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Insights from Scale, by Geoffrey West

To sustain open-ended growth in light of resource limitation requires continuous cycles of paradigm-shifting innovations.

Geoffrey West

I recently finished reading this book (official title is Scale: the universal laws of growth, innovation, sustainability, and the pace of life in organisms, cities, economies, and companies, whew!) published in 2017. Somehow, I missed it when it first came out; I found a reference to it in something else I was reading. West is a former President of the Santa Fe Institute and a distinguished nuclear physicist – in spite of that his book is relatively easy reading.

The general basis of the book is that there are properties of cities that scale in certain ways with population. In general, infrastructure scales sublinearly with population. As an example, if we graphed miles of roads vs population of cities from around the world we’d get a line that would curve down from a straight line. In other words, the larger the city the fewer miles of road per person (Mathematically, road miles scales with population raised to the ~0.85 power, 1 being linear).

However, some properties do scale linearly with population. For example, “the total number of establishments in each city regardless of what business they conduct turns out to be linearly proportional to its population size. Double the size of a city and on average you’ll find twice as many businesses. The proportionality constant is 21.6, meaning that there is approximately one establishment for about every 22 people in a city, regardless of the city size. Similarly, the data also show that the total number of employees working in these establishments also scales approximately linearly with population size: on average, there are only about 8 employees for every establishment, again regardless of the size of the city.

On the other hand, socioeconomic properties scale superlinearly (curve up from a straight line, with exponent ~1.15). “The larger the city, the higher the wages, the greater the GDP, the more crime, the more cases of AIDS and flu [and covid, as we saw during the pandemic], the more restaurants, the more patents produced, and so on, all following the “15 percent rule” on a per capita basis in urban systems across the globe.” Both what’s good and what’s bad about cities, in one mathematical relation!

This seems to imply that population growth leads to socio-economic growth indefinitely. But, as West points out, growth can’t go on indefinitely. Similar to Moore’s Law for computer chips (doubling in power every two years), eventually you come up against some physical limitation that slows down growth. Unlimited growth inevitably leads to collapse…unless…

And that leads to what I see as the most important reason to read the book: West’s insights on growth, innovation and change. Innovation leading to positive change can enable continued growth. Thus, West posits a sort of symbiotic relationship among the three.

Change and, by implication, innovation, must occur in order to continue growing and avoid collapse. Growth and the continual need to be adapting to the challenges of new or changing environments, often in the form of “improvement” or increasing efficiency, are major drivers of innovation.

He also has a valuable insight about the rate of transformation. He points out that communities trying to fundamentally change and rise above their peers must temper their desire with the knowledge that positive transformation can be a very slow process. “Perhaps the most salient feature is how relatively slowly fundamental change actually occurs. Cities that were overperforming in the 1960s, such as Bridgeport and San Jose, tend to remain rich and innovative today, whereas cities that were underperforming in the 1960s, such as Brownsville, are still near the bottom of the rankings. So even as the population has increased and the overall GDP and standard of living have risen across the entire urban system, relative individual performance hasn’t changed very much. Roughly speaking, all cities rise and fall together, or to put it bluntly: if a city was doing well in 1960 it’s likely to be doing well now, and if it was crappy then, it’s likely to be crappy still.” This is an interesting sort of echo of the Law of Conservation of Community Momentum.

In the book, West concentrates on the overall trends. However, the real opportunities for fruitful investigation by the rest of us are the outliers to the trends.

What communities have leapfrogged their peers? How have they done it? New Orleans after Katrina seemed to have done this in several areas, e.g., education. But now NOLA seems to be backsliding – reverting to the mean or even worse, especially in violent crime. I think this book is essential reading for those interested in our communities – both for the hidden relationships it reveals and for the food for thought it provides.


I read this appreciation of George Orwell this morning. Well worth your time.
https://www.spiked-online.com/2022/09/17/why-orwell-matters/

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The Price of Time and Our Communities’ Futures

Only entropy comes easy.

