Precautionary Principles

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.

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12 Responses to Precautionary Principles

  1. Sherman Dorn says:

    Money is certainly a problem, but it would not have taken much—and it would have saved many lives as well as money—to take the school and municipal buses on Sunday and provide free transportation out of town for those too poor to get out on their own.

    Where? I’ve been asked elsewhere on line, and the answer is, “Well, that question seems moot now, since the governor is evacuating survivors now, after the storm, only with a lot more expense, after the destruction of school and city buses, and after a bunch of people have needlessly died.”

  2. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    In *Cross-Cultural Trade in World History*, Curtin argues (and I think, quite plausibly) that national (or even Imperial) government, because of its economy of scale, provides least-cost protection cost.

    When a government can no longer protect its people, or more to the point, when the cost of government no longer pays for its protection services, it falls. There is some time-arbitrage in this, because typically humans with weapons do not abandon power, or have power wrested from them. But eventually, without support, without payment, they fall.

    What is the logic of the U.S. government at this point?

  3. bbenzon says:

    The vulnerablity of New Orleans is long-standing and well-known. Still, I’ve been reading that the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to strengthen the levees in the past few years but couldn’t get the funds, which were instead devoted to the war in Iraq. Given that there are always more needs for funds than funds, I’m not quite sure what to make of this sort of statement. But it does seem to me that that is one aspect of fundings choice the Federal government faces, funds for war or funds for disaster preparedness and relief.

    Is the logic of the government anything beyond what it can sell before the next election?

  4. dkane says:

    You claim that:

    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.

    They did? Could you provide some links to writings from pre-March 2003 that did so by you or anyone else? My sense is that while plenty of people made general claims about how difficult it is to predict what will happen after a war starts, few if any forecast the “specific policy problems facing the post-invasion occupation forces. ”

    But I could be wrong. Such Cassandras would certainly be worth reading closely going forward.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Dkane: Start with James Fallows, “Blind Into Baghdad”, Atlantic Monthly Jan 2004. Fallows talks about a prewar planning group centered in the State Department that fairly accurately pinpointed some of the major practical and logistical challenges the occupation would face, ranging from whether or not to dismiss the existing Iraqi military to the possible looting of heritage sites, ammunition dumps and so on. The document was basically thrown in the garbage by the key neocon planners in Defense and in the White House because it suggested that occupation would be long, complex, expensive and require far more troops than Rumsfeld was planning to deploy, among other sins.

    For myself, I think I was clearest in my views at a local rally I attended here just before the invasion, quoting Tallyrand: the problem with the war was not so much that it was wrong, but that it was a mistake, that it would be difficult or impossible to achieve American objectives given the way that the Bush Administration had handled the run-up to the war and the likely blindspots that would follow, given the Administration’s character. Reading back to the beginnings of my blog (started in November 2002) my own specific criticisms focused more on the lack of evidence for WMD, the likely cost to American reputation, the hardening of Muslim hostility to the US and likely spikes in recruitment to terrorist groups, and the fundamental contradictions involved in an imperial occupation intended to create democracy, that US troops would have to choose between protecting themselves and practicing an open and vulnerable administrative pathway that would model the democracy they were trying to create. I think I got all of that right. I didn’t talk much about some of the nitty-gritty specifics (post-war looting, the building of infrastructure, the protection of ammunition and munitions dumps, etc.) I did also have an entry fairly early about the problem of torture, responding to Mark Bowden’s troubled Atlantic Monthly article (pre-war).

  6. bbenzon says:

    Meanwhile, in today’s NYTimes David Brooks has an op-ed on the political fall out of floods, starting with the Johnstown flood of 1889:

    Here’s his last paragraph:

    “Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. What’s happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come.”

    The issue is whether the questioning will go deep enough. It’s all well a good to criticize the Bush administration for gutting FEMA and for denying funds for levee repair to help fund the war in Iraq. But the fundamental problem goes deeper than that. As far as I can tell, it may be as fundamental as how we live on an earth that we cannot ultimately control, though we have increasing power to hold her at bay.

    And what about the fact that the port area along the lower Mississippi is the largest in the country and the fifth largest in the world? Between that and the oil, this disaster will ripple around the world.

  7. dkane says:

    That seems a thin gruel. If there were “many” of these insightful “prudential critics of the war” writing publicly pre-March 2003, I would have thought that you could provide a link or two. Was there anyone who wrote something like: “Don’t worry about the Kurdish north or Shiite south; 95% of your problems are going to be in Bagdhad and the Sunni triangle, with hundreds of suicide bomb attacks by foreigners perpetrated against Iragi civiliams.” or anything even close to it?

    But rather than quibble over the past, let’s look to the future. Perhaps you can (either here or in a later post) cover what you forecast the “specific policy problems” facing the US in Iraq will be in 2007, two years from now. Or perhaps you can point us toward someone who has already done so.

