Thursday, August 13, 2009

How would you like your Death of America cocktail prepared, madam?

Slate, an online "magazine," asked its readers: how is America going to end?

Unfortunately, it was a closed-ended rather than open-ended query. Slate chose the possibilities and invited respondents to rank them. That might make statistical tabulation easier, but it channels what should be an invitation to thought into preconceived categories. No black swans are permitted on the grounds, and (more seriously, in my view) the methodology discourages considering underlying principles in favor of what might be called journalistic topics:
Your task was simple: Browse through a list of 144 potential apocalypses and choose up to five that seem most likely to wipe the United States off the map. As of Wednesday night, 60,020 readers had submitted their visions of the end of America. … We've tallied the ballots and analyzed the data. Out of the 144 scenarios in the apocalypse grid, here are the five you believe are the biggest threat to America's continued existence …

You can read the explanations and rationales here.

If the writers mean "most likely to wipe the United States off the map" literally, then "loose nukes" is a reasonable answer as the most likely. (Even there, it's hard to imagine that any number of nukes would leave nothing but a hole where the U.S. used to be.) But they obviously do not mean it literally, since they then amend that to "the end of America" and "the biggest threat to America's existence." Presumably, they are on about the collapse of our government, society, or way of life.


But none of those top-five collective bad hair days, catastrophic as they might be, would necessarily be the end of America, our political system, or values. They are mostly events, and events can ultimately be overcome. Here's what I mean about the false journalistic assumption that America, or the idea of America, will crack up because of the kind of occurrences that make headlines.

Although they are not on Slate's menu, my nominations for what is most likely to see off the country are these (not in any order of likelihood, and there is some crossover among them):

1. The loss of a common culture. Individual differences are a fine thing and often a source of national strength. But to function smoothly, a country has to have a reasonable degree of agreement or shared values among its constituent groups about history, language, manners, arts, ethics, and other aspects of life summed up by "culture." Our federal government is presently doing all it can to destroy whatever remains of a common culture (as opposed to a vaporous idea of "freedom") through mass third world immigration. International businesses are helping the process along by acting as though our country, or any country, is irrelevant; the world is simply a gigantic marketplace.


2. The replacement of tools of thought by technology. Thinking clearly and even imaginatively demands skill with language; knowledge of history, a catalogue of what has worked and what has led to untold misery; a philosophical sense. As recently as a century ago, all those were considered essentials of civilized life. Today they are largely thought irrelevant, to such a degree that no one even bothers anymore to proclaim them irrelevant. People believe that all problems will be solved by technology, or that progress means more and better you-name-it, as long as it's something that works through manipulation of the material world.


3. Death by systematization, rules, and laws. The other day, passengers were stranded for five and a half hours aboard an airplane going nowhere, only the latest of many such incidents. It will no doubt renew calls for a legal "passenger's bill of rights." Were such a law to be passed, it might help, but it would not end an essential causal factor, which is the same as for many other problems that seem to defy solution. We are being undone by overorganization that stifles individual responsibility.

I'm sure the pilots felt bad about holding their passengers hostage, but they knew that if they asked to return to the gate, they would get grief from ground control, and later from their airline. Almost surely there were airline and airport managers who would have liked to find a sensible and humane solution, but they too were hog-tied by innumberable rules and lines of authority.


As people, we can scarcely draw breath without consulting voluminous tracts of law, regulations, company procedures, speech codes, codes of conduct, best practices, organizational flow charts, expert opinion, and helpful hints. As a society, we have decided to leave nothing to chance or personal, ad hoc problem solving. Most passengers would like to get out of their aluminum coffin after a couple of hours even if they're further delayed, and some airline representatives on the scene know that, even know that they are creating hatred for the carrier. But there are too many rules to adhere to, too many sign-offs needed.

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer who has written several books on this theme. I'm reading the most recent, Life Without Lawyers, and have read his earlier ones (they all make similar points). Howard is mostly an off-the-shelf liberal, but he has broken free of the pack in one way.

