Potemkin Village

The last five days of horror in New Orleans and southern Mississippi have shown that the renowned infrastructure of America is not all that it should be. The jihadist zealots of Al Qaeda (not to mention the Chinese military) must be observing with great interest the events in Louisiana, noticing the logistical choke points of the American economy and how easy they are to take out.

One can imagine the conversation around the big table during the Great Jihad Seminar in the Dar-al-Islam Conference Room of the Damascus Sheraton (loosely translated from the Arabic):

Mahmud: I see an opportunity here — how about it, people? Gimme some ideas…
Hassan: Well, if a hurricane can take out 25% of their refinery capacity, how about a suitcase nuke in Houston? My boys have a couple of ’em, and I’ve got the shaheeds to deliver them. Just give me the OK —
Walid: Let’s think outside the box here. How much of their meat supply passes through Chicago? And how much botulinum can we deploy there?
Mahmud: I’ll get my Brooklyn think tank to crunch the numbers for us…

Personal observation suggests how easy it would be to co-ordinate a few small explosions at selected pylons on several of the major northeastern high-tension power lines, thereby binging down a large part of the grid indefinitely. There are large tank farms for natural gas pipelines here in Central Virginia that would be easy to sabotage; after all, until the alert level rises to “orange”, they don’t even have coverage by the county deputies.

You can be sure that anything we think of here has already been thought of by our enemies in Al Qaeda, and elaborated, and planned out, and trained for. Our infrastructure is vulnerable, and it’s easy for our enemies to see that. We are the most powerful nation that has ever existed, but we are brittle, and Hurricane Katrina only serves to remind us of this fact.

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Wikipedia offers the following definition of “Potemkin Villages”:

     Potemkin villages were, purportedly, fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. Conventional wisdom has it that Potemkin, who led the Crimean military campaign, had hollow facades of villages constructed along the desolate banks of the Dnieper river in order to impress the monarch and her travel party with the value of her new conquests, thus enhancing his standing in the empress’s eyes.

The term is now widely used to describe elaborate and superficial constructions designed to pass official inspection, but lacking any real substance (as an ironic footnote, Potemkin’s villages as described above never really existed; they were an urban legend arising out of malicious gossip circulated by his political enemies).

If one wanted to describe the protective structures and emergency preparations in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta region, “Potemkin Village” would certainly be the preferred term. Corrupt government, huge bureaucracies jostling to get their snouts into the federal trough — write the grant, get the money, repay the favors, reward your relatives — but keep the city looking good, keep the casinos open and the tourists coming in, keep the pipelines open and the barges moving. And the levees? Well, they’ve worked all right so far…

All across the country are aging bridges, deteriorating highways, decaying cities, and an antiquated power grid. Additional refining capacity can’t be built because it would be Bad For The Environment. Nuclear power is a no-no because of Demon Radiation. New roads are bad because they produce Evil Urban Sprawl. No swamp can be drained because of the Lesser Crested Loon. And everything depends on the Federal Government, the be-all and end-all, which is more powerful than God, which causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine, which is simultaneously the Protector and Nemesis of every man, woman, and child in the country, if not the whole world. Remember the Tenth Postulate of PC: “There are no acts of God; there are only acts of Government.”

This whole PC façade can only be propped up as long as the gatekeepers of the culture maintain the fictions. The success of the trompe l’œil depends on control of the flow of information. The mainstream media have up until now sutained the illusion that the PC village is one of attractive cottages, laughing children, and gamboling lambs, when in fact the brightly painted flats barely conceal the rude hovels and scabrous churls of the real village.

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All this is in the process of change now. In a recent post called Industry, Redundancy, and Coping with Hurricane Katrina, Indus Valley Rising considered the nasty problems brought to light by Hurricane Katrina:

