For New York City and much of the rest the East Coast Hurricane Sandy was a black swan event.
The meteorologists warned us; we watched it grow in the Atlantic. Yet, no one predicted how bad it would be.
Cities and states in the hurricane’s path were certainly prepared, but, for good or for ill, many people ignored the warnings. They had toughed it out in the past; why not now?.
Meteorologists have offered too many dire predictions that did not work out. Like the boy who cried wolf they lose credibility and people cease to take their predictions seriously.
By all accounts city authorities have been fully engaged, yet, aside from calling for mandatory evacuations there are limits to what you can do when half the city is under water.
Last night Mayor Bloomberg exclaimed that the people in charge of the NYU Medical Center had assured him that their back-up generators were fully functional. But then, in the midst of the storm the generators failed and patients had to be evacuated from the hospital.
We have not heard the last of the heroic efforts of the hospital staff.
And we have certainly not heard the last of the damage inflicted on New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut.
It is cold comfort not to have lost power when we witness the suffering of so many of our neighbors.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the phrase “black swan” events to illustrate our inability to predict the future. We are persuaded, not without reason, that the past repeats itself. We we spend time and energy preparing for the past and become blindsided by events for which we did not prepare.
On the other hand, our government is so absorbed with investing in its fantasy of the future, by funding solar and wind energy companies that it has ignored the infrastructure investments that would actually matter to today’s citizens: like burying power lines.
If we were living in China, a hurricane Sandy would cause everyone to ask whether or not the ruling dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
Historically, Chinese rulers have claimed that their authority was based on the Mandate of Heaven. It’s something like the divine right of kings.
Scholar Burton Watson explained it:
Like the Greeks and Romans, the early Chinese firmly believed in the portentous significance of unusual or freakish occurrences in the natural world. This belief formed the basis for the Han theory that evil actions or misgovernment in high places invites dislocations in the natural order, causing the appearance of comets, eclipses, drought, locusts, weird animals, etc…
Misrule causes situations that makes the population especially vulnerable to a natural disaster. Thus the disaster casts a judgment against the dynasty.
This appears to be why President George Bush lost the good will of the American people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Whether it was his administration’s inept response to the catastrophe or the fact that the storm was, in itself, completely devastating is subject to debate. The Bush administration never recovered from Katrina.
One might say that 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, another event that Taleb calls a black swan, did not quite change a dynasty, but it surely changed America’s terrorism policy and America’s relationship with the Islamic world.
Today, the nation’s pundits are weighing the political significance of Hurricane Sandy. Some are saying that it will help President Obama to look presidential. For once in his presidency Obama will have the chance to unite the country.
Others suggest that the catastrophe will tamp down voter turnout in areas of the country that are bluer than blue.
Of course, we don’t know whether Obama will be seen to have lost the Mandate of Heaven or whether the judgment will fall on blue state policies, in general.
Then again, Obama might win the election even after losing the Mandate of Heaven. Nate Silver of the New York Times insists on it. I find it unlikely.
If there is anything to the Chinese concept, expect a sea-change in American politics and American culture.
Anyone who suggests that he can predict the fallout is probably indulging in wishful thinking.