Anton Chekhov

I have been reading excerpts from Edward Chancellor’s The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest for the last few weeks. I suggest you get a copy – I think it will become one of those books that shape people’s thoughts and color public dialogue. It illuminates the path our country took to get into its current economic mess. It is an in-depth study of what I wrote about in “Masked Villains.

Chancellor has an interesting metaphor that I want to borrow. Suppose there are two cities, separated by a raging river. One city is the Present and one is our desired Future. There is a bridge that crosses the river – the only way we can get to that Future.

But we live in the Present, and have to meet the Present’s daily needs: food, clothing, shelter, education for our kids, medical care … And so, it is all too easy to forget about the bridge to our Future. But there is a price to pay for our forgetfulness, for our neglect – entropy. Entropy is the price of that wasted time.

Entropy is perhaps the most difficult physical property to understand. Temperature, mass, distance, velocity, volume, and even time are all concepts that we almost intuitively understand. And yet entropy is in some ways the most important, because of its ties to our own mortality.

Entropy is Nature’s drive toward randomness, seen in the buildup of waste products and the dissipation of energy and order. It is the loss of information in messages, the fading of memories, and the decaying of our bodies and bridges. Entropy embodies uncertainty, risk, and friction.

It takes effort – energy – to combat entropy. Our bodies’ systems geared toward repairing the day to day wear and tear on our bodies first and foremost rely on our internal energy generation systems. As we age, those systems become less and less efficient until our bodies no longer are able to withstand entropy’s inexorable pull. Thus, in a very real sense, entropy kills.

At the community level, entropy means concrete will inevitably crack, stone will erode, and iron will rust. We often call these the ravages of Time, but just as it takes effort to maintain our bodies, maintaining our physical infrastructure also requires effort – energy. In fact, all of our infrastructures – whether physical, social or economic – require effort if they are to be remain viable parts of our communities.

If we neglect them, they will inevitably crumble: the concrete pillars holding up a condo will fail; our children will forget how to interact with others on a human level; our businesses will waste their capital on meaningless gestures instead of investing in themselves. One need only look at our frayed social networks and our confused and conflicted culture to recognize entropy’s fingerprints.

Because of entropy, our communities will always face chronic slow-onset crises that eventually will require immediate attention and action. It is all too easy to become so wrapped up in the Present’s crises that we forget to maintain the bridge to our Future. The Chekhov quote is a stark reminder of how easy it is to forget, and of how hard it is to remember to invest in our bridges toward our Futures. If we don’t invest and maintain those bridges, we risk their collapse. And if they collapse, we may fall into the river’s swift current, perhaps never to find our desired Future.

===============
A side note. The sharp-eyed may note that Chancellor in effect is calling interest (e.g., on loans), not entropy, the Price of Time. In effect, interest is a measure of the entropy of financial systems. When the interest rate is decided by the financial market without government interference, it is a reasonably accurate measure of the financial system’s entropy. In times of low monetary volatility, market interest rates tend to be low, indicating the market’s conclusion that the loss in value of the loan’s principal over the term of the loan is relatively low. As market volatility and perceived risk (uncertainty) increase, the interest charged increases. So, too, with increasing length of the loan – longer time, larger uncertainty.

Unfortunately, when central bankers do silly things like giving us negative interest rates (where we still are now in almost all of the developed world), then the measure becomes highly inaccurate.

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Flawed Men

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

Four men – four Presidents – honored in granite. Men of their times, with all of the imperfections of those times, but whose deeds transcended their eras and shaped our futures.

The first President, always the one asked to lead: the Continental army, the Constitutional Convention, the nation as first President. The indispensable man for the birth of our nation. And yet a slave owner, and a sometimes scheming land developer.

The third President; his words have gone down in history as the definition of freedom and human rights. Sparked both the American and French Revolutions. And yet a slave owner who recognized slavery’s inhumanity but continued to own slaves, and a sort of moral coward who never battled his opponents head-on, always relying on proxies.

The 26th President; shaped the modern Presidency. The first conservationist President, won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese war, the trust-buster always on the side of the common man. And yet he preached eugenics, to stop “degenerates” from breeding.

