Monday, September 30, 2002

Politics and Statistics--Drink Coffee Before Reading

This week's column contains not one, but two, eye-glazing topics, politics and statistics. Consider yourself warned. The editor's headline is a bit over the top; instead, my point is that there's no technological "solution" to vote counting, only reducing the number of errors. And none of the current systems quite approach what industry calls "Six Sigma" quality (or at least they did back in the days that we worshipped business), and in tight races, that margin of error may exceed the margin of victory. My advice to candidates: Try to win by more than one vote.

East Valley Tribune, September 29, 2002

The GOP primary for the newly redistricted District 11 state Senate seat pitted incumbent Sen. Sue Gerard (about whom I cannot say enough good things) and current Rep. Barbara Leff (about whom I shall say nothing). Both Leff and Gerard spent over $120,000, and the race was as tight as expected -- a lesson in how votes count.

Out of more than 18,000 votes cast, Leff beat Gerard on election night by 27 votes. The margin was so tight that the winner had to wait for some 30,000 miscellaneous Maricopa County ballots, from people who had requested an early ballot but didn’t mail it in time, or who otherwise had cast a questioned ballot -- ballots which could have come from any party or legislative district in the county.

On Sunday, the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office announced that Leff still had won, now by 37 votes. The “late ballots” increased her margin by 11 votes, while changing the results of an equally-close race in the GOP House primary. The final initial count showed a 38-vote margin.

(In the District 11 GOP House race, Steve Tully and Steve May seemingly had won the two spots, with Deb Gullett finishing third by 13 votes. The late ballots, however, changed the results, with Gullett overtaking May by 58 votes.)

The Leff-Gerard race fell within the 50-vote margin requiring a full recount. The automatic recount didn’t change the result, only the margin. Leff now won by 60 votes. But the automatic recount, despite not changing the outcome, was statistically fascinating.

Maricopa County votes using optical scanning technology, with voters marking ballots by completing an arrow with a pen. Optical scanners “read” each ballot and tally the votes. In an official recount, elections officials, as required by statute, run the ballots through a different machine. Nobody expected any difference in the result, because nobody expects machines to disagree.

In the recount, county officials use their “best” scanner, which means the most sensitive. The “better” machine detected a surprising number of missing votes, for both candidates, missed by the “regular” machines.

The official vote totals from the regular count and the recount, tracking the 5 possible results, are shown on the graph: a vote for Gerard; a vote for Leff; an “undervote,” where a ballot did not indicate a vote for either; a “write-in” ballot, where a voter wrote in a third person, and an “overvote,” where the voter voted for both candidates, either by completing both arrows or by write-in.

[I can't get the chart (not a "graph") to reproduce in Blogger, so here are the raw numbers:

Official Count: Gerard 8,402; Leff 8,439; Undervote 1,339; Write-In 49; Overvote 18.

Recount: Gerard 8,441; Leff 8,501; Undervote 1,235; Write-In 50; Overvote 20.]

Both the official count, and the recount, showed 18,247 total ballots. In the recount, Gerard gained 39 votes, but Leff gained 62 votes, a net gain of 23.

Note two interesting facts. First, 1,235 people in an upscale district who bothered to vote in a low-turnout primary didn’t vote in a high-profile state legislative race.

Second, notice the drop in the number of undervotes -- 104 votes for both candidates ignored in the official count. Despite our faith in optical scanners, the official count missed 104 valid votes out of 18,247. The result didn’t change, but our state-of-the-art machines missed 0.126 percent of the votes.

That’s not much of an error rate -- unless the election is close. Say, like in Florida in 2000, where out of more than 5.8 million votes cast, an error rate of 0.126 percent means 7,300 uncounted votes, more than a dozen times more than Bush’s announced margin of 537.

Democracy is an approximation. A mandate may be merely the margin of error. And congratulations to the winners.

