Veteran’s Day – 2021

We were young then 
When we heard the trumpet’s call.
We were young then
‘Fore the war to end all wars.

We were young then
Embraced by war’s camaraderie.
We were young then
But saw scenes no one should see.

We were young then
And home was a distant dream.
We were young then
‘Midst the rain and mud and screams.

We were young then
Remembered with a sweetheart’s tears.
We were young then
Now frozen in our years.

Here in the US, it’s Veterans Day.  It started out as Armistice Day celebrating the end of World War I. This “war to end all wars” ushered in the era of modern horrors – poison gas, trenches, what we now know as PTSD – but without the modern medical miracles that have helped so many to survive. Over nine million soldiers died.

In the stories memorializing that day, the changes in our world are too often glossed over by saying “It was a more innocent time.”  A majority of Americans lived in rural areas (e.g., 60% lived in towns of 2500 less).  Though we had a standing army of nearly 200,000, the Army that fought in France was mostly draftees and volunteers.  Some of the farm boys still learned to march by “Hay foot, straw foot.”  About 120,000 of these young men died – half in combat, the others from disease. 

It was a time of small-town small-mindedness but also of small-town love of family and community and country. A town’s churches were more than merely the place we visited on Sundays; they were the social and often the political centers of our communities.  Charitable giving was done through the church; the women of the church took it upon themselves to take care of the sick and their families; the men worked together to build the community.

Many of us look wistfully back, wondering whether today’s youth would have the same innocence, the same sense of duty, the same willingness to give their all.  As Viet Nam and our Middle Eastern wars have shown us, some would – but many more would not. 

The same is true of our communities – some of us are taking purposeful action to strengthen our communities, but too many are not. Too many, like a subversive Fifth Column, are tearing down what has taken money and blood and lives to build. They gave their lives, but some of us cannot find five minutes to help make our own communities better places to live.  They invested their lives to ensure the safety of the American Dream; some would turn that dream into a nightmare. As you celebrate this holiday of remembrance, remember what they gave and why.  Remember their devotion to their communities and devote a little of your day – and the days ahead – to making your community a little better.


Beyond Sustainability and Community Resilience:  II.  Evolution of communities

Beyond Sustainability and Community Resilience:  II.  Evolution of communities

In the last post, I talked about the importance of time in trying to understand the relationship between sustainability and community resilience. In essence, sustainability is concerned with the total amount of resources used by the community over time. Resilience is more concerned with the time required to recover from a disruption, i.e., how quickly resources can be deployed. Thus, while both are concerned with time and resources, resilience is more about time while sustainability is more about resources.

In this post, I want to look at both through in terms of the evolution of a community.  We can define a community as a group of individuals and organizations bound together by geography and perceived self-interest to efficiently carry out common functions.  Perceived self-interest is meant to imply more than simply financial self-interest. To a parent, self-interest can mean that my kids are going to good schools, have good friends and that I can be the parent I want to be. To an artist, it can mean having a quiet place where I can create and grow in my vocation. To a scholar, it may mean having access to journals and books in my field, and convivial colleagues.

In practice, a community may not have all of the resources it needs to fill every need, but may trade resources from one area (usually economic) to “buy” resources in another.  As an example, an isolated rural community might not be able to afford its own hospital, or even be able to support a full-time medical professional, but could forge an agreement with a regional medical facility to operate a clinic.

I have tried to represent the thoughts above in a graphic (see Figure 1).  For each community system (e.g., water, health care), the community receives a certain level of service.  Taken together at any time, these define the state of the community. In the figure, I have state functions for two communities – F(t) and F’(t).  Since I’m not a very good artist, I’ve collapsed all of the community systems into three service areas – infrastructural (including the built and natural environment), economic, and social.  Also seen in the figure is a rendering of a 3-dimensional surface, D.  This represents the region in community state space in which the level of service provided is no longer acceptable – at this point those who can will leave the community.  If F(t) and F’(t) are for two different communities, then the community represented by F(t) is relatively healthy. However, the community represented by F’(t) is in a region where it cannot deliver an acceptable amount of services. If that community remains within D, the community will either reorganize or collapse (I think of D as the Dome of Doom; it might also stand for Detroit.).  We don’t know the exact shape of D, nor do we know much about where its boundaries lie; however, we can infer its existence from phenomena such as the disappearance of rural American towns and of cities such as Youngstown, OH, St. Louis and Detroit. 

Focusing on the curve on the right, F(t), the state of the community changes over time:  in good times, the community can provide more services, i.e., move away from the origin.  However, because of the interdependence among the services, a community rarely moves straight out from the origin.  As an example, while the capture of a new manufacturing facility may be a huge economic plus for the community, it will reduce the capacity of the community’s infrastructure because of new demands for water, electric and transportation services. 

The location of D will also change over time; if the community members prosper, they will want additional services that they may not have had before.  Thus, an isolated rural community initially might be satisfied with a clinic, but – at least in more prosperous times – would demand more complete medical services.

Figure 1.  Evolution of a community

If we look at a single facet of a community (let’s pick water services), we see little change during normal times (see Figure 2).  There are changes due to the seasons, but not huge ones.  Small events like a line break (the dip in the autumn) may cause a minor disruption in service, but generally the level of service provided is relatively constant over time.  It also is greater than that actually needed – after all, we don’t really need our lawns to be green!  It is important to note, however, that almost always the level of service provided reflects what the community wants and not necessarily what it needs.  In this case, the seasonal changes in water usage reflect the difference between what’s wanted and what’s needed. One could say that this usage is sustainable; after all, water usage is less than capacity. However, the resilience of the system is determined by the length of time capacity is restricted by the line break.

Figure 2.  Normal water usage

Suppose an earthquake occurs at time t (Figure 3) that causes major disruption to the water system (for this example, I’ll treat the pre-disaster service as a constant).  The amount of water provided to the community will fall precipitately and this community is unable to reach the same level of service as before the earthquake. In this case, one could argue that the community’s water usage is now more sustainable than prior to the disaster, since the difference between the amount of water actually needed and that used is less, i.e., the community is meeting its need for water more efficiently.  However, one also has to admit that the community wasn’t very resilient  to the earthquake.

