The Hidden Costs of Graft

That will be in Vol.36:4, Section 19B.2.19 (Image by Viktor Talashuk via Unsplash)

I act as the Emergency Management Director (EMD) for our little village of about 800. Mostly what that means is that I compile our annual Local Emergency Management Plan (LEMP) in April, coordinate our five-year Local Hazard Mitigation Plan (LHMP) coming up again in 2024, and pay attention to what the Vermont Department of Health is telling us about COVID.

Yesterday, I was in our neighboring metropolis for a five-hour workshop provided to local EMDs by our regional planning commission and the state’s office of emergency management, running through a scenario about the remnants of a tropical storm dumping five or six inches of rain in a 36 hour period, with winds gusting up to 70 miles an hour. Not unreasonable; a Hurricane Irene sort of event. We talked about how we’d open and staff our Emergency Operations Center (EOC), what we’d have done in advance of the storm, during the storm, immediately after the storm, and in the subsequent two weeks when some of the remote areas STILL didn’t have electrical service. And one of the things we talked about was debris management.

In our town, debris management mostly means downed trees. That would occur in two phases: the first phase would be cutting brush and sectioning branches to drag off to the roadside so that we could make things passable, and the later phase would be disposing of all of that cut brush and sectioned wood. In low-lying areas of the County, the definition of “debris” would be more likely to include a broad and messy array of crap moved around during a flood, ranging from refrigerators to propane tanks to dead animals to building materials, along with probably quite a lot of mud and gravel. One of the first phases of disaster reclamation is getting the crap out of the way, for public safety and for a clear playing field to rebuild on.

Foolish person that I am, I volunteered at the end of the meeting to take on two tasks and report back to the larger community. One was to investigate policies for non-competitive hiring of immediate disaster relief contractors, people who just wade out there and get stuff done in the first couple of days. You don’t have time to advertise those jobs, and they aren’t expected to endure anyway; you just call your friends who are trained loggers to go out and cut brush so you can clear roads, and you hire the farmer who also has a trucking business to haul gravel in and branches out, and you try after the fact to get them reimbursed.

But the second task broke me.

I volunteered to investigate policies for post-disaster debris management. Which led me to the August 2020 Interim Public Assistance Debris Monitoring Guide, published by FEMA. Fifty-four pages of requirements for debris control, all of which must be followed in order for a town to provide adequate justification for disaster reimbursement. We have to have a “debris monitor” who oversees the retrieval, the staging, and the ultimate disposal of all refuse. We have to have truck loading guidelines, and refuse-separation guidelines. We have to name our job-cost accounting methods, and have draft contracts ready to go in order to hire trucking contractors to retrieve and dispose of our junk.

It’s easy to look at all of this and get all red-faced and shouty about big government and bureaucracy and the time-suck of paperwork. But every single bit of this is a response to someone’s malfeasance at some point in the past. Every line in the tax code is a response to a tax cheat in the past. Every regulation in a health-care chain is a response to insurance fraud that’s happened before and shouldn’t happen again. We are buried in regulations because we are beset by grifters who’ve tried to skim a little money or save a little time.

So someone, somewhere, was running half-full trucks of debris and claiming full load capacities to make a few hundred extra dollars, and now we all have ten pages of monitoring guidelines to prevent that from happening. Someone was jamming all the debris they could find together into one truckload, regardless of whether it was a dead cow or a pile of tires or a half-filled gas can, and trying to tip it all together into the landfill. And now we have a dozen pages of refuse-segregation requirements to prevent that from happening.

Colleges and workplaces have equal-opportunity hiring guidelines because decades of people just somehow seemed to have hired nothing but white guys (golly, how about that, what a coincidence). We have Title IX guidelines because decades of college decisions seem not to have recognized that women actually go to college and deserve to be well-served (and because too many men are predatory).

