Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 9, 2014

Retrospectively, it is often so clear

The Ebola outbreak is, almost certainly, a precursor for a future pandemic that will be much worse.

The current California drought is, almost certainly, a precursor of more to come.

The recent series of cyber-attacks are, almost certainly, a precursor of many more — and much worse — to come.

The intention of Australian terrorists to undertake random attacks is, almost certainly, a precursor for such attacks there and elsewhere.

In each case a current threat-vector is amplified by human behavior, especially increased population density and mobility.  Ebola is naturally occurring. Until the last four decades its natural range was isolated from humans and, especially, human networks.  Drought is naturally occurring in the American West and Southwest. Until the last six decades, this region was sparsely populated. Never before has so much monetary value been so concentrated and (at least virtually) proximate. Violence is naturally occurring in human populations, its mimetic mutations now facilitated by many more of us in communication, contact, and perceived competition.

In the case of Ebola, the rapidly increasing population of Guinea (Conakry) —  up 220 percent since 1960 —  has created substantial ecological and economic stress.  This has been especially the case in the forested uplands of Eastern Guinea neighboring Liberia where the current outbreak first emerged.  With about 70 people per square kilometer this region has twice the density of the Virginia county where I live.  It’s less than 300 miles to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which has a population density of 600 per square kilometer.  No wonder Monrovia has been hit so hard.

Macenta Epicenter

We don’t know precisely when or how the virus was transferred to humans in this epidemic, but consumption of bushmeat infected with the virus is a good guess.  That has been the origin in several previous — but much smaller — outbreaks in Congo and Gabon.

Mid-March is when I first read about what has unfolded into the Ebola outbreak:

(Reuters) – An outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has killed at least 23 people in Guinea’s southeastern forest region since February when the first case was reported, health authorities in the West African nation said on Wednesday.

At least 35 cases have been recorded by local health officials, said Sakoba Keita, the doctor in charge of the prevention of epidemics in Guinea’s Health Ministry.

“Symptoms appear as diarrhea and vomiting, with a very high fever. Some cases showed relatively heavy bleeding,” Keita said.

“We thought it was Lassa fever or another form of cholera but this disease seems to strike like lightning. We are looking at all possibilities, including Ebola, because bushmeat is consumed in that region and Guinea is in the Ebola belt,” he said. No cases of the highly contagious Ebola fever have ever been recorded in the country. (March 19)

Well into summer I assumed this Ebola outbreak would be contained as others have been contained.  I neglected to notice that this  time the threat had emerged in a region much more densely populated than previous outbreak zones (and with much easier access to even more densely populated areas).  I overestimated the vigilance and capacity of the World Health Organization. I underestimated the power-amplifiers of human need and social interaction and fear… multiplied exponentially as the vector penetrates more deeply into the matrix.

This is how it happens.  Prior success encourages undue confidence.  And maybe you’re  a bit distracted. The threat morphs and emerges into — then out of — a different context.  So it may not initially be recognized. The critical contextual cues are unnoticed.  The threat is given time and space to strengthen.  This is especially likely to happen with places or people already neglected.

What worked last time is not quite calibrated with the new context.  Besides, for many of those engaging this threat, this is their first time.  Former lessons have not been learned, are being re-learned.  This threat in this place is in many respects unique — at least in the experience of those who confront it this time.

It is a threat that, if recognized early-on, might be quickly suppressed or contained. But instead it proliferates, filling the void opened by neglect. Thus amplified the threat is much more likely to find and exploit vulnerabilities; even those that until the threat’s  emergence were seen as strengths. Which is typically how tragedy unfolds, when what had been strong makes us weak.

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon.  The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet.  The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home.   Most area schools followed this lead.

On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.

By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles.  Wednesday got underway with official delays.

Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.

I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.

Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta.  Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift.  By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta.  By 11 it was snowing hard and icing.  At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home.  At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.

By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather.  (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.)  As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.

At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads.  Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations.  It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.

By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems.  You have probably seen the videos.  There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.

On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars.  Some had abandoned their vehicles.  In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms.  Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could.  Shane spent the night at the neighbors.

There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies.  There will be hearings.  There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.

What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.

So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.

This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.

October 31, 2013

Prosaic sight and poetic insight

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 31, 2013

risingwaters_full

Once Again by Amy Medina

Tuesday an exhibition of photographs related to last year’s assault by the one-time Hurricane Sandy opened at the Museum of the City of New York. It will run through March 2, 2014. I saw a sort-of-preview at the International Center of Photography in September.

The photography critic, James Estrin, headlined his blog post on the exhibition, “A Prosaic View of Hurricane Sandy.” The title provokes several questions, including: Is it possible the results of Sandy point toward a future when similar events will become ordinary, everyday, vapid, humdrum, tedious, tiresome, uninteresting… prosaic?

Based on our behavior, this is how most of us perceive 150 murders a day in Syria (in the US three people are killed by gun per hour) or the continuing suffering in Haiti or the accelerating entropy of US infrastructure or… another choice from a long list of seemingly intractable crises.  Plenty of prose is available on each.  But persuasive insight?

20131028-lens-sandy-slide-NB0X-jumbo

Photojournalism by Matt Nighswander/NBC News

Many — maybe most — of the more than 200 images in the exhibit are amateur color digitals of Americans in the midst of circumstances we still consider far outside the ordinary: destroyed homes, flooded streets, surrounded by mountains of donated clothes, waiting in long lines for water or food or fuel. The images personalize vulnerability (or should I write threat or consequence or simply stick with risk?).

Because you read Homeland Security Watch, you would probably do what I did with most of these photographs: Connect each human face and its context to a policy, strategy, or tactic. Consequence of subsidized insurance. Consequence of delayed maintenance. Consequence of unsolicited donations. Consequence of coordination failure. Consequence of faulty problem analysis. And so it goes, cause and effect unfolding.

None of this is necessarily wrong. Observation and analysis are among the best bets in the human toolkit. Lessons-learned can be very important the next time.  But I suggest this is seeing — and thinking — in prose.

20131028-lens-sandy-slide-G2SU-jumbo

Image_DSC6477b.jpg by Alex Fradkin

Prose is where most of us should spend most of our time and energy.  There are ordinary, everyday, tedious problems and issues to engage.  A bit more time and energy on a disciplined process of risk analysis for fuel distribution in the New York metro area would have paid big dividends twelve months ago.

But there is also a profound need for more poetic seeing, thinking, and doing.

