I believe

. . .in a politics of complexity. One which you can’t homogenize or leave undifferentiated. A politics that reminds us of what works is often at the smaller scale, where the gatherers of information are its users. A politics that starts with cases to be analyzed in their own right. A politics that resists getting lost when scaled up but compels asking at every scale, What am I missing that’s right in front me? A politics where no matter how tightly-coupled the world, people’s stories are not as connected. A politics that insists if you believe everything is connected to everything else, then nothing is reducible to anything else, and if you believe both, then the starting point is not interdependence or irreducibility, but the kaleidoscopic granularity in between. Everything is connected but not everything adds up.

If only it were about probabilities and consequences!

For reasons that will be obvious, no names are given in what follows. The numbers, however, remain roughly as first identified.

–Researchers estimated the annual probability of a major stretch of island levees failing ranged between 4% to 24% due to a slope failure. (Slope instability in this scenario would be caused by flooding behind the levee as well as high water levels on its water side.)

Our estimates were considerably higher than the official one, in large part because the research project relied on methodologies validated against benchmark studies.

–We presented the findings to the island’s management board. Their first and really only question was whether our estimates would be revealed to the island’s insurers.

–We had a hotwash afterwards to figure out their–how to put it?–lukewarm response:

  • Didn’t they understand the upper range, 24% per annum, implied a levee breach nigh inevitable with respect to our scenario? Or to put the question to our side, in what ways did the 24% per annum estimate fall far, far short of being a failure probability of 1.0?
  • But if as high as 24% per annum, why hadn’t there been a levee breach over the many decades since the last major one there?
  • And what about the islands nearby? Assuming even a few of these had a similar upper range, why weren’t levee failures happening more often?
  • The 4% – 24% range was with respect to annual levee failure due to slope instability only. If you add in all the levee failure modes possible (e.g., due to seepage rather than overtopping and flooding), the combined probability of levee failure would have to be higher. (But then again, what are the conditions under which the more ways there are to fail, the more likely failure is?)
  • You could say one reason why levee failure there hadn’t happened–yet–was because it had been long enough. That is: a long enough period to observe levee breaches so as to form the distribution from which the 24% could be established empirically. But these levees, and worse ones nearby, had been in place for decades and decades. The burden of proof was on us, the team of levee experts, to explain why this wasn’t “long enough” or what that long-enough might actually look like.
  • The levee stretch in question could be “failing to fail.” It might be that this stretch had not undergone events that loaded it to capacity and worse. (But that again: How much worse would the conditions have to be in our expert view? Just what is “a probability of failing to fail”?)
  • To put all this differently, was this levee stretch on that island more diverse and more resilient (say, in the way biodiverse ecosystems are said to be more resilient) than current methods capture but which islanders better understood and perhaps even managed?

–But our most significant observation was the one none of us saw need to voice: How could we accuse the management board and islanders of being short-sighted or worse, with so much else going on challenging us, the team, to make sense of our own estimates?

In policy advocacy, recommendations must have the practical torque

–Cut and pasted below, without edit and in full, are recommendations I fully support. I hope you do so too. They concern the clean energy provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) initiative and the Justice40 initiative that seeks to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

The recommendations are quoted at length because their message is central to the climate emergency and racial justice:


As a cornerstone of federal climate policy, the design and implementation of clean energy tax credits are critically important for ensuring equity and justice in the climate transition. In this light, and with the aim of improving the tax credit program as proposed in BBB—or as modified, potentially, by other proposals—we conclude our analysis with a suite of recommendations primarily focused on oversight of the program.