Figure 3.  Impact of a disaster

Thus, a community’s evolution – particularly the impact of a disaster – further illuminates the relationship between sustainability and resilience.  Both are related to use of resources to provide service.  Sustainability is more about filling needs; resilience is more about providing the services the community wants.  Wants can change dramatically over time, needs likely change more slowly.  During a disaster, the community will want essential services to resume quickly, at least to the same level as before – efficient use of available resources will be important only if those resources are limited.  For the community, speed is of the essence.  Conversely, sustainability is all about efficient use of available resources – as long as needs are being met there is no need for additional resources.

The relationship is clearly complex; the concepts are intertwined.  As we have just seen, greater sustainability may not mean greater resilience – and the converse is equally true.  A community’s sustainability is the integration over time of all of the actions the community takes and reflects the efficiency of its use of resources.  A community’s resilience is demonstrated by how well the community continues to meet its citizens’ expectations even in the face of adversity.  Thus, sustainability and resilience are not antipodes, nor at right angles but complementary concepts both important to community success.

However, neither alone is what we want our communities to be. In my next post, I’ll introduce future-fitness, a way to more accurately depict what is necessary for viable communities going forward.


The collapse of the Afghan government is perhaps the operational antonym of resilience. I am part of a group who studied Vietnamese at the Defense Language Institute and then served over there. Naturally the collapse has been a subject of lively interest to us, remembering what our exit from VN was like. This is a note I sent out to the group as part of our discussions.

One of the things the West needs to keep in mind is the idea of “appropriate technology.” Several years ago, I was tangentially involved with a group that wanted to provide water to remote villages in the Andes. They developed a very simple, easily maintained, system for collecting dew. They showed the villagers how to use and maintain the system. Material for maintenance was readily available to the villagers. And yet, after the development group left, the villagers stopped using the system. In some of the villages, the people who knew how to maintain the system moved elsewhere. But in most of the villages, the villagers ultimately rejected the system because it was “foreign” (and the idea of maintenance was really foreign) – not of them, or a part of their culture.

Yes, we gave the Afghans (and before them the VNese) lots of military hardware. Yes, we gave them “free elections.” But I’m sure we all have memories from our time in VN of massive boneyards of jeeps, helicopters, and so on that had been scavenged for spare parts. In both VN and the ‘Stan the elected politicians were the best that money could buy. But we couldn’t really give the Afghans the in-depth know-how to maintain the hardware. We couldn’t give them pride in a country that had/has no cohesive center or organizing principle. We couldn’t get enough of the people to appreciate the value that a system of free elections can bring to a country, or even to value freedom. For one reason or another, all of these were “foreign” to them, and not maintained.

And so we have created another Hell paved with our good intentions. If the past is an indicator of the ‘Stan’s future, we will once again be treated to the sickening spectacle of rape, genital mutilation and other horrors committed against Afghan girls and women. We can hope that “this time, it will be different.” But I can see no basis for that hope.

I offer this not as a profound thought about the US involvement in Afghanistan but rather as a cautionary note for those of us working with communities. Many, especially in academia, seem determined to change our communities in ways they think are better. But a good gardener knows that a plant’s vitality is as much a function of the soil and the climate as of the plant itself. Some plants flourish in acid soils, some in alkaline; some in hot climates, some in cooler ones; some in wet, some in dry. If we look at the impacts of some of these ideas on our cities, we have to question whether their leaders have been so enamored with the plants they hope to grow that they have ignored the soil and the climate where they are trying to plant them.

Beyond sustainability and resilience

Sustainability is here to stay, or we may not be.

Niall Ferguson

As a few of you know, Jennifer Adams and I are writing a book (working title: The Connected Community) on systems thinking for community practitioners. The premise of the book is that systems thinking provides community practitioners – emergency managers, economic developers, city planners – with a rich set of tools to strengthen their communities.

Recently I was asked how sustainability and resilience fit into this. My initial knee-jerk answer was “Ultimately I want people to use these tools to make their communities more resilient.” Then I thought a bit, and said, “Well, actually, maybe more sustainable too.” Not satisfied with that answer, I finally said, “Really, it’s both and neither. What I really hope happens as a result of the book is that communities become more future-fit.” In the next few posts, I’m going to take a deep dive into both sustainability and resilience, and compare and contrast them. I’ll close the series with what I mean by a “future-fit” community and why the distinction is so important.

Fear of the apocalypse seems to be driving much of what’s being done in the names of both sustainability and resilience, as the quote above exemplifies. Fear of a future climate catastrophe seems to be the basis for much of what is called sustainability today. The Transition Town movement and several similar resilience initiatives are based on a presumed death of globalization, and a tumbling down Peak Oil to a valley of unknown depth.  Those John-the-Baptists who are proclaiming the coming apocalypse – whichever it might be – go on to preach from the Book of Sustainability as the Path to Resilience in the face of what’s coming. Thus, much of what is called sustainability or resilience are founded on a profound sense of despair.  

I won’t assess any of the actions suggested by the Prophets of Doom – many I find useful, some I find silly, and some are likely counterproductive – but I do want to examine the relationship between resilience and sustainability.  Is a sustainable community resilient?  Is a resilient community sustainable?  Are resilience and sustainability at opposite ends of a continuum, or at right angles to each other?

Right away, we’re confronted by a huge difficulty – both “sustainability” and “resilience” have become fads; both words have become very imprecise concepts.  The dictionary definitions of sustainability are about maintaining a certain level, or, as Wikipedia says, the capacity to endure.  In essence, this means a type of persistence.  However, if we look at the UN’s Brundtland Commission definition, then sustainability is all about balancing use of resources for current needs vs the resources needed in the future.  In what follows, I’m going consider community sustainability as meaning a wise use of resources,

  • Discriminating between wants and needs so that needs are met first, and
  • Using resources efficiently – the least necessary to meet the maximal amount of needs.

