Chief Resiliency Officers Versus Antifragility

This post originally appeared at Neighborhood Effectsa Mercatus Center blog about state and local policy and economic freedom.

At The Atlantic CitiesEmily Badger writes about a new program from the Rockefeller Foundation called 100 Resilient Cities, focused on equipping cities with a new employee called a Chief Resiliency Officer. The program states its goals as follows:

Building resilience is about making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.

[. . .]

There are some core characteristics that all resilient systems share and demonstrate, both in good times and in times of stress:

  • Spare capacity, which ensures that there is a back-up or alternative available when a vital component of a system fails.
  • Flexibility, the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster.
  • Limited or “safe” failure, which prevents failures from rippling across systems.
  • Rapid rebound, the capacity to re-establish function and avoid long-term disruptions.
  • Constant learning, with robust feedback loops that sense and allow new solutions as conditions change.

In his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from DisorderNassim Taleb defines antifragile as something that not only recovers from shocks, but becomes stronger after recovery, in line with the stated objectives of 100 Resilient Cities. Following its Great Fire of 1871, Chicago demonstrated antifragility. It rebounded rapidly from a disaster that killed 300 people and left one-third of city residents homeless, many without insurance after the fire bankrupted local insurers or the blaze destroyed their paperwork. Despite this great loss, residents of Chicago quickly rebuilt their city using private funding and private charity that was small relative to the amount of damage, but without any government funding. In rebuilding, Chicago developed safer building techniques both through entrepreneurship and with new insurance requirements and  new municipal building codes. The city invested in a better-equipped fire fighting force to lower the risk of fire damage in the future. Despite not having the telecommunications that seem critical to allowing fast disaster recovery today, Chicagoans began building new, safer buildings immediately, investing $50 million in the year after the fire, and tripling the real estate value of the burned blocks within 10 years. Its difficult to imagine a twenty-first century city allowing property owners to move so quickly through the approval process, and its difficult to imagine a Chief Resiliency Officer widening this bottleneck.

A bureaucrat like a Chief Resiliency Officer would not be able to learn the lessons from a natural disaster that the residents of Chicago did in their rebuilding efforts because this knowledge is dispersed, only to be discovered by individuals acting in what they believe to be their own best interest. Taleb describes bureaucrats as fragilistas because they do not suffer from downside risks and therefore cannot learn and grow stronger from shocks. If a disaster strikes a city equipped with a Chief Resiliency Officer and it turns out the city was ill-prepared, he or she will not be held accountable for failing to predict what may have been a very low-probability event. In fact, we often see government efforts toward making cities more resilient introducing fragility contrary to their stated intentions. For example, federal flood insurance minimizes the downside risk of owning flood-prone property. In turn, this encourages more people to live in the highest risk areas, putting them at greater risk when disaster strikes. Cities will not have an opportunity to learn from this to better prepare for future flooding because their rebuilding is subsidized; however, bureaucrats cite this insurance as a success because it facilitates rebuilding without adapting to risk.

The Transportation Security Administration offers a preview of what bureaucratic disaster prevention looks like; top down planning for low-probability events results in attempts to prevent the catastrophic events that we’ve seen in the past without realizing that we’re unlikely to see these same events in the future. As TSA critic Bruce Schneier explains:

Taking off your shoes is next to useless. “It’s like saying, ‘Last time the terrorists wore red shirts, so now we’re going to ban red shirts,’” Schneier says. If the T.S.A. focuses on shoes, terrorists will put their explosives elsewhere. “Focusing on specific threats like shoe bombs or snow-globe bombs simply induces the bad guys to do something else. You end up spending a lot on the screening and you haven’t reduced the total threat.”

Likewise, preparing for low-probability natural disasters, such as 100-year storms, is not something that can be done from the top down. To the extent an event is foreseeable, some individuals and firms will prepare for it, as we saw with Goldman Sachs’ generator and sand bagging efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The disaster revealed successful preparation methods, allowing more individuals and the city as a whole to learn and be better prepared for the next disaster. Chief Resiliency Officers are unlikely to accurately foresee low-probability shocks to their cities. To the extent that they protect cities from these shocks, they will likely take away the learning process that would make cities better able to withstand larger shocks, introducing fragility instead of greater resiliency.


