Etcetera as a catastrophe

–I suppose many think that an idea—like “catastrophe”—isn’t responsible for those who believe in it, but that misses the point when professing ideas—as when “catastrophizing”—embody intentions and intentions are part of the act.

Let’s then say one piece of good news is when catastrophizing trips over into kitsch, i.e., presenting itself as so-immediately-awful you can’t keep your eyes off it. There are religious ceremonies and then there is the Nazi kitsch of the Nuremberg rallies. There are parades and then there is the communist kitsch of May Day. There is Greek tragedy, and then there is French farce. There’s Venus de Milo and then there are Venus de Milo salt and pepper shakers.

–So too there is crisis kitsch, as in: “Policymakers need to worry about those other factors—societal, political, economic, historical, cultural, geographical, governmental, psychological, technological, ethical, religious, etc etc—that are so undeniably central to our lives.” As in: The very same people who question the use of GDP as a measure of human health and the environment end up being among the first to urge “Increase government budgets by x% of GDP for health and the environment and social protection and this and that, and more, etcetera. . .”

That is say, things are critical enough to note but need no further mention because, well, it appears all the other stuff should have seized our attention by this time. This is about as helpful as planting liberty trees was to spreading the French Revolution.

–But even here someone can say kitsch is its own kind of catastrophe. Or if you prefer, the only way crisis kitsch comes across as serious is when the grudges behind all those etcetera’s are kept under wraps. Grudges? Those contingencies, which have no specialisms, must end–or so we are told–where the catastrophists stand: There is no alternative. reallyReally. WeCanDoNoOther. How better to insult our intelligence?

Adding high reliability to crisis leadership

As for crisis management, the literature on leadership is largely top down (leaders direct) or bottom up (self-organizing crisis response), where networks are said to be vertical (hierarchical) or horizontal (laterally interacting leaders, official and unofficial).

We add a third category: control rooms, and not just in terms of Incident Command Centers during the emergency but already-existing infrastructure control rooms whose staff continue to operate during the emergency.

Paul Schulman and I argue control rooms are a unique organizational formation meriting society protection, even during (especially during) continued turbulence. They have evolved to take hard systemwide decisions under difficult conditions that require a decision, now. Adding this third is to insist on real-time large-system management as the prevention of major failures and thus crises that would have happened had not control room managers, operators and support staff prevented them.

More, a major reason for this high reliability management in a large socio-technical system is to ensure that when errors do happen, they are less likely to be because of this management than to have been forced by other factors, particularly exogenous shocks. High reliability management seeks to isolate the field of blame and root causes, not least of which relate to “bad leadership.”

Illiquid assets

I

Liquidity in financial markets has a great deal to do with adaptive equifinality under just-in-time performance, where finance professionals are able to assemble funds or other resources at the last moment, albeit not the same way or with the same options all the time even under so-called similar conditions.

Illiquidity then can be seen as the drying up of adaptive equifinality, where the flexibility to assemble options under the pressure of time dissipates. Illiquidity in recent financial crises, for example, has been about the inability of credit markets to meet their basic reliability requirement of providing credit at any time, including just-for-now.

Here illiquidity becomes the inability of finance professionals to maneuver across different performance modes as conditions change. They are stalled in their maneuvering.

II

So what? The climate emergency offers the prospect of today’s critical infrastructures being tomorrow’s stranded assets. Power plants for coal generation will stand empty of any use, the ultimate illiquid asset.

But “asset”? The status of asset implies uses that have been stalled, not stopped for all time. Who then sees “stop” that far ahead?

“It is obviously a highly complex phenomenon that needs global cooperation as a response as well as a holistic approach because the potential collapses are interrelated”? Each word is written as if it were illiquid, resolute, placed there to resist being pushed around or over, when in fact, to shift to a liquid metaphor: Each word is a cowpat to be stepped into so as to distract us from another fact, namely, different paths, as muddy as they are, actually have stiles for climbing over.

A question about Bt cotton in India

As I remember the too-ing and fro-ing over the introduction of Bt cotton in India, saving on insecticides was the putative plus and runaway GM crops the putative negative. I know nothing about the subsequent record but suspect that the findings must be differentiated, as any such findings, by region and other demographics.