Prose can be good at breaking apart the complicated into its component parts.  Prose alone is usually insufficient for perceiving — in any meaningful way — the whole or envisioning entirely new possibilities.  Prose needs at least a touch of poetry to move from understanding to transforming.

The classical Greeks understood poiesis, from which our poetry is derived, as any kind of creating or making.  Trying to interpret the Greek sense of the term, Martin Heidegger blends making (machen), production (herstellen), and power (macht).  Does anyone anymore even aspire to this sort of poetics?

The problems and opportunities of homeland security need both prose and poetry.  But we are especially deficient in poetry.

jet-star-roller-coaster-Alex-Fradkin

Jetstar by Alex Fradkin

May 2, 2013

Catastrophe: Should’a, Would’a, Could’a

“I should prefer Mozart. Mostly I listen to 70s hits.”

“I should eat a hot breakfast, but usually have a powerbar instead.”

“I should work-out three or four times a week, maybe I walk around the block twice.”

Should has become moralistic.  It is typically used as a kind of anti-verb, ascribing — often anticipating — non-action.

I have heard a lot of “shoulds” in regard to the explosion of the West, Texas fertilizer storage facility. The April 17 blast killed 14 and injured more than 190 in the town of 2700.

“We should regulate better.”

“We should put buffer zones in place.”

“We should be more realistic about the threat.”

“We should do a better job sharing what we know about the risk.”

“We should focus more on pre-event prevention and mitigation.”

More plural pronouns than singulars it seems.

According to a November 2012 analysis undertaken by the Congressional Research Service, 6,985 chemical facilities self-report they pose a risk to populations greater than 1,000. There are 90 that self-report a worst-case risk affecting up to 1 million people.

The West facility was not included in the CRS analysis.  They did not self-report — or evidently self-conceive — a worst case scenario that would seriously harm anyone.

As regular readers know I have for a few years worked on catastrophe preparedness.

One of the most remarkable — and absolutely predictable — aspects of this gig is the readiness — preference really — by nearly everyone to define catastrophe as something non-catastrophic.  I saw it again last week and this.  It extends across the public-private divide and every level of government.  When a few of us argue otherwise we are being pedantic, unrealistic, and wasting people’s time.

We should give regular time and energy — maybe five percent of overall effort — to truly catastrophic risks: Global pandemic, significant earthquakes and cyclonic events hitting major urban areas, sustained collapse of the electrical grid whatever the cause. Each of these could have far-reaching secondary and tertiary effects.  In some regions I would include wildfire and flooding. If you have a chemical storage or processing facility nearby that is absolutely worth worst-case thinking now not later.

In many cases the most important issues relate to the mitigation of systemic vulnerabilities that are threat-agnostic.  ”Fixing” vulnerabilities can reduce consequences for a whole host of threats, including non-catastrophic threats.

USA Today editorialized, “The Boston Marathon bombings overshadowed the disaster in Texas, but what happened in West was deadlier, and preventing the next fertilizer accident should command serious attention.”

There’s that anti-verb again.

–+–

And how I wish I’d, wish I’d thought a little bit more
Now shoulda, woulda, coulda I means I’m out of time
Shoulda, woulda, coulda can’t change your mind
And I wonder, wonder what I’m going to do
Shoulda, woulda coulda are the last words of a fool

Can’t change your mind
Can’t change your mind

Beverly Knight

June 27, 2012

Coming Soon to a City Near You

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 27, 2012

If all went as expected last night, Stockton, California is now on its way to becoming the latest and largest American city to seek bankruptcy protection. This news comes a little more than a week after North Las Vegas, Nevada declared a state of emergency in a desperate (and some say illegal) attempt to mitigate financial catastrophe by forcing concessions from its unions. Meanwhile, cities across the nation are preparing to layoff firefighters and police officers, including Detroit, which expects to cut 164 fire department positions in the very near future.

To those cops, firefighters and public safety administrators to whom these headlines do not seem all that shocking, they certainly are depressing. I am not, however, among those in either camp. I know that this too shall pass. The sooner we get started, the sooner things will get better.

Here’s a case in point: A few years ago, Vallejo, California declared bankruptcy. Today, citizens and elected officials alike have renewed pride in their community by investing in new ways of doing business and restoring a shared sense of commitment to one another’s welfare and their city’s future. This vision is grounded in the understanding that the obligations of citizenship extend well beyond paying taxes or voting in elections.

My uncle is among the Vallejo residents who pitched-in, spoke up and helped reinvent this solidly blue-collar community. We’ve spoken at length about his experiences, which have also informed his critically-acclaimed novels and short stories.

Like many of his neighbors, my uncle took up residence in Vallejo over fifteen years ago when the cost of housing drove him out of San Francisco where he worked and Berkeley where he lived. Vallejo was affordable and accessible if not upwardly mobile or particularly happening and hip.

The U.S. Navy’s closure of the Mare Island Shipyard a few years earlier meant the city had already seen its salad days. That said, jobs paying a reasonable wage could be found relatively easily. Median salaries covered the mortgage for modest homes that afforded residents a toehold on a middle-class lifestyle.

As home values began appreciating with the loosening of lending practices, city revenues shot up. People were no wealthier than before. Salaries had not increased all that much, but the ability to live beyond one’s means had.

Mandatory collective bargaining and binding-interest arbitration with public safety employees meant civil servants saw regular and healthy pay increases as city coffers remained full. The year before Vallejo entered bankruptcy, the median firefighter salary and wages (with overtime) exceeded $157,000 and the contract awarded employees a nine percent pay increase. (Most cops were doing even better.) Great work if you can get it, eh? But a hard nut to cover if your citizens’ median household income is around $59,000.

In the years since, housing prices and middle-class incomes from employment in the private sector have both collapsed. Unequipped to respond flexibly like their private sector counterparts, public employers trimmed positions and services until they had no easy choices left.

I am neither anti-employee nor anti-union. But I would like to think I am pro-common sense. And my sense of the situation is that too many cities and their public safety employees are on the same slippery slope Vallejo was. If so, this week’s headlines suggest many are now losing their footing.

The problems confronting public safety agencies and their employee unions is simple: Structural deficits are inevitable when contracts award employees wage and benefit packages whose costs exceed the rate of increase in revenues, often by a rate of three, four or five-to-one. The precipitous decline in property values has only exacerbated and sometimes accelerated the inevitable conflict between what was promised and what is possible.

When public entities enter bankruptcy, employees become creditors. The citizen-owners’ ability to pay determines what creditors will get. And citizens’ willingness to do for themselves determines their future — that of the community as a whole and the employees who once assumed the community depended upon their intervention alone.

