How Not to Organize a Search

In the aftermath of a very long week in Massachusetts, two things about the response to the Boston Marathon bombing seem clear.

One is that command and control of the investigation was a mess. Rival federal agencies and police that couldn’t agree among themselves on Wednesday long enough to call a press conference overreacted Friday by shutting down some and eventually all of the city – then failed to find the fugitive. Political leadership, Gov. Deval Patrick in particular, seemed to simply stand aside. (Boston Mayor Tom Menino was sidelined with a broken leg.) With not much more than a shrug at the end of the day, the authorities ended their ill-considered “lockdown” Friday evening, fifteen hours after it began.

Ten minutes later, having been given official permission to go outdoors, a Watertown homeowner spotted tell-tale signs of the fugitive’s presence in a tarp-covered boat in his back yard. Journalist Jane Jacobs noted fifty years ago that populous streets are safe streets. Next time the police should rely much more on citizens’ eyeballs than their top-down expert systems.

The other interesting thing is that public radio beat the newspapers.  WBUR, Boston University’s National Public Radio affiliate, has been beefing up its news operations for years, adding reporters and editors to its staff, opinion pages and cultural coverage to its website. I listened to its coverage Friday for sixteen hours. Much of it was vamping, of course, boring repetition while waiting for some new scrap of news to arrive.

But whether it was talk-show host Robin Young recalling fugitive Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s charm at the prom party for her nephew she hosted two years before; or the reporter who, as the police closed in, congratulated a nine-year-old on his perspicacity, only to be told that kid next door had a police scanner: WBUR’s coverage had a distinctive hometown flavor and energy that made it possible to form judgments about events throughout the day.

As a former newspaperman I had high hopes for the Saturday editions.  But neither The Boston Globe nor The Boston Herald paper had anyone to compete with the authoritative Saturday morning commentary of WBUR’s veteran process reporter David Boeri. The news business is in flux, more than ever before. Newspapers still come out every day; they are just beginning to go to work on the many aspects of the story that need straightening out.

But Friday the Boston papers would have done well to assign someone to listen to and write about their competition.

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One way to understand the politics of the last couple of hundred years is as a running argument among those who emphasize self-reliance and others who stress social causation by distant forces of individual ills. In that view, Margaret Thatcher was about as dry as leaders of industrial democracies have ever come.

Yet even in her most infamous declaration of principles – “And, you know, there is no such thing as society” – she made a little room for fellow-feeling, at the level of the family.

I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. “I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.”  “I’m homeless, the government must house me.” They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

Almost everyone understands that innumerable collectivities, organized and unorganized, exist in the world between families and the sum of all such associations that we routinely describe as “society.” Mrs. Thatcher herself had a special fondness for the sort of agglomeration known as the nation-state – at least her own.

It seems to me that anyone who knows anything about the United Kingdom will acknowledge that Mrs. Thatcher’s leadership improved matters considerably in what in the 1970s had become a largely dysfunctional state.

It was her inability to reckon any better than she did with the duality of human existence that made her such a divisive leader. Ronald Reagan was more at home with the contradiction between citizen and self.

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What about in the dispute that erupted last week between three economists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Harvard team of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff?

It’s too complicated and too little ventilated for this week – the subject for another day.

5 responses to “How Not to Organize a Search”

  1. Good points. It was, again, a week for Twitter armed with a healthy skepticism of everything you read and heard. Local TV was really hapless in what should be their backyard and the Globe and Herald played catch-up all week.

    I hope there is a rigorous post mortem on this case. Without pointing fingers, there were a lot of mistakes that began with the Russian trip under an alias and ended with more mayhem that might have been avoided. Let’s be thankful, it’s over, but we better learn something from it all or we’re sure to see it happen again.

  2. Journalist Jane Jacobs noted fifty years ago that populous streets are safe streets.

    Based on all the pictures that I saw from just before the first explosion, Boylston street was pretty populous at that time, and it was not especially safe.

    The measure was extreme, perhaps an over-reaction, but I’m sympathetic to the authorities on this one. For all they knew Dzhokhar had more IEDs in the SUV; it seems to me worthwhile to keep people off the streets, at least for awhile, while he’s on the loose.

  3. Thatcher’s comment is an example of the extreme version of methodological individualism advocated by mostly conservative economists such as Von Mises and Hayek.

  4. A Canadian politico drew widespread scorn here for stating that welfare recipients ought to be able to raise their children without help, because after all, birds raise their chicks without government assistance, don’t they?

    Oh, and also there is no such thing as a sweater. After all, a sweater is nothing more than a length of yarn, right?

  5. I hope you address how Rogoff could, with a straight face, assert that the new Excel spread sheet supported his original study. Second, why did every error go in one direction? Using Baysian statistics, I would venture that the odds of all errors being unidirectional are about 1 in a million. Finally, how could Rogoff average one year of New Zealand high debt with 19 years of the UK high debt. I think Rogoff should talk to Nate Silver about Rogoff’s approach to statistical averages. Rogoff’s 2010 paper is comparable to the Protocol of the Elders of Zion or the Piltdown Man. It was a hoax. He should be fired by Harvard. If a student of his made the same mistakes and then tried to cover them up, he or she would be expelled. Why not the same justice for Rogoff?

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