All this came back to me when I read the following passage describing a recent conference paper on Bt cotton:

Ambarish Karamchedu presented on Dried up Bt cotton narratives: climate, debt and distressed livelihoods in semi-arid smallholder India. Proponents of this ‘technical fix’ position GMO crops as a triple win. India has semi-arid and arid areas where rural poverty is concentrated, with an intense monsoon season (3-4 months), making farming a challenge. BT cotton introduced around 1995, thrives here. India is the biggest cotton cultivator and Bt cotton is grown by 7 million smallholder farmers, 66 percent in semi-arid areas with poor soils and low rainfall prone to monsoon. In Telangana, 65% of farmers across all classes produce BT cotton, with good harvests for 5 years, after which they decline. Failure of farmers who face increased input prices have to resort to non-farm incomes. The triple win technological fix narrative perpetuates and exacerbates the problems it seeks to solve, and benefits farmer institutions rather than enriching farmer knowledge and practice.

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1VfvjJlxB9VPKQj55dNbZ_VH6oPi2IEVd

It’s that “with good harvests for 5 years, after which they decline” that grabbed my attention.

Did anyone predict that, be they proponents or opponents of Bt cotton?

This matters, because in the absence of any such prediction, why not also conclude: “Well, five years is five years more than expected?”

The neoliberal status quo

Consider “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 any status quo. It’s “the” status quo as has been understood that is unimaginable.

But then again, when have status quo’s been in practice as they are in theory? To paraphrase the international relations theorist, Hans Morgenthau: Excuse me, but just what status quo have the people committed themselves to? They haven’t, irrespective of what systems are said to do on their own.

Engineering the economy’s soft landing, derisking investments, ensuring large systems fail gracefully, and other ways to slice clouds in half

–Engineers talk about the need for large hazardous systems to “fail gracefully.” That assumes a degree of control over technological failure as it is happening and, as far as I can tell, there is nothing “graceful” about a large technical system failing or failing to recover.

So what?

–It’s not just the sheer hubris expressed in phrases like “engineering a soft landing of the economy.” It’s not just the idiocy of thinking investments can be “derisked” through public sector support (fiscal, monetary and regulatory).

It means that even anti-utopians have been delusional at times. Karl Popper, philosopher, was known for contrasting Utopian engineering with what he called the more realistic approach of piecemeal engineering:

It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it is practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance. . . If they go wrong, the damage is not very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial.

If they go wrong, the damage is not very great”!? It’s the case that blueprints for piecemeal health insurance–and educational reform, government budgeting and financial deregulation, for that matter–have also been damaging. Utopian engineering is the least of our problems here.

Complexity means today’s dominant policy narratives have counternarratives in the making: 14 examples (and the list keeps getting longer!)

Migrants

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

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

Immigration controls at EU borders

–“Scholars, NGOs and journalists have paid increasing attention to how states produce and share information about migration, and which databases they use to store data about migrants’ crossings, arrivals and presence in their territory. Within this context, the metaphor of the black box has gained traction, pointing to the perceived ‘unknowability’ and opacity of the technologies used at the border, the way they operate, and the data they store. . . .

“The pitfall of the black box metaphor is twofold. Theoretically, the black box implies that there is something like a secret archive kept hidden from citizens’ view and presupposes a certain degree of coherence and consistency in states’ practices. Yet, we argue, this is often not the case: unevenness, technical glitches and states’ refusal to share data characterise police operations and border controls at the EU’s frontiers. Indeed, the metaphor of the black box restricts our ability to understand the relation between an operation’s internal workings and its outside environment, its conditions and effects. . . .”

Remittances

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

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

Welfare State

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

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

Unions

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

Antiguity

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

European Union

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

–“This article analyses the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) to challenge interpretations of neoliberalism as an international project. The fiscal rules of the SGP are a paradigmatic example of how neoliberalism uses constitutional techniques to put limits on national democracy. These rules, however, have never worked as intended with adherence having been the exception rather than the norm. Although scholars readily admit neoliberal rules misfire in practice, conceptualisations of neoliberalism have remained largely unscathed. In contrast, this article argues that techniques of budgetary planning have had a more crucial impact on neoliberal fiscal governance than legal rules. In the case of the SGP, supranational actors have been empowered not by their capacity to put constitutional limits on public expenditure, but by analysing and intervening in the purposes and uses of public finance through managerial techniques of budgetary planning. In making this argument, I argue that neoliberal rules matter to international fiscal governance only through their failure.”

US Civil War

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

Uncertainty and Inequality

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

Regional Climate Change

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

Urban Poor

–“Many people seemed to have no clue where most of the poor people in the [Seattle] metro actually lived: in the suburbs. So their political imaginary just didn’t include these places. They had this fantasy version of the city inherited from the New Left, with its emphasis on “inner city” organizing within distinct ethnic enclaves. In this American leftist imaginary “the suburbs” means white people, even though in Seattle it’s just the opposite: the inner city is more white than the suburbs.”

