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How a community can deal with an uncertain future (editorial)

This edition of the Tribune is full of state and local election issues, but what the official text of all these proposed laws does not address is the most critical: How do we as a community, region, state, and nation deal with an uncertain and unpredictable future?

It’s a question that each reader should pull around as they look over the proposed laws in the week’s edition. In this editorial, I have a few tips to use.

The future and its hidden risks are shielded from our view and no matter how many experts, economists, and forecasters try to predict what will happen next year, they will never succeed due to the simple math involved. There are just too many variables to make prediction possible.

So if we cannot predict, what can we do to deal with uncertainty?
In his tome, “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder” Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains that life on planet Earth had to deal with an uncertain future, and the way life dealt with that uncertainty was through trial and error mixed with overreaction to stressors in the environment. This concept he deemed Antifragile.

But the concept is hard to grasp. What is the opposite of fragile? The first words that pop into our minds are robust, strong, or resilient. But that is not the exact opposite of something that is fragile. The opposite of fragile is something that, having gone through stress, not only survives but becomes stronger after the stress. The only things that are capable of being antifragile are lifeforms.

The saying “what does not kill us makes us stronger” captures antifragility perfectly. When you lift a heavy weight, say 100 lbs, your body will start getting ready to lift more, say 105 lbs. Therefore, we gain strength by placing our bodies through stress.

Of course, there is a limit to gains from stress. Falling from a building would not improve our health.

Antifragility applies to complex human systems such as government, and each new law has the ability to increase the resilience of the population or decrease it.

Let’s use the front-page story of the Tribune as a test of applying antifragility. The local fire department is seeking an increase in its mill levy tax rate. For the past decade, the fire budget has shrunk every two years thanks to an interplay between the Colorado Constitution Amendments of Gallagher and TABOR. This lack of funds has forced the department to be financially lean, creative at finding or raising funds, and being creative to find a way to protect the citizens of Custer County. The Wet Mountain Fire District is the best department in Colorado for its size and volunteer force. The lack of funds caused antifragility to take place.

But too much stress can lead to destruction. The department’s funds will be cut again in 2019 and with a growing population in the county, it becomes hard to see how the department can protect the citizens of the Valley. We have hit a point where it is becoming impossible to squeeze more efficiency and antifragility from the department.

What would the fire department look like if it loses another $100,000 a year? Not good is the short answer.

So, when reading proposed law ask how does this make our community and state more resilient or more fragile? Tax cuts can be a good thing for bloated overspending government organizations, but no funds to critical services can harm a community. A quick rule is that government debt increases fragility in most areas, as a loan is a bet that it can be repaid in the future and the future economy is not predictable. But tax increases that produce cash are less problematic because it can be adjusted year by year, funding useful public services. However, too much tax can impoverish local businesses, causing more harm than the tax gives to the public.

With an unpredictable future, redundancy and antifragility is a strategy that works and allows communities to survive the hard times.

Jordan Hedberg