Communities across the country are rediscovering their ability to do for themselves what they reckon they cannot do without. What most communities discover after entering the bankruptcy process is that they were not nearly as dependent on firefighters or cops as they once thought.

Even in those few instances where time really makes a critical difference to the ultimate outcome, sudden cardiac arrest for instance, communities like San Jose, California are finding ways to mobilize citizens as first responders. CPR-trained citizens can (and do) download a smartphone app that notifies them when a cardiac arrest call is received near them. The app not only alerts them to respond, but also advises the location of the nearest publicly accessible automatic external defibrillator.

The efficacy of this approach is already clear. In a few short months since its release, several citizen “saves” have been documented. Statistical evidence of effectiveness will come in time.

We may not want to encourage people to use this sort of technology to enable them to fight fires or enter dangerous environments to perform rescues without training or protective equipment, but we can take advantage of their proximity and access to technology to inform how public agencies respond.  By doing so, we can clearly achieve improved efficiencies even if we do little to increase effectiveness.

Communities across the country face hard choices. Stockton, Detroit and North Las Vegas share little in common besides their parlous fiscal circumstances. If they are lucky, their citizens will find it increasingly acceptable to reduce their expectations of public servants and increase their expectations of one another.

If public servants want to avoid the inevitable outcome of such a reckoning, their choice is just as clear: Forget about maintaining the status quo and find ways to engage communities, increase efficiency and reduce costs by leveraging not just levying citizens. As more communities confront the harsh realities of their unsustainable fiscal practices and union contracts, it will become clearer to all that communities exist for their own welfare, not that of public employees.

May 1, 2012

Water challenges and US national security

Filed under: Futures — by Christopher Bellavita on May 1, 2012

Time out for a moment from our regularly scheduled cyber issues and al Qaeda commentary for a word from the future, sponsored by the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Global Water Security is a report published in February by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  The 30 page intelligence “product” is available here.

The document tries to answer the following question (for the State Department): How will water problems (shortages, poor water quality, or floods) impact US national security interests over the next 30 years?

Here is the Report’s answer:

During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives. Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.

The Report mostly focuses on the relationship between water security and US global interests.  But the future of water has domestic implications also.

Although most of the Colorado River originates in the basin’s upper states (i.e., Colorado, Utah, Wyoming), a 1922 Colorado River Compact allocates most of the water to the lower states (i.e., California, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico).

Unfortunately, the agreement was based on data from the unseasonably wet five years prior to 1922, estimating the average flow to be 17.5 million acre-feet (maf). The actual average flow over the last 100 years has been nowhere near this number, averaging about 13 maf, with high variability ranging from 4.4 maf to over 22 maf.

A 2009 study by the University of Colorado projects that all reservoirs along the Colorado River—which provide water for 27 million people—could dry up by 2057 because of climate change and overuse. More recently, drought and low Lake Mead water levels have resulted in a multi-billion dollar plan to build a 285-mile pipeline to pump groundwater to the Las Vegas area from as far away as Snake Valley, which straddles the Nevada-Utah state line.

A 1944 agreement between the United States and Mexico stipulates the terms of water-sharing between the two countries, with water delivery obligations on each side.

The Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers, as well as their major tributaries, are covered in the agreement. The agreement allows the United States access to tributary contributions from Mexican rivers, and no Mexican access to contributions from US tributary rivers, and therefore many view the agreement as unfair. Delayed water deliveries, and even efforts to reduce canal water leakage, have occasionally complicated broader relations but have not been a major source of stress.

Not yet anyway.

Thanks to Dr. James Tindall for telling me about this report.

 

March 6, 2012

Occupy the Three Little Pigs

Filed under: Events,Futures,General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on March 6, 2012

Here’s a weatherman talking:

“We have no idea what’s going to happen [in the weather] beyond three days out.”

Here’s an explanation about why it’s so difficult to get weather forecasts right:

“Weather forecasting is complex and not always accurate, especially for days further in the future, because the weather can be chaotic and unpredictable…. Moreover, the earth’s atmosphere is a complicated system that is affected by many factors and can react in different ways.”

As difficult as it is to predict what is going to happen in a system where the material parameters are known,  imagine trying to predict how human systems will behave several months from now.

—————————

Imagine you are sitting on top of a mountain and you can see:

Organizers calling on “redeemers, rebels, and radicals” to occupy Chicago during the the G8 and the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

The G8 summit switching its location (on Monday) to Camp David.   Administration officals explain “the prospect of the antiglobalization protests common to such gatherings was not a factor in the decision to change locations.” But folks are still coming to Chicago anyway.

Republican and Democratic political conventions coming this summer to Tampa and Charlotte.

Some Americans demonstrating to exercise their First Amendment rights. They don’t like what’s going on in the country and they want their voice to be heard. Other people demonstrating to smash windows and throw urine on police officers. Cities trying to figure out how to pay for all this.

The Occupy Movement in several cities issuing Good Neighbor policies, trying to guide behaviors for the next incarnation of the movement.

Sophisticated police departments who experienced Year 1 of Occupy increasingly able to identify “the good guys” from the “bad guys.”

Anonymous and Occupy join hands.

A growing domestic intelligence network sharing information about potential threats from a stutteringly resurgent occupy movement.

Popular uprisings in other countries continue to be routine news.

Both houses of Congress agreeing to the provisions of HR347, innocently titled the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011.”  (According to one of the few representatives who voted against the bill,  it should be called “the ‘First Amendment Rights Eradication Act’ because it effectively outlaws protests near people who are ‘authorized” to be protected by the Secret Service.”  Apparently that also includes restricting protests at National Special Security Events, like political conventions.)

Social media tools — hardware and software — making it even easier than it was a year ago to spread information and rumor, truth and lies, and streaming video.

Add to those terrain features, the pressure gradients of unemployment, gas prices, a fragile global and national economy, the 1% versus 99% meme, terrorists looking for a win, a congress that seems unable to agree on much, stuff we have no clue about right now, and a presidential campaign.

With those images in mind, as you sit on top of your imaginary mountain, watch this 121 second video from The Guardian.

 

Now make a forecast: what will happen in Chicago in May, in Tampa in August, Charlotte in September, Oakland tomorrow, and other America cities any day now?

If a nation knows there’s a good chance a storm is coming, how does it prepare?  What does the 72 hour kit for that look like?

 

January 17, 2012

Ending America’s Energy Insecurity: How Electric Vehicles Can Drive The Solution To Energy Independence

Filed under: Futures,General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on January 17, 2012

Today’s post was written by Fred Stein.  It is based on his recently completed homeland security master’s degree thesis.