    The best way to know if someone can really see two years into the future (as you claim to have been able to do in 2003) is to test if they can do it going forward.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    The Fallows article is very content-rich and points to many experts who were envisioning precisely the kinds of specific issues you describe pre-March 2003. You have to be a subscriber to view the whole article on the web: if you are curious, I highly recommend you go to your nearby library and read it. This being the first week of classes, it’s a bit difficult for me to go get the article myself and start mining the specific references to point you–many of the experts Fallows describes published white papers or offered policy briefings, most of which are not available as links on the Web. If I get an idle moment, I’ll try and dig through old bookmarks and see if I can put up a few pre-March bloggers or other Web-available materials that did the same.

    I’d also urge you, however, not to casually dismiss predictions or analyses of general classes or types of problems as being meaningfully prescient about Iraq. For example, in talking about the contradictions between being an occupier and trying to create a liberal democracy, I pointed to similar tensions in the “civilizing mission” of the British Empire in Africa in the 1930-1940s. Others in the pre-March 2003 debate pointed to the specific colonial experience of the British in Iraq. These kinds of comparisons are a shorthand, but to anyone with knowledge of the histories being pointed to, they’re also fairly substantively predictive about the general range of problems that the US has faced. Or, for example, when I noted in late 2002 and early 2003 that the US was going to have to choose between hiding behind bunkers or trying to concentrate on transparent, democratic, accountable practices of administration as well as trying to accomodate local culture from the “ground up”, that’s not the kind of prediction that says, “In April 2004, there will be a suicide bomb attack”, but it is the kind of prediction that says, “If you hide behind bunkers, fail to integrate your operations into the lives of Iraqi communities, mistreat or dehumanize ordinary Iraqis, the basic stated goals of the US occupation will fail”. I really think that’s actually a pretty specific analysis of the road ahead pre-invasion, that there were important things that war planners needed to understand about the future that in hindsight (and in foresight) they clearly didn’t understand, or if they understood, ignored.

    I think your observation about predicting from here forward is a good one as well: I recommend it as an exercise for those who support the war as well. But I would note if I can make a post of the kind that you call for, a lot of it is going to be “more of the same”. This isn’t just dodging on my part: it stems from my view that the specific problems the occupation is facing are the consequence of very deep and general failures in strategic planning, not small or specific failures of a single policy or tactic. This is not a “thin” characterization of the problems on the ground at the moment: it’s a sustained argument about the nature of the problem. You can certainly disagree (in which case I would like to hear your diagnosis, with the presumable specificity that you think is required).

  9. David Salmanson says:

    I actually feel bad for the Army Corps of Engineers who are getting blamed for engineering “only to a level 3.” To make N.O. safer wasn’t merely a case of making the levees hgher or stronger, it would have involved dredging the Mississippi to lower the bed (which would mean redoing all te flood control locks), digging up half of NO and making it wetlands, restoring barrier islands etc. etc. etc.. The dull phrase the Corps engineer used “Cost Benefit Analysis” bascially hides the fact that NO could not be made safe from a category 5 and still be the city it was. Other cities, Miami Beach in particular are equally vulnerable. You can not build your way out of the flood plain. If history teaches us anything, it is that if you build higher levees, you just get bigger floods.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I don’t mean to blame them–the “unauthorized” comment I think is just a terse reference to the profound expense of even modest improvements. But there is at least reason to think that the levees could have been improved and that the pumping stations made more reliable with sufficient investment. That’s the short-porch improvements; the deeper issues involve things like wetland restoration, etc. But yeah, there would come a point even in the best-case scenario where you couldn’t do much more to protect the city. In that case, if there’s going to be a New Orleans, there needed to be a reliable investment not in protecting it from a hurricane but in saving its people should the worst occur. What we got instead was that neither those improvements which might have helped a little were made, nor were meaningful preparations for saving human lives made that went beyond paper planning and empty scenario-play. The reports from on the ground now are just heart-breaking: a lack of resources, command-and-control completely disintegrating, total chaos. I’m sorry, but I do think that much of this is a failure rather than an inevitability. I think it’s a failure with deeper structural roots than just the current federal administration, though.

  11. bbenzon says:

    ” I think it’s a failure with deeper structural roots than just the current federal administration, though. ”

    Yes. As much as I dislike this administration, scapegoating them is not going to be helpful.

  12. David Salmanson says:

    I almost got into a fistfight last night at Bob’s Dienr with a guy who started railing about liberals. There is 40 years worth of failed planning going on. This has given me a new appreciation for the Civil Defense programs of the 50s which at least thought about how to evacuate a city in somewhat responsible manners. Why nobody commandeered airliners and busses just amazes me.

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