Friday, May 28

Jesus Wept II: The Crudening

David Brooks, "Drilling for Certainty". May 27

OKAY, so my earlier plans for vacation (1. Drink; 2. Leave the world unseen; 3. Post that pic of Sora Aoi;

4. Fade into forest dim) didn't quite pan out, though 1-for-4 isn't exactly a slump. And have, in fact, been replaced unintentionally by a sort of theme: the suggestion that the solution to all our problems is returning to The Teat.

Now, I'm a teat man myself, but I try not to make a philosophy of it. But as we're delving, yet again, into David Brooks' oral fantasy world, let's start with the fact that everything is not as it seems.

The Evil Sixties turned the social order on its head, though not without The Placid Fifties doing much of the grunt work. It's the sort of thing that happens periodically, and each time it does the people with a vested interest in the established order insist it was unprecedented. What was perhaps new that time is that instantaneous global communications were peering in, and that, following the 20s, 30s, 40s, and, yes, 50s, the concept of the Decade as a sort of Theme Park of Mass Experience was well established in the minds of most headline writers. Thus the chronological jumble which has subsumed Brown v. Topeka and the Montgomery bus boycott into The Sixties, and rendered the large-scale unpopularity of the Korean War an invisible speck in the glare of Vietnam.

David Brooks is born in 1961. His personal experience of The Sixties, then, is orthodontia, clarinet practice, and daily embarrassment on the kickball diamond. By the time he's old enough to be turned down for dates, the prevailing high school mode is the "Freebird"/Styx parody of Sixties rocker model. This is, of course, already past its sell-by date, assuming it was ever merchantable in the first place, and Brooks is matriculating on The Main Line, where his colleagues of snottier persuasion are likely faux-Punks, and where Geek Chic, Yuppiedom, and noses are in the air. To be fair, Brooks, according to his autobio, is a starry-eyed liberal kid with a Springsteen poster. To be honest, yeah, right.

Our point being this: when you read this shit about the mature viewpoint whose geographic center is Brooks' skull, which rejects both the simplistic, Springsteen-poster-bedecked Socialism to his left, and the worst excesses of the Right, the ones which he mentions, or caricatures, only in cases where the stench has become too great to ignore, you ought to bear in mind that what you are actually reading is Brooks reliving his long-practiced and quickly shot-to-pieces Would You Like To Go To The Prom With Me speech before some cracked Magic Mirror of the mind.
In the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the political debate has fallen into predictably partisan and often puerile categories. Conservatives say this is Obama’s Katrina. Liberals say the spill is proof the government should have more control over industry.

But the real issue has to do with risk assessment. It has to do with the bloody crossroads where complex technical systems meet human psychology.

Okay. I'm sure glad we could get to The Real Issue so quickly. I was afraid it might take three or four paragraphs to dismiss the crazy crackpot idea that we might need to regulate private, profit-driven activities which have the potential to fucking eliminate private, oxygen- and food-consuming activities for anyone in their way.

(It's interesting, too, that the sort of wingnuttery Republican Mouthpiece Brooks has been soaking in for his entire professional life only makes an appearance when it's required to show that The Liberals are just as crazy! With their socialism and not understanding that we need oil an' stuff! Y'know, as such things run, "The BP Oil Spill is Obama's Katrina" is about as close to sanity as those people get, not that they didn't defend the Bush administration's Katrina dithering, not that they hadn't just recovered from screaming themselves hoarse over Obama raiding the sacred profits of the insurance industry. It's just that what else they say is even fucking crazier, and no less stupid. The idea that massive ecological disaster caused, and ineffectively planned for or responded to, by unfettered profiteers might be considered ample reason to assert public control is not the opposite of "Barack Hussein Socialst Obama"; it's the opposite of the insistence that all regulation is excessive and all taxation of business is dumped on the consumer. It is, in other words, David Brooks' own position, not the sensible middle ground, though I imagine he'd add "within reason" somewhere to make himself look thoughtful. The opposite of "Obama's Katrina" is the idea that massive oil spills are a natural occurrence, and no sweat if you're not a bivalve. But since that comes from Rush Limbaugh, not the Koo-koo Left, it wouldn't have done Brooks any good.)

Is there any explanation for this phony goddam dichotomy other than the fact that you can't win an argument without it?
Over the past decades, we’ve come to depend on an ever-expanding array of intricate high-tech systems. These hardware and software systems are the guts of financial markets, energy exploration, space exploration, air travel, defense programs and modern production plants.

These systems, which allow us to live as well as we do, are too complex for any single person to understand. Yet every day, individuals are asked to monitor the health of these networks, weigh the risks of a system failure and take appropriate measures to reduce those risks.

If there is one thing we’ve learned, it is that humans are not great at measuring and responding to risk when placed in situations too complicated to understand.

Is there one thing we've learned? If so I doubt that's it. I'd be more inclined to say, "No matter what it is, somebody will come along and excuse it, either because someone pays him to, or because he hopes someone will. And at the end he'll explain that his is the only explanation which takes the mature view."

