Thursday, September 21, 2017

Disaster and Disruption

It is hard not to think about disasters this morning. At the top of the news I can read about one of the most damaging hurricanes in U.S. history. Frantic search and rescue efforts are underway after an earthquake brought down large buildings in central and southern Mexico. I know of several other disasters across North America, perhaps not to be found in the headlines today, but nevertheless in the early stages of cleanup.

It is important to stay informed, but it is hard to read disaster news and not cross over into simple worry. I can tell I have made that transition if I sift through ten more minutes of news imagining I will find a new update when everything I see just repeats information I have seen already. This is time wasted.

It is one of the old questions in economics whether disasters add to or take away from economic production. Two small examples suffice to illustrate the question. A window broken in a storm has to be replaced. The materials and labor count as new production. A bridge is underwater and workers cannot get to work today. The work they would have done can never quite be made up. Production is lost. The question is about the relative scale of rebuilding and disruption. Which is the larger effect?

In the disasters I am seeing this week, it is clear that disruption weighs heavily. Based on the photos I have seen from Mexico City, my guess is that less than 1 in 100 buildings will be demolished because of earthquake damage, but the disruption affects everyone in the city. Meanwhile, the worry that I described earlier affects a far larger number of people. Worry draws us away from productive work for varying periods of time, but it affects so many people that it adds up to a lot.

There are counterexamples, cases where rebuilding appears to be a larger effect than the disruption of a disaster, and then you can poke holes in the counterexamples. Business gurus insist that you have to shake things up to make progress, and there is more than a grain of truth in that, but merely shaking things is not a strategy. Totalitarian regimes regularly go to war on the theory that the hardship will be good for their respective nations’ fortunes, but unless an exceptionally clean and short war can be arranged, this strategy ends badly. War becomes merely a tool allowing corrupt leaders to cling to power for a few more years at most.

Recent studies in psychology suggest that productivity is improved and individual and organizational progress is faster when everything goes smoothly. There are times when disruptions help people focus, but stability boosts focus more reliably. To put it bluntly, if you want to be successful, good luck is better than bad luck. This is not so hard to believe. On which day are you more likely to do your best work: a day when the hurricane wind sounds like a freight train outside your window, or a day when the loudest sound you hear is a couple of songbirds?

It is beyond any of us as individuals to prevent hurricanes and earthquakes, but we can act to minimize the disruptions they cause. Sometimes we are in a position to make buildings more sturdy so that they are not so readily affected by shaking, pressure, heat, smoke, and water. All of us, though, are in a position to keep disaster news in its proper context. No matter the scale of a disaster, if it does not affect you or your town directly or nearly so, it is only right to set the news aside for hours at a time. You’ll still get all the news, if you choose, and the delay of a few hours costs you nothing. In the meantime, by not being immersed in the disaster, you can carry on with your own work in relative peace and productivity. Of course, the disaster news is still a distraction that can bother you even when you are not looking at it, but by reducing the extent of the distraction, you give yourself the best chance of completing something of value.