Weigel and gotcha discourse

Once upon a time, writers and pols gathered in physical places nominally devoted to consumption of ethanol and chemicals with names ending in -ine, including but not limited to caff- and nicot- , and engaged in social capital formation, sharpening of wits, and exchange of information that made them all smarter and happier.  Some of the things people said in these environments were so pithy and entertaining that they got picked up and circulated widely; some were so unkind that they put friendships at risk.

The participants observed, imperfectly, rules about what could be properly repeated outside the coffee shop or bar and what not.  Since most of this discourse was face-to-face, and the numbers small, people breaking the rules would almost always be known to do so, and participants could give their right brains more leeway than they would at a podium or before their editors, readers, the king, etc.

A direct descendant of these institutions, that just closed up shop owing to the despicable behavior of one of its members or, importantly, someone else who hacked into the list or just spent some low quality time with a member’s computer while the member had gone to get some coffee, was the very lamented journolist email group whose den mother was Ezra Klein.  I considered it a significant compliment to have been invited, along with several other RBCers, and enjoyed meeting (virtually, and occasionally physically) people I would not have otherwise encountered if only because they are in Chicago, NY, DC, LA, Austin, etc.  The age range of the group was quite wide, and as I consider it both the main advantage of my day job that I am constantly around very smart young people, and a drawback that they are mostly pre- rather than early-career, this was a big plus for me and, I think, my coevals. It was also full of women and LGBT voices (of and for), another good thing.

What happened on jlist was a lot of serious exploration of half-baked ideas (the most interesting kind to be able to put an oar into), a lot of huffing about big and not-so-big world steps toward doom, some personal meises, and the usual stuff like sports and music that people use to build and maintain little sub-societies.  What happened off jlist was some amount of personal jealousy that always surrounds a group with constrained membership, and the inevitable result of (properly) allowing people with weak morals, modest abilities, and an enormous ambition/abilities ratio, on the internet, perhaps muddled with the present-day right-wingers’  confusion of victory, fear, greed, and narrow-mindedness with principle and social value.

Everyone says things orally that don’t represent his values, or his considered views, or what will motivate him when he’s thoughtfully doing his job, and things in metaphoric or hyperbolic form that can be interpreted literally by the stupid or mean-spirited to be disreputable.  We easily use new informal media like a listserv assuming the rules of conversation apply, but of course when everything is cached by Google forever, as sexting kids discover, the facts are different and it doesn’t matter that almost everyone has a conscience and good judgment if one or two don’t.

More generally, gotcha politics and discourse, that attempt to convict someone of being a bad person (racist, reactionary, communist, whatever) at heart by finding a remark made when someone thought a mike was off or a camera not running, has had a very costly collision with the new technical facts of life (this is so much bigger than the Weigel episode).  No good comes of this  revision of balanced evaluation into an all-or-nothing evaluation: it is simply not the case that a politician who shtupps women he or she is not married to, or utters a racial slur, is incapable of creating value in public service no matter what else he or she has actually done, or does upon reflection.  In fact, it does not even follow that merely because a pol (i) expresses conservative values and publicly deplores things a lot of voters deplore and (ii) violates those rules in personal life, he or she should be landfilled, any more than a politician advocating morning-after contraceptive accessibility for teenagers is obligated to sleep around.

The irony of the journolist episode is almost cosmic.  On the one hand, the viability of the listserve depends on every single member obeying the rules and being a mensch all the time, rather than the long-term average good behavior of all. This is obviously a suboptimal arrangement, but it’s not clear what could be done about it, because the viability of a career now depends on doing and saying the right thing every moment since forever, which is equally suboptimal and unrealistic.  Bad discourse driving out good à la Gresham, with information technology playing the role of the counterfeiter’s backyard foundry.

Weigel traded quips and insults about public figures among friends, just as I do and as you, dear reader, do. Weigel is not a tape recorder but a reporter with personal political views, just like any human reporter. Neither of these ever affected his reporting and no-one has even tried to show that it has.  Now Weigel is going to find another channel through which to deliver value, perhaps to fewer people; he’s been personally injured by the treachery of someone he trusted directly or at second hand; and a useful forum of exchange and idea-sharpening, that also enriched the lives of its members with mostly harmless fun and the occasional barb friends and grownups take as the price of a life worth living will be lost or have to be reconstituted (inshallah) with an aroma of mistrust and fear in the air.

