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).

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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.
Shakespeare

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.

Effective leadership

The undeserved hype around Cuomo reflects the dangerous way in which style has triumphed over substance in politics. It also reflects the way in which, when it comes to leadership, we reward charisma and confidence over competence. … I do hope that if we’ve learned one leadership lesson from Cuomo it’s that we desperately need to rethink what a real leader looks like.

Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian

Several years ago a reporter for a Mobile newspaper asked me what were the essentials for community resilience. My answer was “There are five things: leadership, leadership, leadership, connections and capital. And the last two don’t count without effective leadership.”

Last June, I took a sort of zen look at the attributes of a leader. But that left open the question implied by the quote above: how do we recognize leadership. More importantly in terms of our communities, how can we recognize effective leadership. In one way, it’s surprisingly easy to recognize a leader because the one unmistakable hallmark of any leader is – followers. But having followers doesn’t mean that the leader is effective. Some leaders recognize where people want to go and simply get out in front of them (President Trump might be a good example). In effect, they let their followers push them along. Others – perhaps more visionary – pull their followers toward what they believe is a better place (Both President Roosevelts are good examples). These are the ones who are most likely to be effective leaders.

So let me advance an hypothesis: an effective leader is one who strengthens the community. We can thus evaluate our leaders’ effectiveness by looking at our community’s trajectories; i.e., by determining whether the community’s social, economic, human, cultural, governance and environmental capital accounts are increasing, decreasing or staying the same.

Strengthening the community also means that the community’s resilience is also increased. More capital means that the community can better resist chronic stresses, and has the wherewithal to more rapidly recover from acute crises. Further, it means that the community can seize the opportunities inherent in our changing world.

Thus, evaluating our leaders’ effectiveness is analogous to balancing your checkbook, or looking at how your investments in your retirement account are doing. For each type of community capital, look at the bottom line. Ask whether it’s growing or – hopefully not – shrinking.

There are a few key indicators that are easy to determine:

Community growth. If more people are coming into the community than leaving, then leadership must be doing something right. If we dig a little deeper, we may find that growth is due to business leaders transforming the community’s economy (like Hugh McColl and John Belk in Charlotte), or cultural leaders increasing the “livability” of a city (e.g., Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston).

Conversely, if the community’s population is decreasing, it is a sign that the community is not functioning at an acceptable level for many, in one or more ways. Fewer people mean fewer connections, meaning less social capital. And if those who are leaving are taking their money and their businesses with them, less economic capital as well.

Economic vigor. Communities with vigorous local economies tend to have a buzz about them. At the local level, money changing hands at a restaurant, a barber shop, a small store is as much a social as a financial transaction. In the chaos caused by our responses to the coronavirus, too many leaders seem to have forgotten – or ignored – the intimate tie between the economic and the social health in our communities. Those communities whose leaders did not forget this are the ones most likely to recover the soonest. And as our communities slouch toward their rebirth, effective leaders will find ways to strengthen this tie.

Built environment. Effective leaders maintain their community’s built capital. They know that boarded up buildings, streets acne-ed with potholes, and colored water coming from the tap “incentivize” those who can to leave the community.

Human environment. Especially in times of stress, communities rely on a skilled populace to function. Effective community leaders recognize that they have to keep those with essential skills from leaving the community. Most importantly, they must nurture new generations with future-ready skills to take their place. The loss of meaningful learning is just one of the consequences of covid. Also being lost in some communities are opportunities to challenge the best and brightest in the community to fully develop their skills.

Effective leaders will find ways to make up the lost time, e.g., with extra school days, summer sessions and educational “boot camps.” Ineffective leaders will see spikes in dropouts in their community; and a depressing loss of skills especially in poorer sections of the community.

Governance. Leaders have to make choices. If the community’s leadership is making choices that increase the community’s capital accounts, or that protect them in times of stress, then they are being effective leaders. There are plenty of barriers to making good choices: conflicting groups vying for power within the community; ideology; a lack of accurate information for decision-making. Effective leaders overcome them.

We all have seen the sorry spectacles of the elected leaders in some of our major cities refusing to take decisive action to protect their communities from destructive riots. Too often, it seems that, as Blake Carson puts it, “We live in a time when governments seem to lack the will and the competence to do hard things.”

Effective leadership is essential if a community is to be resilient. Determining the effectiveness of your community’s leadership is as simple as answering – “What’s in your community’s wallet?”