Monday, September 23, 2002

Stupidity or Cupidity--You Make the Call

For those of you not steeped in Arizona politics, you might not realize that Matt Salmon, the GOP nominee for governor, is working as a lobbyist while he campaigns for governor. Ever read one of those right-wingers who attack liberals because we're so beholden to government and conservatives are morally superior because they'd rather be in the private sector? What does it mean that in Arizona, they've nominated someone who doesn't know how to earn a living apart from government, either as an official or a lobbyist?

I now have to take back my claim (entry of 9/12/02; link not working) that Dick Mahoney hasn't attacked Matt Salmon without going after Janet Napolitano, too. This one was too rich to resist, even for Dick. And what does it say about the Betsey Bayless campaign that they completely missed this issue during the GOP primary?

The editor deleted the last line--apparently for space considerations, but who knows? Bob also didn't like my original opening line, that even more than The Tribune likes Matt Salmon, The Tribune hates light rail.

East Valley Tribune, September 22, 2002

Matt Salmon isn’t even running for governor full-time. Instead, he schedules campaigning around his regular job -- as a lobbyist for light rail and the phone company. Nice work if you can get it. (And just how do you think he got it?)

The Tribune originally disclosed Salmon’s lobbying (ahem, consulting) client list back in May. This past week, The Arizona Republic reported that Salmon still represents three: The City of Phoenix, Maverick Convenience Stores, and Qwest Communications. In campaign speeches, Salmon may recite the cliché about working for Arizona, but currently he’s working to snag federal funds for Phoenix light rail and for our friendly neighborhood under-SEC-investigation phone company.

Salmon defends his high-paying lobbying gig thusly: “I am a real guy . . . that works for a living and I’m proud of it.” (I’ve deleted his references to family because they aren’t running for governor and deserve their privacy, even if Salmon wants to hide behind them.) Just a regular guy, proudly working for a living -- a “Lunch Bucket Lobbyist.”

Here’s Matt Salmon’s definition of what “a real guy” does when he “works for a living”: He “advises” Qwest executives on getting what they want from state and federal regulators. He meets with other “policy-makers” on Qwest’s radar, like mayors and city council members. For Phoenix, he maintains and develops contacts with members of Congress and the Bush administration on city priorities; advises city officials on their own contacts; and participates in a weekly conference call.

Qwest won’t say how much it pays Salmon for advising and schmoozing, but Phoenix had to disclose that it paid $187,000 for his services over the past year. This summer, Phoenix cut the contract in half because campaigning put a crimp in Salmon’s schedule, so now he only gets $75,000 annually. A campaign spokesperson said that Salmon does his lobbying during his “private time.” Thus, his day consists of campaigning throughout the state, then earning his potential six-figure lobbying income. And then if there’s any time left, maybe he helps out around the house.

While he pays his “expenses” (which also get publicly reported; go to it, reporters!) out of the monthly fees, he’s still raking in at least four or five times the average income for an Arizona family, while asking for their votes.

Salmon’s lobbying put the upcoming GOP fundraiser in perspective. Of course George W. Bush will raise money here. He’s spending more time than even Bill Clinton did raising political cash all over the country, but in Arizona, the GOP fundraising machine can eliminate potential inefficiencies.

Instead of raising money from highly-paid lobbyists for mere politicians, now they can raise money from highly-paid lobbyists to benefit another highly-paid lobbyist -- cutting out the middleman. It’s Bush’s and Salmon’s idea of Nirvana: Government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, and for the lobbyists.

Lobbying for private clients while running for public office is perfectly legal. Oh, some good government types worry about the appearance of impropriety; how can you be working the levers of government this year to benefit Phoenix and Qwest, then take control of those levers next year and treat your former clients just like everybody else?

But this isn’t a legal or ethical issue. Instead of fretting about the appearance of impropriety, worry instead about the appearance of stupidity. Who else would be either dumb or brazen enough to call lobbying “real work for a living” by “a real guy” during a political campaign?

