What Forest Fires Tell Us About Financial Crises

What Forest Fires Tell Us About Financial Crises

06 December 2015

published by www.forbes.com

USA– How was the 2007-8 financial crisis like a massive forest fire, superstorm or antibiotic-resistant bacteria? They share much in common.

If you enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, or Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, prepare yourself for a major holiday treat. The Wall Street Journal’s chief economics commentator Greg Ip recently authored Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe.

Foolproof is cut from the same bolt of lightning. Foolproof may change the way you think about some of the most important political, economic and social problems besetting us. It changed my thinking. (Full disclosure: Ip and I have publicly dueled over his criticism of the gold standard. He generously tweeted out my response. Neither of us seem to have changed the other’s mind on that particular topic.)

My own long, informal, study of the rise and fall of civilizations convinces me that empires (and, for that matter, republics) rarely fall due to their political elite’s moving too far left or too far right. Failure occurs, rather, from creeping myopia–failure to see the big picture–in the elite political classes.

Failure comes from asking the wrong questions. It comes from thinking about the presenting questions of the day sloppily. Ip’s book offers an elegant antidote to our myopia.

Most of Foolproof lucidly addresses the world financial system. It provides a superior systemic overview of the causes, cures and potential recurrence of major financial crisis. Invest accordingly.

Ip also, materially rather than metaphorically, analyzes how comparable political and social dynamics have caused, among other matters, America’s Western forests to become a catastrophic tinder box for million-acre forest fires; how these dynamics vastly have worsened the impact of superstorms; have put us on the brink of catastrophic antibiotic resistance; and have brought us to rely on more, rather than less, dangerous energy sources. Among other matters.

Ip, compellingly, divides the thought leaders of the policy world into “engineers” and “ecologists.”

Philosophically, they fall into two schools of thought. One, which I call the engineers, seeks to use the maximum of our knowledge and ability to solve problems and make the world safer and more stable; the other, which I call the ecologists, regards such efforts with suspicion, because given the complexity and adaptability of people and the environment, they will always have unintended consequences that may be worse than the problem we are trying to solve.

“Engineers vs. ecologists” could be an intellectual breakthrough. Paradoxically, progressive Democrats lean toward engineering, free-market Republicans lean ecologist. Ip’s taxonomy sets up an elegant, possibly invaluable, novel paradigm.

Under this new paradigm it might dawn on those economic engineers, a/k/a “Neo-Keynesians,” that the economic ecologists, d/b/a “libertarians,” might be on to something, something profound and humane. And vice versa.

Thereby Ip opens a door to what one devoutly hopes will grow into a productive new national conversation. Ip powerfully describes the quandary in which our public officials routinely find themselves. He concludes not so much by offering neat solutions but by pointing a way out.

Ip, opening:

This has been quite the decade for catastrophe. The world has witnessed not one but two financial meltdowns, one centered in America, the other in Europe. There has been a parade of ever more costly and destructive natural disasters. Much of our hand-wringing has been about all the things we did wrong to bring this on…. My story, however, is not about human failure; it is about human success—and how that success led to many of those same disasters, and the lessons we should learn.

If it were only bad behavior at work, the answer would be straightforward: pass more rules, and enforce them vigorously. But by seeing these events solely as a morality play, we’re going to miss something very important and make it harder to solve them. Oftentimes, it’s not the nefarious stuff that does us in; it’s the well intentioned.

Ip does not offer up a tight agenda. This does not represent a balk. Intellectual humility, in Washington, is as refreshing as it is rare. Ip does something important. He changes the context and the nature of the question itself. Changing the question has profound implications on how we think, and talk, about and maybe even solve, the presenting problems of the day.

Ip’s first chapter is titled Progressives, Engineers, and Ecologists. In it he describes how the financial Panic of 1907 led to strong federal measures–leading to the creation of the Federal Reserve System–to avert the next one. Some of these measures led, albeit gradually and indirectly, to the Great Depression. And, then, on to 2007….

He then describes the generally-forgotten forest fires in the American West of 1910, fires which burned 4,000 square miles of forest, killing at least 85 people. It was a fire beyond the scope of anything until then experienced. This led to a determination by the federal government to extinguish such fires.

This, of course, led to our current predicament: Federal suppression of natural, self-limiting, forest fires has turned much of the American West into a tinderbox. As a direct result now, thank you Smokey Bear, we are confronting megafires threatening more lives, communities and land than otherwise we would.

And there’s a ratchet effect. Ip:

The temporary moratorium on prescribed burns in western national parks following the Yellowstone fires led to increased land development nearby compared to areas where prescribed burns continued. Such development makes it more costly to let fires burn. [Fire historian Stephen] Pyne attests to this, saying that for most forest managers there’s a strong default in favor of suppression: ‘If you set a prescribed fire or let a natural fire burn, and that escapes, that could be a career-ending move. If you attack a fire and it escapes you’ll be applauded as a hero.’ He quotes a forester he met at Sequoia National Park saying, ‘I go to work every day knowing that a wind shift could land me in jail.’

Comparable tensions exist in other areas, for example to flooding caused by events such as Superstorm Sandy. Ip explores many of these compellingly.

So, given the human dynamics at work, are we doomed? Not necessarily. Ip calls for adopting a balance between the immediate-problem-solving-bigger-problem-creating-engineers … and the ecologists:

Engineers satisfy our desire for control, for eliminating the anxiety that comes with uncertainty and the unknown. They fulfill civilization’s need to act, to do something, to take the existing chaotic mess and make it better. Engineers have made car crashes more survivable, enabled people to live and prosper in treacherous places, and devised lifesaving medicine and technology. Economic engineers have figured out how to make recessions and financial crises less severe.

But we should not ask too much of them. We can make disaster and crisis less frequent and more survivable, but we won’t end either. Nor should we want to. Periodic crisis is the price we pay for an economic system that encourages, and rewards, risk. Periodic disasters are the price we pay for situating our cities in desirable, productive places.


The Federal Reserve is, in its DNA, an organization of engineers tasked with ending panics, recession, and inflation. Yet in achieving precisely that, it often plants the seeds for the next crisis or recession. The Fed should not stop fighting recessions and crises, nor should it have to use its powers for every shock that comes along. Once the biggest banks can fail safely, then the entire financial system will be more resilient.

The engineers and the ecologists in their different ways embody the best of civilization. We do not have to side with either, but we can take the best of both. Our goal should be to eliminate big disasters, not small ones, to accept a bit more risk and instability today in return for more reward and stability in the long run.

Ip does not take sides. That said, the engineers currently dominate the policy sector. By calling attention to the legitimacy of the points made by ecologists Greg Ip makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to the national conversation.

Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe could produce a national, and deserves to be the next, Tipping Point. Take it to heart.

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