NEW YORK—No one could have known.
That's what they always say after a disaster. "No one could have known" is the perfect excuse. But it's rarely true. Most of the time, the people responsible for what went wrong were warned in advance. They simply chose to ignore the warnings.
Why? In the case of government officials and corporate executives, it's typically because acting on such warnings would cost them money. Sometimes it's because the man or woman who predicts the mayhem about to unfold doesn't have the status, title or connections to make themselves heard.
After hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff called the disaster "breathtaking in its surprise."
"That 'perfect storm' of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners and maybe anybody's foresight," Chertoff said.
It didn't surprise everyone. "We understood the potential impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane" on New Orleans, Lt. General Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the same week.
Harry Markopolos, a Boston financial analyst, wrote No One Would Listen detailing the eight years he spent trying to convince the SEC to go after Bernard Madoff, who was responsible for the disappearance of $65 billion.
The financial collapse that began in the fall of 2008 was attributable to the burst of the housing bubble, fiscal shenanigans at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the practice of allowing investment banks to hire and fire rating agencies. Economists, corporate insiders and journalists had warned about these problems since at least 2004.
From the lack of WMDs in Iraq (Scott Ritter knew) to the recent mine disaster in West Virginia (inspectors knew), nearly every calamity could have been avoided. All the idiots in charge had to do was listen.
Adam Cohen writes in The New York Times: "Predictions of disaster have always been ignored--that is why there is a Cassandra myth--but it is hard to think of a time when so many major warned-against calamities have occurred in such quick succession. The next time someone is inclined to hold hearings on a disaster, they should ask ... why well-founded warnings are so often ignored."
Cohen cites four causes for institutional resistance to doing the right/smart thing before it's too late: ideology (reflexive thinking), change would threaten the powers-that-be, inertia and incompetence. I'd like to add another: the fear to speak truth to power, which is intimately coupled with powers that tell truth to shut up.
Look around today. Who are we ignoring? Let's start with economists who warn that the U.S. economy is at the end of its rope, that the federal government can't keep increasing the deficit, that underpaying workers as the rich get richer is a recipe for revolution.
The fact that we are ignoring the scientists who warn of rising floodwaters due to global warming, dust storms and mass famine due to excessive cultivation and overpopulation, and untold damage to our ecosystem as thousands of species go extinct, proves a terrible point: As a society, we are nearly as stupid as our bosses and public officials.