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Trust

We need to trust in order to make any decision.

The Risk Monger

Trust has been the most critical casualty in the Western world’s culture wars. We sense its loss in things big and small in our daily lives. We see the suspicious and disapproving looks of the masked at the unmasked in our supermarkets. We hear the shouting parents at school board meetings who no longer trust their schools to educate their children. We can almost taste the mutual disdain and dehumanization of the Right and Left, driven by a lack of trust. And we recognize that this same lack of trust is preventing too many of our communities from taking the decisive actions needed to improve their quality of life.

When confronted with a problem or an opportunity, without trust different parts of the community may see things very differently. Action won’t be taken in a timely manner. Bounded rationality will abound.

But while we viscerally feel the loss of trust that the pundits (Oracles of the Obvious!) loudly proclaim, we wish that they would show us – or at least give us some hint – how to rebuild that foundation of community action. In this post, I look at the nature of trust and uncover clues to building it.* I’m going to put this in terms of what we should – and shouldn’t – do. After all, if we want to be trusted, we have to be trustworthy.

One of the key facets of trust is consistency. As someone put it (I can’t find the source):

I do not trust words. I even question actions. But I never doubt patterns.

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Thus, to be trustworthy, I need to be consistent, even predictable. One of the best compliments (at least I took it as one!) I ever received was from a consultant I had just let go. “John, you know how to make a deal – and keep it.”

Another important facet of trust is familiarity. If you don’t know me, you have no reason to trust me. You may not distrust me (= trusting me to do something you won’t like), but you are unlikely to even listen to a voice never heard before. Thus, to be trusted by someone, I have to establish a connection with that person.

If a connection is going to engender trust, it has to be based on respect. I have to respect your opinions, even if I don’t agree with them. Not only do I have to listen to you, but I have to try to understand where you’re coming from. April Lawson’s Braver Angels Debate approach (There’s a link at the end of this post.) has value precisely because she tries to have participants really listen to each other. One of the reasons the CDC is so distrusted is that they disrespected the legitimate concerns of so many: they haven’t listened. “Big Brother Says So” may work for some, but in the face of uncertain science it’s not the way to build trust.

Bernd Numberger (see link at the end of the post) provides some interesting thoughts about how to build (or destroy) trust. With apologies to him, I’ll paraphrase some of them, and add to them:

Trust builders
• Collaboration. Actions speak louder than words. Working together is an excellent way to build trust, especially in the community context. Find small problems where there is broad agreement, and get warring factions to work together toward solutions. Enough of these, and trust can follow.
• Shared success and celebrations. Or, as I like to say – never underestimate the power of a party! Celebrating small successes along the way builds trust, and can lead to much greater success.
• Openness. We have to be willing to let others know who we are in a personal sense, what we value and what we believe. This can be hard to do in the face of “woke” cancel culture (especially on college campuses) but it is a form of public duty.
• Sharing. We have to share in conversations – that means we have to listen – really pay attention to what others are saying – as well as speak. We have to show that we respect the opinions of others. We have to show that we value their opinions as well – perhaps not so much for their content, but certainly for others’ willingness to be open with us. This echoes several of the thoughts above.
• “Trusted” opinions. Recommendations from trusted third parties, meaningful awards, or certifications can help build others’ trust in us. But don’t cherry-pick your sources – where there are honest differences in data sources or interpretations, admit them.

Trust breakers
• Playing the blame game. Can you ever really trust someone who always blames others when things aren’t going right? Or is always making excuses (Certain politicians come to mind?), and never takes responsibility?
• Shooting from the lip. It’s hard to trust someone who seems to always be jumping to conclusions without checking their facts.
• Sending mixed signals. It’s also hard to trust that a reed that bends to whichever way the wind is blowing will stand firm for you (Certain other politicians come to mind?).
• Not caring about others’ concerns. Would you trust someone to do something that you value if he/she is only concerned about what’s good for him/her?

All of this implies that building trust is a contact sport, and it takes time and effort. Above all, it requires that each of us is trustworthy. Trust is the glue that binds communities together; lack of trust cements barriers in place that can block community action. Trust is essential for community resilience, and for Future-Fit communities.