Time to revisit the immortal fable of the most amazing thing, but every time one of these episodes comes along, I’m less and less amazed at a pointless act of destruction, or the willingness of some to win a cheap point to no long-term purpose except maybe a few bucks, at the cost of social capital that takes a long time to build.

And now for an intra-RBC dispute (wherein I also disagree with Weigel’s counsel): No, Jonathan, Drudge should do no such thing.  In doing so he would dissemble having the moral strength, and will to sacrifice self for a larger good, of a Buddhist monk desperate to end the rape of his country.  This would be one more profoundly dishonest act for Drudge, though only modestly increasing his index thereof, and it would mislead the world about his real nature.  In any case, I do not counsel sinners and liars to have another go, but instead to reform and repent.

Why the Haitians aren’t doomed: choice trumps culture.

Haiti is not doomed. To the extent that Haitian culture inhibits prosperity, Haitians will do as people in that condition always have: they will work around their culture—or leave it, and benefit their home countries no less by doing that.

I’m afraid I have to disagree, pretty strongly, with Mike on this one.

Let’s accept for argument* that Banfield’s Moral Basis of a Backward Society is not only classic but something rarer: right.  The question is what it means.

The Italian town that Banfield called “Montegrano” was actually Chiaromonte.  What happened to it after Banfield proclaimed its culture hopelessly backward?  One researcher (academic paywall: it’s N. S. Peabody, III, “Toward an Understanding of Backwardness and Change,” Journal of Developing Areas 4, No. 3 [April 1970]:375-386) examined its record about twelve years after Banfield did—after Italy’s general 1960s boom—and found its agriculture transformed by the substitution of rational crops for fascist-promoted wheat, its cultural repertoire transformed by TV and movies, and everything transformed by emigration.  Those who experienced the wider world brought back modern ideas, sent money that gave their relatives some independence, and often returned to buy or rent land in ways that challenged the ancestral landlord structure.  Returning emigrants were the new, and previously missing, middle class.  Those who didn’t return were both a profitable export and a crucial mechanism through which the local culture did what all cultures do eventually: change beyond recognition.

More than twenty years after that, in the early 90s, L.E. Harrison in Who Prospers? made a personal trip and put it more vividly:

What I found in that brief visit was dramatic change.  Almost everyone was literate.  Half were high school graduates.  All families had television.  Sixty percent had telephones.  Sixty percent had automobiles.  Several agricultural cooperatives had been formed.  Families are now much smaller, averaging two children.  A highway was built in the 1970s that cut travel time to Naples in half (from six hours to three).  People now travel much more, and many attend school elsewhere.  Many Chiaromontese have migrated to Northern Italy and other European countries to work, and a fair number of them have returned.

Chiaromonte is no longer Montegrano, although I have no doubt that a residue of traditional values can be found there.  Chiaromonte has been opened up, by education, by road, by television,by newspapers and magazines, to the progressive values and institutions of modern Italy and Western Europe.  Left to its own devices, the town woudl no doubt today be essentially what it was when the Banfields lived there.  But its isolation has been broken down. …

In Haiti, the story isn’t so different.  To the extent that the prevailing culture and society have made mobility within the country difficult, Haitians have responded by emigrating in droves. (Perhaps 4.5 million live abroad.).  Their remittances, almost $2 billion a year, may be the single greatest contributor to national income.  When many of them return, as we can count on them someday doing, they will instantly swell the middle class.  I’m sure that Haiti’s aristocracy has no great desire to help the poor in their country.  But progress never depended on converting the barons.  The point, and the likely future, is to render them irrelevant.

Even those who stay are likely to prosper slowly (more slowly than in other countries, but faster than “doomed”—as in Naples, as in Chiaromonte).  We notice societies that “stagnate” for a time because it’s so unusual: growth is normal.  Everyone remembers the part of Adam Smith where he rails against bad government policies.  Fewer remember the part where he says that England has steadily grown more prosperous in the face of miserable policies and useless wars.

In the midst of all the exactions of government,…capital has been silently and gradually accumulated by the private frugality and good conduct of individuals, by their universal, continual, and uninterrupted effort to better their own condition.