Resilience has been tortured nearly as badly.  To some it’s a process, to some an attribute; to some, it means resisting change, to some reverting to normal after a crisis.  However, resilience has one advantage in that almost all of the faddish definitions have this kernel of bouncing back after an external stress is applied.  In what follows, I’m going to consider community resilience as a community’s ability to

  • Anticipate crises,
  • Take action to reduce their impacts,
  • Respond effectively to them, and
  • Recover rapidly.

If we compare these two, we can begin to see a contrast.  In thermodynamic terms, sustainability is about trying to maintain equilibrium while resilience is a kinetic property.  In philosophic terms, sustainability is ontological, resilience is phenomenological.  Or in my terms, resilience is about time and sustainability is timeless. Resilience is aimed at minimizing the time to recovery from an upset; sustainability is focused on the resources the community uses over its lifetime. Thus, to echo those nasty questions I used to hate on the SAT, resilience is to sustainability as weather is to climate.

In the next post, I’ll use the definition of community to further illuminate the sustainability-resilience relationship.

Gödel’s Theorem and Economic Resilience

Logic is the anatomy of thought.

John Locke

Kurt Gödel was one of the last century’s preeminent mathematicians and philosophers. He is most famous for proving that for any system of logic, there are meaningful questions that can be asked, but that cannot be answered within that logical system.

It is easy to dismiss this as academic navel-gazing, but there are real-world examples of this. One of the over-riding issues of our times is the quest for social “justice.” But what is justice? Some say that government should take from those who have more and give to those who have less, and that is justice. But others (J D Vance and Wendell Berry) point out that this creates dependence and eventually is destructive. I can ask questions about justice, but can’t definitively answer them.

If I killed a man a thousand years ago in England, justice then would demand that I pay a wergild to the person’s family or lord to recompense them for their loss. Today, I would most likely either languish in prison (essentially a ward of the state) or be executed – the family of my victim would be uncompensated. Which “justice” is more just?

If we pass on to a higher plane, perhaps we’ll know. And, generally, that is one way to answer the unanswerable questions – move to a higher level framework. In the physical sciences, one of the great unresolved questions of the 19th century was – is light a particle or a wave? Newtonian physics said light was particulate, but couldn’t explain why light sometimes acted as a wave. It was only when quantum mechanics was developed (with Newtonian physics as a special case) that the question was finally answered with a resounding “Yes. Light is both particle and wave.” Quantum mechanics became that “higher plane” to explain light’s behavior; a new “logic” that subsumed Newtonian physics as a special case.

In the social sciences we have a similar situation – we can ask if a community or a community system (e.g., its economy) is resilient, but we can’t really answer that a priori within the logic of what we know. We have to develop the logic for that “higher plane” if we are to be able to predict resilience.

Shade Shutters, in a recent article,* has given us a glimpse of what that higher plane might be. He and his co-workers developed a quantitative measure for the economic structures of 938 urban areas. Rather than looking at this as a static property, they looked at the change of the economic structure over the period 2001-2017. Their primary interest was in finding a relationship between the evolution of an area’s economy and the economy’s performance during and after the Great Recession (GR). They chose the area’s per capita GDP as their performance measure.

They identified six clusters that were archetypes of an area’s economic evolution:

  • The economies in Cluster 1 were relatively stable prior to the GR, changed rapidly during the Recession, and then stopped changing, i.e., achieved a stable “New Normal.”
  • The economies in Cluster 6 behaved similarly, except that they had been significantly changing even before the GR.
  • The economies in Cluster 2 significantly changed prior to the Recession, and then essentially were stable.
  • The economies in Cluster 3 changed leading up to and in the early part of the Recession and then slowly evolved back to a prior configuration.
  • The economies in Cluster 4 had an almost constant rate of change in structure; there was little discernible influence of the GR on their makeup. I am tempted to think of them as the continuously adapting economies.
  • The economies in Cluster 5 had virtually no change before, during or after the Recession. In response to my query, Shutters indicated that these all seemed to be “micropolitan” – small urban centers.

Looking at the performance of each cluster, the economies in Cluster 4 (continuously adapting) were the only ones to show a net growth from the start of the GR through its recovery. All of the others lost ground in terms of their net change in per capita GCP. Somewhat surprisingly (to me), Cluster 5 – the unchanging one – did not perform the worst; the worst performing were the economies in Cluster 3, which had drifted back into their pre-Recession makeup.

Like all good research, Shutters’ work leads to lots of questions.

  • Besides the structural evolution of their economies, is there any other common thread that seems to key the best-performing archetype, or any of them? Geography, presence or absence of a dominant employer, prevalence of a certain type of industry, or trends. I would anticipate that communities with an “eds and meds” economy would tend to be more a Cluster 5, for example.
  • Cluster 3 is an anomaly to me – a sort of “Back to the Future” evolution. The figure seems to imply either that the Cluster’s evolution prior to the Great Recession was to an unstable state or that there was growth up to and into the Great Recession which was then chopped off. In a subsequent note, Shutters indicated that the evolution of Cluster 3 economies might reflect a temporary condition due to unemployment changing the apparent structure and then a recovery to the Old Normal.
  • A community’s economy is a more-or-less decentralized system. Its structural evolution reflects decisions made independently by scores of entrepreneurs and business owners. If the Invisible Hand was ever at work, it certainly has to be here.  Are these results applicable to other community systems, especially other decentralized ones (e.g., social systems)?
  • We tend to look at internal factors that cause a system to evolve in a certain way. But, in general, systems evolve in response to changes in their environment (everything that’s not a part of the system). The continuously adapting economies may simply be in an environment that is changing slowly enough that they can “keep up.”

Shutters has not yet reached that higher plane that will allow us to truly understand what makes a community resilient. But I believe his work points us toward that higher plane. Several years ago, I told a parable of foresters looking at fallen trees to try to understand the causes of their fall. I concluded the tale

[the foresters] are standing in the midst of a forest in which the trees are each bending to the wind and the other elements and then straightening when the wind or the rain or the snow dies down. And we as foresters are really most interested in what keeps the trees standing, not what makes them fall. So it should be with community recovery and resilience. Resilience does not arise from demonstrated weakness but rather from the exertion of strength. Thus, we need to know and understand the strengths of each community, how those strengths are exerted, and how we can nurture those strengths so that they become even stronger.

