundations or government agencies that are worrying about other things.

What could be more worrisome, you ask, than complex issues of climate change and conflict? Foundations and government agencies suspect, if not already know, that major research programs routinely identify more questions than answers. “It turns out we’re not even asking the right questions. . .,” so goes the key finding.

So, what’s the upshot? Are there useful things we can do now?

Experience tells us there are at least five upshots right in front of us but often not seen:

1. Don’t forget the big-five prism.

People’s perceptions of a complex policy problem vary by their: age, education, income/class, gender and race/ethnicity. Of course, the categories are socially constructed (e.g., some governments do not gather data by “race”). But they are meaningful precisely because of that. Other factors, like sexual orientation, language, or handicap are as important, if not more so, for contexts as differentiated as they are.

You can’t assume your audience and even other policy types appreciate the importance of these demographic filters.

2. The status quo is always an alternative, just as are better practices developed elsewhere and modified for the case at hand.

It’s too often said that “because the status quo is untenable, we must find an alternative.” Actually, “maintain the status quo” is among the alternatives to be evaluated.

The status quo is “business as usual,” not the “Do nothing” option. Under the status quo (e.g., the agency continues to do what it is already doing), one option is whether the activities already underway could achieve the ends sought, eventually. This is important because of that other probability–not just possibility–when implementation of new option leads to conditions worse than the status quo.

Also, it would be astonishing in a planet of 7.5+ billion persons that people elsewhere were not thinking about the complex issue in question or had already moved on to practices that deal with it or like issues.

In short, if you are searching for a radical alternative to the status quo, first satisfy yourself that there aren’t status quo’s already radicalized and modifiable for your purposes.

3. Some complex policy problems are complex because not everything is in a trade-off.

Just as with “risk,” “trade-off” has become such a naturalized term of policy-talk that people ask right off, “Well, what are the risks and trade-offs involved?”

But talk of trade-offs is premature for a number of hard issues. Infrastructure high reliability assumes a theory of nonfungibility, where nothing can substitute for the high reliability and safety without which there would be no markets for goods and services, at least for right now for the economically allocative decision. Economics, in contrast, is a theory of substitutability, where goods and services have alternatives in the marketplace.

4. Evaluations of complex policy interventions find mixed results but less frequently identify trade-offs over “what’s enough?”

Because policy analysis has been from its inception an interdisciplinary profession, it is also multi-criteria for the purposes of assessing options before implementation and evaluating results afterwards.

The more criteria that options are evaluated with respect to–efficiency (benefits over cost), cost effectiveness (e.g., largest benefits for a given cost or budget), political feasibility, administrative feasibility, legality, and others (e.g., equity, sustainability. . .)–the more unlikely straightforward success is achieved. The common response has been to reduce the number of criteria or insist some–efficiency and cost-effectiveness, most notably–take priority.

Yet a very different reaction to typically mixed results is to insist that, where trade-offs do exist, they are about having enough of each. More, the second you admit into decisionmaking questions of “what is enough?,” feasibility criteria rapidly focus on: Which alternative, if implemented, can keep decisionmaker options open for unpredictable changes ahead?

5. Nothing is implemented as planned (but often not for reasons you think).

Hardly news, the reasons given for the gap between what’s planned and what’s implemented typically refer to politics, dollars and jerks. Even where so, the statement needs to be pushed further, with conditions being as differentiated as in complex issues.

A fuller explanation for the shortfall is that policy formulation is usually based on cause-and-effect analysis, while implementation is usually undertaken in terms of means-and-ends considerations. The gap to be worried about is not so much between plan and implementation as it is between cause-and-effect thinking and means-and-ends thinking.

People on the ground implementing don’t see themselves as “the effects” of “external causes”. They hold themselves to be actually existing human beings with really existing goals requiring real means to achieve them. This is also why experience with implementation and operations is so important: We can never assume things will get implemented by means and ends if analyzed or predicted in terms of cause and effect.

–A concluding point about that “experience with implementation.” More experience does not mean less inexperience with complexity.

To repeat earlier entries, the more experience with complexity we have, the more aware we are of how inexperienced we remain and of new difficulties ahead. As a wit would have it, such is peer-review by reality. Always having new questions to ask is only an epiphenomenon of persisting inexperience and difficulty.

Principal sources

von Uexkull, N. and H. Buhaug (2021). “Security implications of climate change: A decade of scientific progress.” Journal of Peace Research 58(1): 3 – 17.

Previous blog entries: “What am I missing?,” “Poverty and war,” “Some answers,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal”

Predicting the future

[Ulrich] suspects that the given order of things is not as solid as it pretends to be; no thing, no self, no form, no principle, is safe, everything is undergoing an invisible but ceaseless transformation, the unsettled holds more of the future than the settled, and the present is nothing but a hypothesis that has not yet been surmounted. (Robert Musil, novelist)

–The future’s unpredictability is not something up ahead or for later on, but is instead present prospection. One implication is that to predict the future is to insist we manage the present in different ways.

Indeed, the notion that what will save us ahead has yet to be invented misses the point that pulling out a good mess or forestalling a bad mess or taking on different messes today is the way to change tomorrow. The only place the future is more or less reliable is now, and only if we are managing our messes, now.

–This also means that the microeconomic concepts of opportunity costs, tradeoffs and priorities, along with price as a coordinating mechanism make sense–if they make sense–only now or in the very short term, when the resource to be allocated and alternatives forgone are their clearest.

Now: What’s a good mess to be found in this huge uncertainty and unstudied conditions? Do we assume, by way of an example, Global Climate Change is going to affect all insect species? How would we model that? Insects may not matter to you, but they do matter to millions and millions of other people. Yet, some 1 million insect species have been identified in a world of possibly 30 million insect species.

–Yes “of course,” Planet Earth is a closed system, but equally closed with respect to everything? In my view, the mess we’re in–and it’s a good mess–is that this global crisis, like others, can’t be about the planet and science, all the way down. All the way down takes us quickly to all manner of “yes, but. . .”

Safety, like much in democracy and intelligence, is not a noun but an adverb

“Safety” is its most problematic when more a noun than as adverb. Safety, if it is anything, is found in practices-as-undertaken, i.e., “it’s operating safely.” If the behavior in question reflects a “safety culture,” that noun, culture, is performative and not something in addition to or prior to “culturally.”

Safety is no different from democracy or intelligence. They too act adverbially—“behaving democratically in that s/he, e.g., votes in elections, pays taxes and more”—and “thinks intelligently” (whatever that means in practice). To believe safety, democracy and intelligence are otherwise is like thinking you make fish from fish soup.

Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Principal sources

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

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