Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Black Swans and the Mandate of Heaven

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.


Terry Lohrenz said...

It is not quite accurate to say "no one predicted how bad it would be". See for example http://pjmedia.com/weathernerd/, or www.weatherbell.com.
There is always an element of uncertainty, but when the downside is very, very bad, one must be ready, and even then things can go wrong. Unfortunately the media and public are not very good at relating to uncertainty.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Clearly, Brendan Loy, whom you cite, has done everything in his power to sound the alarm.

Part of the problem here is conceptual: Loy says that everyone knew the fallout from Katrina before the fact.

I am not so clear. I do believe that most people did not quite understand it, thus it became a black swan.

As for Hurricane Sandy, here's a passage from the Atlantic, this morning:

"The New York City subway system is 108 years old," MTA chairman Joseph J. Lhota said in a statement last night, "But it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night." Seven subway tunnels were inundated, Lhota said. Photos showed flooding in stations from Bay Ridge, at the foot of Brooklyn, to Harlem, in Upper Manhattan. The PATH station connecting Lower Manhattan to New Jersey also flooded, Kubrick-style, as did the World Trade Center construction site.

According to New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, Lhota told CBS the situation was worse than the worst case scenario the MTA had envisioned. There have been rumors the system could be down for a week, but the MTA has refused to speculate about a timeline.

Terry Lohrenz said...

The MTA needs a risk-manager with a better imagination:


What do you expect Lhato to say?

The scenario that played out was well-known and should not have been a surprise to anyone at the upper paygrades:

"Most people" may have been ignorant, but for the people who are (or were) paid to deal with these things this was no black swan.

Anonymous said...

Again I see fancy homes & mansions 50 feet from ocean. Others are built near raging rivers & on flood plains. Here in N.IL. Des Plaines River floods frequently. People refuse to move, & keep building more homes.

I once lived on a lake. Being near water is wonderful! Beautiful in all 4 seasons. But land sakes! Idiots like that don't deserve a penny of aid. -- Rich

Sam L. said...

Re: Katrina. You left out the part where the media castigated and pummeled Bush for New Orleans, when the Gov refused help and the Mayor left all the school buses, which could have evacuated citizens, parked.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point... the hurricane is the media's last chance to portray Obama as the great president that they continue to believe he is... or else, a last chance to trick the American people again.