Resilience in the Age of Stupid

The Age of Stupid: A world where dialogue is dead; a world where we have stopped engaging with those with whom we don’t agree; a world where we no longer have to listen or expose ourselves to other ideas that may challenge our confirmation bias. Social media has made the promotion of ignorance much easier. With a simple block, unfriend or ban click, we can ensure that the only information we are exposed to comes from our trusted tribe of like-minded thinkers.

The Risk-Monger

Like most of you, I’m sure, I care deeply about the issues of the day. But I know that our media echo chambers (whether MSNBC or OANN) give me – at best – only a part of any story. Over the last couple of years I’ve turned to blogs, trying to see ascertain the actual situation to draw intelligent conclusions. So I read the Recovery Diva and Pointman; Living on the Real World and Climate, Etc; and most recently, the Risk-Monger.

In the passage above the Risk-Monger has provided an all-too-accurate description of the times we live in. The Left and Right are united only in their disdain for everyone else. Their shouted invectives and imprecations of their opponents drown out the more civil voices of those in the Great Middle. Their hysteria is almost cult-like – they sound like modern-day miniature Grand Inquisitors enforcing impossible doctrines.

According to the Pew Trust, a majority of Republican voters are afraid to voice their political beliefs (approximately one-third of Americans). In the wake of the election, we have seen people whose only sin was to work for the White House demonized and denied jobs. Is this the unity and mutual regard our new President promised?

Ultimately, a community’s resilience – its ability to recover from disruption – comes down to the ability of its leaders to work together to achieve common goals. That requires trust, and an ability to communicate with each other. Too often, however, we seem to be living the following parable:

In a land far, far away…

There lived two kinds of people. One was red and could see only red, the other was blue and could see only blue. They spoke different languages. The Reds were great at tasks involving red objects, OK at tasks involving orange objects, but couldn’t even see green or blue objects.

Conversely, the Blues were great if only Blue objects were involved, OK with most green tasks, but were hopeless if orange or red objects were involved.

What one would build – even if good – the other could not see, and would unwittingly blunder into and destroy. Since they couldn’t see each other or understand each other, they never could agree on anything. So no problems were ever solved.

Trust is an essential ingredient for working together, but trust fades where fear treads. This lack of trust in each other – borne of the political cacophany and covid’s woes – seriously compromises our ability to pull together in time of crisis. Thus those of us who care about our communities must ask how resilient they can be in this Age of Stupid.

As for most things in this real world, the answer is – it depends. If disasters have a direction, recovery has a context. The type and magnitude of a disruption; the community’s topology; the resources available for recovery; and the community’s leadership itself will combine to form the context for recovery. Taken together, they will determine how far and how fast a community can come back after disruption. And while I’ve couched this in terms of disaster, it is just as true for communities trying to seize opportunities or to forge new ones.

Disruption. The type of disruption is important because it determines what forms of community capital are lost or damaged and thus what needs to be replenished or repaired. Thus, covid has severely strained our social capital accounts; our responses to it have reduced our financial capital. The magnitude of the disruption sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery.

Community topology. A community’s topology – how the various people and community organizations are arranged and interrelated – is one of the least studied but most important aspects of a community’s context. The connections – or lack of connections due to conflicts – obviously play important roles in communications and resource flows.* If a disaster sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery, then conflicts (or the lack of connections between resources and where they’re needed) can raise the resource bar significantly. The rebuilding of the World Trade Center provides a telling example. Deep disagreements among the various regional “partners” increased both the cost (perhaps by as much as $10 billion!) and the duration (by over a decade) of the recovery.

Resources. The resources needed for recovery go beyond the financial costs. Each of the capital accounts impacted by the disruption have to be replenished. After Katrina, the physical damage had to be repaired. This required financial capital as well as human capital – construction professionals – who were in short supply even before the disaster.

Leadership. One of the facets of the Age of Stupid that should be glaringly obvious is that leadership at the national and community levels is not unitary. While the federal government can claim some credit for mobilizing the resources to develop vaccines so rapidly, it was Big Pharma and its resources that actually did it. The mayors of our riot-torn cities – Portland, Seattle, Kenosha and others – can lead the cheers and can remove bureaucratic barriers, but ultimately businesses, non-profits, associations and “just folks” will have to work together if these cities are to recover. And connections from a community’s leadership to external sources of support (federal aid; expertise in recovery of specific types of businesses – think tourism, for example) will also be crucial.

Resilience is possible in the Age of Stupid, if the context for recovery is right. As the parable illustrates, however, we need people working together to provide lasting solutions to the multi-hued problems we face. Neither the Reds nor the Blues have a monopoly on the Truth – or on Mendacity. We should not trust either side working alone to solve our problems, but only both working together.