Shutters, as a wise forester, is focusing on recovery, not vulnerability. He is honed in on an economy’s dynamic character, not its static attributes. And by doing that, he is pointing to a path that I believe will lead to a greater understanding of what makes a community resilient. And if we achieve that understanding, the next – greater – challenge will be transform our communities so that they can adapt to their changing environments.

* Shutters, Shade T., S. S. Kandala, F. Wei, and A. P. Kinzig. “Resilience of Urban Economic Structures Following the Great Recession.” Sustainability 13, no. 2374 (2021).

The Camden Way

All direction of public opinion and humor must originate in a few.

Edmund Burke

Late last spring, as the protests after the death of George Floyd gained momentum, politicians in the Twin Cities and elsewhere began calling to defund or disband police forces across the country. For a few days, calls went out to follow “the Camden Way,” by which was meant disbanding the entire police department. Almost as soon as it started, though, mentions of the Camden experiment stopped. And that’s too bad, because there are useful lessons there.

In the distant past when I was a boy, my father worked for Campbell Soup in Camden, NJ. Even then, the city was slowly sinking into the same morass that other industrial cities – Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh – were in. Crime, grime and a feeling of tired neglect were my impressions of the town at the time.

By 2012, the city’s population was only 60% of its high water mark in the ‘50’s. There were ~2000 violent crimes that year (among the highest per capita in the nation), including 67 homicides; and drugs were openly bought and sold in the city’s streets. The police force was considered to be one of the most corrupt in the nation, its officers known for both their brutality and their high absenteeism. They were represented by a powerful union that had won for them large benefit packages, but also had blocked meaningful reform. Their general approach to crime was reactive – sitting in their precincts waiting for something to happen, and then going to the scene of the crime and busting a few heads.

Scott Thomson, the police chief at the time and a Camden native, believed there was a better way. He believed – and believes – in community policing. He wanted his officers to be out in the neighborhoods, getting to know the residents, playing stickball with the kids in the streets. But he couldn’t do that with the force he had available. There weren’t enough police officers to cover the entire city. At the time, “austerity” was the watchword for all of New Jersey – there simply wasn’t any money for Thomson to hire additional officers to fill the shortfall. And even if he could, the contract with the union limited officers’ ability to get out into the streets.

Thomson’s first tried to negotiate a more flexible contract with the policemen’s union. He failed. At his urging, the city government then disbanded the entire municipal police department. From that point onward, city policing was to be carried out by a newly formed county police department, under Thomson’s leadership. Even though the pay and benefits were less, 2,000 applied for the 400 positions on the force.

Residents saw immediate changes. Officers were out in the neighborhoods much more. New officers were “encouraged” to knock on doors, introducing themselves and asking residents for suggestions about how the department could do a better job. The drug trade did not disappear, but was driven underground. The mindset of police officers was transformed from “warrior” to “guardian.” The emphasis shifted from making arrests to making residents feel safe. The police sponsored ice cream trucks, and hosted block parties and barbeques. As the Catholic bishop of Camden said, Thomson ushered in an ethos of respect for residents.

The change has resulted in a substantial drop in crime, especially violent crime. From 2012 to 2019, the number of homicides fell by ~60% – from 67 to 24. Even with the turmoil of 2020, it was roughly the same – 23. Total violent crimes dropped by almost 50% over that same eight-year period. Excessive force complaints decreased by 95% (only 3 last year).

But still there are critics. They note that crime has decreased but has not disappeared. Camden’s residents are still poor; far too many are unemployed; there are disparities in health care. In effect, the critics are saying to take money away from crimestopping to try to treat the community’s other social ills.

To me, these criticisms miss the mark. The safety of its citizens and their property is one of the essential foundations of a community. It is nearly impossible for the poor to climb out of poverty without this firm foundation – opportunity cannot flourish if safety languishes.

What Thomson achieved exemplifies Burke’s quote above. He and his peers in city government conceived a new – and demonstrably better – way to ensure the public’s safety. They molded public opinion so that residents would accept these tough decisions. And they made their conception a reality. Instead of sitting in their precincts waiting for crime to boil over, police officers are out in the community taking its temperature and turning down the heat however they can. Residents are part of the solution, not impediments. This is not perfection but certainly is progress.

And perhaps that progress is why mention of the Camden Way ended so quickly: it didn’t fit the Narrative. The narrative that the police are evil warriors wallowing in prejudice; that they are the cause of crime and not its solution; that our communities can flourish better without them. And that we thus need less, not more, policing.

An honest recounting of what Camden has achieved belies that narrative. Thomson, et al., changed “public opinion and humor” – the community’s view of the police – not through less but through more – and more effective – policing. Those cities that have tried the other way – defunding the police – have had more crime and less safety.

And indications are that at least some of these formerly flourishing communities – Portland, Seattle – are already suffering, as those who can – leave. Small business owners, in particular – those who buy the uniforms for Little League, who display signs for local events, whose coffee houses and restaurants are where the community’s sense of itself are nurtured – are leaving, eroding the community’s tax base for certain, but also taking with them important parts of the community’s heart and soul. The coming days will be the ultimate test of the resilience of these communities, let us hope they can heal their wounds and regain their vitality.

Memorial Day

This article is a slightly edited version of one I posted in 2019.

This past week we honored those who died while in military service.  Parades were held, their graves were decorated, and speeches honoring them were made.  We were told in a variety of ways that they died so that we could live to enjoy the freedoms they fought for.  And that’s almost true – their deaths and the sacrifices of all of those in the services and their families have preserved and protected the freedom we enjoy today.  But too seldom do we ask why – why did they serve; what motivated them to endure the discipline, the danger and the drudgery of serving in the military day after day. 

