Rendered Fat Content


I've been reading a fascinating new book, The Science of Fear - Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't—and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner (Dutton, NY 2008). Gardner cites a study concluding that as a result of grounding airplanes following the 9/11 tragedy, fifteen hundred and ninety five additional people died in automobile accidents that otherwise wouldn't have been killed because airplane travel is much safer than automobile travel, even when the risk of hijacking is factored in. Doesn't hardly seem reasonable, does it?

Gardner mines the eternal argument between gut and brain, between what seems reasonable and what science shows isn't. When afraid, we are prone to jump out of the frying pan into a conveniently-located conflagration rather than extinguish the fire. This isn't crazy, just human.

Two weeks ago, the executives of our big three automobile companies hopped their private jets (having been ordered by their boards to travel by private jet) to shake their tin cups before Congress. Sent back to Detroit to produce plans to return to profitability, they returned with those plans a week later in hybrid cars.

A week to produce plans for returning to profitability after years of similar plans that only dug deeper holes? What's the likelihood that these plans, produced under extremity, will be more successful than the ones they produced last year or the year before?

The science of fear suggests that these plans are probably much worse AND will seem much better. We will see reflecting back at us from within them our hopes for a salvation from situations that could have no discrete path to resolution.

Planning might be our strangest response to fear and uncertainty. We are strangely comforted when we hear Obama propose a trillion dollar infusion into thousands of infrastructure development projects, each requiring much more than bucks and backhoes to succeed. The announcement amounts to Mickey Rooney turning to Judy Garland, saying, "I know, we could put on a show!", when the bank threatens to foreclose on Grandpa's farm.

There will be many complications between proposal and project, and even more between project initiation and delivery. These will be among the most complicated efforts imaginable. While they will be spawned to deliver infrastructure improvements, their purposes will conflict as each also intends to employ the unemployed (and sometimes the otherwise unemployable), spur local economies, satisfy regulations, find someone—anyone capable of auditing and overseeing their effort, while meeting hastily-concocted milestones and deadlines to avoid front-page accusations of cost-over-runs and malfeasance.

In the past, these conditions have resulted in massive malfeasance. Read The Confessions of an Economic Hitman to learn the sad story behind our attempts to spark Third World economies with infrastructure improvements. How money sold as economic improvement passed right through the target economy into the bank accounts of the multi-national development firms, leaving expensive infrastructure that simply crumbled under the inability of the local economy to maintain it or was managed by yet another US-based multi-national firm, charging heavy fees to the locals. Our Iraqi reconstruction effort attempted to follow this well-trod path, but failed. Ditto our reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

Haste clearly makes waste, but what's an economy to do when haste seems essential? Science suggests that we might seriously consider doing whatever seems unreasonable at these times. Hasten slowly, the ancient Romans suggested. The dismal science of economics screams for instant massive infusions of cash. Doing that, we recognize that we might have more mindfully considered the territory just beyond the infusion, when the way it's been asserts how it's always been done to start building a road to nowhere, a bridge back to a past that has already gone.

The big A&E firms are poised to make a killing. Whether the economy gets encouraged will be secondary unless we remember the purpose of these projects is not the medium we must use to achieve that purpose. We will not be simply building roads and bridges, but reconstructing an economy ravaged by self-serving abuse. You can bet the same old players are lined up just as if this were just another trough. And it might well be.

The plan ain't the thing. We will need to meld science, engineering, and inspiration to do this well. Our guts will be screaming throughout, insisting through our fear that we'd better hurry, time's-a'wastin', and we're already far behind. There is always at the beginning, a big suckin' hole just aching to be dug. We're rarely better off when we start frantically digging.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Made in RapidWeaver