Duany bashes LEED standards

Andrés Duany, leader of the New Urbanism movement, comes out against LEED standards:

He said that high-density development in urban locations which entail less reliance on private cars should get a free pass on energy efficiency or energy generation standards.  ”Don’t make apartment dwellers install solar power,” he said.  ”They are doing their part just by living densely and driving less.” [...]

Duany also had choice words for government land use and building officials.

In New Orleans, he said that government standards for rebuilding added costs that just about exactly offset the amount of assistance the government was going to provide, so “no one can rebuild.”

HSR Urbanists: “We Are All O’Tooles Now”

I probably won’t make any friends today, but now I’ve read one too many urbanist (many who’s ideas I usually respect) use unsound logic to support high speed rail. This argument often includes something like this: “…and furthermore, highways and airports don’t come close to paying for themselves, therefore high speed rail need not meet that hurdle either.”

Here’s some examples of the typical contradiction many usually-reasonable urbanists are making when arguing for high speed rail-

Ryan Avent in an article plagued with this pseudo-logic:

Government is going to build more capacity. Given that, what is likely to be the best investment, all things considered?

Available alternatives, as it turns out, are not all that attractive. Roads do not appear to pay for themselves any more than railways do. Receipts from the federal gas tax come close to covering federal highway expenditures, but gas is used on highways and non-highways alike, indicating that at the federal level, highways are subsidized.


I respect Mr Cowen very much, but I think it’s long past time we stopped listening to libertarians on the issue of whether or not to build high-speed rail. Who will ask whether road construction remotely passes any of the tests they’re so prepared to push on rail? And if we begin charging an appropriate fee on drivers to maintain existing roads and reduce congestion, what do they all think will happen to land use patterns and transportation mode share?

Some have emailed to ask me why I dislike Randal O’Toole so much.  The main reason is because people like Avent will always be able to point to the government highway-lover from CATO and rashly proclaim all libertarians have forever lost credibility when it comes to transportation and land use.  Of course, Avent’s narrow-mindedness on this topic deserves contempt too.

And Infrastructurist’s take seems to be favored by Avent, Yglesias, and others:

The construction of a high-speed rail line would require a large environmental sacrifice – construction crews would need to shape the land, poor concrete, lay the tracks, and build the stations. This work would release millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But building a new highway such as Texas’ planned I-69 would require similar work and would almost certainly be just as ecologically damaging. On a somewhat smaller scale, the same can be said for new terminals or runways at airports.

In a rapidly growing state like Texas, though, a serious need for a transportation capacity upgrade is bound to arise over the next decades – especially between the state’s two biggest cities. The construction of this infrastructure would require carbon emissions on a large scale–but since we don’t yet have competing plans for highway or airport capacity expansions if the high-speed system is not built, the most meaningful question for us is the rail system’s environmental effects in operations rather than construction.

So, in other words, building either of the options, roads or rail both require “a large environmental sacrifice”, but all other options must be kept off the table, so let’s just sweep that under the rug.  Yet, there is an other option to consider for those who really think something should be done about carbon: STOP WASTING MATERIAL AND ENERGY ON CONSTRUCTION OF INFRASTRUCTURE BOONDOGGLES THAT SUBSIDIZE TRANSPORTATION!  That still goes double for roads and airports, where congestion and carbon emissions could be reduced through revenue-generating measures such as congestion tolling.

To me, the high-speed rail logic just doesn’t sound much different from what O’Toole might say (just interchange some words and continue to ignore facts):

Not only did the Interstate Highway System cost much less and move much more than our visionary rail network is likely to do, interstate highways have the virtue of being 100 percent paid for out of user fees. The rail system would require subsidies for pretty much all of the capital costs, most or all of the periodic rehabilitation costs, and at least some of the operating costs.

In the Infrastructurist article quoted above, Yonah Freemark smear’s Ed Gaeser’s back of the envelope critique of high speed rail (I admit, a little sloppy) with a hand-waving claim sounding eerily similar to the type Mr. O’Toole is so often criticized for making, “High Speed Rail Pays For Itself”.