Pat Tillman graduated from Arizona State University, recognized as one of the best linebackers in the country.  He became an all-pro safety in the NFL.  After 9/11, he turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to continue playing football and enlisted in the Army instead.  He participated in the invasion of Iraq, became an Army Ranger, and was then sent to Afghanistan.  He became increasingly uneasy with the war, and intended to speak out after his tour was over.  He died due to friendly fire before he could. 

The key question to me is why did a Pat Tillman – and the myriad others who doubted the rightness of the wars they fought – continue on until they paid the ultimate price.  Clearly he – as did so many others – joined the military because of his idealism.  But as one who’s been there I can tell you:  there are few idealists in foxholes.  My own experience (backed up by a fair amount of research) says that in those moments of crisis when the shooting starts the one thing that drives us is the thought that we can’t let our buddies down. 

We have been bound together by common circumstances.  We’ve all undergone the same bullying by drill sergeants.  We’ve all had to leave family and loved ones behind.  We’re all in some misbegotten hellhole and have to rely on each other for our very survival.  In short, we’ve formed a community.

And within that community, we recognize that we have responsibilities to each other.  Our local news ran a poignant story of a combat photographer who had died in Afghanistan.  Her last picture was of the explosion that took her life.  But it was the tearful words of her company commander that resonated so strongly:  “She was my responsibility. I sent her there and I didn’t bring her home.”

In our own communities, too many protest real or imagined violations of their rights while seeming to forget the responsibilities those rights entail.  No one should argue against anyone’s right to “speak truth to power.”   But those who speak – whether ordinary citizens or especially those in the press – have a responsibility to be sure that their “truth” is factual.  We’ve had way too many instances of the press on one side or the other twisting the facts (and sometimes making things up) to discredit people with whom they disagree. 

No one should argue against anyone’s right to worship their gods – or not – as they choose.  But that right brings with it a responsibility to respect others’ practice of their religion.  Just as atheists and agnostics should not be forced to participate in prayer, those who are religious should not be forced to take actions that are inconsistent with their beliefs.  Our Second Amendment gives us the right to own a gun.  But that right brings with it a responsibility to use and store that gun safely, and to ensure that it is not misused by someone else. 

It is fitting that we honor the fallen by decorating their graves.  But perhaps it is more fitting to follow their examples.  They died doing their duty as they saw it, carrying out their responsibilities to their comrades in arms – their community – as best they could.  As each of us enjoy the rights and privileges of being a member of our community, let us also accept the responsibilities those rights entail.  We honor them best by doing as they did – accepting our responsibility to our community.

Communities’ Educational Crisis

Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.

Malcolm X

The school year now ending has revealed the seamy underbelly of the educational systems in many of our communities. In these communities, a generation of children has effectively lost a year of learning – and of learning how to learn. The biggest losers are those who started the year with shaky skills; their recovery from this educational disaster is problematical.

As the grandson of an immigrant, my grandfather and my father pounded into me that getting an education was absolutely essential (I’m sure my kids would say I did the same to/for them) if I was to succeed in life. As I’ve come to recognize, the same can be said of communities: a community cannot succeed unless it prepares its citizens for the future.

American communities are in a more competitive environment than ever before. Resilient communities have to have a “competitive edge” if they are to keep their citizens and their businesses (and their tax base!). When companies are looking to relocate or to build a new facility, one of the most important criteria in selecting a community is a good school system. For decades, the schools in New York and some of California’s cities were among the best in the country, and these communities flourished (in part) because of that. Now, the exodus of thousands from those states to communities in Texas and Florida each year provides mute testimony that those cities have lost their edge.

While education is often a crucial factor for those selecting a community, it is just as important for the community itself to have an educated public. Educated citizens are more likely to be involved in their community. They are more likely to have higher incomes (i.e., they pay more taxes). A community with an educated public is less likely to have a violent crime problem, or to have a large disconnected youth cohort.

Thus, many communities are caught up in an educational crisis bordering on a disaster. Several recent studies have quantified the losses in basic skills, particularly among the kids assigned to low-performing urban schools. In addition to the loss of skills, we know that some of our kids have paid a severe psychological toll as well.

But a crisis is an opportunity masked by danger. If we saw the same degree of damage from a hurricane, the cry would go up to “Build Back Better!” So let’s build our educational systems back better. In a previous post, I discussed “future-focused” education. When I wrote that in 12/19, I didn’t know what was lurking just around the corner. I think what I wrote still rings true, but in light of what’s happened since then, I’d add three things.

Remedial education. I hope this isn’t a shock to any of you, but a lot of our kids can’t read or do simple arithmetic. There can be many reasons for this: poor schools, parents who don’t care, peer pressure, and so on. On top this, many of our school systems are either lowering standards (=lowering expectations) or are acceding to activists’ demands to switch to new curricula that distort America’s history but offer no solutions for illiteracy or innumeracy. Constructs such as critical race theory offer students excuses for failure but no reasons to succeed. How do these constructs prepare students for a future world that will demand even greater ability to assimilate new knowledge; even greater proficiency in understanding and using new technologies?

These anti-human curricula encourage schools and teachers to see only a child’s identity group, not the child as an individual. If we’re to help these kids, that has to change. We need individualized testing that not only tells us how well each child can reads, communicate and do basic math, but also tells us how we can best reach and teach that child.

Reskilling. Our post-covid economy will be different than it was before. Some jobs will no longer be needed, or at least will drastically change; there is likely to be an increase in demand for some professionals. Our communities are already facing shortages of teachers, doctors and nurses, truckers and law enforcement officers. That’s why “reskilling” is needed: to help those whose jobs have gone away to gain new careers, and to ensure that the skills of the community’s workforce match the needs of employers. Reskilling partnerships would be formed between employers and workers in each community. These would determine current skill gaps and projected future needs. The community reskilling partnership would then engage with its school district(s) and potential higher education partners to design and implement programs to fill those gaps. Again, individualized testing is a key component but in this case must go beyond assessing basic skill proficiency to also determine what additional knowledge displaced workers have gained that may be “repurposed.”