In addition to the positive reforms outlined above—which have already been proposed by legislators—addressing inequities in a tax program on this scale should start with oversight and programmatic evaluation from the Department of Treasury. In fact, many of these changes are similar to reforms proposed for Opportunity Zones in a bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) (Opportunity Zone Reporting and Reform Act 2019). This legislation requires, among other things, public information reporting from Opportunity Zone investors, terminating zones that are not low-income or impoverished, and prohibiting non-beneficial investments that drive gentrification, such as stadiums and luxury hotels and apartments. For energy tax credits, the following changes could—and should—be adopted:

  • Corporations, developers, and other project sponsors claiming investment and production tax credits should have reporting requirements to provide information for assessing equity impacts of the resulting clean energy buildout.
  • The Department of Treasury should also develop robust and measurable beneficial project criteria, not only for the low-income community solar program (although that is most critical) but for all projects seeking credits from the program. Credited projects are not location- or community-neutral, and that principle should be codified in Treasury policy to maximize equity impacts of energy tax credits and especially racial equity impacts. To this end, the function of developing beneficial project criteria could be shared with other agencies as well as states and localities.
  • Oversight of individual energy credits should include evaluating distributional impacts, considering both income and race, and this should inform programmatic changes or revisions of the law that will reduce persisting disparities in the program.
  • Credits for eligible energy sources and technologies considered harmful by environmental justice advocates should be subject to local or community review and accountability. Treasury guidance on community review and conditions for revocation and/or repayment of credits should be developed if unavailable, and consistently utilized. This should include pollution and public health reporting requirements for corporations or other businesses owning/operating energy facilities that emit local pollution or otherwise pose local health risks.
  • Energy tax equity investments should be profiled for climate and community impacts.
  • No corporation currently or previously found to be in violation of environmental laws or labor and workplace safety laws should be eligible for credits.
  • And finally, given the troubled distributional track record of tax credit policy generally and clean energy tax credits specifically, the question of how Justice40 applies to climate-related Treasury programs—especially one on this scale—deserves consideration by the Biden administration and more attention from advocates.

I wouldn’t change a word, and every word nails down what are to many of us obvious and true needs and concerns.

–But, oh, the verbiage surrounding the “Recommendations”! All that rah-rah about what perhaps, may, can, could be, and should be, all this magicked-up bromide that the only genuine political project is to set progressive tax rates and redistribute, and not even a homeopathic whiff of what has actually worked for achieving the ends sought for and by those obviously vulnerable.

IMHO, the author-advocates would have been better off publishing the much-needed recommendations on their own.

Principal source

Daly, L. and S. Chi (2022). Clean Energy Neoliberalism: Climate, Tax Credits, and Racial Justice. Issue brief in the All Economic Policy Is Climate Policy series. Just Solutions Collective and The Roosevelt Institute. Those interested in the brief’s very apt proposals can download the document at https://rooseveltinstitute.org/publications/clean-energy-neoliberalism/

Ongoing disasters, resilience and governance: really?

–Separating pre-disaster mitigation, preparedness and prevention from actual disaster response and initial service restoration has been fairly common for emergency planning purposes.

This divide across pre-disaster/disaster/post-disaster becomes more complicated when you talk to practicing emergency managers. They can go into great deal about efforts to “prepare for,” “mitigate,” and “prevent” situations even when in immediate response and restoration, and not just beforehand.

–It would however be a mistake, I think, to see preparation, mitigation and prevention as continuous variables, punctuated from time to time for whatever reason.

To telegraph ahead, what changes over time, more formally and specifically, are different configurations of socio-technical interconnections around which ongoing prevention, preparedness and mitigation efforts are coordinated—from now into and across immediate response and initial restoration of services.

–To see how, start this way.

Some infrastructure operators and emergency managers we interviewed say they are best in response and restoration when following plans, while others say they are at their best when surprised by the unexpected. This means operations people may look like cowboys to the engineer department because both cognitively understand the same system differently: “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.

–But this may be less a matter of different professional orientations as commonly understood and more about orientations with respect to different “scales of operation,” even within the same city.

For engineers, seismically retrofitting a bridge represents efforts to manage ahead latent interconnectivity so that it does not become manifest during or after an earthquake, e.g., the bridge holds and traffic is not disrupted there. For operations people, even if the seismically retrofitted bridge does fail in the earthquake and traffic disrupted, improvisations are still possible, both by the city departments involved and by commuters who individually or collectively organize alternatives. The respective interconnectivities, before and after, of course look very different.

Improvising after failure may seem like weak beer compared to the promise of better avoiding failure in the first place, but not foregrounding the necessity of improvisations (and improvisational skills) leads to confusion about “building in resilience” and its role in emergency management. All the money and political will beforehand won’t get rid of the key role of improvisation in emergency management. There is no planner’s workaround for improvisation.