Petrochemicals

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

Geoengineering

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

Child Labor and Criminal Behavior

–First, as the data [from three countries] have demonstrated, labor, and the need for children to work, is the predominant lens through which young people and the adults that surround them conceptualize children’s engagement with gangs and organized crime. This was in contrast to the other standpoints that permeate discourse. Labeling the children as gang members is a poor reflection of their drivers of involvement in crime and is likely to stigmatize children engaged in a plight to ensure their own survival. Alternatively, the young people were not child soldiers nor were they victims or perpetrators of trafficking or slavery.

“A victim lens is also problematic in this context. The relationship between young people and organized crime is complex and multifaceted. Young people are victims of acute marginalization, poverty and violence but they do have some agency over their decision making. The data from all studies illustrated how gangs offer young people ways to earn an income but they also provide social mobility, ‘social protection’ (Atkinson- Sheppard, 2017) and ‘street capital.’ In some instances, criminal groups offer young people ways to earn ‘quick and easy money.’ Thus, the young people are not devoid of agency, but their decision making should be considered within the context of restricted and bounded lives.”

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

“Soon, no human will know the answer”

I

A good friend wasn’t trying to be provocative when he told me that a clear sign a field had lost its energy was when its discussions were everywhere overtaken by ethics. If it’s energy you’re looking for, he went on to add, look to the boundaries with other fields in competition with it. His example of the latter was Herbert Simon’s move into artificial intelligence.

So, as a thought experiment, let’s ask: With all this attention to AI ethics, is AI actually a moribund field in ways not commonly supposed?

As the ethicists are also talking about sub-fields like machine learning (ML) and algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM), are these moribund in ways we–that is, those of us who become instant experts in AI by reading the secondary literature–do not comprehend?

For example, rapid obsolescence of software and equipment used in ML and ADM is a topic that, at least to this point (and I stand to be corrected), hasn’t been given as much attention as readers might expect. To my mind, this topic is more important that transparency or fairness, since obsolescence changes the “with-respect-to-what’s” of the latter.

II

So what? Just what analytic purchase do we get parsing AI ethics through the lens of obsolescence?

Well, one thing you get is a track record. Here is W. Daniel Hillis, computer scientist and inventor, writing in 2010:

I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don’t bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.

Soon, no human will know the answer.

https://www.edge.org/response-detail/10707

In short, exactly the kind of not-knowing AI portends has been going on for years.

What then is the record of all this and other such software being replaced or upgraded? Is it that the software was no longer working or that something better came along, or both or something else altogether? In short: How would studying this track record not contribute to really-existing AI ethics?

So true to its date, so false to its subject

–Those who told us, “You can’t plan for a catastrophic event,” and those who said, “I don’t believe every emergency is unique,” need not be at odds. Catastrophes differ from other emergencies, and the interviewees are, I believe, pointing to different sets of interconnections and configurations: the latter more circumscribed as “local,” the former more as “well beyond that!”

One interviewee expressed that they were best when following plans and another at their best when surprised by the unexpected. Operations people seem like cowboys to the engineer department because both are talking about different sets of interconnectivities: We are at best when what we plan can apply to emergency preparedness, while we are best when what we improvise applies to actual response. “I don’t think you respond to 92 breaks in 13 days without having the ability to adapt on the fly,” said a city’s water distribution manager.

–So what?

Well, that can be quickly answered: It’s too early to decide, even case by case, what’s better than reliable operations in the face of turbulent conditions and buttressed by thoughtful emergency preparedness. Why? Because some cases are still early days, e.g.:

It is easy to forget that even in the so-called advanced world, domestic running water – for toilets, cooking, personal hygiene, washing clothes and dishes – is a very recent and ephemeral phenomenon, dating back less than a century. In 1940, 45% of households in the US lacked complete plumbing; in 1950, only 44% of homes in Italy had either indoor or outdoor plumbing. In 1954, only 58% of houses in France had running water and only 26% had a toilet. In 1967, 25% of homes in England and Wales still lacked a bath or shower, an indoor toilet, a sink and hot- and cold-water taps. In Romania, 36% of the population lacked a flushing toilet solely for their household in 2012 (down to 22% in 2021). . .

Marco D’Eramo (2022). “Odourless Utopia.” NLF Sidecar (accessed on line at https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/odourless-utopia?pc=1464)