* I cannot stress enough the impact on my thinking of the work done by Erica Kuligowski and Christine Bevc, under Kathleen Tierney’s guidance, in this regard. Looking at regional emergency management organizations (UASIs), their work clearly showed that some topologies were more effective at mobilizing resources than others.

Why Is There Air?

When you don’t understand something, you often laugh.

Bill Cosby

In my youth (and, yes, dear Cassius, I can still remember parts of my youth), I spent some of my allowance and gas-cutting money on comedy albums. I enjoyed the classic comedic riffs of Bob Newhart, Johnny Carson, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley (I saw her in one of the raunchiest “concerts” ever – just what a hormonal teenager didn’t need to see!).

The central theme of one of my favorites was Why Is There Air? The answer – to blow up the volleyballs, of course?! And that brings us to communities (What?! How?).

Think of a community as a volleyball (or at least try to). Instead of air, it’s filled with all of those things that make up a community – people and their skills and connections; businesses and financial capital; buildings and the natural environment; a culture derived from its history, its people and their beliefs, and its mechanisms for making decisions and acting – what are called the community capitals.

Now think of the ball resting on a table, sitting in front of a big fan. When the fan is turned on, it blows the ball down – and it bounces. Depending on how well it’s inflated, the ball may bounce almost as high as the table. Just like the ball, a community’s bounce – its resilience – is determined by how full it is; how much of each capital the community has.

Let me torture this analogy just a little further. No matter how well-sealed the volleyball is, there will still be small leaks, i.e., the community will tend to lose capital over time. Infrastructure may age; bureaucratic regulations may take the place of governance. The ball may also be used hard, opening more serious leaks: social tensions may tear the community’s social fabric; key people may move away. If I don’t keep the ball pumped up, it inevitably deflates: community’s require infusions of capital to stay resilient – or to become more resilient.

When the deflated ball is blown off the table, it won’t bounce: communities without capital aren’t resilient.

How do I make the ball “bouncier?” The obvious way is to pump more air into it. When we pump external resources into a community, we’re effectively doing the same thing: making it more resilient. Another way to increase the ball’s bounce is to raise its temperature – in physics terms, increase its ability to do work. For a community this means reinvigorating it – raising its internal temperature so that it is more vibrant and more is happening. Then it can come back farther and faster after it’s been blown down.

A few years ago, I was drinking coffee with Liesel Ritchie and she challenged me to think about chronic conditions vs crisis-inducing events. One of the things I like about this hokey analogy is that it provides a context that incorporates both to provide an understanding of what happens over time in real communities. Communities that don’t spend the capital to deal with chronic conditions (e.g., aging infrastructure, a stagnant economy) lose their bounce – become less resilient. When faced with a crisis, they must heavily rely on external resources to recover.

So a question to you: how much air is in your community?

Adversity: The Primer for Resilience

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius

One of my favorites among the many definitions of resilience is – Positive adaptation to perceived adversity. What Marcus Aurelius is pointing out is that adaptation is learned behavior; true for individuals, communities and nations. We learn to cope by coping; we learn to adapt by adapting to those things we cannot change. If we never have to cross barriers we will never learn to hurdle them. We need to fall if we are to learn how to get back up. In that sense, adversity becomes the primer for resilience. Just as a child’s primer started us on our journey to literacy, adversity starts us on our journey to resilience.

Too often, our politicians act as if they prevent anything bad from happening to anyone. But by trying to prevent bad things from happening to people, communities, or our nation, we are actually preventing people, communities and our nation from learning to cope and adapt.

One of the worst examples of this is our use of the Precautionary Principle. This unprincipled Principle states that no action – no matter how beneficial – should be taken unless it can be shown to be absolutely safe. Aside from the impossibility of proving a negative (“no bad thing will happen if I do X”), it turns risk management on its head (tip of the hat to the Risk-Monger). Instead of managing risk, the default position of our governmental officials and politicians is to skulk away from any decision with any possible downside in the name of “protecting us.”

Ultimately, such efforts are doomed to failure. Bad things will happen. The more little “bads” we’re able to prevent, the more severe the big “bads” will be. Because not only will we not have learned to adapt to adversity, but we will most likely engage in ever more risky behavior – leading to Minsky Moments.

As Helen Keller wrote:

Security is mostly a superstition
It does not exist in nature
Nor do the children of men
As a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer
In the long run than outright exposure.

To her,

Life is either a daring adventure
Or it is nothing.
To keep our faces toward change and
Behave like free spirits
In the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.

We should embrace adversity as a part of living, and learn the lessons it teaches us about coping and adapting; about becoming more resilient.

