Economy of Emergent Stuff

Last week, over on SE Stark Street, a pothole the size of Devil’s Punchbowl emerged in the eastbound lane. Someone had erected a barricade that barely covered the problem. I told Susan a local state of emergency should be declared – call out the Guard. I might even be willing to get back into uniform and man the compressor truck, my old specialty. She scoffed at these ideas, yet several dangerous days passed before a detail was finally dispatched, during Friday rush hour, of course, to fill the gaping pore. I drove slowly through the detour, obeying the bright orange pylons, saw the road crew assembled like a team of dentists, one in the hole up to his neck, picking in the horrible cavity.

Portland was once the City of Bridges. Now it’s the City of Roses. Soon it will be the City of Signs. We see new signs popping up everywhere, like teenage acne on the urban landscape. One new sign currently multiplying rapidly is affixed below stop signs, and reads: “Traffic to the right does not stop.” What did we do before these signs were deemed necessary? There are signs, seemingly randomly distributed, posting a phone number to call to report rampant potholes. I did not see one, though, near the Stark Street Devil’s Punchbowl crisis of last week. James Joyce once challenged his contemporaries to walk across Dublin without passing a pub (though I think he considered the impossibility a good thing). Our challenge locally is to drive cross-town without encountering a roadblock. Yet the roads don’t improve. One new sign I’ve noticed, at the end of our block, reads, at the entrance to what we used to call an alley, “Caution: Unimproved Roadway.” The roadway is obviously unimproved, and the sign does nothing to improve that. In any case, are there any roadways in Portland that are improved? If we don’t soon become the City of Signs, it will be because the City of Potholes sticks first.

While the Stark Street pothole crisis still threatened locally, I happened to pick up the March 19 issue of The New Yorker and turned to James Surowiecki’s “The Financial Page.” I’m a regular reader of the feature, for in a single page Surowiecki is usually able to do for the economy what Robert Frost suggested poetry does for the soul: “a momentary stay against confusion.” But this week I came out of Surowiecki’s “Great Expectations?” feeling like I had just hit a pothole. “One good sign,” Surowiecki argues [that the economy is improving], “is that Americans are buying new cars again.” But where will they drive them, as the country’s road and bridge infrastructure continues to deteriorate, potholes proliferate, and the price of gasoline again threatens to spike? The age of the average car on the street today, Surowiecki says, is at “an all-time high,” suggesting a “pent-up demand for new cars.” But surely the fact that Detroit finally started making better new cars at least in part helps explain the improved longevity of the used car.

But the number of households is not increasing, Surowiecki says, a bad sign, for young people can’t afford to move out on their own, but “when this trend reverses there will be a spike in demand, both for housing, especially rentals, and for all the stuff that you put in a house.” Thus the economic recovery relies on thoroughly anti-Thoreauvian principles, for what we need are fewer, more efficient new cars, improved mass transit of all kinds, smaller, more affordable and more efficient houses, and less stuff, not to mention freedom from oil dependencies. Meantime, the potential of rising rents and the consolidation of available rentals in the hands of a few speculators may conspire to throw both the young and old to and from combined households. And why would a young person want to add to student loan debt the absurd cost of a new car loan? And how will they qualify for home mortgages with increasingly stricter requirements, saddled with their student loans? And then I came across another article, this one pointing economic blame at the same young for their alleged entropic and torpid inactivities.

Over at the HBR Blog Network, I found Sarah Green “stewing all week about a logically sloppy op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times.” Amazingly, the op-ed Green refers to, titled “The Go No-Where Generation,” blames the continuing poor economy in part on young people’s staying home, even citing a downturn in driver licensure as evidence, when, as the Surowiecki article also suggests, what we need of our young people is early licensure for the commute from the new home to the de-benefitted new job to afford to fill the new car with ever more expensive gas and the new home with new stuff. I quickly saw why Green stewed, for the op-ed invokes Steinbeck’s Joads as the prototype of the flexibly mobile go-where-the-jobs-are independent American worker – as if they had a choice. Besides, I was also reminded of John Grisham’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Painted House. Set in Korea War era Arkansas, the story compares and contrasts the stay-at-home, determined but economically doomed cotton farmers with friends and relatives who move up north and find jobs in the automobile factories, and who return to visit driving outlandishly expensive new cars. The irony, not found in the novel, is that not too long ago, the descendants of those local defectors to the north could now be found returning to the south to find jobs in Texas and environs as their manufacturing jobs in the north disappeared.