Fred’s central conclusion — a surprising one to me — is the U.S. would basically become energy independent if we stopped using gasoline to power our automobiles.

Information about obtaining the complete thesis (including the evidence supporting his argument) can be found at the end of this post.

Fred’s analysis begins with a look at some common perceptions about this country’s dependence on foreign oil.

——————–

Common Perception Validity Explanation
America is heavily dependent on foreign countries for oil. True Net oil imports are 50% of America’s use.
America is dependent on oil because it does not produce much oil. False America is the world’s third largest producer of oil.
America’s dependence on oil is undesirable because it supports our enemies. True Military experts decry that we are actually funding both sides of the war on terror.
There is no immediate threat from America’s dependence on foreign oil. False Oil prices could triple overnight and oil supplies would be inadequate to meet the most basic needs of the U.S.
Increasing production of energy from wind, solar, hydro-electric, nuclear, coal, etc.  can end America’s energy dependence. False Only about 2% of the oil consumed in the U.S. is used for producing electricity.  Until there is a mechanism that transfers the energy produced from those sources to a form usable for transportation and the other uses of oil, increased electricity production will not affect U.S. energy dependency.
Plug-in electric vehicles use electricity generated from the above named sources. True
Electric vehicles require significant technical innovation before they are capable of providing transport equivalent to internal combustion vehicles. False The Tesla roadster has a range of about 300 miles on a single charge.  Though it is expensive, the driving experience is equivalent to an internal combustion vehicle.

Dependence on foreign oil is the Achilles heal of the United States’ security.

While the direct economic costs are staggering with an oil trade deficit of $1 billion per day, the security threat posed by that dependence is an even greater disaster waiting to happen.

Hugo Chavez has threatened to cut supplies of oil to the United States.  Al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals have identified the world oil supply as a prime target.  As Iran proceeds inexorably towards nuclear weapons, U.S. and European policy makers must temper their responses to counter this threat for fear of driving up oil prices.  Iran has the ability, and espouses rhetoric about its desire, to close the straits of Hormuz to interrupt the supply of oil in certain circumstances.

Every U.S. President since Richard Nixon has denounced America’s dependence on foreign oil.  Discussions abound regarding increasing U.S. oil production or efficiencies, but no real measures have been seriously considered that would truly end America’s dependence on foreign oil by simply eliminating the need for that oil.

Though the consequences of energy dependence are complex, the solution is simple.  The amount of oil used by the U.S. for motor gasoline, about 50% of total oil consumption, is the same as the net amount of oil imported by the U.S., about 50% of total oil consumption.

If the U.S. stopped using gasoline to power its automobiles, it would essentially become energy independent.

 

Adding nuclear or clean coal facilities, building wind farms, installing solar panel fields, etc., would do little to foster energy independence.  Those technologies increase the generation of electricity, but not in a manner that can currently be utilized by most of the transportation sector that depends almost exclusively on the combustion of oil.

Electric vehicles (EVs) bridge that gap. The price of EVs and the lack of a recharge infrastructure is all that stands in the way of their full integration into the automobile market.

It has been demonstrated before that as the price of gasoline increases, consumers respond in large part by purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles.  A detailed analysis of historical gasoline prices, car prices, car sales, and other factors, allows for creation of a model that predicts the EV car sales as it relates to the price of gasoline.

A model developed here, predicts the rapid growth of EV sales if an excise tax on gasoline of $2/gallon, incrementally rising to $5/gallon were to be imposed on the retail sale of gasoline, and simultaneously a $15,000 rebate on the sale of new EVs were to be introduced.  The results are illustrated graphically below.

An excise tax of that magnitude would raise sufficient funds to provide for the EV tax rebate, to mitigate the effects from the regressive nature of the tax, and to provide monetary incentive for the development of a nation wide recharge infrastructure.   The funds that would be collected under such a scenario are described in the table below.

There is a cost to achieving energy independence.  That cost is two to five dollars on each gallon of retail gasoline sold, paid by drivers continue using internal combustion vehicles.  With conviction and determination, the United States can achieve energy independence in a few short years.

For a copy of Fred Stein’s thesis providing in-depth analysis of the ideas expressed in this paper, go to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security in February 2012.  You can also contact Fred Stein at chdsstein[at]gmail.com

 

January 6, 2012

Dear Jeff: Network Like Crazy

Filed under: Education,Futures — by Philip J. Palin on January 6, 2012

In his Tuesday post Chris Bellavita introduced us to Jeffrey M. Cottam a twenty-something homeland security professional who is not contributing as much as he perceives he could contribute.  Jeff told Chris that after earning good grades at respected undergraduate and graduate programs, “(I did) expect that after 18 months or so I’d be an agent somewhere.”

Mr. Cottam’s circumstance seems to crystalize many recurring hopes, doubts, and dreams of homeland security.  Here’s my unsolicited advice.

–+–

Dear Jeff:

You have earned helpful educational credentials. (May your student loans be modest.)  You are in your late twenties.  You have a job. You are dissatisfied.

Count yourself lucky.

Bureaucracies are bad places for entry level people; even — perhaps especially — bureaucracies that call their employees “agents.”

Compliance is typically the easy and rewarded path in most bureaucracies.  Compliance is the enemy of creativity.  Creativity is the most valuable long-term skill.

Avoid bureaucracies until you have creative skills sufficiently strong to resist the soul-devouring maw of bureaucracies.  With that strength secured bureaucracies can be conducive to soul-growing, but mostly as a source of resistance training.

Claim and craft opportunities to be creative.  Fail more than a few times and learn from your failures.  Succeed and give particular attention to the most ephemeral elements essential to your success.

Any time before you die is a great time to be dissatisfied.  Be especially suspicious of self-satisfaction.

Responding to your letter sent to Homeland Security Today the editor David Silverberg advised, “Network like crazy.”

Yes.  Absolutely.

Attend the meeting no one else wants to attend. Volunteer.  Take a title and role for a dollar-a-day (in addition to your current employment).  Put yourself in the most difficult circumstances possible.   Contact the Red Cross — or a dozen other agencies — and get yourself the training and launch-pad to be deployed for the next Katrina, Haiti, Tohoku…

Network for others.  It will benefit you too.

Network to recognize and engage reality.  What’s really going on?  Network to recognize needs.  Network to recognize solutions to needs.  Network to apply solutions to needs (that’s the toughest networking).   What kind of networking works?  What kind of networking fails?  When? Where? With who?  Why?

