About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The After Sandy

So it's been an interesting last ten days or so!

For the first ten years of JABberwocky, I worked alone in my apartment, it's never given me cabin fever the way being forced to stay in my apartment by weather does.  It's not just a recent thing with Irene last year or Sandy this year, I remember an MLK day many years ago when there was an ice storm sort of thing and the sidewalks were too dangerous.  But Sandy might have been the worst of it, in part because of the subway flooding.  All the years I was working alone, I would go to the Post Office because I had to do it, I could stop at the library to read the paper, I did my own messenger work for a good chunk of that time and could go out laden with manuscripts and enjoy some fresh air and exercise.  But with Sandy, the office was closed last Monday and Tuesday, the subways weren't running, it was hard to do much of anything social, and there wasn't any choice.  And I had power!  Many of my Scrabble friends especially live in the part of Manhattan that didn't have power for days.

I am so glad the NYC Marathon was cancelled.  Mayor Bloomberg has always had this weak spot for sports, for the football stadium on the west side of Manhattan, or his Olympics bid, now this, he's lost most of those battles.  Currently, there are plans to expand the Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Park, which have some community opposition, but which don't look to take too much more parkland, and also plans to build a soccer stadium in the park, which would take up lots of parkland. And would be in the "Fountain of the Planets" area, part of the grand design of the park for the 1964 Worlds Fair.  I'd rather the city find the money to restore that area of the park and to restore a little more of the public grandeur.  Sometimes people join me for the qualifying at the US Open, if they haven't been to Flushing Meadows before I'll take them around the park, and it's so much "that used to be, this used to be" and not near enough of what actually is.  One of the world's richest cities should do better.  I don't think it's just that I'm biased in favor of tennis.  Having spent a lot of time in the park before the expansion of the tennis center in the 1990s, I didn't perceive that the tennis was taking away a lot of high value area in the park, the soccer stadium would be.  When I walk people around the park, I've always pointed to where the soccer stadium would be as "shameful the way the city has let this fall to rot," deciding it can only be saved by covering it with a soccer stadium isn't right.

On tennis, Jerzy Janowicz continued his amazing run at the Paris ATP Masters, winning a semi-final match convincingly against Gilles Simon, currently ranked #20 and as high as #6.  Five wins in a week against top 20 players.  The run ended in the final against David Ferrer, top 5, who heretofore had the most victories in ATP Masters 1000 events without actually winning one.  Ferrer's a short player, it was funny watching the trophy presentation because Janowicz is tall, a foot higher at least, and he's quietly become one of the best players in the game outside the big 4 without getting much attention.  Janowicz moved up to #26 in the world, over 40 notches higher, going from nobody to somebody, from qualifying every week to making every tournament by direct draw and guaranteeing himself a seed in the Australian Open.

Comic books.  DC is filling "5th Wednesday" months with Annuals and other non New-52 books, it keeps the New 52 on schedule without leaving holes.  The last time we had a 5th Monday week the Annuals weren't very good.  This week I picked up a Batgirl Annual and a Swamp Thing Annual that were both quite good, and an Action Annual that was solid.  Steve Niles has a new horror story Lot 13 with a first issue out from DC that was a little like a Zebra genre horror novel from 25 or 30 years ago but with some nice art and on balance pleasant.  First of 5 issues, I look forward to the rest.  I didn't like the last in the 8-issue New Deadwardians Vertigo mini-series quite as much as the series as a whole, and I'm not liking the final issues of the current American Vampire arc as much as the first, but still, both were solid enough.

And now I want to get on my soapbox a bit.

I could talk a lot more about my personal experiences during Sandy Week, but I came off a lot better than most, JABberwocky didn't do so badly, for the most part I was just coming away with memories for the memory bank, of walking across the 59th St. Bridge with thousands of people instead of dozens, or watching dozens of cars lined up for gas.

Instead, I'm going to talk about human irrationality as viewed thru the prism of Sandy and 9/11.

The two events can't be directly compared, in part because you can't easily compare thousands of lives lost in 9/11 with the far-flung economic damages from Sandy and other weather events.  But we can safely say the events are in their different ways catastrophic.

So why did 9/11 inspire so much action, while a decade of ever-increasing natural threats like Sandy doesn't seem to get much to happen?

