Life is lumpy, and we can’t change that. Charles wants life to be crunchy, because he wins more that way. Fred needs life to be robust, and that’s what progressives advocate. (More)

Planning for Chance, Part III – Robustness (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looked at the role of chance our lives. Thursday we examined lumpiness: why events come in clusters, and why we especially notice clusters of bad events. Yesterday we considered crunchiness: the conservative view of how to deal with chance. Today we discuss the progressive alternative: robustness.

On the way to the moon….

Forty-one years ago this past Monday, Apollo 13 lifted off for the moon. Two days into the flight, on April 13th, an oxygen tank exploded and damaged the spacecraft, ending any chance of landing on the moon. Instead the mission changed to how to get the crew home alive. Forty-one years ago tomorrow, Apollo 13 splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean.

Most of us know the story from director Ron Howard’s 1995 movie. While the filmmakers took dramatic license with some details – such as changing the astronauts’ words “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” to “Houston, we have a problem” – the participants of Apollo 13 said the movie was reasonably accurate. It’s a very suspenseful story. It’s also a progressive story about a very robust system … the opposite of what Nico Colchester called crunchiness.

Colchester described crunchy systems as “those in which small changes have big effects leaving those affected by them in no doubt whether they are up or down, rich or broke, winning or losing, dead or alive.” As we saw yesterday, a crunchy economic system favors Charles, our archetypal wealthy conservative. Charles’ wealth cushions him from life’s inevitable Bad Lumps: clusters of bad things or one Really Bad Thing.

But a crunchy economic system is perilous for Fred, our archetypal median voter. In that system, a Bad Lump may cost Fred his home, or even his life. Fred needs an economic system like Apollo 13 — one that is robust, with resilience, reserves, and redundancies.


Resilient systems move before they snap, and under normal circumstances they move without snapping. A tree’s branches sway in the wind. An animal’s tail counterbalances and dampens movement. A ligament stretches if pulled. A collarbone fractures to reduce impact stress on the shoulder and spine.

We find those same qualities in robust manmade systems. A well-designed skyscraper sways in the wind, and modern buildings in earthquake zones include tuned mass dampers that do the same job as an animal’s tail. Well-designed roads and bridges have expansion joints so they can stretch and contract in changing temperatures. Well-designed vacuum-barrier windows have fail-safe fracture points that act like a human collarbone: a benign break prevents a catastrophic break. The Apollo 13 spacecraft was also resilient; the ship shuddered when the oxygen tank exploded, but it didn’t tear apart. Resilient systems absorb bad events without snapping … if we maintain them.

Likewise, a robust economy is resilient. Faced with a bad thing, a family, business, or government may need to rearrange priorities (sway and damper), get a short-term loan (stretch), or cancel a desired but non-essential plan (fail-safe fracture). But under normal circumstances, it won’t snap … if we maintain those resilient options.

And most of us are resilient under normal circumstances, where life is mostly placid, with a few small bad things sprinkled along the way. But what if we hit a Bad Lump, or one Really Bad Thing?

Reserves and Redundancies …

When we hit a Bad Lump or a Really Bad Thing, resilience may not be enough. We can sway, counter-balance, stretch, and fracture safely only so long. At some point we need reserves and redundancies: capacity in excess of routine needs. Trees have more branches, leaves, and roots than they need for day-to-day nutrition. If one branch or root is damaged, the others should be enough to keep it alive until it can grow other branches or roots to make up for the loss.

A robust manmade system also includes reserves and redundancies. Few well-run businesses have just one person who can do any specific job. School systems have substitute teachers. Restaurants often schedule more wait staff than they need, in case someone calls in sick or gets ill or injured and has to go home. Families and businesses also often have cash reserves, a savings account or other emergency fund.

But sometimes individual reserves and redundancies aren’t enough. If Fred gets ill or injured, Mrs. Fred could try to move from her part-time job to a full-time job. But she might not find one right away, and the job she finds may not pay as well as Fred’s did. Plus there are medical bills. And what if Fred’s illness or injury leaves him unable to take care of their daughter, the Fredling? With Mrs. Fred having to work, what do they do?

… including each other.

In a robust economic system, that’s when we must be each others’ reserves and redundancies. Maybe Fred’s company keeps him on the payroll – even though he can’t work for a few weeks or months – at reduced pay. Maybe Fred’s company also offers disability insurance, to make up the difference. Maybe the company also offers health insurance, to pay those medical bills.

The costs of Fred’s injury or illness may be greater than his yearly premiums. Those costs may even be greater than all the premiums Fred has paid so far. The difference comes from the other people on those insurance plans, the ones who didn’t get seriously sick or injured that year, maybe never get sick or injured at all. The policy holders are each others’ reserves and redundancies.

We do the same through government, because sometimes even all the nation’s Freds together can’t cover the Bad Lumps. Fred’s median income doesn’t allow for many reserves and redundancies, and he needs to keep most of that to handle ordinary bad things and small Bad Lumps. So as President Obama said Wednesday:

For much of the last century, our nation found a way to afford these investments and priorities with the taxes paid by its citizens. As a country that values fairness, wealthier individuals have traditionally born a greater share of this burden than the middle class or those less fortunate. This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well – we rightly celebrate their success. Rather, it is a basic reflection of our belief that those who have benefited most from our way of life can afford to give a bit more back. [Emphasis added.]

Maintaining resilience, reserves, and redundancies looks a lot like “waste,” until you need it. And life’s inevitable lumpiness means Fred will need resilience, reserves, and redundancies, sooner or later. When he does, they don’t look like “waste” anymore. They look like the sensible features of a robust system.

Conservatives don’t mind crunchy systems because Charles’ wealth provides his personal safety net of resilience, reserves, and redundancies.

That’s not enough for Fred. He needs systems that are as robust as trees, or Apollo 13 … or a good, progressive government.


Happy Saturday!