And ultimately these programs must go beyond the current workforce. There are those who believe that economic growth is no longer possible; I disagree. Over one-third of the current workforce isn’t working; millions more have given up on finding work; millions more have been discouraged from working because of disadvantage or disability. If we have learned nothing else from covid, we have seen that technology has opened up many new employment opportunities, especially for those with physical challenges. It is up to each community to match its citizens’ skills with those opportunities.

Learning infrastructure. Our current educational infrastructure is focused all-too-much on statistics, and not on the progress each kid is actually making toward being a functional and contributing member of the community. Just as we currently test kids for their aptitudes, we should be evaluating teachers in terms of how well they are helping each kid in their care to learn. This should not be pejorative but rather done with an aim of matching the child’s learning style(s) with a teacher best able to help him or her progress.

Further, we need a central repository of successful practices – identifying what worked for children with specific profiles. This implies tracking the progress of each child as a function of their learning environment. Sort of like FEMA’s lessons learned, this needs to be readily available to educators at all levels; and they must be free to make use of everything that’s relevant.

As so many of us retreat to our echo chambers, it is far too easy to get discouraged about where our educational systems are going. Programs for the gifted in NYC, LA and elsewhere being gutted (unrecognized, but perhaps the best evidence of elites’ anti-asian racism); curricula being dumbed down. Communities are competing not only against those in their state, region and country but against others around the world as well. The most resilient communities – those that will survive and thrive – will reinvent their educational systems so that all of their citizens will be able to seize the opportunities inherent in a world of kaleidoscopic change. Yes, they will acknowledge their Yesterdays to better understand their Todays, but will keep a laser focus on preparing everyone for the challenges of Tomorrow.

Masked Villains – Central Banks

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.

We live in a time of Docilians* – those who don’t think for themselves, but simply accept whatever their own personal Messiah reveals to them as the Truth. They are docile creatures until their revealed faith is threatened. Then with spit and spite, they attack the non-believer, threatening job, family and life.

Cancel culture and the Big Steal, Antifa and the Proud Boys, are all symptoms of this same modern sickness. Our mass media, our social media echo chambers and too many of our politicians are conditioning their Docilians to hate the non-believers. Like vultures whose claws tear at the social fabric of our communities, they prevent us from coming together to solve common problems. These visible villains thus impair our communities’ resilience.

And yet, I do not fear these visible villains; I believe that ultimately they will destroy themselves – revolutions do, indeed, eat their children, and even Docilians eventually tire of the cacophony. The dwindling audiences for Hollywood’s vitriol and the waning ratings of the mass media are mute testimony that the masses are voting with their seats.

But I do fear the masked villains – those whose seeming affability deflects attention from their actions; actions that sometimes do even more to impair our resilience. The central banks are a prime example.

As I’ve tried to make clear in previous posts, resilience relies on dispatchable capital. When the poor, in particular, are hammered by disaster they have little wealth or discretionary income to use to bounce back. One way – one of the best ways – to increase our communities’ resilience is to increase the poor’s ability to help themselves. That means finding ways for them to build a rainy day fund, to increase their net worth. Jobs are a part of that, to be sure, but not just “jobs” – the gig economy provides plenty of jobs but damn little opportunity to save significantly.

Across the developed world, central banks are pursuing policies that effectively penalize the poorest among us, while inflating the assets of the richest. Even while the central bankers – the Fed, the ECB, the BoJ, the BoE – sanctimoniously break their arms patting themselves on the back over all of the good they want us to think they’re doing.

Their “good works” rest upon two policy pillars: low interest rates and inflation. Ever since the dot-com bubble of Y2K, interest rates have been trending downward until they are now effectively negative, i.e., every year, our savings accounts are worth less and less. Since the Great Recession, central banks have also been trying to drive up inflation. Hazlitt and others call this a hidden tax that also reduces the purchasing power of our savings. Together these feed a “tangle of pathologies” that prevent the poor from climbing out of poverty.

The wealth the poor are able to accumulate is in their savings and their pensions (if any) and their house. Compare this to the more affluent who have more diversified (less risky) portfolios, including stocks and mutual funds. As noted above, low interest rates reduce the value of savings over time. Low interest rates also reduce the poor’s net worth by reducing the return expected from savings, and the imputed value of pension plans. As the chart shows, the net worth of those without a high school diploma has dropped by a trillion dollars over the last five years, primarily due to the reduction in value of their pensions. In fact, the net worth of the least educated, in constant dollars, is somewhat less than it was 25 years ago!

Low interest rates also impact jobs. Twenty-five years ago, three jobs were being created for every two that were lost because of business closures. Now, we are close to 1-to-1 in the US, and less than that in the EU and Japan. Low interest rates stifle lending to small startups because the reward to a bank for making the loan is so low compared to the loam’s risk. But low interest rates also have a more pernicious impact on jobs: they enable the Amazons of the world to knock out the “Little Guys” unfairly. So you have fewer small businesses meaning fewer jobs, especially for those with less education.

The central banks’ “chasing inflation” is highly regressive. Since the net worth of the poor is so heavily weighted toward savings, inflation means that their savings become less valuable year after year. But inflation also packs a double whammy for the poor – the cost of the things they buy (food, rent and energy) increases faster than the middle class “basket of goods” that make up the official inflation rate. Charles Gave has dubbed the price of food, rent and energy (equally weighted) the Walmart Index. In the US, the nominal rate of inflation is about half the Walmart Index’s 3.3%. Thus, inflation eats up the poor’s earnings making it harder to save.

In preparing this note, I looked at race, educational attainment and income levels. As a group, African Americans are much better off than they were ten years ago – their net worth has doubled. The lowest quintile of wage earners has seen a similar growth in their net worth, mostly over the last five years. It is the less educated poor – no matter their race – who have been hurt the worst by the central bank’s villainy.