Every law is the product of a prior abuse. So if we want less regulation in our lives, we just have to quit being dicks about everything. We have to encourage our friends not to be dicks about everything. We have to prosecute white-collar crimes aggressively and early, at low levels, before they metastasize into systemic abuses, criminal organizations armied up with lawyers and accountants to muddy the waters.

Jane Jacobs, in her wonderful book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, puts forth the idea that commerce and government play mutually regulating roles, that they are by necessity in opposition, the engine and the brakes of civic society. Which, of course, means they have to be relatively balanced in size and scope. The difference is that commerce is represented by hundreds of thousands of organizations, from the country store to Goldman Sachs, and government is seen as a monolith, a single occupying force. But “big government” has all grown in response to millions of stupid, abusive, decentralized decisions.

To paraphrase your mom in her worst moments of frustration, this is why we can’t have nice things. This is why we have to have a wall full of manuals for emergency management, and state and federal agencies dedicated to their oversight, and monthly trainings about how a town of 800 people and its volunteers have to deal with disaster reimbursement. Why we have EMDs and LEMPs and LHMPs and EOCs and endless other acronyms and initialisms. Because of demonstrated mistakes and abuses that have occurred before, and need to be avoided in the future.

As the old proverb has it, when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

Week Ten—Permission to Land

I have the runway in visual. (Image by Jordi Moncasi, via Unsplash)

After ten weeks, I can see the end of the journey. It’s probably fifteen or twenty thousand words out, another few weeks, but I know how to land the plane. And on Wednesday, I absolutely did not. But I’m in contact with the tower now, I’ve got my coordinates for approach. All I have to do is be attentive to weather and traffic, and we’ll be home safely.

I’ll continue to report as we approach the runway and terminal, I’ll give you updates on arrival gates and all that, but you can rest now. We’re going to make it. This flight that departed on June 7 will be in soon.

Please leave your safety belts fastened until we pull up to the gate.

What I Know After Nine Weeks

The teams are sorted out… (Image by Pascal Swier, via Unsplash)

This past week has been volcanic, with allegiances being shifted and everyone discovering their limits. One opponent has begun to come around; one ally has become oppositional; and one other person, hinted at in the first twenty pages a couple of times, has now appeared, her allegiances not yet fully clear. Even whole communities are shown to be in opposition, neither side blameless.

That’s always a fascinating point. When the good guy reveals her or his shortcomings, when the bad guy shows us why she thinks she’s doing good. Writers build the stakes by showing us the conflict in unambiguous terms, then they build the story by showing us that things aren’t as clear as they’d seemed.

We’re on the glide path to landing now, about 60,000 words in. I don’t really aim for this, it’s not like I’m a TV writer who knows that I have exactly 22 minutes for this episode, but all of my novels have all been of similar length. The shortest, Trailing Spouse, is 61,000; the longest (four of them more or less tied) are at about 90,000. It seems to be the container I’m built to fill.

The generic guidelines for an adult novel put it between 70-100K. But of course, there’s been vast variability across time and writer. The five books in The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin have all been over 300,000 words. Atlas Shrugged for a long time, over 560,000 words. At the other end of the scale, three classics of high school English—The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm—all clock in at fewer than 30,000 words.

The general range, 70 to 100, holds a lot of familiar books.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • 1984
  • The English Patient
  • Frankenstein
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Color Purple

That’s what you think of as a novel. About an inch thick in paperback (in modern terms; in the old-school compression of the Bantam and Dell paperback era, closer to half an inch, each page dense with ideas). It’s a comfortable space, the detached house of ideas, each family occupying its independent dwelling for us to visit.

Short story compilations, by contrast, seem more like apartment buildings. Smaller boxes, more families, not all of whom get along or even know of one another’s existence. And flash fiction is like seeing people in the subway station as you zip by on the express train; none of them matter, none of them are knowable, they’re just the interesting array of life to consider and then forget. At the length of a novel, I’m with this family long enough to start to learn who they are as they drop their guardedness. It’s an ethnographic form, built for deep learning of a few people.