If you read my blog regularly, you know I've gone one at some of the things we tolerate in the name of stopping a terrorist event.  Enduring patdowns at baseball games, and rules that allow us to bring in factory-sealed water bottles but not an empty water bottle (i.e., a factory-sealed water bottle that we dump out the moment we pass thru the turnstile) to fill at a water fountain.  "Heightened security" at office buildings full of people that no terrorist cares about, showing photo IDs or even having drivers licenses scanned to gain admittance (what does building management do with your scanned license?), though happily very few of the buildings have magnetomers, so as long as we have photo ID we can go as postal as we want once inside.  All the BS at TSA checkpoints, the layers of reactive-to-the-last-threat security.  And the things I rant about are the tip of a vast and mostly hidden security apparatus (link goes to a major Washington Post series) that has huge costs, not just in actual money but in time and in loss of liberty. My point here isn't that all of these things are bad (random bag checks on subways, I think strike a good balance and are worthwhile), but to say that we definitely do a lot, and a lot of that not rationally.

As to extreme climate events?

Well, even if I limit myself only to things that deal solely with the extreme climate events themselves and not with underlying causes, we don't do very much.  Forget about if it's rational or irrational, it's not done.  It was often very easy for railroads and for highways to follow river valleys, so there are lots of railroad lines like the Metro North Hudson Line commuter rail here in New York, parts of the Amtrak line between St. Louis and Kansas City that are very close to water, all over, which are more and more likely to be damaged as sea level rises, which is currently happening.  We're not talking about that at all.  We've done very little in New York City to add "baby gates" in the subways that might keep the water from coming downstairs.  It would make lots of sense to bury power lines in DC which is getting walloped with lots of damaging stores, and fewer than 35% of the electric customers would want to see a dollar a month added to their bill to help pay for it.

What gives?

For one security silliness does gives an immediate sense of benefit, right or wrong but it does, so we don't ask what they actually protecting against, the odds of that bad thing happening, or multiply out the little costs to our time and to our wallet of all of these things. And we rarely pay directly.  It's buried in the rent or the price of a baseball ticket or a 9/11 security fee hidden in the fine print of the airline receipt.  Small but visible benefit, invisible damage to our wallet, often small time cost that we never think to multiply out.   Even small things to deal with climate events will have larger visible costs.  We don't actually know every dime our government spends on our homeland security apparatus which is hidden away in black areas of the budget, but if we spend money on sea walls in New York like those in the Thames which protect London or the tidal barriers which were built 50 years ago near Providence RI, those are large public expenses.  And after we spend that money, we don't visually see the result, people in Providence don't have a way to visualize the return on investment from spending a lot of money fifty years ago.  It's like this with a lot of infrastructure.

Second, we have a political system that reacts to money, and which is designed to protect streams of money more than one-time floods.  An example:  you give a private company a contract to run a prison, the private company makes a profit, it can use some of that profit to invest back into the political system via campaign contributions and ads in the right places to keep that profit.  It's the same with cable companies and health insurance companies and defense contractors and virtually any other business that relies on getting us or the government to give little bits of money on an ongoing basis (and just to mention, there are also people who get government benefits, but food stamps don't supply a lot of profit that you can invest back into the system in order to keep getting food stamps).  Some of our money, some of the government's money, goes to guarantee the need for us to keep paying that money.  The constructions trades and construction unions also lobby for infrastructure money, but there isn't quite as much spare cash splashing around because a lot of those things are one-time.  If you want to leverage the money the construction trades and construction unions have, it usually can't be for infrastructure being built as as long-term public good, but rather needs to be tied to something like the Keystone Pipeline.  There, the construction people get business, which leads to a steady flow of oil flowing through the pipeline, so the oil industry is happy to spend money to talk up the (likely inflated) number of construction jobs from the Pipeline, creating a nice resonant echo chamber.

And finally, human beings just aren't very good at evaluating risks.

Which makes it very difficult to do things the way Dr. Spock might logically have us do them.  There are way too many areas where we evaluate risk feebly.  And since government is us, all joined together...

So what do we have?

The NY Times reports there are many prominent office buildings that are closed for weeks or months in lower Manhattan as a result of flooding.  I'm sure over the past ten years that these buildings have, as a rule, spent very generously on lobby security, which has kept all of them safe from terrorist plots.  And all that money might better have been spent on something else.

I'm not all that optimistic that Sandy will change very much.  The buildings will reopen, and every day the people in them will feel very secure because they have a turnstile in the lobby, and each one of those days Sandy will fall a little further into the past.  And we don't have politicians these days of any stripe that want to fiercely advocate for the idea of government as a public good that sometimes needs to step in and do things -- great things, sometimes -- that we can't do ourselves.

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