(Herbert) Simon Says: We do not live in a market economy, but in an organization economy.

As I’ve noted, the ongoing ardent private/public debate has more to do with ideology and the political battles of yesteryear, than with anything to be reflected among either scholars studying the water sector or any interesting debates in the economic community. Yes, markets remain indisputably important, as is their study, but before we get to discussing politics we have to discuss organizations because, as Herbert Simon notes, organizations cover far more of the earth’s surface than markets do.

As we talk about organizations either in the private or the public sector, we are talking about bureaucracies. They are imperfect creatures that attempt to minimize uncertainty through hierarchy and procedure. Yes there are fine distinctions about organizational forms that may be taken under public or private law, but the ideological debates are not based on these. For a case of how meaningless this distinction can be one need look no father than the case of water utilities in Hessen. When faced with a mandatory price reduction from the “Cartell Authority,” the utilities chose to simply change their legal form (in this case from private to public) as this would allow them to avoid the Cartell Authority’s authority and maintain their price structure.
No, rather the debates are about whether given bureaucracies should orient themselves around fiscal or social motives or, as is more likely these days, some mix of both.These debates will go on, but they should not distract us from the fact that no matter what goals are counted or valued, any bureaucracy is at some point likely to fail. And this failure may have significant and previously unforeseen effects on its internal or external stakeholders, or for society at large.

Sometimes this failure can be understood in the language of politics and economics, but more often than not, this failure must also be understood in the language of public and business administration. And it is a dull, boring, unfortunate, but vital language of human affairs. Indeed, if there is something you want to accomplish, put rhetoric in your quiver, pull science from its sheath, but boredom is your armor, if you hope to fight another day:

 “I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

― David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

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The Lab and the Field, and the Temptation of Rigor

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge.” -F.A. Hayek, 1945


As it was in 1945 it is today. There is the sense that if you can’t say something scientifically, you haven’t said it properly. And, more dangerously, there is a sense that better science requires more rigor and more formalization. The result is general confusion, and often bad science, as we attempt to talk about what cannot be said, or should not be said scientifically, in scientific (and more rigorous) terms. This sense has led to a butchery of many humanities departments, a good deal of blood-letting in the social sciences, and the emergence of weird quasi-disciplines such as “management-science” (shudder).

I too am sometimes tempted by rigor to the detriment of other considerations, and I wish to explore the twilight areas between scientific knowledge and straight-up knowledge in a series of blog posts. I am going to start with a couple of my favorite disciplines, philosophy and political science, and discuss the damage that the need to state all knowledge in scientific terms, and to go all too far down the road of rigor and formalization can cause.

With philosophy I couldn’t even start in academia. My love of the subject from high school was quickly quashed by two dreadfully comitted professors (one a very old Kantian, the other  fearfully into C.I. Lewis). It took me almost a decade to recover and rediscover the discipline. I did so outside the academic, by listening to podcasts by Hubert Dreyfus while working a dead-end job, and through the work of Robert Frodeman around interdisciplinary research.

Dreyfus is a wonderful and perceptive humanist, and have no worries, he will be well covered in further posts. Frodeman is lesser known, but also highly significant, and his term “field philosophy,” is a nice starting place for reclaiming the aforementioned, and other disciplines lost to the perils of misplaced scientific rigor. He explains the term briefly here:

Another group of philosophers, myself included, is experimenting with an approach we call “field philosophy.” Field philosophy plays on the difference between lab science and field science. Field scientists, such as geologists and anthropologists, cannot control conditions as a chemist or physicist can in the lab. Each rock outcrop or social group is radically individual in nature. Instead of making law-like generalizations, field scientists draw analogies from one site to another, with the aim of telling the geological history of a particular location or the story of a particular people.


“Getting out into the field” means leaving the book-lined study to work with scientists, engineers and decision makers on specific social challenges. Rather than going into the public square in order to collect data for understanding traditional philosophic problems like the old chestnut of “free will,” as experimental philosophers do, field philosophers start out in the world. Rather than seeking to identify general philosophic principles, they begin with the problems of non-philosophers, drawing out specific, underappreciated, philosophic dimensions of societal problems.


And there is a lesson that the political science discipline could take from the distinction between lab and field work. When I was at U.C. San Diego I was incredibly surprised by how the political science PhD students were completely unrecognizable from the feisty undergrads and Capitol Hill staffers I had previously had the pleasure to study and work with.