*I’m basing this on three sources as well as my own experience.

Bernd Numberger:
http://cocreatr.typepad.com/everyone_is_a_beginner_or/2012/02/community-of-practice-and-trust-building.html

A recent post by the Risk Monger:
https://risk-monger.com/2021/11/16/trustbusters-part-1-precaution-and-the-demise-of-trust/

An article by April Lawson (tip of the hat to Bill Hooke who highlighted this article on New Year’s Day):
https://comment.org/building-trust-across-the-political-divide/

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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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Beyond Sustainability and Community Resilience:  II.  Evolution of communities

Beyond Sustainability and Community Resilience:  II.  Evolution of communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1.  Evolution of a community

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

Figure 2.  Normal water usage

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

Figure 3.  Impact of a disaster

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

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

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

==========

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

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

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

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

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

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Trumping Resilience and Biden Time

While it seems that everyone has an opinion about “The Donald,” this post is not really about him, nor about Uncle Joe.  But I do want to riff on “group-ism,” unity and resilience.  I know that this will be controversial, but if we are ever going to have an adult conversation about these subjects somebody’s got to go first (Then again, you can always spot a pioneer by the arrows in his back and his blood-soaked boots!).

What’s group-ism?  It’s simply identifying – defining – a person on the basis of the group he or she belongs to.  Depending on your particular point of view, it may be called racism, gender-ism, identity politics (or a host of others).  And it can have a profound impact on a community’s resilience.

Let’s start with what should be obvious – something like group-ism is a part of our human DNA; it transcends color, culture, gender and breeding.  The ability to recognize “Others” was a key to our species’ survival.  Whether it was a wild animal or a member of a different tribe, our ancestors’ inbred ability to recognize something or someone that was different was important for prehistoric humans’ survival.  So in this sense we are all racist, sexist, anti-immigrant… – group-ists.  To deny that we are is to deny our own humanity.

But the world today is very different from prehistoric times.  Few of us live in isolated self-sufficient villages in the forest any more.  Stones and spears and clubs have been replaced by laser-guided weapons.  Many of us eat exotic foods from half a world away.  Our standards of living exceed even the wildest dreams of our atavistic ancestors; for the first time in recorded history less than 10% of the world’s population lives in abject poverty (or at least they did before the pandemic).

But these advances have required that we become more connected.  Interdependencies abound.  Our isolated village in the forest has become one of many neighborhoods in a concrete and asphalt jungle.  If a disaster strikes, we will have to work with our neighbors and friends and friends-of-friends-of-friends in order to return to something like our prior lives.  And if we wish positive change in our communities that means working with other neighborhoods very different from our own.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, for community resilience “It’s the connections, Stupid!”

And it is in these connections that we can find the antidote to our inherited “group-ism.”  Humans are social animals.  We want to interact with other humans.  If I have had a positive experience with blacks, or Asians, or women or any of the other “Others” then I am that much less likely to trigger my inbred “Others” instinct when I see someone from these groups.  Conversely, without those positive interactions, that instinct will continue to hold sway.  And that’s why the growing tribalism in our culture is so dangerous.

Clearly “The Donald’s” blatant and often bigoted outbursts are bludgeons battering the bonds that hold us together, threatening our communities and their resilience.  Sadly, though, there are Montagues to his Capulet.  Uncle Joe with his if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, you ain’t black, and calling Trump voters clowns, chumps and worse Throwing boulders in the path to the unity he aims for. And the press: Trump’s boorishness and silly lies are matched (perhaps even exceeded) by the meanness, poor reporting and downright dishonesty of much of the media. Indeed, a plague on all their houses!

There is no greater threat to our communities’ resilience than these politicians (and media pundits) pandering to us in terms of the groups we belong to.  Dripping a seductive acid into our ears that our weaknesses are someone else’s fault; that those “Others” are holding us back.  All the while building suspicion and fear and reinforcing our atavistic instinct that leads to pathologies that further weaken our communities such as college students demanding re-segregation of residence halls (What would Dr. King make of that?!?).  How can we prevent – let alone recover from – another Ferguson if we have not built bonds of respect among all of the groups in our communities?  How can we spot the outsiders that truly threaten us – the Dylan Roofs and Omar Mateens – if we see everyone who is different from us as an outsider?  How can we be resilient when disaster comes if we have no connections outside of our own group?  The answer to all of these, of course, is that we can’t.  Our politicians are “Trump”-ing our resilience – crimping our connections in a world that demands connectedness.  Connections we must have to overcome our atavistic instincts; connections we must have to survive in this modern world; the connections needed for community resilience.

