Monday, May 16, 2005

The Deacon’s Masterpiece

As the Roman Empire in the West declined, the grandees of the time continued to build huge baths and basilicas as monuments to their greatness, though the dearth of resources and the decline of taste resulted in a showy but shabby grandeur reminiscent of Las Vegas. Better maintenance of existing structures would have been much more cost effective; but, then as now, janitors didn’t get much respect; and the cities gradually decayed. A somewhat similar pattern is emerging in our times. Our political economists and politicians promote policies that are obsessed with endless growth even though the problem we have to manage is precisely the end of growth. We celebrate the ethos—and ethics—of the entrepreneur even though the situation calls for a different kind of agent altogether. You often encounter young business types who like to make speeches about the need to welcome risk—a motivational theme that makes old CEOs smile since they know that the whole point is to make sure you’re shooting fish in a barrel—but taking risks when there isn’t anything worthwhile to win is just stupid. While opportunities for sensible risk taking will surely continue to occur in the future, the larger challenge will be to preserve as much of what we have as possible and that will require an outlook completely opposite to the current vogue for free-market boosterism in business and Neocon ruthlessness in politics.

Unfortunately, what ought to be the Golden Age of Maintenance Engineering will probably turn out to be something quite different. Though that would be unfortunate, it does offer the philosophical observer a special opportunity to study how things fail and, more specifically, why so many people are surprised when they do. On that second question, for example, I note that the threats to our continuing prosperity are not unknown or even unacknowledged, even by supporters of the status quo, who, however, typically address and dismiss them one by one as manageable as, indeed, they are if taken one by one. We could spend the necessary resources to fix up the roads, bridges, and harbors. We could stop increasing the Federal deficit. We could address the imbalance of trade. We could take steps to manage the consequences of global warming. We could find substitutes for liquid fuels as petroleum production declines. The problem, obviously, is that we have to do all these things at once and we’re currently not doing any of them.

One frequently encounters middle-aged ruins who point out that many alcoholics live long lives, that many smokers don’t get cancer, and that plenty of fat people are perfectly healthy. Our politicians have adopted this cheerful system of evasion on our behalf by incorporating a whole raft of optimistic estimates into their projections. Claiming, not without reason, that each element of the national system can withstand normal stresses, they ignore the evidence of how things fail. Like the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay of Oliver Wendell Holmes, each component of the whole may be equally strong—or, as is more accurate in our case, equally infected with a general flavor of mild decay—but the shocks that it will encounter on road are not similarly homogenous. We don’t know what’s going to tip over the cart—-perhaps some calamity of war, financial panic, religious strife, epidemic disease, or terrorism—but the scale of the bad consequences are likely to be very great since the overall strength of the fabric has been compromised by years of neglect.

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