This new breed of political scientists to the one had a mathematical model from which they worked. And unless you wanted to talk econometrics (an interesting subject in its own right, I’ll give you) you really couldn’t engage them. A curiousity in the novel, the interesting, and what happened out there in the real world, the “field” just wasn’t there. While the previous political types I had met, scientific or not, would love to get into the specifics, or more likely a debate, about a  theory, or policy, or campaign, this breed couldn’t even be bothered to talk about what it was like to work among the Congressmen whose votes they were aggregating and analyzing.

Those of us looking for political science solutions around specific environmental problems, should also consider the significance field work. “Governance” puts a charmingly technical and abstract common term on a wide set of of problems. But just as the geological context of the problem may be “radically individual” in nature and thus only interpretable comparatively, so may the political or “governance” problem. And particularly when these political and geological (and biological and economic) problems are linked together, understanding of the problem(s) and solution(s) must start out in the field, even at the sacrifice of rigor and formalization.



Crimea: Enter the Game Theorists (Late)

“How about a nice game of chess?”

I’ve seen a couple of articles now on how we should view Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea through a game theoretic lens. The articles which appeared in the New York Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which suggest that unfolding events should be understood and managed as stemming from rational actors in a structured situation, need a word of caution attached to them. In the case of Russia’s actions, game theory is one possible narrative or explanation among many, and not necessarily the one best supported by the facts. And accepting game theory uncritically can be dangerous, as it means uncritically accepting concepts such as “credibility” and “deterence,” which in practice often mean laying out and following through on a sequence of increasingly aggressive actions.

I have no beef with game theory. It can be a very useful analytic and research tool for the social sciences and my current research makes use of a couple of game theoretic models. But I am also very aware of the danger of fitting my preferred policy explanations on the very complex situations I’m studying. Whether my work which hangs a lot on “trust” is falsifiable is something I am currently worrying about. And I have the advantage of studying municipal utilities, so I have thousands of potential cases which I can use to test the veracity of my work.

But here we have only one case. If a game theorist had predicted Moscow’s invasion that would be one thing, my apologies if I missed it, but even the day before predictions of invasion were scarce to be found. Furthermore we have an alternative explanation, a psychological one, that clashes with the rational one offered by the game theorists:

An examination of the seismic events that set off the most threatening East-West confrontation since the Cold War era, based on Mr. Putin’s public remarks and interviews with officials, diplomats and analysts here, suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy emerged haphazardly, even misleadingly, over a tense and momentous week, as an emotional Mr. Putin acted out of what the officials described as a deep sense of betrayal and grievance, especially toward the United States and Europe. –New York Times, March 7, 2014

This second explanation, or narrative, strikes me as closer to the facts. Which doesn’t mean that game theory should be ruled out, just that it should, in the absence of scientific verification, accept its place as a competing explanation for a complex and evolving situation. As such scientific verification is unlikely to come, it is up to Western decisionmakers to use their intuition and judgement to decide how applicable game theory is. It is up to them and their advisors to determine whether Putin is in fact behaving rationally (or more likely, when he is, and when he isn’t), and how Putin defines his interests, his allies interests, and Russia’s interest (and whether they can get him to redefine any of these).

That Dr. Cowen uses the word “lens” in the title of his article suggests that he implicitly gets this. Dr. Milinski gives us a harder line (in German), that it “looks” like Putin must have used cost benefit analysis to decide to hold the Crimea. No, it does not look that way to all observers. And one must be careful because what one sees can be determined by the lens one uses. Until evidence suggest otherwise, we need to make use of all the lenses we have.

Whacky Versus Dull (Fear Dull)

Here’s some crazy art theory that I encountered on a tour of the Lenbachhaus in Munich. It and similar ideas were central to inspiring Kandinsky and his compatriots.

“Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.”

Franz Marc

German Expressionist Painter, 1880-1916


And look what it got us, a blue horse! Why would you think to paint a horse blue? It isn’t exactly intuitive, so as outmoded as the theory is, it did bring us something new, and something we can react to.

Here’s something boring, but far more dangerous, we were exposed to a derivative of this by the EU Commission. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to make sense of it. Your eyes should glaze over.