But what if, Sarah Green suggests, young people have decided on something new, an innovative idea toward value: “The choice young people face,” Green says, “isn’t whether to be jobless in Nevada or employed in North Dakota. It’s whether they’re going to drag themselves unwillingly into an unfair game or decide to invent a new one.”

Casual Causality: Beyond Proximate Cause; or, The O-Ring Syndrome Revisited

An accident is an event that is fortuitous and unforeseen. That’s how life works. Yet we try to figure out what we did to deserve it and why we didn’t see it coming. But if we can figure it out, then it was not an accident. We might know how, but we can’t know why.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes mama with the baby carriage. Love is an accident. BP’s drills appear as effective in avoiding undesired consequences as the Catholic Church’s promulgating the rhythm method for birth control. Both allow drilling to continue as a risky business with high promise of failure. For the Church, the method aimed to keep pews full; for BP, the deep water drilling without adequate protection aimed to keep its stocks on the rise.

Ellen Goodman, writing in the Tri-City Herald back in 1983, discusses an ultimate proximate cause she labels “the O-Ring Syndrome,” the tendency to view catastrophic events as triggered by the failure of minute considerations. The term comes from the dramatic and awful disintegration of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger. The mission failure was attributed to an O-ring that malfunctioned, a tiny rubber seal that failed to perform its job and set in motion a chain of events that ultimately ended in damage and death. A correlative cause may have been cold weather. In any case, working backward from the first moment of irreparable or irreversible harm, one stops at the O-ring because it appears to be the end (and thus the beginning, or proximate cause) of the unbroken chain of events that lead to the accident.

The problem with Goodman’s O-Ring Syndrome is that as an explanation it creates an illusion of control. If the O-ring is properly identified as the cause, we can avoid future accidents by ensuring the O-ring does not fail in the same way again, because, applying the “but for” test, had it not been for the failure of the O-ring, the accident would not have occurred. But the O-ring Syndrome as an explanation for accidents limits the explanation to events of physical or bodily damage. But what if an O-ring fails but does not lead to damage? Can the definition of accident be broadened to include events that do not necessarily lead to physical or bodily damage? If so, in the case of BP and the current Gulf oil leak, multiple accidents have already occurred.

Finding the O-ring responsible for BP’s oil leak isn’t difficult, and correlations from ineffective regulatory agencies to manipulated workers to greedy BP executives have been suggested. If we look beyond the O-ring, prior to proximate cause, to explain the accident, we find BP operating like one of E. O. Wilson’s massive ant hills, a single organism that is emergent from smaller parts, not predictable from any one part. BP’s ant hill includes what we value, and what we value isn’t necessarily good for us. We value oil. The oil leak in the Gulf is an accident of value.

James Surowiecki, on the regulation crisis in the June 14 & 21 New Yorker, speaking of the recent rash of financial accidents, Bernie and the [other] Jets, (as well as the Massey mining disaster) correctly estimates that “these failures weren’t accidents.” But he’s still caught in the O-Ring Syndrome: “They were the all too predictable result of the deregulationary fervor that has gripped Washington in recent years, pushing the message that most regulation is unnecessary at best and downright harmful at worst.” If the events were predictable, they were not accidents. The proximate cause is value, what we want. Moreover, in many cases, the failures did not lead to physical damage or bodily harm; to the contrary, the bailout, like some benevolent insurance policy, made some people whole again and more. The mistake is to assume that adequate regulation would have prevented the failures. Adequate regulation may have minimized the frequency and severity of the events, but the only way to avoid accident is to avoid risk, because of a true accident, we can never know why.