–So what? Isn’t that obvious?

If the necessity of improvisation in emergency management is obvious, not all the implications are.

A very major issue emerges when it comes to the role of politics after immediate response and initial service restoration, i.e., that is, as you move into longer-term recovery. For some interviewees, the transition out of a (more or less) command-and-control response, with its own clarity, logic and urgency, into a more inclusive, more politicized (read, more conflicted) recovery raises unavoidable governance issues.

What, they ask, are the organizational and management markers and decisionmaking criteria for resuming (bettered) civic operations? “At this point, it’s not been determined,” said an interviewee with long experience.

Nor is that question, along with the like question “When is ‘resilient-enough’ enough?,” in fact not determinable. Why? Because the granularity about the (latent and manifest) interconnectivities necessary in coordinating immediate response and initial service restoration is simply not possible, prospectively, for longer-term recovery.

(Please also see blogs, “A whole cycle approach to infrastructure risk and uncertainty” and “Recasting ‘low probability, high consequence events'”)

Systemcide and the poet, Jorie Graham

–I liken one of our complexity challenges to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic).

So too the challenge of reading the first sequence of poems in Jorie Graham’s Fast (2017, Ecco HarperCollinsPublishers). This is an extraordinary 17 pages, not just because of pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes. In her words, “we are in systemcide”.

–To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others—is to experience all manner of starts—“I spent a lifetime entering”—and conjoined ends (“I say too early too late”) with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”)

Because hers is no single story, she sees no need to explain or explicate. By not narrativizing the systemicide into the architecture of beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

action unfolded in no temporality--->anticipation floods us but we/never were able--->not for one instant--->to inhabit time… 

She achieves the elision with long dashes or —>; also series of nouns without commas between; and questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running.

–Her lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths.

The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is my experience of the rush of crisis. I even feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since this is my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is a catastrophizer or not.

–I disagree about the crisis—for me, it has middles with more mess than beginnings and ends—but that in no way diminishes or circumscribes my sense she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

See also: Valery P. (1954). “Poetry and abstract Thought. The Zaharoff Lecure for 1939 at Oxford University,” Trans. Charles Guenther, The Kenyon Review 16(2), p. 211

Economics suspended in a jelly of verbiage

Economists insisted that heroic stakes were framed around Market Competition versus State Planning, with Competition winner of the palm. Who needs Illiquid Government when you have Liquid Markets?

Odd then when economists pointed out that their storied perfect competition (all price takers and constant returns to scale) would have undermined entrepreneurial capitalism.

Odd that always-late capitalism would not have been possible without imperfect competition (some price makers and increasing returns to scale) and without an important role for—what!—government policies fostering technological change. Odd too that liberalized capital markets turned out to mean the rougher seas of financial instability.

Odder was that criticism economists leveled against price-setting by planners who couldn’t possibly process all that complexity when everyone knows that price discovery through markets does so much better. Only later did they admit that basic market mechanisms like auctions can’t work because of the sheer complexity of the financial instruments to be auctioned. Which meant the planners had to get involved anyway.

Not odd then that Samuel Beckett’s “failing better” and Theodor Adorno’s “living less wrongly” have the better record.

Nothing’s ready-to-wear

–Contingency and complexity are everywhere and affect both intention and consequence. It’s not just that my good intentions may end up achieving the opposite; it’s not just my thoughtlessness may save others and myself from worse. It’s being uncomprehending of the why’s and how’s in either case. The self-cure is to be pre-occupied by other things.

–To be distracted from these preoccupations means hesitations and scruples over: what we know and do not know; what we experience as inexperience; and what we come to know as the very different kinds of difficulty. This is the alertness in finding something complicated, something no longer familiar or taken-for-granted, as when making unfamiliar connections that nonetheless resonate wildly.

–For example, what is missed in a preoccupation with existential threats, when the only ones are the two of being forced to leave because of one threat but forced to stay because of another? Climate migrants are driven out, but have nowhere else to go or wherewithal to do so. What’s missed is all the evidence that they don’t see themselves as victims.