Rising after the fall

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

Confucius

In a November post, I talked about a different way for a community to visualize its resilience. It was a functional approach focusing on three aspects of a community – its common functions, the risks it faces, and the resources it has for recovery. Left hanging was how a community can determine the resources needed for recovery from a disaster – and whether it can recover at all.

Recently, my co-worker Jennifer Adams and I were notified that our paper that provides one approach communities can use has been accepted for publication. The approach is based on the stress testing performed by financial institutions, adapted for the community context. I briefly summarize the approach below; if you are interested in more detail, it will be in the published version (in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management).

In general, the approach is effectively an extended tabletop exercise, focused on a specific event. It is intended to be scalable – applicable to a neighborhood, a community system, or an entire community. Since the focus is on recovery, the time frame for the scenario extends beyond that usually considered in emergency management exercises.

The approach starts with development of a scenario based on a specific extreme event. The extreme event chosen should correspond to one or more of the risks facing the community. Each scenario should be plausible but need not be tremendously detailed. The type and magnitude of the extreme event, its geographic scope if relevant (e.g., areas of flooding or damage) and the time over which the event will occur should be included.

Perhaps in parallel, the scope of testing is also fixed. Again, this may be a neighborhood, a single community system or an entire community. Since it is assumed that testing is conducted by those who know the neighborhood, system or community, the availability of these “subject matter experts” effectively determines the scope of testing.

An important part of the approach is the establishment of success criteria: this forces the community to think about what recovery is, and how long it should take to reach it. This in turn sets the minimum time horizon for testing – the recovery process should be simulated at least this long (and if recovery has not occurred by this time, the test can be extended). For many physical infrastructure systems, success criteria for recovery may already have been set (e.g., Maximum Allowable Outages); for others (e.g., social support systems), a desired time to resume normal operations may be used.

The next step is focused on the impacts of the extreme event. The community’s anticipated losses – especially in terms of the community’s fixed assets – are determined. This includes both the direct losses, and those indirect ones that result either as a cascade because of interdependencies or because of actions taken in response to the extreme event. So, for example, a weather event triggers physical damage, that in turn challenges the community’s human, economic and social capital. A health crisis may cause loss of life; as we have seen with Covid-19, the response to the pandemic may seriously deplete the community’s social and economic capital as well. Social unrest can lead to loss of life as well as tears in the community’s social and cultural fabrics. As a result of this analysis, metrics for measuring progress toward recovery are also developed.

With recovery – the end state – defined, and the losses identified, the next step is to identify the tasks required to achieve recovery. This is the core of the approach – first identifying the tasks and then the resources needed to accomplish each task. If a community has a long-term recovery plan, this is an opportunity to exercise it. Since most communities do not have such plans, this forces them to think beyond their desired endpoint and to detail how they’re going to get there after the extreme event. In effect, it provides an opportunity to develop a recovery plan for the specific extreme event. Most likely, these plans will represent “brute force” approaches.

In this step, the community also goes one step further – looking at the time necessary to accomplish each task with the resources available. It uses the community capitals approach as a means to systematically look at the assets available for recovery (dispatchable capital) and the time required to deploy them successfully. Depending on the expertise available for the test, rather accurate estimates of task duration and sequencing (serial and parallel) can be achieved.

The final step is to analyze the results. First and foremost is to determine whether the success criteria have been met. In other words, determining whether all of the tasks required for recovery can be completed in the expected/desired time frame. If they cannot, then the testing points to possible actions the community can take to recover in time. These may be mitigating actions to limit losses; investments to increase dispatchable assets; better planning to develop more innovative (and probably more elegant) paths to recovery. In practice, it’s likely that a combination of some or all of these would be chosen. This approach to testing also provides a time to recovery (i.e., when the last task is completed).

Stress testing of this type offers some real positives to a community:
• It is based on the risks the community actually faces.
• It uses the community’s own expertise and knowledge of itself.
• It is scalable – a community can look at only one part or the whole community.
• It provides a time to recover based on the resources actually available to the community.
• It indicates opportunities for community action to reduce the time to recovery.

I have briefly summarized the approach and what it can do for a community. In a followup, I will look at a specific scenario based on a health crisis. I’ll do this in two ways: first, just looking at a community health care system, and then looking at the entire community. I’ll do this with much trepidation – the damage from covid is perhaps too fresh; too many are still falling ill and some dying; and, sadly, too many are still playing the Blame Game. But I’ll still do it, because as Confucius indicates, the glory is in rising again – recovering – and stress testing can speed our rise from disaster.