If we want our communities to be more resilient, we have to recognize that our central banks’ actions – no matter how well-intentioned – harm those who can least afford it. Further, we have to recognize that education is a key determinant of who is harmed the most. The central banks’ actions are working against us; their smiling faces masking darker deeds. Thus, fewer jobs and increased disparity between rich and poor, based on their education. As I’ve said before, education and opportunity are the keys to lifting the poor out of poverty. In a future post, I will revisit education as a way to mitigate the impacts of these masked villains’ actions.

* Thanks to the Risk-Monger for this telling term.

1 AC: What the data tell us

Be wise today so you don’t cry tomorrow.

E A Bucchianari

We’re well into Year 2 AC – After Covid. Clearly, we don’t know all we need to know. Conversely, we are awash in data and probably know more – collectively – than we think we do. In this series of posts, I’ve been presenting my observations, preliminary conclusions they’ve led me to, and what might be better approaches to future pandemics and other disasters, from a community perspective. In this post, I want to focus on the restrictions placed on all of us in response to the pandemic. There is a lot of misinformation out there (particularly if you listen to the media or the rather unprofessional rantings of Rochelle Walensky). While we don’t have “final” data for the pandemic, I think we’re close enough to the end to draw some conclusions about the effectiveness – or not – of the restrictions that we’ve been living with.

Probably front and center in most people’s minds is “Did the lockdowns work?” We paid a high price in terms of our economy, our social fabric and our kids’ lives; we need to know whether we got value for the disruptions. In answering this question, we are faced with several important hurdles:
Goals. Initially, we were told that lockdowns were necessary to flatten the curve. Then we were told that they were continued to control the pandemic (whatever that means).
Data. We have case data that is not very good, primarily because we did so little testing early on. The death data seems to be better, but again has some biases because of differing protocols for attribution across jurisdictions, lies misstatements by some public officials, and some question about the accuracy of early data. As noted in my last post, a better early warning system could have helped us have better data early on. For this analysis, I’m going to look at both case and death data, current to 4/5/21.
Lockdowns and NPIs. If it were simply a matter of looking at lockdowns vs no lockdowns, analysis would be so much simpler! Unfortunately, almost every state has had a mix of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs – mask mandates, social distancing, quarantines and lockdowns) making it difficult to isolate the effects of lockdowns. Further, these have changed over time. There are at least two attempts to develop an index try to reflect this spectrum of NPI responses on a common scale – I’m going to use the one developed by WalletHub, and the values for 2/26/21 (Although I don’t present the data here, I’ve looked at the indices for a few dates. While the absolute values change, the general conclusions are the same.). I have renamed their index “State Openness.”

In the following figure, I’ve plotted both cases and deaths by states (treating both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia as states). Clearly, there is no relation between “state openness” and the death rate (R2 ~ 0). The data suggests that the states in the red box might want to compare their practices with those in the green boxes – a factor of five fewer deaths! There is a rough correlation (R2 = 0.35) between the case rate and state openness, but it is heavily influenced by outliers, especially the cluster of states in the green box (The gray box represents the Standard Error.). Thus, it appears that the NPIs may reduce the case rate, but have little to do with the death rate. This makes sense because the case rate depends on the public’s actions; NPIs influence those. The death rate is more a reflection of the quality of the health care system; NPIs have little influence there.

I’ve also looked at county data. Ideally, if there were a significant predictor of cases, counties and states could be better prepared to deal with potential “hot spots.” I’ve based my search on the CDC’s 2019 county health rankings data, thinking those data were likely to be the best source for a predictor. I looked at all of the data – but I won’t bore you with a plethora of scatter plots! One predictor that was discovered early on still holds – population density is a good predictor of the number of cases, as is the total population of the county (well, duh!). However, the two counties with the highest incidence of covid-19 are Chattahoochee County, GA, and Crowley County, CO; neither large metro areas. For both about one-third of their residents were infected.

There appeared to be “fuzzy” relationships between median household incomes and the prevalence of both cases and deaths in a county. The number of cases and deaths per 100,000 residents were limited by increasing household incomes. This was true for all residents, as well as when broken done by race. Let me stress this was not a correlation, but rather it appeared that low median household incomes were necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for high case and death rates.

Beyond these , I didn’t find any other data that were correlated with either case or death data.* Perhaps most notably, neither the Covid Community Vulnerability Index nor the Social Vulnerability Index correlated with either cases or deaths. This is particularly unfortunate, because they are intended to indicate potential hot spots. At least at the county level, they don’t.

The county data was further broken down by the type of county. The CDC classifies counties as either large, middle and small metro centers; large fringe centers; micrometro centers or non-core (rural areas). Rather than plot all of the data (a confusing profusion of colors and shapes), I’ve plotted the best fit lines for each county type vs state openness. While there is not a good fit for any of these, the “bunching” of the lines for the case data indicates that the county type did not make much of a difference in terms of cases. However, as the second graph of this pair shows, non-core counties tended to have significantly more deaths than the other county types. I’ve plotted the raw data for the large metro counties (red) and the non-core counties (green) in the lower graph. The data suggests that the health care system in many of the rural counties – but not all – are simply inferior. This may be due to a lack of medical personnel and hospitals, or the distance between those who died and health care centers; i.e., poorer care or poorer delivery. As a matter of interest, all four of the large metro counties with the highest deaths per resident were in NY – Queens, Bronx, and Kings and Richmond Counties. Foard County, TX; Emporia, VA and Jerauld County, SD, were the highest of all counties.

Finally, I’ve looked at state unemployment numbers for February (latest available data). Again, there is a rough (negative; R2 ~ 0.4)) correlation between unemployment and state openness. The most interesting outlier (at least to me) is Vermont (lower left corner) – one of the states with the most restrictions (NPIs) and yet very low unemployment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, California and New York have very high unemployment; but surprisingly (to me) Hawaii has the highest unemployment – probably indicative of restrictions on travel.