Of course “culture matters.”  That’s why people who inhabit a culture that thwarts their dreams will either rely on their own hard work and that of their families—a second best to a supportive culture but not therefore useless—or else  leave their culture for one that better supports prosperity, and send home the fruits of their choice to be both consumed and planted.  The relevant unit is not Haiti but Haitians.

The difference between slow growth, against the odds, and inevitable stagnation is not theoretical but terribly practical.  It will be all too easy to misinterpret a statement like “It is not possible to write a check to ‘Haiti‘, nor to ‘the poor in Haiti.'”  UNICEF is currently shipping to Haiti large quantities of water purification tablets, oral rehydration kits, tarps for shelter, and water storage units.  If the rich need such things and want to steal some, they will no doubt succeed to some degree.  Unless one thinks that they’ll take all of it, a small donation can still save a staggering number of lives.  Will development programs succeed in the longer term?  As usual, some will, many won’t, and the removal of tariff barriers would help much more than most of them.  (Update: let’s cancel some debt too.)  But that is, emphatically, an argument for a much later date.

*Accept this only for argument.  Many have claimed that there was lots of interaction in small-town Southern Italy–just not the kinds of interaction he was familiar with and therefore looking for; for some citations, look here.  And Jackman and Miller’s “Social Capital and Politics” article from 1998 (academic subscription wall) asks excellent questions about the wider use often made of Banfield’s theses: Putnam, and others who follow him, often seem to argue simultaneously that culture is immutable and that it’s a great thing when institutions can change it quickly.  That said, few of the critics doubt that the culture of Northern Italy, all things considered, make growth more robust, and government better, there than in the South.

Why Haiti is Doomed

I’ve been waiting for this story ever since the earthquake.  It turns out the rich folks up on the hill are pretty much OK, and they are being protected from looters as always by the police who have been invisible to date down among the poor.  Haiti is a society operating under rules called amoral familialism, so defined in the little classic Ed Banfield wrote when he spent a summer visiting his wife’s ancestral village in Italy and asked himself (thinking back to his community development work in the US in the thirties), “why are these people so poor?!”.  It is the moral system typical of communities that established their habits and norms under cruel foreign oppression, the French and later the US in Haiti, the French and Spaniards in southern Italy, and are sufficiently isolated from workable, healthy, just societies that the pessimism, selfishness, greed, and fear  they depend on can’t be diluted or adapted.  It is the philosophy of Sonny Corleone, pithily summarized as “…they’re [enlistees in WW II] chumps because they risk their lives for strangers!” But the wall around the Italians in America was punctured in a generation as they learned English, went to public school and CCNY, and read newspapers; the wall around Haiti is an ocean they can’t afford boats to cross and an armed frontier with a (much less vicious and less desperate) police state where they speak a different language.

It is not possible to write a check to “Haiti”, nor to “the poor in Haiti”.  It is possible to implant dozens and even hundreds of community projects for health care, education, rebuilding homes, and the like, and to operate them up to the point that they seriously threaten the people who vacation in Gstaad and St. Tropez.  But any important assistance to Haiti will be met at the airport by the people living up on the hill, who will take it in the name of something that looks enough like a ‘government of the Haitians’ to satisfy foreign donors, and use it to pay the cops outside that genteel market, and to restore the only society they know, which is a society in which they loot a large population of desperate, uneducated, citizens to prop up whatever big man gets to be in charge for the next cycle of misery and theft.  Interesting about the proprietor of the lottery; is there a better way to separate the poor from any little money they may accumulate without having to provide anything in return?

In Naples, the Camorra decides when and if the garbage will be picked up, and who gets a building permit, and what piece of farmland or shoreline gets trashed. Government development programs “respect local needs” and are picked clean before brick is laid on brick.  In the southern Philippines, your local mafiosi have a comfortable arrangement with a distant national government and deliver the votes needed to be left to loot (until they are stupid enough to massacre a convoy of reporters and troublemakers). In the Nigerian delta, someone with connections picks up the oil royalties and leaves just enough to pay thugs to keep the locals quiet in their hovels, looking at the pipeline (and occasionally punching a hole in it in desperation). In Haiti, the same.  I don’t know anywhere in the world where a society like this has climbed out of ignorance, poverty, and violence: culture matters.  The culture of clawing your way out of misery on the backs of your neighbors, if you can get your hands on an AK47 and rent yourself out to someone on that hill, is all the culture there is down in the slums, and the culture of wealth taken from despised wretches, and enjoyed over nice wine with a pleasant view of the harbor, in a house that has some rebar in its masonry,  is very important to the folks who pay the cops. [UPDATE 19/I/10: more discussion of this in two later posts from Andy and me].

