No one could have known.
That’s what they always say after a disaster. Well, it’s what the establishment—a good ’60s word, let’s bring it back!—says. “No one could have known” is the perfect excuse. Don’t blame us, we did the best we could, but we’re not clairvoyant.
But it’s rarely true. Most of the time, the people in charge—the people responsible for what went wrong—were warned in advance. They simply chose to ignore the warnings.
Why? In the case of government officials and corporate executives, it’s typically because acting on such warnings would cost them money. Sometimes it’s because the man or woman who predicts the mayhem about to unfold doesn’t have the status, title or connections to make themselves heard.
Mostly it’s because scum rises to the top.
After hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff called the disaster “breathtaking in its surprise.”
“That ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight,” Chertoff said.
It didn’t surprise everyone. “We certainly understood the potential impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane” on New Orleans, Lt. General Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said the same week.
I had attended a journalists’ convention in New Orleans a few years before that. Probably half the New Orleans residents I met asked me to write about the “big one” that was sure to devastate their city someday.
Except for those who later claimed that nobody could have known, everybody knew.
Harry Markopolos, a Boston financial analyst, has a book out (title: “No One Would Listen”) detailing the eight years he spent trying to convince the SEC to go after Bernard Madoff, who was responsible for the disappearance of $65 billion.
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The financial collapse that began in the fall of 2008 was attributable to the burst of the housing bubble, fiscal shenanigans at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the longstanding practice of allowing investment banks to hire and fire rating agencies. Economists, corporate insiders, and journalists had repeatedly warned about these problems since at least 2004. They were ignored, even ridiculed by those who claimed a “new paradigm” was in effect in the U.S. economy.
From the lack of WMDs in Iraq (Scott Ritter knew) to the losing quagmire in Afghanistan (I knew) to the recent mine disaster in West Virginia (inspectors knew), nearly every calamity you can think of could have been avoided. All the idiots in charge had to do was listen to the smart people who weren’t.
Adam Cohen writes in The New York Times: “Predictions of disaster have always been ignored—that is why there is a Cassandra myth—but it is hard to think of a time when so many major warned-against calamities have occurred in such quick succession. The next time someone is inclined to hold hearings on a disaster, they should go beyond asking why particular warnings were ignored and ask why well-founded warnings are so often ignored.”
Cohen answers his own question, citing four causes for institutional resistance to doing the right/smart thing before it’s too late: ideology (reflexive thinking), change would threaten the powers-that-be, inertia, and incompetence.
No doubt, those factors all play a role. I’d like to add another: the fear to speak truth to power, which is intimately coupled with powers that tell truth to shut up.
In my long work history it was a rare workplace where management sought out new ideas, much less criticism. It was rarer still that a contrarian voice was rewarded, much less heeded. We see the same thing in politics. Those who speak up are smacked down.
All too often, bosses and officials are insecure. Worried more about losing face than doing a good job, they instinctively reject anyone and anything who threatens their prestige. Better to lose a war than to lose face.
The problem is systemic. As long as business schools crank out automatons and companies are willing to hire them, as long as voters reward the smarmiest and godliest over the straight-talkers, as long as playing it safe (i.e. boring) is valued more than taking chances, our society is going to keep screwing up. And it’ll all be perfectly avoidable.
Look around today. What are we being warned about? Which smart people are we ignoring? They’re everywhere. Let’s start with the economists who warn that the U.S. economy is at the end of its rope, that the federal government can’t keep increasing the deficit, that underpaying workers as the rich gets richer is a recipe for collapse and revolution.
For my money, the fact that we are ignoring the thousands of scientists who warn of rising floodwaters due to global warming, dust storms and mass famine due to excessive cultivation and overpopulation, and untold damage to our ecosystem as thousands of species go extinct, proves a terrible point: As a society, we are nearly as stupid as our bosses and public officials.