People Are the Design Margin

(AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Benjamin Wallace-Wells asked in the New Yorker why America needs the Cajun navy; why the Texas disaster instead of emphasizing the importance of Climate Change and greater government funding has perversely glorified community volunteerism with deleterious effect. “There is a cyclic pattern to the erosion of faith in government, in which politics saps the state’s capacity to protect people, and so people put their trust in other institutions (churches; self-organizing volunteer navies), and are more inclined to support anti-government politics.”


But perhaps it’s not such a bad thing.  Government can only ever be sized to average emergencies budgetary reasons. When real trouble comes they’ll need help.  One such potential oversized disaster is an electromagnetic pulse attack that may someday be launched against the US by North Korea.

A federal commission tasked to study the problem in 2004 concluded that a nuclear weapon detonated high above on the United States could potentially disable “electrical power systems, electronics, and information systems upon which American society depends…. unprecedented cascading failures of our major infrastructures could result. In that event, a regional or national recovery would be long and difficult and would seriously degrade the safety and overall viability of our Nation.” The resulting damage from a so-called “Black Sky” event would simply be too big for government to fix.

Recognizing this FEMA has adopted the strategy of partnering with the private sector  to conduct what is essentially a giant damage control drill.

Concerns have grown over the potential for severe malicious or natural “Black Sky” hazards associated with subcontinent scale, long duration power outages, with cascading failure of all our other increasingly interdependent infrastructures. This creates a grim and difficult dilemma: Restoration of any sector will only be possible with at least minimal operation of all the others.

To deal with this deadlock, careful sector by sector and cross-sector resilience planning is crucial. However, such plans, to be effective, must be exercised. With the diversity and the national and global scale of the infrastructures we now depend on, this requires an unprecedented, multi-sector, national and international exercise series.


There are just some things too big for bureaucracies to handle. ‘Cajun navies’ are also useful because there are also things government does not know how to do, like keeping existing supply chains running. The story of how the H.E.B. grocery chain kept 60 of its 83 stores open and stocked in the face of one the worst storms in centuries is management case study material. They tracked the storm to determine which cities it would most likely hit. They drew down on frozen food and upped their inventory of canned goods. They organized car, boat, truck and even helicopter pools. They sacrificed variety for quantity. In a word they did what only grocery people would know and the average bureaucrat would not.  And they did it better than government conceivably could.

Ironically the media, of which Mr. Wallace-Wells’ New Yorker is a part, itself made the government’s old Emergency Alert System largely redundant, like a communications Cajun navy. “No president has ever used the current [EAS] system or its technical predecessors in the last 50 years, despite the Soviet missile crisis, a presidential assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, major earthquakes and three recent high-alert terrorist warnings…Michael K. Powell, the then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the Emergency Alert System, pointed to ‘the ubiquitous media environment,’ arguing that the system was, in effect, scooped by CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and other channels.”


Aaron Wren of the Manhattan Institute noted that at one time the volunteer heroics were an important part of the response plan. Till very recently “social capital” — community resources and know-how — routinely served as a vital resource in times of need. But in the last few decades “social capital” had declined and in some cases was tacitly discouraged to increase dependence on government services.

Some of this decline was captured in Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and more recently in a report commissioned by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, vice chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee. Called “What We Do Together,” the report tracks the striking decline in many measures of social capital in the country since 1970. The share of 3- and 4-year-olds being cared for by a parent during the day, for example, dropped from 80 percent to less than half. Births from unwed mothers grew from 11 percent to 40 percent. The number of adults who think most people can be trusted dropped from 46 percent to 31 percent. People are spending less time socializing with neighbors. Participation in religion and in civic life has declined.

These forms of social capital once sustained a sense of community during hard times and through the ups and downs of life. Today, many of these supports — family, neighbors, churches and social institutions — are much weaker. Government can provide financial assistance to people in need, but it can’t replace these human connections that are critical when we’ve just taken a punch to the gut.


We are surprised by the Cajun navy when we shouldn’t be.  Leo Linbeck, who lives in Houston, tried to convey something of the contribution of social capital towards the mitigation of Hurricane Harvey’s effects.

the narrative spinners have an agenda: they want to assert that this event was an utter failure for Houston, and shame our city and county leadership into embracing centralized planning, and ultimately zoning. They believe in a top-down, expert-driven technocracy that rewards current real estate owners by actions that restrict new supply, raise property value (and therefore taxes), stifle opportunity and undermine human agency. As a life-long Houstonian, I would like to politely ask the narrative spinners to please pound sand. …

In short, the best governance to rely upon is self- governance. When the storm hit, I saw these networks in action.

It’s effective when it comes naturally, or is at least similar to daily behavior.

None of this is to say that government should stand aside and rely entirely on volunteerism. But it does suggest the greatest marginal contribution of government may lie in multiplying the effectiveness of the public by providing a standardized infrastructure. Perhaps one area where government can fill a unique niche is in systems like the Emergency Alert System’s successor, IPAWS. The goal of IPAWS, like Japan’s J-Alert is to provide location specific threat information to the public in seconds over mobile devices.

Such alert systems are in a way a backhanded way of acknowledging the central role of the public in emergencies.  Publics are alerted because government wants to do something besides act as passive recipients of aid.  If the vitality of citizen response is so vigorous as to create a threat to government prestige, it’s a nice problem to have.


Follow Wretchard on Twitter

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, by Norman Cohn. The end of the millennium has always held the world in fear of earthquakes, plague, and the catastrophic destruction of the world. At the dawn of the 21st millennium the world is still experiencing these anxieties, as seen by the onslaught of fantasies of renewal, doomsday predictions, and New Age prophecies. This fascinating book explores the millenarianism that flourished in western Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries and offers an excellent interpretation of how, again and again, in situations of anxiety and unrest, traditional beliefs come to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities.

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. According to revolutionary new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence. Ackerman travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research – in Barbados and New Caledonia, the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states – and delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are shifting our view of what it means to be intelligent.


The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, by Dale Russakoff. When Mark Zuckerberg announced to a cheering Oprah audience his $100 million pledge to transform the downtrodden schools of Newark, New Jersey, then mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie were beside him, vowing to help make Newark “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” But their plans soon ran into the city’s seasoned education players, fierce protectors of their billion-dollar-a-year system. It’s a prize that, for generations, has enriched seemingly everyone, except Newark’s children. This book is an absorbing portrait of a titanic struggle, indispensable for anyone who cares about the future of public education and the nation’s children.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
Tip Jar or Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the Belmont Club



Trending on PJ Media Videos

Join the conversation as a VIP Member