If dollars could talk, this is what we’d be hearing

–Aren’t there better stories to tell our people?

At one extreme, we have this story: After three decades of grounding (down) macroeconomics into microeconomics, there are the legion of still-breeding Lord Voldemorts and their trillions in wealth destruction. At the other extreme are stories about the neo-Keynesian Mad Hatters, where the worst possible thing you can do when things get bad is to save for when things go worse and the best possible thing to do is to spend wads of money you don’t have.

–My counter-story starts this way:

You don’t know it, but each dollar bill talks and what it talks about is how it passes from hand to different hand, multiplying its uses and impact. The dollar bill reports so many stories, each of which reads differently but all of which sound the same–that is, to the economy.

The economy, you see, is stone-dumb to any of this, assuming the dollar bills behind follow the dollar bills ahead, as if those ahead must know what they’re doing. And this, the economy calls, always-late capitalism.

If the economy would listen to the dollar bills, it might learn something. Like what? Like dollar bills are all about ensuring that things be diverse and not end any time soon (i.e., ensuring that in the long run there’s more short runs).

Now, if the economy weren’t so dumb it might insist that this just can’t go on. But the dollar bills are saying, in their cacophonous way, that the buck doesn’t stop–here or anywhere for that matter. Always-late capitalism has been going on for so long, it might be better to assume what stops first will not be late capitalism but calling it such. . .

The “no” in innovate

–“First off,” the project designer tells us, “I’m always working in unstudied conditions. Every major project, I’ve got to make assumptions.” I counter: The challenge of project designers is to find out what are the better practices for starting off complex project designs. I mean the really-existing practices that have emerged and been modified over a run of different cases and shown to be more effective for design implementation.

“But how can a field or discipline grow if it doesn’t do something the first time…” This response is often stated 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?” The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate this, indeed, is the very first time. This is a planet of 7 plus billion, after all.

“But still,” our friends, the economists, press: “What about the pivotal role of innovation in the economy?” Well, yes, but so too are the infrastructures upon which 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 over-enlarges the already large.

–So what’s wrong with innovation at its limits? Innovation evangelicals would have us believe that everything existing is already an anachronism. The form in the stone is out-of-date because there’s surely something better than stone. But why is it better to innovate as the next step ahead rather than improve the step now taken?

The wider point here is about the unique contribution of reliable infrastructure management to innovation: The former provides the ground and context for determining if and how innovation turns into innovation-positive or innovation-negative without being pessimistically dystopian with respect to technology or overly utopian with respect to economic growth.


–Go look at one of those early 20th century American landscape paintings by Redmond Granville, of wildflowers spreading across California fields, or Edgar Payne of a remote lake in the snowy Sierras. Then look at virtually the same painting, but this time also with having a young woman in her calico dress or cowboy on a horse. In an instant, this painting dates the preceding one.

What had been an “idealized-now” flips to an “historicized-then.” Public policy is full of these flips: reforms that work on paper but date immediately when real people with real problems in real time enter the picture—both as subject and as frame.

–Our experiences “lie jumbled up inside us, and we find we have an inner world like a rubbish bin,” wrote the sociologist and psychotherapist, Ian Craib:

This is a different sort of mess…the flux of the inner life and our emotions, about which we maintain the illusion that it can be made orderly and predictable. We might think that the rubbish bin can be sorted out, but it seems to me what the push is towards emptying it and starting afresh.

But we don’t start all over again, and two sets of opposing pressures drive the anxiety of having to sort things out: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know and the centrifugal pressures of opening out to recast what has been taken for granted.

–Apprenticeship is when the amateur starts in the expectation that “risks” or “tradeoffs” or “costs” are out there to be identified, only to realize in the field that each has to be specified in more detail (as opposed to? with respect to what failure scenario? under what conditions? just what is it a case of?). And then, over the course of a career, he or she recognizes the challenges arise because what is out there depends on how “it” is defined and managed in the first place by actually-existing human beings in the actually-existing systems in which they find themselves.

In this way, the uprush of experiences render doubt a kind of knowingness—and knowingness, up-piled, is professionalism.