How come no generators?

Newshour tonight had a piece on rebuilding the electric infrastructure trashed by Ike. It began with a family in an undamaged suburban house almost a week after the storm, using candles and a camping stove for cooking. Interestingly, the housewife interviewed illustrated her main gripe as wondering every day where and whether they can get ice. A week after the storm, only about half of almost two million customers (I think this means people, not households/meters) have their power back. The show was mostly about how complete the electric system destruction was and how much has to be rebuilt, but I’m wondering about that family trying to function hauling ice in their car.


Here’s a generator that costs $350; another hundred bucks gets two five-gallon safety cans. I bet that looks like a mighty fine deal to a lot of those folks. If you’re careful about opening the fridge door as little as possible, and run the generator a few hours a day, ten gallons of gasoline will keep food cold for three or four days, with a couple of real lights in the evening (cfls, of course). The roads are open, most people have their cars, and they can drive to a functioning gas station every couple of days; what they don’t have is electricity and won’t for a long time.

Why doesn’t everyone in places liable to hurricanes and earthquakes, who isn’t really poor, and doesn’t live in an apartment, have a generator? Even one for every two houses would be a big help. Why hasn’t the market flooded the area with generators instead of all that ice? Why hasn’t FEMA been on the spot with trucks full of generators and gas cans for the grasshoppers, for sale at market price (maybe cheap for anyone whose house is less than X square feet, a crude means test)?

Safety note: RBC readers probably know all this, but I have to add this nanny-posting appendix: Do not store any gasoline in your house, any! These Darwin Award contenders got off very easy! If your water heater, or anything with a pilot light is in your garage, not there either! Gasoline vapor is heavier than air, and will flow down to the basement where your furnace is; if there are stairs from the garage down to the basement, no gas! Don’t store it in anything but a real, metal safety can! Don’t fill the can unless it’s sitting on the ground (not in your trunk, not your pickup bed)!

Be sure to put gas stabilizer in the gas cans each time you fill them, and cycle it (every few months, put it in your car and refill the cans). If you don’t keep the gas fresh, it will gum the carburetor of the generator terminally and you’ll be on the road for ice when you didn’t want to be. And of course, keep the generator empty; drain the tank and then run the engine dry after you use or test it.

Finally, don’t connect the generator to your house wiring unless you have, and know how to install and use, an interface kit. You run a real risk of knocking a lineman off his pole when he comes to hook you up; use extension cords.

Update:Andy S, grouchy perhaps because he just whacked his thumb putting up a picture, differs here.

Update 2: A reader points out that unless the gas station has power, and deliveries, the generator isn’t worth much, and points out the Florida now requires gas stations to have generators for this reason, which seems like a good piece of policy. But note also that if anyone has ice to sell, it’s probably a gas station/convenience store…

California’s Wildfires: Lessons Learned?

This morning, as California’s wildfires continued to burn, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared that the feds had learned many lessons from Hurricane Katrina.


By nearly all accounts, the fires have been extraordinarily well managed (400,000 plus acres have been torched, nearly a million people have been evacuated, but only a handful of deaths are fire-related).

But I’m not sure Chertoff and other federal officials deserve as much credit as they are giving themselves. Two other factors are worth considering:

1. The fires.

Megafires in California are, by nature, high damage/ high likelihood events. The 2nd worst fire in state history –after this one — occurred just 4 years ago. From a preparedness standpoint, this combination of impact and probability is as good as it gets: Fires occur often enough to make investing in prevention and reponse politically attractive for federal, state, and local officials. And they are familiar enough to make agency planning efforts both useful and continuous. (By contrast, high damage/lower likelihood events like Cat 5 hurricanes and WMD terrorist attacks are scary to imagine, outside our immediate experience base, and politically unattractive to prepare for precisely because they are unlikely).

