Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 20, 2010

Still Crazy

Filed under: Organizational Issues,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on October 20, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, in a comment prompted by Arnold Bogis’ inaugural weekly post to this website, Phil Palin recounted a conversation with an unnamed colleague whom he quoted as having said, “With the best of intentions — but worst of results — our current emergency management mentality systematically breeds dependence. We are our own worst enemy.” All I can say is Pogo would be proud.

Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow probably would be as well. In his recent book, Be Very Afraid,Wuthnow critically examines the cultural roots of the American obsession with Armageddon and the always just impending threat of self-annihilation. It does not diminish his argument or its thoroughly scholarly presentation to say his summation is not so far from that of Phil’s friend. In short, Wuthnow concludes that our efforts to put people at ease are largely responsible for their inexorable anxiety about the future.

The threats we face are real enough. But the ways we try to reassure people, Wuthnow tells us, leave them wondering whether we really have matters in hand. After all, many of the threats we warn them about are of our own making.

It is fair enough to say that we are not personally responsible for creating the threats, but the governmental, technocratic tribe to which we belong does bear  responsibility both for the decisions and actions that render us vulnerable while simultaneously directing other members to find remedies for these unsavory yet entirely foreseeable situations. Schizophrenic does not even begin to describe the situation.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald so aptly noted, intelligent people may be able to hold two contradictory notions in mind at once, but surely both arguments must have some particular appeal to them for this to be the case without the anxiety becoming apparent to them if not downright unbearable. When we confront people with evidence of their mortality, make it clear that they cannot depend upon government alone to rescue them and then implore them to trust that we know what we are doing when it comes to managing the threats we face they rightly wonder whether we are the crazy ones.

Maybe we are. Focusing on pathological thinking leaves unanswered an important question: “What would it look like if we we were healthy, happy and safe? How would we know if we were in such a state?”

Phil’s post over the weekend cites a Wall Street Journal essay by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt. His research focuses on the nexus between moral beliefs and political behavior. In Haidt’s most recent published book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he suggests that the virtues we practice not only reveal the values we hold but inform them as well. In other words, we are — at least in part — what we do, and these actions are usually motivated by our comfort if not our interests.

To the extent the things we are doing strike many citizens as inconsistent if not necessarily insane should come as no big surprise. The public’s behavior may be little more than an outward sign of the internal anxiety caused by watching what we are doing. If either their behavior or our reaction to them makes us uneasy too, then perhaps we should take Haidt’s WSJ diagnosis as a challenge. Are we willing to something about it?

I’ve watched for years as local public safety executives and unions have expressed their anger and frustration with the level of support they get locally (which is formidable by anyone else’s reckoning, dwarfing all but education, health and welfare spending it its magnitude) to demand federal interventions and funding support. The chiefs’ and unions’ obsessions with what they are not getting has all but overwhelmed their ability to appreciate what can be done with what they already have. As such, I wonder whether their apparent anger masks something deeper and darker: An insidious fear that people might not notice if the money was spent elsewhere or not at all.

Police chiefs, fire chiefs and other public safety executives wield considerable influence over their organizations and in the community at-large. They occupy positions typically associated with power. Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer reminds us that those who hold positions of power are not always the most able, best loved or for that matter all that empathetic. Rather they are the ones most adept at playing the game. In his book, Power, Pfeffer notes without the least hint of cynicism that those in power accept three things others find it hard to swallow: 1) they accept that life is not just, 2) they relate to the world as it is (or as they perceive it to be) rather than as others wish it to be, and 3) they don’t base their definition of themselves or the best course of action in a given situation on how others see them.

We like to believe that others think the way we do. We want to believe that they want the same things we want. But that’s clearly not the case most if not all of the time. If it were, we would not find ourselves faced with the soaring levels of distrust in government and disagreement about priorities so obviously evident across our society.

If insanity can be defined as doing the same things over and over and expecting different results, what should we be doing differently? If local public safety officials are really committed to building stronger, safer communities what actions should they be taking instead of the ones we are seeing? What role, if any, should federal officials play in promoting ideals consistent with these actions? Do standards or mandates have a place in bringing this about?

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3 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 20, 2010 @ 2:44 am

Well interesting post. Perhaps Cognitive Dissonance would be reduced if more “facts” were shared with the Public or at least the interested public. It is amazing how much the simple act of “disclosure” can provide reassurance. But what we have is a growing culture where “they” are the threat or perhaps it is the “other” and of course many who would like power are willing maniupulators of the existing world whether their own or someone else’s reality.