“The trilemma more directly relevant to this conference theme is a financial stability trilemma put forward by Dirk Schoenmaker (2008), explaining the incompatibility within the euro zone of a stable financial system, an integrated financial system, and national financial stability policies. By far the most high profile current trilemma, as per some analysts, is the euro-zone trilemma: the seeming irreconcilability between its three wishes: a single currency, minimal fiscal contribution to bail outs, and the ECB’s commitment to low inflation.”
-Inaugural speech by Dr. Duvvuri Subbarao, Governor, Reserve Bank of India.

Confused? I hope so. If the above quote makes much sense at all you probably inhabit a rarefied and abstract world not often visited by human beings. Nevertheless this incredibly convoluted theory, meant to update previous macroeconomic theory for the financial crisis and the situation in the Euro Zone, is being used to justify a series of broad reforms which sound a lot like the reforms that economists always argue for.

We don’t need to trust or believe Marc’s theory, we have a blue horse to react to, and if we’re intrigued we can dig into the theory later. But the EU Commission’s economists, whose canvas consists of 28 member states, 24 languages, 507 million people, and $16 trillion in GDP, just ask us to trust them. Of course we cannot expect them to prove that their plan will work, but a bit of humility would be warranted, as most any theory driving human action is eventually made to look more ridiculous than a blue horse.

Decline in Italian Design

How are Italian water services like Italian airport security?

They both go downhill.Declining Design 1

And that’s a good thing.

Gravity can be your friend and has been Italy’s friend since Roman times as water from the Alps has been directed to do what it does best: flow downhill. In doing so it quenches Italy’s thirsty crops and cities. And the result, says Dr. Antonio Massarutto of the University of Udine, is that Italy spends substantially less on pumping water than flatter countries such as Germany.

Not that all is calm in Italy. Like U.S. cities, Italian cities have underinvested in water infrastructure for quite some time. Legislation that was unanimously passed in 1994 to make up this gap resulted in, always unpopular, rapid tariff increases. The public expressed their displeasure in an initiative in 2011 in which 95% of voters voted to overturn a provision stating that tariffs must fully cover the costs but which was perceived (incorrectly) as guaranteeing profits for private companies.

Indeed, as elsewhere, privatization has become a political hot point. And sadly one withDeclining Design 2 the potential to distract from the underlying issue. That is when tariffs are kept too low for many years, substantial increases are needed to make up the difference, and in the short term customers will not see the value they are getting for their money.

The national regulator continues to require full cost recovery in the tariffs and whether it can do so is now in the courts. The court’s decision will be handed down in the next couple of weeks.

My conversation with Dr. Massarutto in Florence also covered issues such as raising private capital, the benefits of public participation, and subsidies to address income inequality. You can look forward to learning more in a paper I am working on with funding from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and hosted by the Ecologic Institute.

The solutions for sustainable water infrastructure aren’t simple anywhere. But as the very clever gravity operated system at the security line at Pisa airport demonstrates, sometimes you just can’t beat Italian design.

The Gift of Christmas and Games of Betrayal


Et tu, Holleeday?

The Christian holiday of Christmas is built around a gift of infinite mercy, the only son of the Almighty is made flesh, so that he can suffer and die and redeem a sinful world. The death of the Christchild is not so far removed from the celebration of his birth as the carol ‘What Child is This’ proclaims in its beautiful and melancholy second verse “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me for you.”

And so we have in the back of our mind in the season of peace and good will to all, the culmination of the story, and the story cannot culminate without a heartless and pointless betrayal, that of Judas Iscariot.

In Dante’s Inferno the very worst punishment is reserved for Judas, to be consumed head first eternally in one of Lucifer’s three mouths. But interestingly enough the next worse punishment, being consumed eternally feet first in the other two mouths, Dante reserves for two pagans, Cassius and Brutus for their betrayal of Caeser.

I would thus venture to say (and Milton’s Satan in the Protestant tradition and Benedict Arnold in American history come forward as ready further examples) that betrayal is one of, if not the least forgiveable or acceptable acts that we encounter in human affairs. Betrayal stands on the other side of and against trust, good will, and openness, and a real betrayal, one that we cannot reduce to pure mean calculation, always is to a certain extent incomprehensible.

It may therefore be similarly incomprehensible that some of you may find under you holiday bush, or use to while away some long hours on your glow device, games that add betrayal for a spice of fun or for which betrayal is the main event. We like to experiment with what is dangerous in a safe cardboard setting, though some of you may have already learned, not all relatives know how to separate between play and real life.