Lessons may have been learned in Washington after Katrina. But they are learned here in California every fire season. Since the 2003 Cedar fire, state and local officials have substantially improved radio interoperability among first responders, adopted a “reverse 911” phone system which was used to evacuate San Diego county, and developed a new modified DC-10 that can drop 12,000 gallons of firefighting chemicals from the sky — that’s roughly ten times more than the next best aircraft.

2. State/County/Local Efforts (or, everything outside of Washington)

Good coordination between different agencies on the firelines is no accident. The incident response system that is now used nation-wide to handle major disasters was invented in California years ago. California’s city, county, and state agencies are playing by the playbook they designed. And they are working across agency (and sector) lines with the people they’ve fought alongside for years. Teams that play often together usually do better.

Don’t get me wrong. The devastation is massive. I’ m sure we’ll learn how things could have been done better. And federal coordination and assistance are critical. But lesson #1 from Katrina should be that local capabilities matter. A lot.

Learning from the bridge collapse

Now that the wreckage of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis is no longer all over our screens, it’s worth considering what the episode should teach us about infrastructure, public policy, politics, and engineering. Part of the answer is, not much: it’s very tricky to interpret rare and exciting events.

This one, recognizing that any accidental death is a terrible experience for victims, friends and families, was in any case not all that costly. It appears to have caused about fifteen deaths, about 3/10 of one percent of Minnesota’s annual highway total, and dozens of injuries. It trashed several dozen vehicles, at $20,000 each, maybe a million dollars’ worth. It interrupted navigation on a low-volume reach of the river, blocked an unimportant rail line, and will tie up road traffic in the Twin Cities for a couple of years (if history is any guide, much less than people now fear). This last will be quite costly, but hard to see because it sprinkles hours lost here and there thinly across thousands of people. It lost about the last fifth of the bridge’s planned service (it was slated for replacement in 2020), about $50m (the new bridge is being talked about as a $250m item).

Equally important, it’s indicative and salient, but not really data. Bridges almost never fail suddenly and by themselves; I can only find two such examples in the last twenty-five years. Usually they fail from events like earthquakes, floods, barge collisions, gas tankers catching fire under them, and such, or partly and slowly enough to close them before people or trains go in the drink. So while we should obviously do a good post-mortem on the pieces and history of this one to learn what we can, we will probably not find out how to avoid a lot of social cost in the future. There’s just not much payoff in having less of something that almost never happens. That said, there may be real payoff in designing for more extreme events when we change our probabilities of their occurrence: if we’re going to have more floods from global warming, we should spend more on bridge footings; as we come to recognize the seismic risk in Memphis and Boston, we crank up the building code. But any design conditions omit events so rare they aren’t worth building for.

Continue reading “Learning from the bridge collapse”

Reflections on the I-35W bridge

The I-35W bridge was two arch-cantilever trusses, with smaller trusses parallel to the river supporting the roadway. Each of the main trusses rested on two concrete columns, one on each side of the river. The design highlights a characteristic design tradeoff: a truss like this is statically determinate, which means that the all the forces in every element can be calculated exactly. [Actually the connections among the truss elements appear to be capable of transmitting some bending, so it’s not a completely pure determinate design.]. It also means that the whole truss depends on the integrity of every piece: cut one element in a truss and the whole thing folds up. A statically indeterminate structure is one in which the forces in one or another part depend on the stiffness of other parts and the connections among them; the calculation is complicated and the forces one comes up with are not so certainly what the parts actually bear, but a statically indeterminate structure can survive the failure of one or another part. A simple example is a beam across, say, four supports. If it is cut or broken in the middle span, it could still stay up as a pair of cantilevers.

(I’m astonished that I could not learn the foregoing, meaning simply a picture of the bridge as built, from any media source including television and newspapers, except this little graphic in the NYT and eventually a much more complete little flash player box, also in this morning’s NYT, that I can’t figure out how to link to. There’s one remarkable video on CNN, from a security camera, showing the actual collapse in progress, with the center span failing at the supports and falling more or less intact, after which the cantilevers at the end fell outward. Having seen this video, I will make the conjecture that the bridge deck was calculated as a composite top chord of the trusses and failed in tension over the supports. If this is true, the deck repair may well have been a contributing cause of the failure. Watch this space; if I’m right, I will feel like a tree full of owls and you will definitely hear about it.)