So, y'know, Fuck You; let's put the goddam pipeline in your back yard and see what you say. Let's make Matt Bai a bright eight-year-old born into inner-city poverty, and then ask him about the evils of affirmative action. I could fucking live without financial markets, energy exploration, Moon explosions, lost wars, lost luggage, 80% of what comes out of modern production plants, and the other 20% provided there was someone around to do it by hand. You can call that naivete if you'd like; I didn't say everyone could do so--especially NASA engineers and defense contractors, since you asked--and I don't say that I do without all those things now. I don't. Nor am I saying I wish to, though that one's more like Undecided. The point is that the assertion that this is all just one big, organically-developed Ball o' Fun we all dearly love and wouldn't dream of doing without is bullshit. And you can't even produce a list of all the essentials for modern life made possible by Hopeless Fucking Complexity Which Might Have A Slight Tendency To Kill Some Unfortunates without 90% of that list being shit that owes its very existence to political manipulation, not basic survival. And which has only incidental connection to most people's lives. Less than half of all Americans travel by air in an average year, and they take less than two trips per annum. They use banks, and gobble energy, but they're not lining up at the Recruitment office, and they care more about science fiction than colonizing Mars, unless it's a movie about colonizing Mars. The people who get to "vote" on whether we have that shit are on Wall St., or in the Senate Cloak Room, and they all specialize in chicanery.

Sure, some of this is organic, and it's likely that areas where we generally agree on the desirability of technological advancement--medicine, say--tend to pull everything else along with them. So you get increasingly sophisticated tests informing increasingly sophisticated procedures, and increasingly large bills to pay for it all, and high-speed porn and low cost storage for it. S'alright by me, but it doesn't erase the fact that we can't afford to keep up our infrastructure, and that we don't have any way to evaluate the benefits of the Next Big Step.

And, for that matter, the fact that the rest of the civilized world recognizes the need for sensible regulation, and it still manages to buy airline tickets, go to the bank, and drown in consumer gizmos. About the only thing it can't do is operate a military fifty times larger than anyone else's. Which, y'know, might tell you something right there. Within reason, I mean.


R. Porrofatto said...

Danke sehr, immer.

Yet another lesson here that even the most innocuous of trivia in a Brooks column should never escape suspicion:
More pedestrians die in crosswalks than when jay-walking. That’s because they have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways.

This is what happens when you get Brooks regurgi-cyclying Malcolm Gladwell. Now, we can think of a bunch of other reasons more pedestrians might die in crosswalks than when jay-walking: intersections are where more pedestrians are, where more cars are, turning vehicles, etc., none of which conform to Brooksian mono-types about pedestrians' thought patterns.

But we needn't bother, because it just ain't true to begin with..

Kathy said...

The idiot claim that no one can understand technology! No one can *deal* with catastrophes!

Kind of comment made by a home-schooled creationist.

The engineers on the Horizon seemed to understand the technology perfectly well. It was the greedy-moron BP manager who did not have a clue.

heydave said...

Fucking Brooks, that asshole.
I've long asserted, based on my intimate familiarity with things technical and shit that goes wrong, that mankind has been pushing the comfort levels of risk v. gain for some time. But by no means does that imply, ignore or forgive that people should not strive to do their best, alleviate as much risk as possible, and get a handle on walking that edge.
But I read Brooks and it's close to "fuck it, we're all gonna die, so shut up you ninnies" and I' get royally pissed off. Fucking idiot, fucking mealy mouthed, whiny Brooks.

grouchomarxist said...

I think Atrios sums up David Fucking Brooks' schtick pretty succinctly: "Who Could Have Predicted?"

Still, it's always entertaining to watch an expert like Riley methodically reducing one of Bobo's inane dribblings to a blackened smear.

Christopher said...

I'm imagining Brooks' defense of Ice Nine, written from a cruise boat lodged in a frozen ocean.

It's also funny to me that he paints "More government regulation!" as the radical crazy man's response and then ends his column by saying, essentially,

"BP was too acclimated to taking big risks. If only there were some way to stop them from doing that, perhaps by having some sort of disinterested third party that is more sensitive to risk determine or "regulate" what behavior BP could get away with.

Well, someday maybe we'll come up with something like that, but until some genius does this is really everybody's fault."

nanute said...

But the real issue has to do with risk assessment. It has to do with the bloody crossroads where complex technical systems meet human psychology.(Brooks.)
Trust me, BP and all the other corporate hacks have done the risk assessment, and concluded that a limited liability cap was worth all the risk in the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Grace Nearing said...

Trust me, BP and all the other corporate hacks have done the risk assessment, and concluded that a limited liability cap was worth all the risk in the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Nanute: Louisiana also calaculated the risks and gave approval for the rig. Louisiana calculated the risk of damaging or destroying its tourism and fishery industries against the certainty of oil revenue. And like all corporations, Louisiana -- after privatizing the profits -- is socializing the risk and the clean-up costs. The state calculated (rightly) that any oil spill big enough to take out its tourism and fishery industries would be big enough to bring in assistance from the federal government.

Kathy said...

Grace: will you give me a link about all the assistance the Fed Gov is giving Louisiana? Because I haven't read or seen much. Persons living near the coast are getting ill from the fumes of oil & dispersant. Is the Fed Gov helping them? Or, like the EPA chief after 9/11 are they saying "Everything is OK"?

The Sailor said...

Bobo is Barbie saying 'math is hard!'

BS, all complicated systems are built upon simple systems. Just because some wanker in an airconditioned office high above the fray can't fix his toaster doesn't mean we're all toast.

He's just as stupid as the rethugs calling it an act of god.

The risks were assessed and the people who stood/stand to make a profit are the ones who made the decisions, instead of objective folks who should have been monitoring/regulating them.

Apollo 13 is a great example; something unanticipated went wrong. The people most familiar with the systems involved (out of literally millions) concocted a solution and it worked. It's also a great example because everyone involved knew the risks.

We're going to have to leave it there ... because now I have the basis for a blog post of my own.