What skills do you have in networking?  What deficiencies do you have in networking?  With whom can you network that will balance your deficiencies?  Who needs you?  Who do you need?

The social network has been the principal human experience for several millenia.  Our networks are increasingly dense, complicated, complex and evolving with increasing speed.  Never before has malevolent networking been more a threat. Never before has gratuitous self-involved networking been such a waste of time.  Never before has wise and effective networking been more valuable.

Especially in homeland security.

In my judgment the traditional public safety professions — firefighting, law enforcement, emergency management, public health, and others — are and will be fundamental to the homeland security mission.   The same is true of related private and civic functions.

If homeland security has any comparative advantage it is networking proactive prevention, mitigation, and preparedness across public, private, civic, jurisdictional and disciplinary boundaries.  Homeland security is about the big picture or it is redundant… or even worse.

This is much more than a job.  It is a calling to be creative when most others are satisfied to comply.

May you be in a constant state of creative dissatisfaction.  May you always be weaving webs of relationships.  May you walk, even dance the cusp of chaos.

November 21, 2011

Shortchanging the future

Filed under: Futures,Organizational Issues — by Arnold Bogis on November 21, 2011

The news out of Washington, DC this week is likely to focus on the failure of the “Supercommittee” to agree on a plan to cut the federal debt. Finger pointing has already begun and there is talk of undermining the automatic triggers put into law that were designed to cajole both sides into cutting a deal lest significant cuts into treasured programs and departments are made in budgets following 2012.

The focus of concern is the Defense Department and not entitlement programs, which troubles me for two reasons: (1) I’ve yet to read a non-biased argument (to give the most public of examples, it does seem to me that the opinion of the current Secretary of Defense is somewhat biased) explaining how even with the planned deep cuts into the Defense budget as called for in the triggers what near or plausibly near-peer competitor will leap ahead of us across any set of security parameters and seriously threaten our national security.  The cuts may drive a strategic reconsideration of our military footprint and national policies around the globe (for deeper thoughts on that subject, I would recommend Harvard professor Steve Walt’s blog: http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/), but I do not see how they lead to North Korea, Iran, or even China coming to represent an existential threat.  That is not to say I favor this outcome–I would much rather see a considered package of defense and entitlement cuts in addition to sensible new revenue–but I am not concerned that it represents the end of U.S. military hegemony.

Oh yeah, (2): while obviously our national security is of utmost importance, the imbalance between publicly displayed concern by politicians about cuts in defense vs. entitlements saddens me at some level.  As a citizen of such a powerful nation I wonder, where is our concern about those among the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens?  How many additional fighter aircraft provide a return on defense investment in comparison to helping to provide for the health of a poor child who can perhaps then realize his or her full potential and contribute to our society? Or the health of those who have spent a lifetime contributing?

While these are general, and somewhat philosophical, observations a more concrete example of shortchanging the future recently occurred in…wait for it…Congress:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wanted to reshuffle its offices to establish a National Climate Service akin to the agency’s National Weather Service. It asked for no new funding to do so.

But in a political climate where talk of the earthly kind of climate can be radioactive, the answer in last week’s budget deal was “no.” Congress barred NOAA from launching what the agency bills as a “one-stop shop” for climate information.

Climate change is a particularly hot topic (pun intended), so this decision is not surprising. That does not make it any less disappointing.

Who would find such an office helpful?  Most likely some latte-drinking hippies:

Farmers are wondering when to plant. Urban planners want to know whether groundwater will stop flowing under subdivisions. Insurance companies need climate data to help them set rates.

The proposal has drawn wide-ranging support. NOAA’s administrator from 2001 to 2008 under Bush, Conrad C. Lautenbacher, urged Congress to approve it this year. So did scientific, weather and industry groups, including the Reinsurance Association of America, which represents huge firms that backstop home, car and life insurance companies.

This matters to homeland security because it impacts a wide range of risk areas:

Franklin W. Nutter, president of the RAA, said insurance companies are increasingly relying on the predictions of a changing future that NOAA provides. “It’s become clear that historic patterns of natural catastrophes — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods — are not good predictors of future risks,” he said. In other words, the future’s looking rougher.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change buttressed that message last week. A report from the world’s top climate science group warned of more extreme weather, more frequent droughts, worse downpours and more dramatic flooding.

Sometimes relatively small investments now can contribute to significant future savings.  Is this an example of preparedness, mitigation, or both?  Whatever box one wishes to throw it in, this decision seems to undercut our resilience.

At the very least, this decision must contribute to cutting government spending, right?

After the deal, which passed Congress last week, a House Appropriations Committee news release implied that Congress had saved $322 million in fiscal year 2012 by nixing the climate service.

The reality: Congress is still giving NOAA those funds for climate research and data delivery. But they’ll be distributed across the agency instead of consolidated under an umbrella climate service. The hundreds of millions in savings trumpeted by the Republican-led Appropriations Committee are an illusion.

Perhaps later this week there will be news that for which one can feel thankful.

October 5, 2011

That Might Be Us

Filed under: Events,Futures,Private Sector — by Mark Chubb on October 5, 2011

I don’t know how many of you have noticed, but things are getting a bit tense out there. If life inside the Beltway was making you anxious, you might not want to avert your gaze. The view farther afield is not such a pretty sight these days.

With the Tea Party on one hand and the Occupy Wall Street and We Are the 99 percent protestors on the other, a growing proportion of our fellow citizens are actively expressing disgust with the status quo. And this doesn’t even include all the others like No Labels, the Coffee Party Movement and more who in their efforts to re-establish a middle-ground have ended up — often from the comfort of their home computer or smartphone — on or near the edge of a growing disquiet.

This morning I listened in a state somewhere between fury and amazement as Bill Frezza, a venture capitalist and fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, complained bitterly on NPR that those making more than $250,000 a year were being unfairly cast as “whipping boys” for failing to pull the economy out of its tailspin by creating jobs. His full-throated defense of free market capitalism worked about as well as sending the fire department to pour gasoline on a blaze.

If Frezza and his ilk are to be believed, the country has it all wrong: executives are just like entrepreneurs; consumption always precedes production, and employment is an input to a healthy economy not a byproduct of it. And, oh yeah, corporations are citizens too. Of course, Frezza and his friends are the same folks who creatively destroyed not only some of the nation’s biggest corporate brands, but also brought us the savings and loan scandal, the dot.com bubble, and collateralized debt obligations.