It does not follow that indeterminate structures are better or stronger; structural design is a matter of making things as strong as they need to be, with allowances for uncertainties like the load they will have to carry, the actual strength of their component materials when new and after they’ve been in the weather for a while, and the like. Because the actual forces in their parts are less certainly known, indeterminate structures have to be somewhat overdesigned compared to determinate ones: the difference is in what the material is comfortable with (on the whole, concrete “likes” being poured into large integrated indeterminate structures, while steel is especially suited to trusses made of small parts in determinate networks. Anything can be made as strong as desired at a price; for example they could have filled in the river with dirt around a couple of big pipes, at the price of river navigation; the issue here is choosing the right kind of risk/cost combination.

The contrast between these kinds of design has irresistible analogies to human systems. Management can be made discrete and determinate, with very specific tasks assigned to individuals and units, or it can be more fluid and overlapping; the latter form tends to be more adaptable to crisis or surprise, but less accountable and efficient in normal operation as it’s not always possible to know just what anyone is doing at the moment. Would you rather know exactly whose fault everything is, or trade some accountability and precise knowledge for redundancy?

One of the systems important in bridge survival is inspection and maintenance. Steel is mostly iron, and iron really wants to become iron oxide, which it does if it’s wet and does really fast if it’s wet with salt water from the sea or snow removal. Hence, at the least, endless painting. It also changes its crystalline structure when it’s flexed again and again (this kind of fatigue is not the same as breaking a paperclip by bending it a few times beyond its elastic limit), becoming brittle and liable to cracks that can hide under the paint. The steel that reinforces concrete bridge decks is at risk of corrosion when the concrete develops little cracks and salt water leaks in. This is a big deal because it’s invisible, hence all the deck replacements with green (epoxy-coated) reinforcing steel you often drive by. Generally, structures outdoors, and many indoors, should be thought of as a combination of a large initial investment and an infinite stream of maintenance, inspection, and repair.

Unfortunately the nature of infrastructure is a challenge to politics. Spending money to maintain a bridge means taxes with nothing to show the voters (except traffic obstruction); no-one ever named a paint job or a repair after a local hero, but buying a big new piece of something is another matter. A wise society would constitutionally require that every capital investment require an untouchable endowment for eternal maintenance, to be cashed in only if the original structure is demolished. But such an endowment could double the initial cost of the bridge or building, and that’s a downer for a pol in a close race. It’s sort of like having a glorious war for a couple of months and then flubbing the occupation that follows, to choose an example completely at random, or not bothering to keep up levees so they will actually prevent a flood, to choose another. Anyway, posterity never done nuthin’ for us, right? Maintenance, even more than new construction, also confronts public administrators and elected officials with a truly poignant and often paralyzing moral choice between hiring the incompetent generous campaign donor and hiring the capable low bidder with a good record who has done nothing to advance the public interest (as defined, of course, by your reelection prospects or just your personal net worth if you’re an appointed official). The choice between having a bridge maybe fall to pieces after your term in office, and having your career hit an electoral bump (certainly, right now) is surely such a hard call that we shouldn’t begrudge our leaders the big bucks we don’t pay them (until their lobbying and sitting-on-boards career phase).

Aggravating this irresponsibility is something I can only describe as a loss of pride in our common works. The idea that something as wonderful as a collective provision of public transit should be trashed by selling advertisements all over the sides of the buses, or that parks and schools and subway stations and streets shouldn’t be beautiful and kept that way by gardening and sweeping and painting, is simply beyond my understanding. How anyone can know that the National Parks are falling to pieces before our eyes and not be enraged at something so coarse and stingy being done in our name simply escapes me. The little signs along the highways saying that if this or that local business hadn’t picked up the litter it would be lying there still are an abomination.

Get ready for a long period – I figure this will not bore governors’ staffs, Fox and CNN for weeks to come…OK, days – of soul-searching and resolving and pointing with alarm about infrastructure maintenance. Then we can go back to practicing underwater vehicle escape (key concept: don’t try to open the door until the car is nearly full of water).