He backs this bold claim with a calculation that shows how a hypothetical Dallas-Houston high speed corridor would cost $810M annually for construction and maintenance, while providing $840M in benefit.  Surely, we will see many more people use this analysis as evidence to back claims that high speed rail is good without proper scrutiny.  However, this analysis doesn’t even pass the O’Toole-level test of credibility, because it claims it pays for itself with 150M annually in carbon savings.  I can understand making the case for analyzing carbon savings as a “benefit” to society, but one must compare against all other options for use of cash to reduce carbon emissions – at least against a no-build + congestion toll option.  Just think of all the alternatives one might consider with a $810M annual budget for carbon reduction. At say $20/ton, that comes to 40 million tons a year.

On top of that, Freemark ignores all the other opportunity costs Randal O’Toole conveniently omits when claiming roads pay for themselves.  These omissions include:  opportunity cost of investment capital, opportunity cost of right of way land used, legal costs of eminent domain and related delays, inevitable cost overruns, accounting for optimism bias, and interest on bonds.  In my opinion, the largest of these is the opportunity costs of investment capital, which I would guess at over 15 percent compounding annually (vs a non-compounding 5% generously assumed by Glaeser and Freemark) for all costs during the 10 years (just a little optimistic?) of construction, and 8-10 percent once ridership is stabilized.  Responding to Matthew Yglesias’ hasty endorsement of Freemark’s analysis as “A real cost-benefit analysis of HSR”, Tyler Cowen similarly noted:

I’m not sure what discount rates he is using but even if we put that problem aside this screams out: don’t do it.  Given irreversible investment, lock-in effects, and required hurdle rates of return, this still falls into the "no" category.  And that’s an estimate from an advocate writing a polemic on behalf of the idea.  I’m not even considering the likelihood of inflation on the cost side or the public choice problems with getting a good rather than a bad version of the project.  How well has the Northeast corridor been run?

The urbanist in me would love a vast high speed rail network – it would centralize density at rail nodes and aid agglomeration.  But it just won’t be viable until government first stops wasting money subsidizing automobile and air travel.  In the meantime, HSR advocates commit an intellectual fraud similar to ones Randal O’Toole and his ilk make regarding roads when they make claims that HSR can pay for itself. 

If Ryan Avent is expecting to keep any credibility on infrastructure spending using these words:

In this country, we do not build transportation infrastructure for profit. Perhaps this is upsetting to the libertarians among us, but that’s how it is and how it should be.

Then, perhaps he should think twice next time he thinks of laying into Randal O’Toole for attempting to reconcile infrastructure spending using similarly shoddy arguments. Otherwise, similar to O’Toole, all the HSR advocates are saying is, “Never mind billions of dollars that must be appropriated from people of future generations. Never mind that most of those footing the bill will never ride high speed rail if they’re not fortunate enough to afford a ticket or don’t live in one of the chosen cities. Never mind the drastic effects of the construction on the environment. High speed rail would be a pretty neat thing for some cities, so ‘build baby build’.”

“Misbuilding” the Future, Again…

From "Highway to hell revisited", a Financial Times article by Christopher Caldwell:

The Highway Act probably has more defenders than detractors. But Mr Obama should be among the latter. The act, which budgeted $25bn in federal money to build 41,000 miles of motorway, exacerbated the very problems Mr Obama has been most eager to solve – spoliation of the environment, dependence on foreign oil, overburdening of state and local budgets, abandonment of the inner-city poor and reckless speculation in real-estate development, to name a few.

The article goes on to discuss the history of the Highway act of 1956, some of the problems it caused, and critiques of the sprawl caused by the dangerous feedback-loop created by over allocating resources to infrastructure.  I recommend reading the whole article, which concludes:

The infrastructure network that came out of the Highway Act had higher overheads than the one it replaced. It became a bottomless pit of spending.

The largest building project in Mr Obama’s Recovery Act is $27bn for roads, and there have been no complaints that the government will have a hard time finding things to spend it on.  The US has big economic problems. But they have been made worse, and harder to resolve, by a half-century in which, at federal urging, the country was misbuilt.

There is an inherent bias in favour of government projects. The successes can be mythologised through commemoration, goading future generations to imitate them. The failures are fixable only through equally extensive projects to undo them. This makes it easy to forget that there is no social or economic problem so big that a poorly targeted government intervention cannot make it worse.

On the subject of “misbuilding”, this Onion video is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while, and is pretty much how I view highway spending:
In The Know: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?