The sixteenth President; saved the Union in its darkest hour, freed the slaves, and wrote the greatest memorial to those who have fallen in war in the English language. And yet he was clinically depressed and married into a family of slaveholders.

In recent years, their reputations have come under attack: statues removed, their names expunged from public buildings, their lives dissected and their flaws magnified. And yet they accomplished so much.

Today we here in the US honor those who have paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we enjoy. In small towns across the country (and a few – too few! – large cities), there will be parades and other festivities to remember them. But too often we forget that these fallen heroes were also flawed, just as the four on Mt Rushmore were. Some were racists, some were thieves, some were rapists – the litany of their flaws goes on. As humans, our common lot is imperfection. And yet because of what these flawed men and women did, we can celebrate with family and friends – backyard barbecues, going to the beach, taking in a ballgame, using the holiday to reconnect.

The lesson for me is that though we are all flawed – even the greatest of us – we can all accomplish great things, working together. Even as those we honor today achieved so much for us. But to honor them we must step into life’s arena as they did. We must accept that we are all flawed, but overlook the flaws in others so that – together – we dare greatly to build a better life for all.

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A Tale of Three Cities

A community is a group of individuals and organizations bound together by geography and self-interest to efficiently carry out common functions.

Community and Regional Resilience Institute

One of the things that frustrates me the most about communities and community resilience is that too few community professionals and researchers seem to recognize that communities are open systems. Even for cities whose total population remains almost unchanged from year to year, there is a roiling of the humanity hidden by the statistics. Old faces disappear, new voices are heard. For example, at this time, the number of people moving into San Francisco, California, is roughly the same as the number of people who are leaving. San Francisco’s thriving economy and vibrant cultural scene provide employment and entertainment opportunities which continue to attract many, especially young professionals. However, the high cost of living, the increase in crime and the ineffectiveness of the city in protecting people and their property have forced many to leave, especially those with families or small businesses. Both those arriving and those leaving are “voting with their feet” based on their perceived self-interest.

It should be no surprise that this phenomenon is universal. The Huns, Vandals and Goths stormed into Europe to plunder and then settle because they saw the promise of a better life – better than staying where they were. The Choctaw and Chickasaw formed cities up and down the Mississippi basin, and then abandoned them periodically to find fresher land for farming. During the ‘20s and ’30s, African-Americans left the American southland by the tens of thousands to find better jobs and lives in the North.

In that sense, our cities’ vitality depends on their ability to provide people with the quality of life that they want. Self-interest thus is a major component of a community’s resilience. The following comes from a book that I’m writing with the help of Jennifer Adams. It illustrates the influence that self-interest – seeking a better quality of life – has played in the evolution of three cities.

Over the last seventy years, no three cities in the US have experienced population declines comparable to those of Youngstown, OH; St. Louis, MO; and Detroit, MI. Over that period, each has lost approximately two-thirds of their population. They each illustrate how residents’ perceived self-interests can impact a community’s vitality.

Throughout its history, St. Louis has been a major transportation hub. It was the jumping off point for most of the wagon trains that settled the West. By 1950, it had reached its population zenith of almost 860,000. However, its growth was limited by its geography, and after World War II, many left for the suburbs. This led to a drop in tax revenue, limiting the city’s ability to provide essential services, causing more people to leave – if they could. Qualitatively, parents felt the quality of their kids’ schooling had gone down. Many of the employers gradually followed their workforce out of the city – it was just more convenient for both employers and employees. This vicious cycle of people leaving, lowering taxes that pay for services, leading more people to leave, has continued. The city is a shadow of its former self, and has become one of the most dangerous in the nation (in terms of violent crime per capita). However, the growth of the rest of its metropolitan area (MSA) has more than made up for the city’s losses. While immigration is certainly a factor in the growth of the MSA, it appears that many who left the city merely moved out into the suburbs, seeking a better quality of life.