So let’s do something really radical. Pay for an accurate census for Afghanistan and Pakistan and other facts of life like level of medical care, education, urbanization, ethnic affiliations, etc. In other words perhaps one of the underlying problems in AF-PAK is that in those closed settlements and villages it is really the midevil world where the outside, largely an unknown is feared. Yet the images from outside are distorted by violent TV and even radio shows. Of course living in a rural agricultural area of the US where there really are no newspapers that record much more than births, deaths, and arrests or crimes it is apparent that those nations that have voted or been allowed broadband as the primary communication interface may in fact have allowed “disclosure” even if unintentionally that gives their populations a self-assurance that they can at least understand their world. How much effort has been made to understand the western religion and culture known as “Islam” in those parts of the world largely Christian.

So let’s start with disclosure of the actual level of training and competence not just of teachers but the entirety of public safety! Let’s disclose the rather primitive arrangements at mutual aid and mutual assistance between communities. How many know that their fire department and ones around them have different hose connections except in futuro in NY and FLA where a state connectivity mandate is in force. And let’s disclose how little time and attention is given by active military to civil affairs in both training and education at the elite “Service Academies” which now largely focus on production of legacies that can staff the FLAG RANKS who themselves largely think only of their next job. In fact disclosure of how civil servants and appointees who were in charge of off-shore drilling safety was a revelation to some. Others should know that the Department of Interior has been at its lowest ebb since TEAPOT DOME since the Reagan Administration. Even our National Parks would be in perpetual shabbiness if not for the creation of the tax-exempt National Park Foundation.

So again let’s get square with the American people and let them know what is accurate and what is not. Federal statistical agencies,including those producing needed data like the CPI have slid into the misery of reduced budgets and staff and reduced independence. If you don’t believe me just look at how oftern in the last 4 administrations the CPI has been revised upwards when calibrated over the quarterly periods as opposed to the monthly guesstimate.
And why is it that over 1000 positions in DHS are still politically vetted, even more than under the Bush Administration which exceeded 800. Well we do get the government we know about which is why so much time and effort is made by this and other adminstrations to hide and make secret facts that are and should be available to help our democracy (Republic) succeed.

I listed to a three hour meeting of the Adminstrative Conference of the US yesterday discussing the doctrine of Preemption in the context of federalism. The most shocking disclosure to me was that few agencies actually comply with mandates to obtain the views of the STATES even when the federal action directly impacts and perhaps undermine STATE authority. Well the devil is in the details and Cognitive Dissonance is clearly one of the devilish problems of human kind.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 20, 2010 @ 9:24 am

Bill, I don’t disagree with any of your remedies in principle, but I have begun to wonder whether the era of openness so long sought by accountability advocates will actually produce what they seek. The world often becomes a more not less confusing place in which to live when you have unrestricted access and unlimited choices as to where to direct your attention.

We may be suffering today from too much information and not enough knowledge. Even our statisticians have trouble making sense of what they analyse because the frameworks for evaluating their results no longer fit.

I would like to believe that we can get somewhere by “getting square” with the American people, but I have to wonder whether accountability and transparency are made enemies of one another in the pursuit of this objective.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 20, 2010 @ 10:28 am

Well Mark you raise excellent points. My problem is not “secrets” necessarily but “secret” decision making that impacts the polity significantly then is never really explained or addressed. This kind of decision abrogates the democratic process since it keeps from even the interested public the ability to analyze and examine the underlying basis for the decision other than classified INTEL. The problem of course is that truly independent sources of information is rare.

I assuming you will be employed gainfully after the 1st of the year but now will suggest another course. Obtain funding for a needed book on how the FIRE SERVICE generally can gain, obtain, retain a leadership position in the Emergency Services realm and in particular with respect to technology. I broadly define the FIRE SERVICE to include its offspring, HAZMATS, and EMT and hoping sheer numbers [always remember that even DOD employs over 50,000 civilian firefighters] and even the Wildland/Urban interface bunch could be included in the analysis. I recognize that the need for a new charter has to be based on hardwon expertise like yours. I can suggest a number of potential funders offline but think perhaps even a NAS funded study grant might be more likely to yeild the independence you need. Suggest you contact Dennis Wenger at NAS and discuss! You might also review notes of the US Fire Academy Board of Visitors over the years for suggested analytic paths. Good luck. Just don’t want that magnificant brain and background of yours out of action for even a moment.

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