After 30 years of vilifying civil servants and public policies aimed at protecting much less expanding the middle class, these economic elites want us to believe that consumers have only themselves and the left-leaning political pawns they elected to blame for the lack of jobs, growth and real competitiveness.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum have another take on this. Their book, That Used to Be Us, contends that four trends underlie our current situation (summary taken from ‘That Used to Be Us’: Tom Friedman’s Rx for America to Get Its Groove Back at Yahoo! Finance):

  1. Misreading the end of the Cold War, which was not a military “victory” but the start of a very big challenge to U.S. hegemony.
  2. Taking a bad course after 9/11 by focusing on the losers of globalization vs. the winners.
  3. Underestimating the impact of technological change which has made the world “hyper-connected.”
  4. A generational shift from the “Greatest Generation” who believed in thrift and “sustainable values” to the Baby Boomers who use “situational values” and prefer to ‘borrow and spend’, instead of save.

Friedman and Mandelbaum suggest that the remedy to our current ills lies in what they call the ‘Five Pillars of Success,” outlined as follows:

  • Education
  • Infrastructure
  • Immigration
  • Regulation
  • Research and development

In all five areas, the government, they argue, plays the key role, not just in jump-starting our economy, but in restoring confidence in our greatness as a nation. They make a compelling case that without competence in these five areas, the nation cannot expect to reclaim much less retain its position as the world’s preeminent power.

About the same time Friedman and Mandelbaum’s book hit the stores last month, James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, was discussing a damning essay by former GOP Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren and conveying some pretty salient observations himself (see herehere, and here) about the degree of unrest emerging around the country as a consequence of the growing distrust of our political elites.

More than a few commentators have begun to suggest in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the Arab Spring could be followed by an American Fall. As homeland security professionals, we might rightly ask ourselves what this means for us. Which side are we on? Do we stand with the state or the citizens?

I don’t know about any of you, but I’m not eager to play the part of the Egyptian Army if Zuccotti Park becomes the new Tahrir Square.

September 23, 2011

Syria: Now it is the children

Filed under: Futures — by Philip J. Palin on September 23, 2011

Over the years I have wondered what my response would have been if I had been alive when the rumors began of the Nazi regime’s mass murder of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others.

Official camp record photo of Samu Berkovics (inmate no. 59757), who arrived at Buchenwald Concentration Camp on a transport of Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz

I was several years younger than the four girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  I have vague memories of incomprehension.  If I had been older, would have I been outraged? If so, would I have done anything with the outrage?

Four killed in the September 15, 1963 bombing in Birmingham

When I was twelve I read Cry, the Beloved Country and wept.  I inserted South Africa into a couple of courses I taught in the late 70s and early 80s. But I made no meaningful contribution to the struggle against apartheid.  Despite my personal disapproval, I was careful to explain South Africa’s internal situation within a broader historical and geopolitical context.

For more than six months hundreds of thousands of Syrians have engaged in largely peaceful protests against the Assad regime.  More than 3500 have been reported killed, including 217 children.


Children in Lebanon carrying pictures of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, whose tortured and mutilated body turned him into a symbol of the Syrian uprising.

Today it is being reported by The Scotsman and others that, “Syrian children chanting for revolution marched in Damascus and in other parts of the country after school yesterday, only for some to be detained or beaten by security forces. Children as young as ten have been taking to the streets since the new term began on Sunday, according to witnesses, in what appears to be the first major involvement of schoolchildren in the six-month-old uprising against president Bashar al-Assad.”

Today it is being reported by Amnesty International that, “The mutilated body of 18-year-old Zainab al-Hosni of Homs, the first woman known to have died in custody during Syria’s recent unrest, was discovered by her family in horrific circumstances on 13 September. The family was visiting a morgue to identify the body of Zainab’s activist brother Mohammad, who was also arrested and apparently tortured and killed in detention. Zainab had been decapitated, her arms cut off, and skin removed.”

What should I do?

I can, of course, question the veracity of the reports and the credibility of sources.  I should certainly be aware that information is usually framed and targeted for a purpose.  This is especially the case  in a complicated context such as contemporary Syria. I can recognize the risk associated with any revolution.  I can be cautious.   I can give attention to serious problems closer to home.

But when a wide range of sources from the New York Times to Facebook all bring similar stories of courageous calls for freedom meeting brutal oppression week after week after week, what should I do?

When children choose — or are being used — to join the protests and are being beaten and killed, what should I do?

At the very least I should not avert my eyes.  At the very least I should acknowledge what I have seen.

This is not enough, but it is the very least I can do.

September 9, 2011

Change alone is unchanging

Filed under: Futures,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 9, 2011

The north reflecting pool, photograph by Michael Arad.

The tall towers have been replaced by deep voids.

Framed by the rush of falling water, the shallow pools are meant to reflect their surroundings.

At the edge of each void the names of the dead are inscribed in bronze.

In his original proposal the memorial’s architect, Michael Arad, wrote,  ”A cascade of water that describes the perimeter of each square feeds the pools with a continuous stream. They are large voids, open and visible reminders of the absence.”

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man. (Heraclitus)

Surrounding the void is a grove of swamp white oaks.  Fast growing yet long lived, the trees could flourish for the next three centuries.  The species is native to New York and well-adapted to extremes of climate and urban life.

More than four hundred American oaks will be joined by an exotic other.  A single Callery Pear tree survived the collapse of the towers. Originally one of several ornamentals lining the plaza it was found, according to New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, “soldered, twisted and gnarled and blackened.”

The Callery Pear is native to East Asia and is considered by many an invasive species, tending to crowd out less prolific flora.   They also have “a nasty habit of crashing just as they reach their glory at 15 to 20 years old… Often large limbs are lost in wind and ice storms, but can also fail on a calm day.”

Last December when the Callery Pear was replanted, Mayor Bloomberg commented, “The presence of the Survivor Tree on the Memorial Plaza will symbolize New York City’s and this nation’s resilience after the attacks.”  Perhaps it also symbolizes our openness to diversity even in adversity.

The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony. (Heraclitus)

Tonight at 8:30 a choir with orchestra will perform at Trinity Church, a quick walk from the memorial site. The two hour performance will include elements of the Faure RequiemAmazing Grace, and three movements of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem. This is the culmination of a day-long series of concerts alternating between the Trinity sanctuary and St. Paul’s Chapel.

If you have visited Ground Zero you have almost certainly passed St. Paul’s.  This is a colonial-era church just across the street from where the towers once stood.  Amazingly the church survived without even a broken window.  A giant sycamore gave its life shielding the chapel from falling debris.

