Out With the Old

Paul Kedrosky writes in The Edge:

How many calls to a typical U.S. fire department are actually about fires? Less than 20%. If fire departments aren’t getting calls about fires, what are they mostly getting calls about? They are getting calls about medical emergencies, traffic accidents, and, yes, cats in trees, but they are rarely being called about fires. They are, in other words, organizations that, despite their name, deal with everything but fires. 

Everywhere you look you see fire departments. Not, literally, fire departments, but organizations, technologies, institutions and countries that, like fire departments, are long beyond their “past due” date, or weirdly vestigial, and yet remain widespread and worryingly important. 

There’s probably a cheaper and more efficient way to deal with the 80% of problems that trained firefighters deal with that aren’t about things burning. Or, maybe not. But it is interesting to look around and think about what else we’re doing — or building, or paying for, or living with — that doesn’t make sense:

One of my favorite examples comes from the siting of cities. Many U.S. river cities are where they are because of portages, the carrying of boats and cargo around impassable rapids. This meant, many times, overnight stays, which led to hotels, entertainment, and, eventually, local industry, at first devoted to shipping, but then broader. Now, however, those portage cities are prisoners of history, sitting along rivers that no longer matter for their economy, meanwhile struggling with seasonal floods and complex geographies antithetical to development—all because a few early travelers using transportation technologies that no longer matter today had to portage around a few rapids. To put it plainly, if we rebooted right now most of these cities would be located almost anywhere else first.

We’re living with an “installed base” of things that we’d be wise to rethink. What’s interesting, to me, is how willing we all are to put up with rapid and often capital-intensive rebooting in our personal lives — how often have we upgraded computers, phones, appliances, even houses in the past 20 years — but how hard it is to get our, ahem, leaders to rethink the installed base of universal retirement plans (Social Security) and national health insurance.

Does anyone think those two things are modern? Or efficient? Or reflective of the way we live in 2013?


History increasingly traps us, creating paths—and endowments and costs, both in time and money—that must be traveled before we can change directions, however desirable those new directions might seem. History—the path by which we got here, and the endowments and effluvia it has left us—is an increasingly large weight on our progress. Our built environment is an installed base, like an ancient computer operating systems that holds back progress because compatibility gives such an immense advantage. 

I wonder if that’s a possible theme, for those of us looking to persuade the giant swath of Americans to rethink our ossified entitlement programs: they’re old. They’re yesterday. They’re holding us back.