Detroit has a similar story to tell, with a slightly different twist. After World War II, Detroit boomed along with the auto industry. It reached its maximum population of almost 2 million in 1950. Like St. Louis, the city’s middle-class – white and black – began moving out of the city and into suburban areas starting in the late 1950’s, just as the auto industry began its slide due to foreign competition. Detroit then began spinning through the same dismal vicious cycle as St. Louis of people leaving, tax revenues dropping leading to reduced services which drove more people to leave the city. The poor level of service was compounded by poor governance which resulted in the takeover of the city by the state of Michigan in 2013, and a declaration of bankruptcy. One statistic exemplifies the sorry state of the city – in 2014, approximately 40% of the city’s streetlights weren’t working, leading to thousands of abandoned homes and soaring crime rates. Outside the city’s center, police response times were in hours not minutes. Public safety seemed the exception not the rule.

However, unlike St. Louis, the increasing population of the surrounding areas has not compensated for the losses of the city. There has been growth in the MSA, but it has been dampened by the gradual decline of the auto industry, increased automation and the resultant loss of jobs.

Up until the 1960’s, Youngstown, Ohio’s, economy was booming. Based on coal and then steel, throughout the first half of the twentieth century the city’s economic vitality provided jobs for native-born and immigrant Americans. Unfortunately, the city’s economy was not diversified; the city’s economic decline mirrored that of the American steel industry, starting in the late 1960’s. It is estimated that Youngstown lost 40,000 steel jobs, 400 small businesses closed and about one-half of the school tax revenues disappeared. Much of the population moved from the city to find jobs so that they could provide for their families. The population today is only about one-third that in 1950.

Unlike St. Louis and Detroit, Youngstown’s surrounding area has seen little net growth. The population of surrounding areas experienced a small expansion from 1950 to 1980, reflecting at least in part people moving from the city to more suburban areas, seeking a better quality of life. Beginning in 1980, Youngstown’s MSA also began contracting, reflecting the dependence of the area on steel industry jobs (and the steel industry’s interdependence with a declining American auto industry).

Taken together, these three stories point out how people’s perceptions of their self-interest – what’s best for them and their families – impact their communities. Starting in the 1950’s – while American industry was booming – families began moving to the suburbs. The suburbs were cleaner than the cities; they had parks and playgrounds and good schools for the kids; their white picket fences epitomized the American Dream.

And then, American industry stopped booming. The manufacturing jobs so necessary for the viability of cities like Detroit and Youngstown started to disappear. And the workforce that had made these cities such vital places in 1950’s then left to find new jobs so they could support their families.

The cities they left behind them are husks of their former selves. While other cities such as Pittsburgh also suffered through the same travails as these three, those cities have reinvented themselves and have become – perhaps – more livable than ever before. They have found ways to once again provide the services and amenities and jobs – the quality of life – that make for a viable city.

People eventually leave cities that don’t fulfill their needs – their self-interest. This is what makes the slow-motion suicide of cities like San Francisco and Baltimore so sad. Pittsburgh, and other cities that have reinvented themselves, have found ways to appeal to people’s self-interest. And as a result, these cities have regained some of their once-lost resilience.

Population of three cities and their Metropolitan Statistical Areas
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Beyond Sustainability and Resilience: Questions

The quality of your life depends on the quality of the questions you ask yourself.

Bernardo Moya

Over the last few months, I’ve been posting a series “Beyond Sustainability and Resilience.” It led me to suggesting that rather than aim for “sustainability” as she is most often understood, or “resilience’ as he is commonly understood, communities should aim to become Future Fit – ready to survive and thrive in turbulent times. In my latest post in the series, I identified trends that will impact our communities’ futures.

• “White out” and “why out” – Baby Boomers retiring from the labor force, and taking their corporate knowledge with them.
• “Show me the money” – the Baby Boomers’ children (and grandchildren) will inherit something like $60 trillion over the next decade, exacerbating current conundrums around housing, esp. affordable housing.
• “The Great Game” – in an increasingly competitive world, too many communities seem to be embracing mediocrity.
• “Where’s the beef?” – supply chains are snarled, preventing rapid progress in many areas where it’s needed.
• “Balloons” – not only where’s the beef, but can we even afford chicken?
• “Rising tides” – many coastal cities are afflicted by water where they don’t want it.
• “Separated by a common language” – too many things separate us, and trust seems a curious anachronism.