Some of these games, Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica, let us enter a world where the majority of players must defend against and ferret out the player or players with a secret and treacherous identity. The lines here are quite clearly drawn, and no one (reasonably) harbors any animosity for the traitors(s) because even if they win, they were just playing the game well.

The classic classic Diplomacy and the modern classic Settlers of Catan reveal an entirely different dynamic. It is possible to become extremely irrationally outraged by the behaviors of other players in these ‘games.’ (In fact I have never lost at either at these games except through the conniving and backstabbing nature and numbing stupidity of some who will not be named. Kiddiinngg.. geez.)

I venture the guess, that this is because we have no recourse to punish such betrayal except through our limited means within the game. And often our means are so limited that a skillful traitor may very well win. Infuriating!

To draw a further perspective we can look at a soon to be modern classic Eclipse, an economic development and conquest game. Here the penalty for treachery is defined, minus two victory points. I can’t say I felt any anger when the heavily armed cruiser and dreadnought of one of my soon to be former allies ended up unannounced in my sector. Yes, I will blow them to smithereens before they return fire, but I don’t fault the guy. He made his calculation, -2 VP for a shot at him, I may have done the same in his situation (though I certainly would not have missed the star base build counterattack, sloppy, sloppy).

When treachery is just an open and mean calculation, our reaction to it is not so fundamental or primal. But when we have no recourse in our means, and when we cannot understand fully the nature of the act, our reaction could not be more visceral.

At this point in the sermon there should be a point to sum this all up, and tell us how we may think about the Christmas season, and the importance of keeping faith and trust in each other, so as to avoid fear, suspicion, hate, and revenge. And a scientific treatment may propose to test the hypothesis above by further looking at depictions of betrayers in different traditions. But this is neither of those, but rather a blog post.

Note: Culture and the Social Scientist

I’ve heard the word culture come up a couple times in explaining the differences between Germany and U.S. in water management. It’s a word that puts fear in any social scientist, because if the differences are just cultural differences, well we can’t really say anything interesting about the issue can we? Germans and Americans are different, end of story.

I don’t believe that culture is the end of the story. Clearly I don’t, otherwise I would be wasting my time here and the German government would be wasting its money by way of the Humboldt Foundation.  A water supply or treatment system is a physical and technical system. How it is managed may reflect cultural values, but these aren’t the full story.

Fortunately for me, Elinor Ostrom has included a small mention of culture on page 27 of Understanding Institutional Diversity, as an attribute of a community that reflects its values and thus the “mental models” of its participants. She also mentions that the history community members have with governing institutions will reflect in their likelihood of participating in, adhering to, or ignoring rulemaking procedures.

It isn’t a strong or comprehensive discussion (those of you familiar with the representationalism/anti-representationalism fights in philosophy may see a jarring juxtaposition of culture and mental models without further explanation), but it means this boy don’t need to be overly worried about being not too cultured anytime soon.

A Social Scientist on Patrol

Riding as an observer in a patrol car in the central district of a large American city at midnight on a Saturday evening, one sees different patterns of human interaction than in a suburb on a weekday afternoon when school is letting out. In both cases, one observes the production of a public good –local safety–by an official of a local government. Others who are involved in each situation differ in regard to age, sobriety, why they are there, and what they are trying to accomplish. And this context affects the strategies of the police officer one is observing. (Ostrom, 2010) As cited in Boettke, et. al. 2013

The Journal of Institutional Economics has published an Elinor Ostrom memorial issue to celebrate the life and work of the Nobel Laureate who brought social science passed the Tragedy of the Commons. Access to the issue (in Ostrom lingo normally a “toll good”) is free until the end of January, 2014.

The article that most stood out to me was Riding in cars with boys: Elinor Ostrom’s adventures with the police by Peter Boettke and Liya Palagashvili at George Mason University, and Jayme Lemke at Brown. The title itself captures the very on the ground nature of Ostrom’s work. She wasn’t afraid to get out there and get into the messy context laden and conflicting explanation-rife real world about which it is so hard to say anything in a systematic manner.

Never mind the dangers of riding around in a patrol car in urban areas unfamiliar even to the officers you are with, the dangers for a scholarly career are much more perilous. If you come up with some cute new regression analysis of some old data set, your peers are going to certainly recognize your cleverness and you’ll move comfortably up the rungs. But when you’re out there in the field, it takes a lot of confidence in your own judgement and abilities, and those of the people you’re studying, to believe that you’ll ever say anything of scholarly note.