In the hours, days, weeks and months after the attack St. Paul’s served the needs of those involved in response and recovery.   Lyndon Harris, who was there, wrote, “More than 5,000 people used their special gifts to transform St. Paul’s into a place of rest and refuge. Musicians, clergy, podiatrists, lawyers, soccer moms, and folks of every imaginable type poured coffee, swept floors, took out the trash, and served more than half a million meals. Emerging at St. Paul’s was a dynamic I think of as a reciprocity of gratitude, a circle of thanksgiving—in which volunteers and rescue and recovery workers tried to outdo each other with acts of kindness and love, leaving both giver and receiver changed.”

The final performance tonight is Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace) from the Bach B Minor Mass, considered by many the consummation of Western choral music.

Discussing the purpose of the memorial, the architect explained the design’s intention as, “stoic, defiant and compassionate.” These three characteristics do not always travel comfortably together.   But you can hear each in Bach’s closing chorus.

I am told that in the months after the attack the mood at St. Paul’s was persistently stoic, defiant, and compassionate. In that particular place where the very worst was so painfully present, firefighters and cops, physicians and iron-workers, believers and unbelievers, the wide range of humanity responded as one.

Again Lyndon Harris writes, “We just got up, day after day, dressed accordingly, and went about the monumental task of trying to make sense out of absurdity, bring order out of chaos, and reclaim humanity from the violence that sought to make human life less human. This was also a season of remembrance as we mourned the loss of loved ones. It was a season of improvisation as we tried, often at our wit’s end, to respond to the needs emerging from these never before experienced acts of terrorism.”

We can still be at our wit’s end.  Defiance often seems our default when either stoic restraint or unrestrained compassion would do better.   But it is not one or the other. We are to embrace opposites.   Bach was master of counterpoint, the musical expression of eternal paradox: love abides with hate, good abides with evil, life abides with death.  This is our perpetual reality.

All things are in flux; the flux is subject to a unifying measure or rational principle. This principle — logos, the hidden harmony behind all change — binds opposites in a unified tension, which is like that of a lyre, where a stable harmonious sound emerges from the tension of opposing forces that arise from the bow bound together by the string. (Heraclitus)

August 11, 2011

Security Through Diversity

Filed under: Education,Futures,General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on August 11, 2011

This is another in a series of posts considering the analysis and recommendations of Linda Kiltz in a recent edition of the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

–+–

Before reading Dr. Kiltz’s article outlining the challenges in developing a homeland security discipline, I was fiercely ambivalent about the wisdom of engaging in such an endeavor. In the interests of full-disclosure, this is a subject she and I discussed while I was on the faculty of the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government and she was finishing her doctorate there in 2007. Although I admire her scholarship and passion, which I have considered carefully, I am now convinced not only that we do not need a distinct homeland security discipline, but that its successful emergence could prove harmful to the enterprise itself.

Much of my concern arises not from how we might define what is or is not within the homeland security domain, but rather what we decide is and is not within a legitimate and well-defined curriculum to support the preparation of its practitioners. Dr. Kiltz writes:

The homeland security enterprise consists of public organizations at all levels of government, non-profit organizations and businesses. As such, there are hundreds of thousands of employees and volunteers that are involved in this enterprise with a broad range of job descriptions, duties and skills. In order to prepare professionals to serve within the homeland security enterprise, it will be necessary to provide them with the knowledge and skills to perceive, analyze and respond to disaster and crises from multiple perspectives and paradigms (Drabek, 2007; Waugh, 2006; Bellavita, 2008). While this certainly will be challenging, it will be critical given the on-going threats we will face now and in the future. The scope and magnitude of the disasters in 2010 provide us with a warning signal of increasingly catastrophic disasters to come.

I have significant issues with the two main propositions presented in this paragraph.

First, while accepting the existing diversity within the field as it currently exists, Dr. Kiltz fails to acknowledge what specific contributions each makes to the whole. Is that whole equal to, less than, or greater than the sum of its parts? If the success of the present enterprise is in anyway a product of its diversity, how then will a curriculum that draws only on limited parts of the contributing disciplines foster perspectives that improve the concentration or orientation of expertise rather than promoting its dilution or dissipation?

Second, the future for which Dr. Kiltz argues we must prepare practitioners is not so much a product of the threats we face as the vulnerabilities we have already created by investing too little energy and effort in protecting or leveraging the legacies of previous investments. The byproduct of defining progress in a way that equates it not so much with innovation as with newness and moreness, has been too little attention to or respect for the uncertainties, complexities and interdependencies that arise within and not just across existing disciplines.

This leaves me wondering, “What can a new homeland security discipline do to make other disciplines — those responsible for creating and managing the domains in which catastrophes and crises emerge — more efficient and effective at managing them?” The answer from Dr. Kiltz’s perspective, it seems, relies on the unstated assumption that we cannot rely on those who created our problems to offer us the solutions. When it comes to problems like climate change, as just one example, we have choice but to do just this.

Convincing existing disciplines to invest more energy and effort in mitigating the long-term effects of past decisions and recovering from their inevitable mistakes does not strike me as the province of one discipline. Although we would do well (when it comes to mitigation at least) to develop and encourage the capacity of our existing disciplines to become more constructively self-critical and less patch-protective, when consequences arise we have no choice but to depend upon the deep expertise of several disciplines rather than the broad and superficial expertise of one to resolve the effects and mount a recovery. Creating a new discipline that carves out a niche for homeland security practitioners does little to enhance the application of expertise within disciplines to solving their own problems, and could even undermine the efforts of other disciplines — like law — to secure appropriate remedies when failures in others — like engineering or medicine — produce spillover effects.

The resilience of the homeland security enterprise depends as much on its diversity as any other system. Protecting our communities is not the province of any single group of individuals no matter how well intentioned or trained they may be. Security is a fundamentally collaborative endeavor, the strength and success of which depends less on the concentration found in any one part than the contributions of many.

July 6, 2011

Of Ozymandias, Eudaimonia and Debt

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on July 6, 2011

As deliberations over the debt limit become increasingly mired in the debate over strategies to reduce the federal debt, the previously unthinkable possibility of a U.S. government default looms larger by the day. Up until now, homeland security practitioners seem to have been more concerned with whether or not negotiators would touch their pet programs than whether the damage caused by a prolonged impasse could threaten the safety and security of our communities.