These are overlaid on local trends: demographic, economic, educational, physical and social. All of these are entangled and interact with national and global forces.
Together all will drive our communities toward a Future different from its Present.
“Drive toward” a Future, but not create it. Trends are not destiny; ultimately, a community’s own actions will determine what its Future will be.

In that Future, the community will face most (all?) of the challenges it has faced before, but will also face new ones, or new combinations. Some of these challenges will masquerade as the same as threats communities have faced before, but likely will require different solutions. The current inflation is a prime example. In the ‘70s, inflation ran rampant (Example: in May of ’74, I was offered a job with a starting salary of $18K. By December, my paycheck was over $20K.) – at least as bad as today. It took a recession to get the economy back on track.

Inflation is simply the result of too many dollars chasing too few goods and services. The inflation of the ‘70s was caused by a combination of very low interest rates, high unemployment, an extremely weak stock market, untying the dollar from gold, and high energy prices driven by OPEC. Our inflation today is driven by very low interest rates, a well-intentioned effort that pumped billions into the economy, supply chain bottlenecks that limited the supply of goods and rising energy prices due high demand after the pandemic. Some of these are the same (e.g., easy money and rising energy prices) but the solution to the current inflation is likely to be different (At least I hope so – who wants another recession?) because the combination of causes is different. For example, fixing our supply chain woes is likely to be a major component of any solution.

At this point, you’re probably asking “OK, Mr. Know-It-All. What should my community do to become Future Fit?” Ultimately, there’s no single answer. The actions a community takes depend on the potential risks and opportunities the community may encounter in the future – and they are very much community-specific. However, in the spirit of the quote above, I can offer some general questions that every community ought to ask itself.

Quality of life. It’s almost axiomatic to say that a community is a system, made up of individuals and organizations interacting in a variety of ways for a common purpose. I’ve puzzled over what that common purpose might be for a while now, and I’ve concluded a community’s purpose is to provide the quality of life that its members want. For a big city, its “quality of life” may include a variety of entertainment and cultural choices. For a suburban community, its “quality of life” may revolve around white picket fences and recreational opportunities for kids. For a rural community, its “quality of life” may depend on being able to hike or hunt or fish. And for all communities, there are expectations regarding social and economic opportunities.

The first set of questions that a Future Fit community ought to have answers for revolves around the current quality of life it provides.

What is our community today – demographically and economically?
What are the essential aspects of our current “Quality of Life?”
Are there aspects of that we’d like to change (e.g., making life better for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder)?
Are there things we’re doing now that our citizens don’t value?

Community’s trajectory. Inevitably, every community evolves over time. People move in, people move out; babies are born, the elderly die. Businesses are created; weaker businesses close their doors. These can lead to both slow and rapid changes in the community’s demographic and economic makeup, and to what the community sees as an acceptable quality of life. Future Fit communities will understand where they are being driven, and may take preventive action if they don’t like their future state. Questions they will answer may include:

If we take no action, how will our community evolve demographically and economically?
Do we like where we’re heading? If not, what are we going to do to change our path?
How will these evolutions impact the community’s expectations about quality of life?
What institutions may have to change to respond to evolving expectations?

Threats. Most communities recognize that there are threats to their current quality of life. Natural disasters, the loss of a major employer, or rising tides all should be among a community’s “known knowns.” Truly Future Fit communities will also recognize that the future may bring new challenges, or new combinations of challenges. They will answer questions such as:

What are the threats to our community’s quality of life?
Have we mitigated those threats?
Do we have the resources to meet or recover from them if they occur?
What new threats may we face in the future?
How will we deal with them?