     It looks like fully industrialized societies may not be much of an improvement over societies that have not fully industrialized. In engineering (mechanical, software, etc.), when critical services that other system services depend on are concentrated in a single component or single center or operation, if that component or service fails the rest of the system goes down with it. That is called a “single point of failure.” Systems that have multiple failover mechanisms and redundant components are, however, considered more reliable because if one or more components go down, then the other redundant components for a time can assume the extra load. The system is strained, but it doesn’t go down. The cost of redundancy is high, but the cost of system failure is higher — even if it rarely happens. Like any other system that depends on highly specialized components but lacks redundancy, a highly industrialized society is similarly fragile because critical services become concentrated with a small number of people or agencies. If small but important social components fail on account of sabotage or disaster, the effect on the rest of society can be disproportionately catastrophic.
America, which is known as “the bread basket of the world,” has an especially vulnerable food supply. The seeming benefit of the industrialized food supply is that it allows fewer people to produce considerably more food. America produces so much food that to keep food prices high enough, the government has to offer subsidies to farmers to not grow food or just dump grains in the ocean. The down-side of America’s industrialized food supply is that, because food production is concentrated in the hands of a few (and we aren’t talking of storage systems that largely depend on the availability of transportation and electricity), the system has little scope for failover. This is true of many other essential components of society, but the food supply is perhaps the most obvious failure-prone component.
The recent disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina has highlighted this fragility in the American social system…
The environment, the economy, and the geopolitical situation are all changing, and with these changes the kind of society we build may affect our future chances of survival. If means of production, especially that of food, is a critical component of any social system, which will be the better long-term social strategy to implement:

  • globalization with its potential for higher efficiency and higher profits but increased dependency on services and products from foreign lands, or
  • localized production that is redundant and therefore more robust but less efficient and less profitable?

A localized means of production might be better suited to withstanding environmental threats like the Hurricane Katrina disaster or, more increasingly, disasters that could be wreaked by foreign enemies. These are things for which we shouldn’t be caught unprepared. Scaling down American commercial farm enterprises and encouraging small farmers who relied less on industrialized means of farming could be in the interest of America’s national security. Right now the chemical industry, the machinery industry, and food production are all tightly coupled. Loosening the couplings between these subsystems, which means making them less interdependent, would make for a more robust social system that could better withstand a catastrophe.

Krishna Kirti has drawn attention to an important strategic issue here. But the solution — relying on large numbers of smaller production components in a loosely-linked network — need not require a retreat down the technological ladder. As I remarked in the comments on his post,

     I don’t think that small-scale and redundant farming and industry necessarily means primitive operations only. The high-tech revolution is just beginning to impact the economy at all levels, and one of the coming trends will be the efficient miniaturization of enterprise.
With efficient use of information technology, the “economy of scale” rule will no longer be as significant as it used to be. Given the right equipment and software, an internet connection, and a robust power supply, small farms and manufacturing should be able to compete effectively with larger enterprises.
All this is predicated, of course, on their willingness to use modern methods (pesticides, fertilizer, etc.).

Think of the innovation that has been going on constantly in the military: small dispersed munitions controlled by computers; jury-rigged networks of laptops used by technically savvy soldiers in moving humvees to track the enemy and share intelligence; tiny intelligent sensor devices scattered over the battlefield, each having its own IP address and each monitoring events around it…

The information revolution is only just beginning, and its effects will be staggering. America has the natural advantage in this field, since the new paradigm requires non-hierarchical decentralized network structures, autonomous actors, and the ability to innovate. In other words: “fast, cheap and out of control,” according the meme invented by the MIT robot scientist Rodney Brooks.

How many more 9-11s or Hurricane Katrinas will occur before we get serious about reorganizing the general infrastructure in America?

A large part of the solution will be to recognize that a large part of the problem is the federal government.

And ideally we would reach a point where the only strategic failure to be feared would be the collapse of the internet.

5 thoughts on “Potemkin Village

  1. Any word on the condition of the refineries and dock facilities? I suspect that the industrial infrastructure came through mostly intact, and if it was considered a national priority, could be brought back on line in within a week or two.

  2. I’ve read that the refineries are all being brought back online, but are not up to capacity yet. I haven’t read anything about the docks.

    But I saw the photos of the burning warehouses — it looked like a lot of square footage had been reduced to ashes.

  3. Any changes will have to be initated, developed and implemented by the private sector (as always).

    The government can not quit bickering, baggering and raiding the pork barrel long enough to even recognize a problem, let alone solve it.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

  4. This pathetic dependency on central government for everything is a curse. No country that has that clinging attitude toward government will ever live up to its potential.

  5. OT


    Look at this.

    Kirchhof was catapulted to the centre of the campaign in July after making radical proposals to sweep away Germany’s highly complex tax system and replace it with a simple 25% flat tax.

    It is the 25% flat tax being mopoted in Germany

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