And she succeeded time and again, and by showing that those people and groups that theory said would fail did not in practice, she disturbed or overturned the scholarly consensus time and time again. Her fieldwork, followed by more rigorous statistical work succeeded in showing that large police departments were often less efficient than small ones. Most famously, she showed in many cases the Tragedy of the Commons was a good story, but a limited one that did not take into account the creativity and sanctioning abilities of people organizing themselves. Maine fisherman could protect their fishery against themselves, by themselves. Water suppliers in Southern California could find a balance for withdrawals from the aquifer through a series of lawsuits against each other. And traditional irrigation systems could outperform centralized World Bank projects, because even though the mud and stick structures were primitive in comparison to modern engineering and materials, they were integrated into existing social structures.

Ostrom showed that while scholarship is hard work it isn’t all about plugging and chugging the models and data you’ll find on campus or at the conferences. It also requires courage, creativity, open mindedness, and respect for people outside the ivory tower and diverse methods. She has left us an extensive body of work which is rich in directions to be pursued and advice on how to pursue them, Boettke et.al. cite her as follows:

‘Understanding how individuals solve particular problems in field settings’, ‘requires a strategy of moving back and forth from the world of theory to the world of action. Without theory, one can never understand the general underlying mechanisms that operate in many guises in different situations’. ‘If not harnessed to solving empirical puzzles, theoretical work can spin off under its own momentum, reflecting little of the empirical world’.

Riding in cars with boys: Elinor Ostrom’s adventures with the police
Journal of Institutional Economics / Volume 9 / Issue 04 / December 2013, pp 407 – 425
DOI: 10.1017/S1744137413000118, Published online: 01 May 2013

Water Sector Privatization: The Anger and the Analysis

Yesterday I presented my project to a wider audience at the Ecologic Institute. I believe that it was quite well received and there was a lively question and answer session after it was over. Not surprisingly, the privatisation of water sector assets and management came up. This is clearly a burning issue brought up by former colleagues in D.C., the press, and on the ground here in Berlin where the utility is now fully back in public hands. A couple of weeks ago I started digging into the debate and the literature, and I feel like I’m starting to get a handle on this issue.

I started my investigation with a strong critique of the World Bank’s promotion and financial support of private involvement in the water sector. The critique comes from the Corporate Accountability International (CAI), a group that cut its teeth in a boycott of Nestle for its practice of promoting baby formula despite unsafe conditions in developing countries. It’s very clear they’re very upset, and for good reason. As they point out in the report:

  • more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including even war; and

  • waterborne diseases are a leading cause of death among children under five, killing more infants than HIV/AIDs, malaria and tuberculosis combined. (CAI 2012, p. 2)

And despite these challenges, CAI believes that the World Bank has spent the last two decades promoting privatization as the one and only solution without evidence and often despite strong public resistance in recipient countries. Additionally, despite high profile failures such as with Manila water, where a tidy profit was made despite any significant progress on connecting more households, the World Bank continues to push privatization and take a financial stake in the profitability of such projects through the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

The CAI admits that the World Bank acknowledges that hopes of private investment in water infrastructure, particularly for expanding access, have been largely dashed and that the World Bank has retreated to promoting the operational efficiency that can come from private sector management.

Indeed on the failures of privatization to attract significant private investment in water infrastructure, the World Bank and CAI are largely in agreement. The CAI’s critique largely rests on World Bank documents such as this. Where they differ is whether the term operational efficiency has real meaning or is a cynical cover for promoting continued corporate profit.

I believe that here is where CAI goes to far. They start mocking successes by private management at  the reduction of “non-revenue water” water and enforcing bill collection. Given that non-revenue water is just an industry term for water waste, CAI shouldn’t get so cute. Wasting water, moreover wasting water after it has been treated, is a problem for society as a whole. And the ability of utilities to collect sufficient revenues to sustainably run their operations is an area of significant concern, even in wealthy countries such as the United States.

And so CAI’s critique, while quite well written and informed at many points, can be summarized as a laying out failures of the past that the World Bank acknowledges and ending the appearance of impropriety from the IFC’s taking a financial stake (where they have a point). But ultimately it falls flat, as one can imagine, many systems were public before they were private, and everything wasn’t perfect back then either.