Opportunities. In times of turbulent change like ours, there are always going to be opportunities for those willing and able to compete. Future Fit communities know they can’t go after everything that’s out there (although some of our community economic developers certainly try to); there are costs to competition. They know their own strengths and can judge when these make them competitive. They are prepared to use these strengths to maintain or improve the community’s quality of life. They will seek answers to questions such as:

What are our current strengths that we can build on?
In what areas can we be competitive – now and in the future?
What programs do we have in place that will ensure we have the human capacity to seize new opportunities?
How should we invest our resources to be competitive in the Future?
What current programs/policies actually prevent us from being competitive?
Where should we compete to maintain or improve our community’s quality of life?

Inevitably, the drivers toward the Future will impact each community so that its Future is different from its Present. Future Fit communities ideally will maintain (or improve) the quality of life they provide no matter how the Future evolves. Thus, the ability to maintain a community’s quality of life in a turbulent world becomes a yardstick for judging what actions to take to protect its Future.


I’m a big fan of Bari Weiss and the essays she writes or posts. The media and too many politicians blather about defunding the police, masking and a host of other controversies. But the simple truth is that none of these are nearly as important for our Future as our children’s success. In several of my own past posts I’ve written about the plight of young men, especially those of color. Just this week, we found that more than 80% of the third graders in Chicago are below grade level in reading, with boys performing worse than girls. We have way too much data on the what; this essay sheds new light on why so many boys do so poorly from one who was almost lost.

https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/americas-lost-boys-and-me

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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.

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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.

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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.

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1 AC: Crisis Communications

When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.

Steven Covey

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 (way too much material for just one!), I’m going to lay out my observations, preliminary conclusions they’ve led me to, and what might be a better approach to future pandemics. 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.

In this post, I want to examine how communications to the public have been handled. Quite rightly, President Trump has been criticized for poor communications in 1 AC. Unfortunately (at least to me), most of the criticisms seem to be of the general “Orange Man Bad” variety, i.e., anything he did is wrong a priori. While perhaps satisfying to some, it doesn’t provide any guidance about what we should do the next time – Trump won’t be around then.

At its heart, effective crisis communication is very simple: the leadership develops a message and delivers it to the public who receive it and act on it. As with most things in real life, the devil is in the details.

• First and foremost, leadership must identify the target audience(s). This will always include those most affected by the crisis, as well as all they’re connected to. The goal of crisis communications is not delivery of a message but action. Leadership should identify what the target audience knows, and what actions it can take. If there is more than one target audience, their ability to assimilate information about the crisis may vary, as will their ability to take action. Messaging should take this into consideration.

• Once the audience is identified, leadership must formulate messages that clearly point to the actions that need to be taken. As more is learned about the crisis, messages should change to reflect any additional or different actions. In the early response phases of a crisis, leaders inform the public how they should respond, i.e., do this, don’t do that – “wash your hands,” “maintain your distance from each other.” It is crucial early in a crisis that the public is also told what is known and what’s being done by the leadership to respond to the crisis. In later stages, when more is known, the focus shifts to recovery – “get the vaccine.” At every stage, the message to the public needs to be clear, timely, concise and – most importantly – accurate. Early in a crisis, there will be much that is not known and that fact must be honestly conveyed, but in a way that shows that the leadership is actively looking for the answers. The basis for the actions the public should take ought to be laid out clearly; as additional/different actions are called for, the public should be told what’s changed.

It is inevitable that mistakes will be made, especially in the early stages of a crisis. It is way too easy to play the Blame Game, but leadership needs to avoid this. Acknowledge the source of the error – incomplete data from the states, for example, and then describe the actions that have been taken to rectify the mistake.

• Next, the messenger(s) must be identified. People won’t act if they don’t trust the messenger. Thus, in a crisis, the face the public sees and the voice it hears must be ones they trust. Further, if more than one voice is to be heard, it is absolutely essential that all are conveying the same message. Different messages lead to public distrust and a belief that no one really knows what’s going on. This encourages rumors to spring up like weeds, further confusing the public and diffusing the message. And we all know how hard it is to get rid of weeds!

