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Our Brittle System

It's hard to predict the timing of massive systemic failures. But once complex, interconnected systems start to fail, they tend to do so in predictable ways. "Cascading failure" describes a common scenario in which a single failed part triggers a chain of successive failures and eventually collapses an entire system. Examples: an overloaded transformer blows, spiking voltage to other transformers, which also fail, bringing down a power grid and plunging an entire region into darkness. A single truss supporting one floor of a skyscraper gives way, pancaking that floor onto the ones beneath it to cause total progressive collapse. A trader at a too-big-to-fail bank is overexposed to derivatives on unsecured debts, generating enough systemic risk to threaten an entire financial system. A cat bite on the thumb causes sepsis, which triggers sequential organ failure. Higher arctic temparatures due to climate change melt the permafrost, releasing vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere, likely resulting in mass extinction. In each case, interdependence magnifies both the threat and potential severity of systemic failure.

So when the United States elects someone mentally and morally unfit for civic leadership as its top official, it invites a reckoning about the country--and the world's--systemic vulnerabilities. This used to be a familiar line of thinking for most Americans. Duck-and-cover drills in schools offered a routine reminder to multiple generations of Americans that life as they knew it depended on the competence and sanity of their country's leaders. But decades of relative peace and stability at home have given rise to the profoundly antihistorical notion that our systems of politics, governance and civil order are self-sustaining. That the familiar rhythms of our lives will endure regardless of electoral outcomes. That politics itself is an abstraction--an escape from the mundanities of "real life." In the election cycle that just ended, that civic lassitude gave rise to the widespread acceptance of more specific fallacies, like the one which holds that with "smart people" to offer advice, anyone can successfully lead the country. As if a man with multiple irremediable character disorders could choose an effective cabinet.

On those rare quiet days at the White House, President Trump might just be adequate to his job, despite his manifest personal limitations. But most days won't be like that. And some days will bring horror and confusion. There will be natural disasters, and mass shootings, and terrorist attacks, and acts of geopolitical aggression that demand an American response. Some of the moments Trump will face as president would tax the judgment and emotional reserves of even the most competent, prepared and focused leader. Pressure and uncertainty come with the job. But the character and judgment to master them can only come from the person who holds it. Donald Trump is wholly unequal to the terrifying--and decisive--moments sure to come. But he will face them all the same.

Our systems of governance and civil order constitute what theorists might call "brittle systems." (Warning: PDF.) They are imbricated and interdependent with other systems--financial, environmental, etc. As of now, they retain the outward appearance of stability, rationality and permanence ("hardness"). But they lack "ductility," i.e. the ability to gracefully adapt to stress, making them vulnerable to fracture and cascading failure. We caught a glimpse of what that failure might look like in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina broke the levees protecting New Orleans from flooding. Federal, state and local governments underestimated the severity of the storm's impact, failed to gather the appropriate resources or communicate with each other, and well over a thousand people died as a result. We caught another glimpse in 2008, when high default rates among subprime home mortgages--the predictable result of ill-considered degregulation in the late 1990s--crippled the global economy and touched off the "Great Recession" from which many are still recovering. Only an extraordinary injection of liquid capital by the US and other governments prevented a second Great Depression. With the earth-shaking revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, we are arguably seeing the cracks in the foundations of our governing systems yet again.

In these scenarios, expert leadership is one of the strongest backstops against cascading failure. But Donald Trump is not an expert leader. In fact, he is himself a systemic stressor. His incipient presidency--already erratic and concussive in the extreme--introduces a new level of instability to an already-fragile network of interlinked systems. The Trump presidency is a fool’s bet that our systems of governance and civic order can withstand an agent of chaos at their head. We all have a lot riding on that bet--far more, in fact, than we can yet foresee.

Eric Busch

2300 Red River Street, University of Texas at Austin, TX, 78712

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