So, what’s the data trying to tell us? Lockdowns and the other NPIs have had a modest impact limiting the number of cases but also lead to higher unemployment. The NPIs have no measurable impact on the number of deaths. In that sense, they have done nothing to control the pandemic – lots of pain for little gain. The data on cases and deaths by county type clearly show that there are major disparities in rural health care for virtually every state. Perhaps most unfortunately, the data don’t point to a good predictor of impacts at the county level. The CCVI and SVI were worthy attempts to provide this, but ultimately have not been shown to be useful. It could be useful if health professionals dug more into the relationships between cases and deaths and household incomes; there could be a pony in there!

Clearly, I’m not a health professional. I have tried to present the data in as apolitical way as I can because the messages from the media have been filtered through their political biases. As Ernie Broussard has said, Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. If our communities are to avoid unnecessary suffering when the next pandemic hits, we will have to make some hard decisions to take difficult steps to alter our approaches. Let us hope that our leaders will base those decisions on cold facts such instead of the hot passions of the moment, or the emotional push to “just do something.” Let us hope that they are wise, lest the rest of us shed tears.

*The data from the 2019 county health rankings that did not correlate with either cases or deaths were:
Life expectancy (overall and by race);
Age adjusted mortality;
Child and infant mortality;
% of the population experiencing frequent physical and mental stress;
% of the population with diabetes;
Number and prevalence of HIV cases;
Number and prevalence of food insecurity;
Number and prevalence of limited access to health care;
Number and prevalence of drug overdoses resulting in death;
Number and prevalence of deaths due to motorcycles;
% of the population with insufficient sleep;
Number and ratio of primary care physicians to residents;
% of the population who are disconnected youth;
% of the population on free lunch;
Segregation index;
Homicide rate;
Number and prevalence of firearms deaths;
Number and prevalence of homeowners;
Number and prevalence of sever housing cost burden;
Fraction of the population under 18;
Number and fraction of the population over 65 (overall and by race);
Number and prevalence of English as a second language;
Fraction of the population who are female;
Number and fraction of the population living in a rural area;
The individual themes and the overall CCVI;
The SVI.

1 AC: The counsel of canaries

It’s not that we can predict bubbles – if we could, we would be rich. But we can certainly have a bubble warning system.

Richard Thaler

We have just completed Year 1 AC – After Covid. Clearly, we don’t know all we need to know. Conversely, we are awash in data and probably know more – collectively – than we think we do. In this series of posts, I’m presenting my observations, preliminary conclusions they’ve led me to, and what might be a better approach to future pandemics and other disasters. Of necessity, this will be focused on the US experience; sadly, these observations seem to apply to the rest of the Western world as well.

Early detection is a key to avoiding or at least successfully managing a crisis. Whether it’s the approach of a superstorm or the imminent bursting of an economic bubble, early detection buys time so that we can better respond. One of the most important questions about the pandemic is – why didn’t the US public health bureaucracy respond more rapidly to the crisis. My answer: lack of a canary.

During most of the last century, coal miners took a pair of canaries into coal mines to act as an early warning system for the buildup of toxic gases. If the canaries stopped singing or died, the miners would exit the mine as rapidly as possible (Canaries were chosen because they are easily portable and like all birds are very susceptible to changes in air quality.*).

As late as March, CDC spokespersons (e.g., Dr Fauci) were reassuring Americans that there was no reason to make drastic changes in their lives: “If you are a healthy young person, there is no reason if you want to go on a cruise ship, go on a cruise ship” (March 9, 2020). Throughout the first three months of the pandemic, the CDC seemed to echo the World Health Organization (WHO) in downplaying the severity of the outbreak. In effect, it appears that we were using the WHO as our canary, oblivious to the potential for bureaucratic bungling (or worse) on their part.

Contrast this with Taiwan’s CDC. In December, their monitoring of online sources indicated that there was an unusual outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan Province, China. They sent an urgent email to both the WHO and the Chinese CDC probing whether there was person-to-person transmission. At the same time, they advised the Taiwanese government to begin screening all passengers entering the country from China. This was accomplished December 31, 2019, one month before President Trump’s Executive Order mandating similar actions. As a result of their vigorous and early action, Taiwan has had only 10 deaths from the virus – 0.00000042 deaths per capita. Contrast this with the US rate of 0.00166 deaths per capita, or 551,005 in total (as of 3/31/21).

According to Dr Deborah Birx in a recent interview, ~100,000 deaths were due to the initial surge. While we will never know how many lives might have been saved if the US had acted sooner, it seems to be inarguable that tens of thousands would not have died. That’s the price we paid for not having a canary.

I am clearly not a health professional, but it seems clear to me that we need a better early warning system for health crises. Taiwan was motivated by the bitter lessons learned from SARS and H1N1; we can only hope that covid-19 serves as the same wakeup call for our public health system. The question then becomes how do we develop one.

There are a few analogues available. The meteorological community, for example, over a long period of time has actively sought to extend the time between warning of a tropical storm and its actual landfall. Their success is largely based on historical patterns incorporated in mathematical models, coupled with sensing data. A key factor to their success so far has been continuity of effort – updating their approaches with data storm by storm. The earthquake community is trying to do the same thing, with increasing success, though relying much more heavily on sensor data. The economic community (as noted in the quote above) continues to expend a great deal of its research effort on looking for canaries that portend economic crises. This is a somewhat more difficult challenge but even here historic patterns of events are providing hints of impending economic disasters.

It does not appear that the health community, at least in the West, has taken the same approach. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the health community has developed mathematical models, but they seem to be modeling the spread of contagion rather than focusing on providing early warning (I’ll be thrilled if my observation is proven incorrect!).

Sun Tzu in The Art of War said that the best battle is the one never fought. The best way to avoid a pandemic is to detect contagion as early as possible, and then rapidly take steps to mitigate its effects.** Canaries saved the lives of hundreds of coal miners last century. The thousands of lives lost during the initial surge attest to the fact that we urgently need to develop an effective early warning system for health crises in this century.

* Developing this approach was just one of the accomplishments of John Haldane, a Glaswegian professor and technologist. He also invented the first respirator as well as the decompression chamber for divers.

** The FDA and CDC bureaucracies also bungled the early response. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic has an excellent article detailing this.