Urbanization driving reforestation to outpace deforestation?

by Stephen Smith

While most people associate cities with pollution and the material and ecological excess of late capitalism, I’ve long believed that urbanization has the potential to be a great environmental savior. The NYT has a fascinating article that confirms what I said about cities attracting people who would otherwise live more environmentally profligate lives: the amount of total rain forest is likely growing, due to the reforestation of towns and villages abandoned by people in Latin America and Asia who are moving to cities. Elisabeth Rosenthal, the article’s author, explains the reasons that people are abandoning land at a growing pace:

In Latin America and Asia, birthrates have dropped drastically; most people have two or three children. New jobs tied to global industry, as well as improved transportation, are luring a rural population to fast-growing cities. Better farming techniques and access to seed and fertilizer mean that marginal lands are no longer farmed because it takes fewer farmers to feed a growing population.

By some estimates, these demographic and technological shifts mean that forests are growing back far faster than they’re being cut down:

These new “secondary” forests are emerging in Latin America, Asia and other tropical regions at such a fast pace that the trend has set off a serious debate about whether saving primeval rain forest – an iconic environmental cause – may be less urgent than once thought. By one estimate, for every acre of rain forest cut down each year, more than 50 acres of new forest are growing in the tropics on land that was once farmed, logged or ravaged by natural disaster.

There are two problems, though, with the new forests: they aren’t “old growth” forests, and they aren’t necessarily able to support many endangered species. The first part – the fact that they are “secondary” forests and not primeval – might be important in that it means the ecosystem is not as dense and complex as it would be in, say, a rain forest that hasn’t been touched since pre-Colombian times. Scientists haven’t reached a consensus on how significant this is, though it’s comforting to note that as time passes, the now-secondary forests will become denser and older. As for the endangered species, it’s a combination of the first point (new growth) and the fact that these new jungles are growing in different places than the forests which are being cut down, and are not reachable by the animals that are endangered within the old growth.

Reading this makes me think of a Wired article from a few years back about the Mayans and the rain forest, and how much of the Yucatán jungles are likely to be feral gardens of the ancient Mayans.

This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.

Urban[ism] Legend: Creating Jobs With Infrastructure

This post is part of an ongoing series featured on Market Urbanism called Urbanism Legends. The Urbanism Legends series is intended to expose many of the myths about development and Urban Economics. (it’s a play on the term: “Urban Legends” in case you didn’t catch that)

Last week President-elect Obama announced some details of his economic stimulus package:

Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways

This further taxpayer subsidization, beyond currently insufficient highway revenue sources, of sprawl and auto-dependency seems to contradict Obama’s promise of “green jobs”. As Tyler Cowen remarks, “for better or worse you can consider the opposite of a carbon tax.” Furthermore, the Obama plan intends to fund the stimulus directly to states, as opposed to metro areas, which have historically received almost two-thirds of the funds directly.

Certainly, Obama’s plan is not an urbanism-friendly plan, yet I consistently hear urbanists subscribing to and spreading the myth that jobs can be created by spending on infrastructure, and that these jobs will lead to economic recovery. Even if the job creation myth were true, and could stimulate the economy immediately, you would think urbanists would not sacrifice urbanist ideals for the sake of short-term recovery through their commitment to so-called progressive ideology.

In his enduring 1961 classic, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt addresses the long-standing myth about “creating jobs” through public works projects:

A bridge is built. If it is built to meet an insistent public demand, if it solves a traffic problem or a transportation problem otherwise insoluble, if, in short, it is even more necessary to the taxpayers collectively than the things for which they would have individually spent their money had it had not been taxed away from them, there can be no objection. But a bridge built primarily “to provide employment” is a different kind of bridge. When providing employment becomes the end, need becomes a subordinate consideration. “Projects” have to be invented. Instead of thinking only of where bridges must be built the government spenders begin to ask themselves where bridges can be built. Can they think of plausible reasons why an additional bridge should connect Easton and Weston? It soon becomes absolutely essential. Those who doubt the necessity are dismissed as obstructionists and reactionaries.

Two arguments are put forward for the bridge, one of which is mainly heard before it is built, the other of which is mainly heard after it has been completed. The first argument is that it will provide employment. It will provide, say, 500 jobs for a year. The implication is that these are jobs that would not otherwise have come into existence.