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Visualizing resilience

Standing knee-deep in a river and dying of thirst.

Joe Cocker

As I’m writing this, we’re at the end of our election cycle in the US. For months, we’ve been bombarded with snarky snippets aimed at getting us to vote against the other guy, not for somebody. No matter our political affiliation, I think we all sometimes feel we’re in a river of factoids, looking for the truth.

The same thought applies to community resilience. Since I began working in the field, we’ve seen an explosive growth in the knowledge base. Unfortunately, this has not been matched by the application of the knowledge in practice. There are several reasons for this:

  • Accessibility. Much of the knowledge base is captured in academic journals that are never seldom read by anyone other than academics; and even if read, academic jargon and the creep of politics into much of the social science literature turns off many practitioners;
  • Lack of a framework. There isn’t a generally accepted theory of resilience that ties the many disparate strands together;
  • The resilience to __ problem. Practitioners are most often interested in strengthening specific domains and mitigating specific threats, not something as nebulous as fostering a community’s resilience (i.e., practitioners are most interested in the resilience of X to Y). Much of the literature treats resilience as an inherent attribute of a community, ignoring specific threats;
  • Lack of community-specific information. While there are several excellent presentations of data at the state or county level (e.g., Susan Cutter’s maps), there is much less at the level of individual communities;
  • Need to “kiss a lot of frogs.” There is so much information out there (and more being published daily, it seems) that finding that one key paper that will unlock the door to desired solutions requires time and effort that no few practitioners have.

Three years ago, Brian Dabson introduced me to an approach he was developing for the Missouri Transect Project. At the time, I was immersed in the ANCR Benchmarking effort, and – although I praised the overall conception and sent him some suggestions for making it better – I essentially forgot about it. At almost the same time, he left Mizzou for North Carolina (as good an excuse as any to not follow up on my “helpful” suggestions!) and his erstwhile co-workers appear to have dropped the approach as well.

Three months ago, I was asked to consider how to provide meaningful measures for the resilience of small communities, especially in rural areas. I expanded my writ a bit by looking at Opportunity Zones as well. In going back through all of the material I’ve accumulated, I stumbled across Brian’s excellent work. Below, I present my adaptation of Brian’s approach (with apologies to him where I’ve strayed from his original conception). The approach is intended for use by practitioners to determine where to invest scarce community resources.

The concept is deceptively simple. It starts with the concept that the purpose of a community is to carry out common functions for the members of the community. In general, the business of the community – carrying out its common functions – is performed through the consumption and production of community capital – financial, human, social, institutional. Thus, one way to look at a disruptive event is as a disruption of a community’s normal pattern of transactions (thanks due to Dan Alesch for this idea). Recovery then means establishing a new pattern of transactions, i.e., a New Normal. This enables us to assess a community’s resilience in terms of capital – its capital at risk vs the dispatchable capital available for recovery, from a given disruptive event. Examples of fixed and dispatchable assets:

Disruptive events might be natural disasters, or economic crises, or the return of the coronavirus. As discussed in a previous post, the “weaknesses” at the potential point of attack corresponding to the threat comprise the susceptibility. Generally speaking, these are the weaknesses of fixed assets to the threat’s attack. An attractive feature of this approach is that it can be applied to a community system (e.g., housing, water), a neighborhood, or an entire community.

One of the thing that I found very attractive in Brian’s original concept was the way he treated indicators for both susceptibility and recovery. For the Transect Project, he converted each indicator to a value between 0 and 1, by dividing by the range of values. As is generally done, he took the average of sets of indicators to come up with overall values for susceptibility and recoverability. An unintended consequence of this is that this enables us to use qualitative data as well.

