It is hard to know how, when, whether and how much to plan for future events.
I teach a course on the history of concepts of the future and the specific post-1945 growth (and decline) of a form of expertise that claimed superior insight into the course of future events.
Many of the experts who peddled their wares at the high-water mark of futurology were about as accurate as the fortune-telling machine at an old carnival, or random guessing. Some were less so. In a few cases, I suppose you could credit predictions with mobilizing policy responses which actually prevented the problem that was predicted from coming to pass. But on some of the most crucial predictions, say population growth, what most of the experts advised has had nothing to do with preventing the future they predicted.
On the other hand, there are other cases where models offered by experts have been powerfully predictive and where those models could have served as useful guides for making concrete preparations for likely future events and circumstances. Many of what I’ve called the prudential critics of the war in Iraq (which is how I would describe myself) accurately forecast many of the fundamental contradictions and specific policy problems facing the post-invasion occupation forces. Their forecasts and analyses were discounted by the White House and mocked or scorned by pro-war pundits and opinion-makers. Now most of those advocates of the war are moving the goalposts, obscuring the debate, or looking for scapegoats.
Hurricane Katrina is an even better example. Here’s a specific scenario which has been well understood and thoroughly modeled for decades. It’s not just the generality of New Orleans’ vulnerability to a major hurricane that’s at issue: at least one of the levee breaches, on the Industrial Canal, was specifically described by those who studied the system as being vulnerable.
What we’re seeing now, however, makes it clear that very few serious contingency plans were in place, and that those that are in place are failing in part because those charged with executing them do not have sufficient resources (people and equipment) to cope with the situation, or in a few cases, because they’re unreliable institutionally (for example, eyewitness reports that New Orleans police are in a few cases actually joining in the looting).
Before Katrina, New Orleans had one of the worst cases of structural poverty of any major American city, as well as deep historical problems with the reliability of city services and the trustworthiness of its police force. If any serious contingency planning for this event was going to be done, the money for it would have had to come from the state and/or the federal government. Because this is the issue: you can have accurate models, good forecasts, and even some very good paper planning on dealing with foreseeable problems. I’m sure we’re going to find that the plans on paper for a post-hurricane response in New Orleans looked pretty decent. What we’re also seeing, however, is that few of the actual material resources needed for executing those plans were readily available for use, that few of the engineering scenarios for plugging the city’s levees had actually been taken beyond the drawing board, that many of the possible technical improvements that could have been made in preparation were not made. (I saw somewhere that the Army Corps of Engineers has offered a terse reply on a FAQ about “dewatering New Orleans” regarding why the levees weren’t prepared for more than a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane: such a preparation was “unauthorized”.) The Superdome scenario has been on the books for a while, I’m sure, but it’s also clear that not much thought was given to what was going to be happening there on Day 4 or so when the water and food started to become difficult to obtain, the city was still flooded with dangerously contaminated water, and crowd-control started to become a serious issue.
Ok. It would be easy to write all this off as incompetence, but it’s not. The real problem is and will remain money. Having all the resources ready to go to deal with this long-foreseen crisis at a moment’s notice would have taken both one-time and continuing expenditures. The political will to make those expenditures has never existed. Perhaps that’s because planners sat down quietly behind closed doors and decided that the specific community of New Orleans was expendable, unworthy of that kind of precautionary investment, that if it came to that, everyone would pretend to be terribly concerned and do what they could, but that’s about all. Perhaps it’s because the US government and state governments in general lack the political will to meaningfully spend money making meaningful plans, that the money which might go to maintaining ready-state contingency plans goes instead to pork, to paying for studies of possible terrorist attacks on small Midwestern towns of 2,000 people and the like.
The precautionary principle is much abused in a world full of entrepreneurial experts who are continuously roving the halls of government and civic institutions seeking to suck down funding to support their own favored scenarios. Sorting through the din and clamor of rent-seeking competition would take a kind of technopolitical wisdom that we systematically lack: we do not have the means, the institutions, the distributed knowledge, to do that. One of the consequences of our shortcomings in this respect is that we not only waste money on empty scenarios and bogus futurology, but we fail to spend money in concentrated fashion on concrete preparations for those scenarios whose future occurance is not just hypothetical but practically inevitable. Does anybody today feel even the least bit of confidence in the US government’s likely ability to respond to a major incident of nuclear or biological terrorism in a U.S. city? In the likely ability of the federal government or state and municipal governments to handle 8.0 and up earthquakes in the Los Angeles basin, San Francisco Bay or Seattle areas? In the ability of New York City to handle a near-direct hit from a hurricane the magnitude of Katrina (less probable or certain than New Orleans, but still quite possible, and NYC has many of the same vulnerabilities as the Big Easy had)? Especially in the case of terrorism, I think most of us agree that feeling confidence about the probable response of our government is an important component of successfully coping with terrorism in the first place.
It’s wrong to spend money carelessly under the sign of the precautionary principle, to be ruled by its most expansive tenets, to ignore the cost-to-benefit ratio of such expenditure. But it is equally wrong to whistle past the biggest graveyards, to make paper plans that are funded fitfully, inconsistently or not at all.