In homeland security and emergency management circles, talk of the unthinkable usually revolves around complex hazards that produce a cascade of failures resulting in ripples of consequences. This time around we are talking about a cascade of failures that will produce a complex hazard the likes of which we have no way of really knowing until they emerge. What is certain is that some effects will be immediate and others will take years to appreciate. Regardless what time scale their emergence or our awareness of them adheres to, one thing is certain: Most of the worst consequences will never go away.

Those who argue that the debt limit does not matter seem to believe in a myth of American exceptionalism that suggests we can do no wrong, that our decisions and actions will not produce the consequences for us that others have suffered, often at our hands. The opposite is more likely true. Our security could be threatened in previously unimagined ways by creditors who force us to swallow the bitter pills we have dispensed so earnestly and eagerly to others.

Nowhere is this more likely than in the developing world. China and India are rapidly approaching the points where their roles will shift from risk takers to risk makers. And those left vulnerable to the risks created by their rising dominance will surely be us.

China’s military and political might worries some. But its economic ambitions, borne as they are of a desire to keep pace with the burgeoning aspirations of the Chinese people, are greater cause for concern if only for the consequences of their pursuit on the climate and therefore our own ecology and environment.

Others who see little urgency in the current situation may fear the economic effects of others’ decisions and actions but gleefully imagine an America whose government can no longer afford to inhibit or interfere with the decisions and actions of her own citizens. These same people apparently see little difference between a natural person and a corporation when it comes to fundamental liberties. Sadly, the same cannot be said of these same individuals’ assessments of the responsibilities of each to the other.

It’s worth reiterating that U.S. government default is unprecedented. This is important for two reasons: First, the effects are not simply unknowable because we haven’t witnessed such an event before, but because we have no clear idea what ripple effects will result. Second, unlike other disasters that involve underlying processes that we do not fully understand and therefore cannot predict, we know with certainty that the effects of this disaster are entirely preventable.

We cannot and should not assume that the sovereign debt crises resulting from other countries’ fiscal and monetary failures presage the effects should Congress and the White House fail in their duties to resolve the current crisis. Our economy is not just the biggest, it is also intimately connected with every other economy on the planet. Several economists have warned that default would not only delay recovery from the recent recession, but could actually trigger a worldwide depression. We cannot assume an economic calamity of this sort would resemble previous economic depressions.

A devaluation of the U.S. dollar and higher interest rates resulting from default would hit pocketbooks and balance sheets immediately. Reluctance of foreign buyers to invest in U.S. treasury bills would require the government to suspend activities almost immediately to meet interest payments rather than risk further defaults. As government dollars began flowing out of the county to repay foreign creditors, job losses would rise almost as fast as the prices of basic goods and services.

Already stressed state and local governments would be hit hardest after a default. The effects of the recent recession emerged there last and have lingered far longer than elsewhere in the economy. The need for structural and systemic reforms rather than simple shifts in emphasis have already become apparent to many public safety executives as evidenced by the recent legislative initiatives to repeal collective bargaining rights and restructure public employee pension obligations.

As Chris Bellavita’s holiday post reminds us, our leaders have to work if they are to preserve our republic. Their deeds must match their words.

Phil Palin for his part reminded us that our forebears equated the ideals of the republic with the pursuit of eudaimonia. How one attains such an ideal was as troublesome to the ancients as it is for us today. Then as now, much of the disagreement centered on the importance of attaining wealth and exchanging external goods.

Agreeing on the virtue of reducing the debt is meaningless if we are not prepared to meet our obligations. Others can only ever truly judge our intentions by our actions. And even the mere suggestion that the unthinkable is now thinkable has had a negative effect on confidence in our government and its leaders.

Emerging from the current crisis, whether it deepens into downright default or not, will depend on how we respond not just to our situation but to one another. When cities and states can no longer afford to provide essential public safety services who will notice? And what will they do about it?

June 29, 2011

Disaster Dharma

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures — by Mark Chubb on June 29, 2011

Their sense of humor intact, Cantabrians have learned to make the best of a bad situation. (Photo by Bronwyn Hayward)

This week the New Zealand Government announced that it will buy out more than 5,000 Christchurch homeowners affected by the February 22 earthquake that devastated the Southern Hemisphere city of 400,000 people. Many more are still awaiting assessments of geotechnical conditions that threaten to undermine any investment in rebuilding their shattered lives where the rubble of their homes now rests.

Since the original earthquake last September, Christchurch has experienced more than 7,300 aftershocks. Two of them had moment magnitudes greater than 6.0 and several more exceeded magnitude 5.0.

With their central business district and most iconic landmarks still in ruins people are wondering when they will get the chance to start rebuilding. The logistics alone suggest the task ahead will be Herculean — although for many it seems, at least for now, rather more Sisyphean. Some estimates indicate that it will take about five years to raze all of the damaged buildings and clear the debris left behind.

With each significant aftershock the community has come together to meet immediate needs, but some wonder how long this can continue. No firm estimates seem readily available to indicate how many people have packed up and left for awhile if not for good. But the impact of their departures are beginning to show signs of straining the social fabric even as the physical fabric of the community remains tattered and torn. This begs the question how people will organize themselves to meet the ongoing challenges of living in the devastated city.

From what I can tell from monitoring Facebook posts and talking to friends, the people coping best with the situation are those who have managed to keep a small but strong social circle intact. A sense of humor has helped immensely with this. As has the willingness to share other forms of human capital.

The most valuable commodities being exchanged in Christchurch these days are not dollars or dozers but instead quick smiles, soft shoulders, firm handshakes, hearty laughs and quiet strolls together along the dark and dusty streets. The duties of those undaunted by disaster are few but strict: In Christchurch they are summed up by a song written and recorded by New Zealand arist Dave Dobbyn entitled Loyal. The second verse summarizes much of what drives those still living in Christchurch these days:

Out in the battle, flung far and used.
Where does allegiance lie?
Sometimes when all of your hopes, and all of your dreams,
Are too much to value in one moment.
And all of us anxious, but why hurry love?
History’s here and now.
Oh and why are you waiting – waiting for what?
The history of some love?

Those daring enough to remain in Christchurch these days seem to share something in common much more powerful than their love of the place or the economic interests they have in homes or jobs. It’s the relationships that have nurtured and sustained them through this serial tragedy that now bind them tightly together. They have history together; a history bound up in love and hope.

The dharma of disaster requires little more of us than a willingness to share our vulnerability by being present in the suffering of others. No burden is too terrible or too great when enough people are willing to bear it.

Those awaiting answers, like those who now know the Government will step in to buy up their properties, have important decisions to make. Here’s hoping they find comfort and direction in the help offered by their friends and families.

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