For example, if we’re interested in the recoverability of a community’s electric power system, we might have quantitative data relating to financial reserves of its power authority. We might not have quantitative data on its susceptibility to a natural disaster, but through survey data or other means we could come up with a “good, bad, indifferent” rating which we could fuzzify onto a 0 to 1 scale. We then plot recoverability (Y) vs susceptibility (X).

This approach can be usefully applied in several ways. For example, it can be used to look at several threats to determine where to put mitigation dollars. In this figure, I’ve notionally looked at flooding, a health crisis and an economic crisis for a community. For susceptibility to flooding, I would include the condition of houses and other structures, and FEMA flood zone information (for both, there are useful quantitative and qualitative indicators). For recoverability, I would look the fraction of residents living in poverty, whether there were sufficient construction professionals. I would do similar things for the other disruptive events. The results might then look like


In this case, it appears that it might be more useful to invest in mitigating a health care crisis. While there is slightly greater susceptibility to an economic crisis, recovery from a health crisis is much less certain. While recovery from flooding is also “iffy,” a damaging flood is much less likely. Miami provides a real-world example of the latter. Many of the poorer sections of the city (i.e., those with less resources for recovery) are built on higher ground (i.e., less susceptible to flooding).

This approach can be used in other ways as well. For example, flood mitigation funding for Miami might better be used in those low-lying areas with the lowest incomes; i.e., the approach can be used to determine where best to use targeted mitigation money. Similarly, the approach can also be used to determine how to invest. In this case, the different indicators for recovery are compared, as are those for susceptibility. Those that most greatly increase the distance from “red” to “green” are those most likely to have an impact. But since there are costs associated with any action, communities will most likely want to do a “distance / dollar” type calculation. In my next post, I’m going to look at a method a community can use to determine what resources are needed for recovery.

I like this approach for several reasons:
• First and foremost, it is visual. There’s not a lot of numbers or complicated words for the layman to try to understand. If you’re in the red, you want to get in the green.
• Unlike the other common visuals – maps, I can look at how well my community (or my neighborhoods, or my water system…) will handle all of the threats I’m worried about. This makes it easier for a community to prioritize its investments.
• Because I’m looking at all of the community capitals, I can also consider the impact of non-financial investments, and of investments made by all parts of the community. It allows the local government to look at the impacts of investments made by non-profits, businesses, and of “capital stacks” on recoverability. For example, if there were insufficient construction professionals, a partnership could be formed between construction companies, local unions and a community college to begin to fill the need.
• Finally, its extensible. As we learn more about how communities actually recover, and the relative importance of various factors to susceptibility and recoverability, we can add factors or throw out others or learn how best to combine them.

My goal – as always – is to find ways to help communities strengthen themselves. Knowing which strengths are relevant to a community’s ability to withstand or recover from the threats it faces is a crucial first step. That knowledge is the key to taking action to become a stronger – more resilient – community.

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Minsky Moments revisited

As Dan Alesch has pointed out, we designate disasters by their triggering events, but we recognize them by their impacts. Thus, we know Katrina and Sandy by the devastation they created; had they exhausted their energies over the Atlantic, their names would be forgotten. In years to come, COVID-19 will cause all of us to shudder, even though we’ve experienced many decades of influenza outbreaks.

But why were these disasters so impactful? And, for all of them, why were there such great disparities in those impacts, even among neighboring countries (Taiwan vs China) and even communities? My answer – Minsky Moments.

A Minsky Moment is a crisis paradoxically born of stability (It takes its name from Hyman Minsky and his financial instability hypothesis). Minsky believed that a long period of stable financial markets led to ever increasing risk tolerance (and often risk-taking) which in turn led to a sudden collapse in the market. His ideas have been used to explain both the crisis in Asian markets in the late 1990’s and the Great Recession that we were slowly climbing out of.

But we see this same behavior occurring over and over again, leading to other kinds of disasters. For example, the hurricanes in Florida in 2004 and 2005 were the first major storms to hit south Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Individually, each was weaker than Andrew, but collectively their impacts were much greater (For example, Wilma – a Cat 3 hurricane – did almost as much damage as the Cat 5 Andrew even after Ivan and Charley had already done so much.). Over time, people forgot Nature’s devastation – many let their insurance policies lapse; many didn’t properly protect their homes; virtually no effort was made to strengthen buildings built prior to the more stringent building codes put in force after Andrew. People became so risk tolerant that even common sense precautions (such as properly functioning storm shutters) were ignored.