• The modes of delivery of messages must be determined. For major crises, the mass media will act as intermediaries for many people. Live press briefings are important, especially if recorded and made available for later playback, but special care must be taken to get the media to understand and accurately convey the intended message. Social media can also be useful, but it must be remembered that many people aren’t on social media. The poor – the homeless! – may not have access to digital devices; the elderly and the ill may not be physically able to use these devices. If all parts of the public need to act, then messages need to go where the people are. That means churches, homeless shelters and grocery stores in addition to press briefings.

• Once the message is formulated, and the messenger and mode of delivery determined, the message must be delivered. Ideally, the messenger conveys the messages with seriousness, empathy and confidence. Questions should be encouraged, and honestly answered. If the desired information isn’t known, a promise should be made to address the ignorance, and then kept by following up, ideally at the next briefing. Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, SC, essentially wrote the book on this. After the SC Low Country was devastated by Hurricane Hugo, he delivered daily briefings in a brilliantly effective manner. Even in the early days when the situation was especially dire, he made it a point to have at least one accomplishment to report in each briefing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi was an absolute master at admitting when he didn’t have the answer to a question, but then providing rapid followup. This points to the fact that followup is an important part of delivering the message.

• Finally, it is important that public action is monitored. Too often, communications effectiveness is evaluated in terms of the frequency of delivery. If the goal is action, then action should be monitored, and messaging altered as necessary.

With this as background, let me lay out a few considerations for what we should do the next time. I’ll point to what was done and – in many cases – suggest something different. These are not intended as criticisms of those who were thrust into the breach ill-prepared, but rather to illustrate how different choices might have been more effective.

Audiences. Pandemic communications of necessity are more challenging than those for a hurricane. In a pandemic, the entire country is potentially impacted; in a hurricane, the target audience is those who are in its path. At the early stages of the pandemic, everyone was potentially at risk; everyone needed to take appropriate actions. However, America’s diversity poses huge challenges in getting that message out. We have people jammed together in big cities, and people spread out in wide open spaces. We have regional differences, often coupled with cultural differences. America as melting pot means there are linguistic challenges. And there are huge educational differences.

On top of all of that, our country is politically polarized. Many on the Left had (and still have) a visceral dislike – even hatred – and distrust of President Trump. Conversely, many on the Right almost worshipped the President. And the Great Middle was politically halved as well. This polarization doesn’t seem to have been considered enough at either the federal or state level.

Further, the bureaucrats should have recognized (as I believe that the President did) that Americans generally don’t react well to dictates. We’re congenitally independent; many of us won’t take action unless you “show me” (OK, I was born in Missouri) in terms I’ll understand and believe. In the middle of winter I want a hearty soup, not a pale broth – telling me that I should do something on the basis of a model’s projections from incomplete data is not very nourishing: or convincing, if I have no conception of what mathematical models are.

Messages. Actions should be formulated that are appropriate to each group. Instead, the initial messaging during the pandemic was boiled down to the lowest common denominator – cover your mouth and wash your hands. We knew more and should have communicated that better. We were informed that the immuno-compromised and the elderly were at highest risk (scaring the tar out of us in those categories), but they weren’t told what they could do to protect themselves. Forceful statements early on stressing the importance of sunlight, exercise and social distancing of those at risk might have prevented tens of thousands of deaths. One of the great missed opportunities was when Dr. Fauci was asked what he personally did, and he mentioned taking Vitamin C and D supplements – intended to strengthen the immune system. Strengthen your immune system – this message should have been hammered home again and again; this is the health care equivalent of fortifying your home agains a hurricane.

Messengers. Ideally, there should be a trusted voice for each target audience. During the pandemic, we didn’t really have that: we had the CDC contingent (Fauci and Birx) and President Trump. And, too often, oil and water. In January-February, 2020, the President took forceful action closing the borders; Fauci downplayed its importance. At the same time, the President was portraying the coming surge as a bump in the road (then why close the borders?), not the washout it became. Throughout the first surge, the President would seem to zig while the CDC spokespersons zagged. Little or no message discipline on his part; while the CDC damaged its credibility by first saying “no” to masks, then “yes” to masks and then admitting that its initial “no” was sort of a white lie intended to avoid a public rush on PPE needed by the health care community. And only another scientist would really be interested in the nuances of mathematical models telling us how bad it could be – we needed more actionable information than to just wash our hands. As the pandemic ramped up, the public was confused by two message streams that seemed to randomly approach and diverge from each other.