This is what is immediately seen. But if we have trained ourselves to look beyond immediate to secondary consequences, and beyond those who are directly benefited by a government project to others who are indirectly affected, a different picture presents itself. It is true that a particular group of bridgeworkers may receive more employment than otherwise. But the bridge has to be paid for out of taxes. For every dollar that is spent on the bridge a dollar will be taken away from taxpayers. If the bridge costs $10 million the taxpayers will lose $10 million. They will have that much taken away from them which they would otherwise have spent on the things they needed most.

Therefore, for every public job created by the bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else. We can see the men employed on the bridge. We can watch them at work. The employment argument of the government spenders becomes vivid, and probably for most people convincing. But there are other things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. They are the jobs destroyed by the $10 million taken from the taxpayers. All that has happened, at best, is that there has been a diversion of jobs because of the project. More bridge builders; fewer automobile workers, television technicians, clothing workers, farmers.

But then we come to the second argument. The bridge exists. It is, let us suppose, a beautiful and not an ugly bridge. It has come into being through the magic of government spending. Where would it have been if the obstructionists and the reactionaries had had their way? There would have been no bridge. The country would have been just that much poorer. Here again the government spenders have the better of the argument with all those who cannot see beyond the immediate range of their physical eyes. They can see the bridge. But if they have taught themselves to look for indirect as well as direct consequences they can once more see in the eye of imagination the possibilities that have never been allowed to come into existence. They can see the unbuilt homes, the unmade cars and washing machines, the unmade dresses and coats, perhaps the ungrown and unsold foodstuffs. To see these uncreated things requires a kind of imagination that not many people have. We can think of these nonexistent objects once, perhaps, but we cannot keep them before our minds as we can the bridge that we pass every working day. What has happened is merely that one thing has been created instead of others.

Unfortunately, big spending on infrastructure projects are political chess pieces. As politicians align themselves for the handout, Governors are sure to push for spending that will allow them to funnel federal tax dollars into vanity projects that will do the most to boost visibility and popularity. I wouldn’t expect any wise long-term planning on the part of the spenders.

From an economic recovery point-of-view, it will be years before the money spent on infrastructure trickles back into the overall economy, and even longer for any productivity gains to be realized by the newly constructed infrastructure. This pervasive myth is a dangerous enabler of one of the least effective strategies for recovery (in the short-run), and a harmful disservice the the environment and living patterns (in the long-run).

To receive future Urbanism Legends posts, subscribe to the Market Urbanism feed by email or RSS reader here. If you come across an interesting Urbanism Legend, let me know by email or in the comments and I’ll make a post debunking the myth. Of course, I’ll give you credit for the tip and any contributions to the post you make…

Landmark Incentives

by Sandy Ikeda

The other day I was lecturing to my students about externalities and the Coase Theorem.  One of the examples I used came directly from the our textbook – Heyne, Boettke, & Prychitko’s The Economic Way of Thinking.  It asks what would happen if you tried to declare a large tree in your neighbor’s backyard a landmark in order to prevent her from chopping it down and depriving you of the valuable shade it casts into your backyard.  The answer is that it gives her an incentive to chop the tree down much sooner, before the landmarking can go through.

It turns out that that’s exactly what some landlords in New York have been doing to avoid the severe building constraints imposed by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Law.  Of course they use jackhammers instead of chain saws, but the principle is the same.  According to this front-page article in today’s (Saturday 29 November) The New York Times:

Hours before the sun came up on a cool October morning in 2006, people living near the Dakota Stables on the Upper West Side were suddenly awakened by the sound of a jackhammer.  Soon word spread that a demolition crew was hacking away at the brick cornices of the stables, an 1894 Romanesque Revival building, on Amsterdam Avenue at 77th Street, that once housed horses and carriages but had long served as a parking garage.  In just four days the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was to hold a public hearing on pleas dating back 20 years to designate the low-rise building, with its round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation, as a historic landmark.

(Hat tip to “The Volokh Conspiracy” via Mario Rizzo.)

Now, regulations and private exchanges both have unintended consequences.  The difference is that the latter represent opportunities that when exploited tend to create value (e.g., dirty air and air conditioners, noisy engines and mufflers, fast-food and gyms), whereas the former tend to frustrate the intentions of those who support the regulation (e.g., rent control and housing shortages, minimum wages and unemployment, and industrial bailouts and, well, more industrial bailouts.)

Anyway, about half the class chose not to attend that particular lecture, thereby depriving themselves of much wisdom.  It was the day before the Thanksgiving break, however, so I guess they too were just following their incentives.