Similarly, even after the devastating effects of this coronavirus in China became apparent (in spite of the Chinese government’s efforts to hide them) in January, the President and many governors and mayors tried to downplay its potential impacts. People were encouraged to “party hearty” – Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras and others. Spring Breakers beached it even into March, and for some, sadly, it was their last Big Wave. We had not had a major epidemic in 100 years; the false alarms of the last two decades (SARS, Ebola, et al.) conditioned us to believe that the party would never end – until it did.

We take action immediately after a disaster and then as its devastation slowly fades from our memories we become more and more tolerant of risk and eventually engage in increasingly risky behavior. Almost invariably, this behavior leads to a Minsky Moment.

Sadly, there can be Minsky Moments in any and every aspect of our lives. Certainly AIDS took so many lives in the 1980s because of the risk tolerance and risky behavior that were the hallmarks of the sexual revolution and drug use in the ’60s and ’70s. We had conquered polio in the ’50s; antibiotics seemed able to cure even STDs; there was no real risk – or so we thought. And yet a virus that apparently had been lying in wait since the ’20s pounced on our risky behavior to become a pandemic that continues today.

The levees of the Sacramento River Valley provide the basis for a potential Minsky Moment in the making. Originally built to provide water for reliable irrigation of farm land, the levee system has led to unrestrained development. This residential and commercial development is occurring in an area that has seen at least six massive floods (When Leland Stanford became Governor of California, he had to use a rowboat to get to his inauguration.). When the levees breach (one estimate indicates a 64% chance in the next third of a century), the drinking water for 25 million people will be contaminated, millions will be left homeless and tens of thousands will die. All because we have forgotten the lessons of the Great Mississippi flood of 1927 (John Barry’s Rising Tide provides an excellent explanation of how bad management and engineering contributed to this event. His The Great Influenza is a worthwhile reference on the Spanish flu pandemic.). Similarly, had we remembered the lessons that Nature tried to teach us with the Long Island Express of 1938 (a massive meat cleaver – compared to Sandy’s butter knife – that carved up the Long Island Sound) much of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy would have been avoided. While some communities had wide beaches and recently constructed berms and dunes that protected them from the worst of the storm, many more of their neighbors went unprotected into that good night. And those still rage over the blight that is strangling their communities.

In too many cases, the impacts caused by extreme events – especially the human suffering – can be attributed to Minsky Moments like these. It is all too human to want to forget the bad things that have happened to us. It is all too human to believe that since no crisis has happened recently, none lies lurking in our future. But to be resilient we must go beyond our human failings – we must ensure that fading memories do not give rise to tolerance of risk, then risky behavior, and then the inevitable Minsky Moment.

Stay well!

Once the parties start again

We’re now in the third month of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in the US. In some ways our collective response to this has been effective (e.g., closing the borders), in some ways not (e.g., politicizing the pandemic). We are clearly learning as we go – as we should – and our response efforts are getting better focused. But the pandemic is both causing problems that will last long after we have the pandemic under control, as well as shining new light on existing problems that we haven’t solved.

Taiwan has done exceedingly well in dealing with the pandemic. Even though next door to China, only two deaths have been reported so far (By comparison, Italy’s per capita death rate from the virus is almost 1000 times higher.). Taiwan’s success is due in large part to their taking a hard look at their response to SARS in 2004. They built a crisis plan based on what they learned and have successfully implemented it. Their approach to the crisis has been different from ours and other countries (See here for a nice summary article and to get to a list of the actions they’ve taken.). I hope we in the US will do the same after this crisis passes. In this post, I want to pose some questions that I hope will be considered (starting with gathering appropriate data). I’m focusing on impacts to our communities; there are many others that need to be considered as well.

