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All for one and one for all

If you wanted to store eggs while saving on wicker, you would put all your eggs in one big basket rather than in two smaller ones. It would be the right thing to do if you were sure you wouldn’t drop the basket. In situations where danger is considered minimal, convenience is often given priority over safety. This accounts for the difference between the design of a cruise ship and an aircraft carrier. One is optimized for comfort, the other for survivability.

A cruise ship contains many large spaces -- the better to have theaters, restaurants and function rooms. The absence of likely danger makes it possible to allot relatively less tonnage to engine power, less steel to the framing and hide many of the utilities behind decorative paneling. Aircraft carriers, on the other hand, are ridiculously overpowered, subdivided into a maze of watertight compartments, and have their utilities exposed to maintenance access whenever they are not covered with armor plate. Aircraft carriers are noisy, industrially ugly and very uncomfortable to live in. They are also very hard to sink.

In a manner of speaking most of us live in the cruise-ship like civilization made possible by the end of the Cold War. It is globalized and designed for convenience. Borders between nations have in many places been torn town. It’s traditional crisis response systems have been pared back in favor of consumption. In many European nations, armies, formerly the chief guarantors of national survival, have been transformed into largely ceremonial organizations designed for peacekeeping, and parading before tourists on national day. And many societies have specialized in the one thing they do efficiently, like the eggs that have been put in one basket, relying on their earnings to buy items like food, energy and water from other nations. It’s a great system if you don’t drop the basket.

But underlying the cruise ship model is the tacit assumption that it will never be called upon to sail into perilous waters. Once this assumption is questioned, the beautiful luxury ship will lose its aspect as a vacation paradise and become a potential and very vulnerable death trap. Two events, September 11 and the current global financial meltdown raise the question of whether perilous waters do not in fact lie ahead, and whether a globalized economy should not take into account the possibility of unanticipated dangers in shaping itself.

One the principal dangers is the interconnectedness of the world-system itself. In a complex, interconnected system, “patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions”. Things ‘come together’ in a way we cannot easily anticipate, in a phenomena known as emergence. A cult in Afghanistan, funded by institutions in the Middle East can send two huge buildings crashing down in New York City. The collapse of one part of the financial system can cascade through the system like a row of falling dominoes. More things can happen on the cruise ship than were thought possible, and when they do occur the vulnerable design of the vessel allows scant defense.

But if anything the current financial crisis is driving politicians to propose increasing, rather than reducing system integration.  The dangers of that were illustrated by the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal when the battleship USS South Dakota was almost lost to the IJN Kirishima because the temptation to provide a 'quick fix' led to putting the eggs in one basket.

The South Dakota's role in that night action was rather ignominious, as she was bedevilled by a series of power failures, starting some 17 minutes after the action commenced. Gunfire had caused a short circuit on the feeder cable to number 4 secondary fire control director. The circuit breaker was locked in, and the overload resulting from the short was transmitted to the main circuit supplying half the power to the forwad part of the ship. The breaker on that line tripped, causing power to be interrupted. A switch to the alternate power supply had the same result, as the circuit breaker causing the problem was still locked in. All power was lost aft, gyros and fire-control equipment went out, and for three minutes all power was off in all turrets.

By tying down the circuit breakers, a fault in one place became a fault everywhere. The USS South Dakota lost all offensive combat systems and was riddled by 14" shells from Kirishima, unable to fire anything in return. Fortunately for the BB she was saved by a design redundancy. Her thick armor kept the ship from sustaining critical damage while her battle squadron mate, the USS Washington, sank the Kirishima with 9 x 16" hits. The history of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal is interesting because some authorities, reacting to the current financial crisis, are now advocating greater integration to prevent future financial meltdowns. The Telegraph, for example, describes the case for a global “banking policeman”.

The new Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, argued last week that new global solutions are needed because “the machinery of global economic governance barely exists”, adding: “It is time for a Bretton Woods for this century.”

Gordon Brown argued as long ago as January 2007 that global regulation was “urgently in need of modernisation and reform”.

So, as the world’s central bankers gather this week in Washington DC for an IMF-World Bank conference to discuss the crisis, the big question they face is whether it is time to establish a global economic “policeman” to ensure the crash of 2008 can never be repeated.

But is it a good idea? In a situation where systems are so complex that no human can understand all their interactions or 'emergent' effects, can creating ever more centralized bureaucracies and interdependencies not produce the same effect of "tying down the circuit breakers" that nearly doomed the USS South Dakota? Or are we not better off with a little less comfort, a little less money but more safety?

Contrary to received wisdom more safety may ironically be found in less government, less one-worldism rather than more. The great benefit of the admittedly inconvenient, pre-global and more localized world is that it was compartmented into nations. Parts of it could be sealed off and rest of it still function. It was a system in which subsidiarity played a comparatively important part.

While no one would seriously argue for a return to the past, it might be useful to recognize the benefits of intentionally simpler systems and the dangers of over-reliance on a "the leader who will save us all". A world prepared to meet emergent risks -- risks which cannot wholly be anticipated -- would have certain design characteristics. It would consume less and devote more resources to contingencies.  That means lower levels of entitlement spending to allow greater room to generate resources to meet a real emergency.  Such a world would rediscover the benefits of culture as a binding force because culture means a society has a "standard operating procedure" that will automatically kick in in times of crisis. A world prepared to meet emergent risks would design a degree of isolation in its most vital systems from shocks occuring elsewhere.

All this will come at some cost to convenience. Yet if September 11 and the current financial crisis aren't aberrations at all but simply the first two of the storms generated by a complex, globalized century then some convenience must be foregone for safety. The 21st century, rather than being the placid "End of History" it was imagined to be, is turning out to be a very dangerous ocean. While civilization may not wish to voyage its waters on an warship, the question is whether we can safely risk it on the Love Boat.


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