One of the early actions taken by the President was to name the VP as head of the government task force dealing with the crisis – this was a good move – there were lots of other things going on that the President needed to pay attention to. It would have been even better if the head of the task force was also the primary spokesperson. It is almost a certainty that Mr Pence would have had more message discipline than the President. As head of the task force, he was also much better placed to develop a unified and consistent message with all of the players. And he would not have triggered the visceral rejection by the Left of any message delivered by Mr Trump.

We also would have benefited if messages were better targeted. A “big city” message and an “out in the country” message each tailored to that group could have increased credibility and ultimately compliance as we started to recover. Messages seemed to be aimed at an educated middle class – what about those living in inadequate housing (4.5X more likely to be infected than their middle class peers), with poor water or unemployed (twice as likely), or the homeless? Poor messaging and choice of messengers early on is likely one of the root causes of the “vaccine hesitancy” we’re seeing now.

Delivery. The public’s primary sources of information were press briefings, social media – and rumors. One of the biggest problems with the press briefings was that there didn’t seem to be any medical or scientific reporters. The political activists reporters seemed to be more interested in playing “gotcha games” than asking the tough technical questions that needed to be addressed. For example, they might have questioned the validity of the models that seemed to be guiding policy during much of the early surge, or they might have asked what had changed between the end of January (Dr. Fauci: “There’s no chance in the world that we could do that [lockdowns] to Chicago or to New York or to San Francisco”) to 265 M Americans in lockdown by the end of March. They might have questioned whether state orders placing the infected among the most vulnerable (those in nursing homes) made sense.

The less said about the messaging on social media the better. The former Tweeter-in-Chief is a prolific user, but he’s never met a situation he couldn’t confuse. The messages on social media from the press primarily focused on how wrong the Administration’s response to the crisis was (the impression left was that it bordered on criminal stupidity) rather than on informing the public about what the approach really was.

As a result of the Administration’s poor messaging and the press’s mangling of what message there was, rumors abounded. The public’s initial response – as might be expected – was confusion. Should we wear masks? Should we not go on Spring Break? Eventually those questions were answered affirmatively. And then the protests and riots began.

Now, all of a sudden, everything the public had been told was necessary was found to be – no longer necessary. The CDC – seemingly politicized – mainly was silent on what they had been calling potential “super-spreader” events. Even the President seemed to ignore the potential health impacts and responded instead to the protesters’ and rioters’ politics. This cost him precious credibility with those on the Right.

Monitoring. Finally, there is no apparent evidence that anyone was trying to monitor the effectiveness of the communications. If communications had been monitored, one would hope that messaging would have improved over time, along with message discipline.

Ultimately, the lesson I think we should take away from all of this is that effective crisis communications requires planning. Such a plan should identify target audiences, the desired actions for each audience, and the messages – and messengers – to each. The plan should include delivery of the messages by several means and monitoring of the messages’ effectiveness. Most importantly, the “trust account” should be considered at each step.

In 2010, I gave a talk in New Orleans memorializing Katrina’s fifth anniversary. One of the points I made was that the next crisis won’t be the same as the one before. But if we don’t better plan our communications with the public, the outcome of that next crisis may turn out much the same – lives lost, businesses ruined, and a badly frayed social fabric. And if that planning does not have “trust” front and center then the public won’t act. Who are the target audiences? What actions do we want them to take? Who has earned their trust and can deliver the message? How can we get the message to them in a way they will heed it? Trust is interwoven into all of these, and thus should be a cornerstone of our planning. Certainly building trust and planning both take time. But over half a million dead offer mute testimony to the cost of not doing so. A grim lesson of 1 AC.


For any of you who might be interested, our paper on stress testing communities is now available online at:
https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/jhsem-2020-0012/html