What is the “aim point” for our response in the future? The current strategy in the US is aimed at limiting the number of deaths from the virus. Thus, we’re not really trying to prevent the virus from occurring; rather we’re accepting that people will catch the virus but trying to slow down its spread. If we are unsuccessful, then people will needlessly die because we don’t have enough ICU hospital beds, respirators and ventilators to treat the potential spike in cases. If we had a cure OR a vaccine OR more hospital beds and needed equipment, we could potentially employ a different strategy.

How will those who live in cities and those in rural areas do? I must admit I have often been bemused by our country’s lurch toward urbanization. Cities concentrate risk – you’re more likely to be exposed to the virus if you live in a city (New York City is currently experiencing a death every hour.). Conversely, cities also concentrate resources – there are more hospitals, medical equipment and medicines in cities to deal with the sick. In the Spanish flu epidemics of 1917-19, mortality was less than 1% in urban areas (probably due to partial immunity from previous influenza outbreaks) compared to up to 90% in some rural communities. Right now, we have too few ICUs in rural communities and too many cases in some of our cities. We need to recognize that rural and urban health care needs are different and develop better means to address both. But to do that we need to have a better handle on what those needs are.

How will the homeless fare? Most of the permanently homeless are in poor physical and mental health. Most of them are men. Drugs, alcohol, and poor environments have compromised their immune systems. They are likely at high risk. I’m fairly certain that our communications with the homeless are – at best – spotty. We need to consider what actions we ought to take to both communicate with and care for this slice of the homeless population.

How useful were our models of the virus’ spread and mortality? As George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Our models for the spread of a pandemic are generally pretty good BUT like all models their accuracy depends on their input parameters. The ones we’re using are based on the Chinese experience, or what they’ve indicated was their experience. We don’t know how well that translates to American demographics or the American health care system.

Is the approach we’re taking to social distancing the best overall? Taiwan, South Korea have taken a different approach to achieve the same ends as our draconian shutdowns of businesses and schools. While our approach may be best for containment of the virus, we need to know how it impacts other aspects of community life, e.g., businesses, education and other social facets. We are taking action to determine the impacts on small businesses and the economy at large; we need to have the same urgency about the pandemic’s impacts on our kids’ education and our communities’ social fabric.

Can we track contacts more effectively? Tracking the contacts of those potentially infected is a key part of the strategy followed by Taiwan. This is much harder to do in our country with its patchwork of health departments at community, county, state and national levels. But I’m sick and tired of hearing the phrase “community spread” as a sort of code for “we don’t have a clue how Grandma was infected.” We can do better, but it will require that each of us takes a hard look at the balance between individual privacy and community health security.Along those same lines, we need to begin using Big Data techniques to determine potential future hot spots. There is all sorts of data indicating people flows; we need to start using them for future casting. We undoubtedly will initially stumble – make bad calls – but we can’t do better unless we start doing.

How should we deal with those crossing our nation’s borders? Our immigration policy – such as it is – is a mess. Was and is, but we need to fix it for the future. Further, many of us Americans (like She Who Must Be Obeyed) have a lot of unsatisfied wanderlust. The government took what appears to be appropriate and relatively effective action to selectively close our borders but it is clear that foreign visitors or returning Americans triggered at least some of the hot spots. While I hate to contemplate it, we need to consider actions such as required medical screening at every border entry for anyone coming into the country.

This is a difficult time for all of us. The approach we’re taking toward the virus in the US is the one most likely to deplete our social capital, at least for a while. As I’ve often said, never underestimate the power of a party – I hope the human love of partying will help us to recapitalize our social infrastructure. But once the parties start again, we need to look back honestly at the crisis past, and be better prepared for the next one – knowing full well that it won’t be like the last one.

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In my next post, I’ll turn from crisis planning to putting together a plan for coming back. Given our approach to the pandemic, what sorts of things ought to be considered in planning for our communities’ recovery?

One more thing. With all of the guidance on hand washing and use of sanitizers, we tend to overlook the obvious: healthy people are going to fare better than those who aren’t, no matter their age. All of us need to find ways to keep fit while we’re isolated. During the week, I’m usually out by 630am walking 3-4 miles. Others are using video exercise or tai chi classes. Whatever you do, please make sure you, your elderly parents and your kids find ways to stay active even while avoiding unnecessary contacts.