So at this point I started looking for something that could provide a different perspective on this public/private divide. Given my political science background I was quite tickled to try a 2006 article on governance in the water sector by Gordon McGranahan and David Satterthwaite at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Their treatment of the issue certainly has a lot more nuance than those of the CAI and World Bank, pointing out how the urban poor are often underserved under public systems as well as private, the importance of small scale private water entrepreneurs in filling gaps in the system, but also how corruption can even exist between public and private systems as public systems take kickbacks from the small scale entrepreneurs, who in turn gouge the poor. As corruption rears its ugly and very slippery head, we are told to focus on governance, a part of which is comes from improving economic circumstances of the poor, which maddeningly is presumably related to the availability of functioning infrastructure.

Needless to say, this is not a satisfying solution. Suddenly we’re into all the messiness of the world and having to fix multiple issues at the same time  as they all interact with each other in only partially understood ways. At this point one starts to appreciate how exciting the previously grand ideological commitment the World Bank had to privatization must have been. And the clarity of the CAI outrage which is based on very clear wrongs.
Even though one was clearly wrong and the other offers no clear direction beyond an alternative ideology, at least they offer clear guides to action. Which probably explains the continued salience of the private/public debate. It’s clear there are no panaceas in the water infrastructure arena. But the terms themselves awaken memories of intense ideological debates of the past, not least the policies of Reagan and Thatcher and the Washington Consensus. And they no longer stand for any coherent and comprehensive program for fixing our water infrastructure problems so much as they are markers of who one is and where one stands in relation to other people.

A (Technically Unsound) Technocratic Dream

I submitted this to the NYTimes as an op-ed last week. It wasn’t good for them. Passing up on stuff like this, no wonder they’re losing money! (Kidding).

An op-ed by Henry Petroski, civil engineering professor at Duke is an old reincarnation of the technocratic dream, get the politics out and just let the experts do their work, and everything will be fine. But while we’re almost always better off with experts than without, sometimes they get it wrong. As JFK said following the Bay of Pigs “All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?”

Prof. Petroski himself diverts about halfway through the article from a rather nice discussion of changing perspectives on infrastructure and the limitations of cost and risk benefit analysis to make a political argument of his own. “Underdesigned” systems risk physical damage and human life we are warned. Yes an “underdesigned” system is always bad, but so is an overengineered system, which will needlessly waste resources with no benefit.

Prof. Petroski unfortunately does not realize that he has begun to make political arguments of his own, declaring that engineers are absolved of any responsibility to change their ways as we deal with climate change, we just need to give them enough money.

He holds up the efficiency of the Hoover Dam project as the ideal we should aspire to in contrast to the embarrassingly expensive and delayed Bay Bridge in California. But this equates the efficiency of the planning and building of the project with an ultimately successful outcome from the project. The Hoover Dam also took the brakes off growth in the arid Southwest and allowed massive cities and a thirsty agricultural system to sprawl in the desert. To the extent the dam aggravated unsustainable growth in this water poor region, we can say it was a disastrous and expensive failure, no matter how good the engineering was.

I worked for four and a half years at the U.S. EPA and spent much of my time working on water quality problems from stormwater runoff, a problem created by the last generation of engineers when they came up with what seemed to be a logical method to protect developed areas from flooding. In response to the water quality problem, a new generation of green infrastructure technologies, such as rain gardens and green roofs, and planning methods that favor preservation and connection between existing green areas have been developed to address both water quality and flooding problems in a cost effective manner. The technologies also offer carbon sequestration to adapt to climate change and reduce heat island effect which can help cities adapt to it.

These technologies didn’t develop in a vacuum or in a silo, they were the product of engineers and decision makers recognizing a problem and working together to make sure that the “know how” to address current problems existed and that the policy and political environment was such that this know how could be applied. Despite their promise, these techniques are often seen as unproven and resistance is still strong among those trained in the last generation of techniques and the policy environment can often hinder their adoption.
The challenges we face are immense and no professional or academic discipline is exempt from periodic re-examination of its role. Indeed, there is much consensus that the solutions to our problems will be interdisciplinary. And here Prof. Petroski might do well to consult economists and political scientists before laying the blame at an amorphous “political climate.” Because if we currently had all the money and the proper political institutions and decision making frameworks to solve our infrastructure problems in the face of a changing climate, they wouldn’t really be problems in the first place.