He recognizes that in trying to make every action that affects anyone "fair," we have built a roadblock against sensible, creative responses to problems. A massive superstructure of laws and rules has almost killed individual responsibility. The only "correct" response anyone in a government agency or corporation (except for a few at the very top) can make is to find the applicable directive and follow it. Initiative is strangled at birth.


Of course there are a few areas that concern health and safety that necessitate following strict procedures. But as Howard says, and eloquently, far larger fields exist where we need to empower individuals to make on-the-spot decisions based on their own experience and judgment, not a priori rules that can't take into account particular situations.

Supposedly our forward-thinking corporations have gotten the message and are trying to spread responsibility around. I hope so. But judging from employees I come into contact with, mainly sales and customer service representatives, the New Jerusalem hasn't percolated down to those levels yet.

Hardening of the arteries, eventually leading to a lack of nourishment for the heart and brain, is as dangerous to America as it is to Americans.



David said...

An insightful and depressing analysis, Rick. Re your "systematization" category, don't know if you saw my post on Mindless Verbal Taylorism...highly relevant to this topic.

David said...

"Of course there are a few areas that concern health and safety that necessitate following strict procedures"...I think that health & safety areas require the *combination* of strict procedures with considerable individual discretion in those areas which aren't fully defined by the procedures--and even to violate the procedures when necessary. The Federal Aviation Regulations have an interesting provision:
Sec. 91.3 - Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.

(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.

(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

(c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.
In other words--do what you have to do, but you'd btter be prepared to explain why you had to deviate from the standards.

On the other side of the common-sense-versus-folly continuum, there was a DC paramedic several years ago who tried to save a patient's life by following **a procedure that he was instructed to do by a doctor on the radio**--but lost his job because he did something that wasn't in his approved manual of procedures.

zazie said...

"we are being undone by over organization that stifles....responsibility"
You are so right, Rick! Remember Chernobyl (French spelling, I am afraid), and how it happened because nobody felt entitled to make a decision and stop the reactor ; what you describe about the States, what I might add about France, all that makes me think of a huge global Soviet Union..

Rick Darby said...


Yes, the FARs actually are pretty sensible compared to most government regulation. Some people think the FAA is too cozy with aviation operators, but if the companies influence the agency, that may have its benefits. An airline or corporate flight department would go out of business if it had to follow regs as complex and petty as those of some bureaucracies.


Your spelling of Chernobyl is correct. I remember the meltdown and a possibly tasteless but funny joke at the time:

Q. What has four legs, feathers and glows in the dark?

A. Chicken Kiev.

David said...

zazie..Chernobyl..."nobody felt entitled to make a decision and stop the reactor." In 1996, there was a fatal accident on the Washington DC Metro system because no one, apparently, felt entitled to override the automated control system. I'm writing a blog post on this, but the essentials are...

Train drivers had been using the brakes too aggressively, which ruins the wheels, so the policy was promulgated that they could not switch to manual control mode without permission of the controllers...which permission the controllers apparently didn't feel they had the authority to give. The general response to a request for manual mode was "let the train do what it's supposed to do."

Unfortunately, the train involved in the accident didn't actually *know* what it was supposed to do, since a slight overrun at an earlier station had resulted in a failure of the datalink which was supposed to give it the speed command for the next segment--so it went to maximum speed. The rail was wet and possibly icy, and the train crashed into the back of a parked train beyond the next stop, killing the driver.

From my draft blog post:

What's particularly disturbing about this accident is the excessive confidence placed in the automated system and the failure to delegate authority to override this system. Metrorail's implicit assumption seems to have been that:

--a controller in downtown DC will do a better/safer job of decision-making than will the operator who is actually on the train, and

--a group of software system designers, specifying code to be written long in advance of its use, will do a better/safer job of decision making than either the operator or the controller acting in real time

The deeper issue here is of course not only railway safety--as important as that is but the whole question of trust in automated systems and, even more fundamentally, about centralized control vs individual discretion in organizations.