Salmon may claim that he’s a different kind of politician. But he’s just another of the same old kind of lobbyist.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

John P. Frank

I took a break from politics this week to write a tribune (in The Tribune!) to John P. Frank, the senior partner at Lewis and Roca here in Phoenix. John was a mentor and friend to my wife Beth and my partners Andy and Karen, and a good friend to good causes in Arizona. I hoped to capture some of JPF's accomplishments, but also some of his humor. I've reinserted a couple of phrases that got deleted due to space limitations.

Lewis and Roca hosted a memorial tribute to John on Saturday at the Phoenix Art Museum, which far exceeded what I could write, but this column is for those of you who couldn't attend, or who didn't know JPF.

East Valley Tribune, September 15, 2002

At age 84, the late John P. Frank still had more projects and plans ongoing than most people manage in a lifetime.

Frank, known to his friends as JPF, was a renowned collection of idiosyncrasies, including his omnipresent bow ties, his inability to drive a car safely, and his near-total ability simply to ignore things that did not interest him. But in a remarkable career, he deployed remarkable intellectual horsepower, limitless chutzpah, tireless persistence, and virtuoso ability to express complex and sophisticated legal issues in straightforward and compelling prose to change the law -- and the country.

JPF left many different legacies. While a law professor, he played a key role in the Supreme Court’s desegregation cases, writing a significant “friend of the court” brief in Sweatt v. Painter, the 1950 case that forced integration of the University of Texas Law School. He also advised the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., on constitutional and legislative history in Brown v. Board of Education.

As a parent, he and his wife of 58 years, Lorraine W. Frank -- a remarkable contributor to Arizona in her own right -- raised five children, who received their parents’ own Sunday School curriculum when they found the existing alternatives intellectually insufficient.

As a lawyer, he represented Ernesto Miranda, and in 1966, the Supreme Court required police to inform suspects of their constitutional right to remain silent and to be represented by a lawyer -- the famous “Miranda rights” that any connoisseur of TV crime dramas can recite from memory.

JPF enjoyed the practice of law, which he found endlessly fascinating as well as a powerful, necessary tool for achieving social justice and making this country even greater and more free. He earned a nice living, and clients nationally sought his advice. Some even paid handsomely for it. But unlike many athletes who claim they’d play for free, he actually did, taking on vast numbers of unpaid clients for the intellectual challenge, the joy of the fight, and the moral virtue of the cause.

As an author, he wrote 11 books, including Lincoln as a Lawyer, which the reviewer for The New York Times called “a classic,” and which remains the leading work on Abraham Lincoln’s legal practice.

But JPF did his greatest work with and through others. He asked his partner John J. Flynn to argue the Miranda case, because JPF previously had argued before the Supreme Court but Flynn had not. As JPF predicted, the case made Flynn’s national reputation.

As hiring partner for Lewis and Roca, he helped Mary M. Schroeder, now Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, become the first woman associate, and then the first woman partner, in a major Phoenix firm.

He taught, advised, and worked alongside Attorney General Janet Napolitano, and prided himself on being her first, and most fervent, supporter in her campaign for governor. He was extraordinarily generous with his time, insight, and wisdom with countless others, perhaps less famous but no less grateful.

While teaching at Yale Law School, he arranged for a black student with little money to see JPF’s friend Thurgood Marshall argue the Sweatt case - lining up the admission ticket and even paying train fare to Washington. The student, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., described the experience as a turning point, which led to his own remarkable legal career, including serving as Chief Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

In truth, JPF’s greatest legacy, and the one in which he took greatest pride, isn’t found in legal victories, court opinions, or between book covers. It is still being written in the achievements of those to whom he served as a tireless, brilliant, and creative mentor, colleague, and cheerleader.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Post-Primary Comments

Here's what I should have said on Horizon on Tuesday night:

1. I thought Grant Woods made the point well, but I also should have agreed that Jim Pederson truly has done a great job as state Democratic party chair, not an easy task. From personal experience, being state party chair is like taking small children to a fancy restaurant; the really tough part is not ruining everybody else's good time, and if you have fun, too, you're a miracle worker.

2. The GOP spin for the general election is that Janet Napolitano hasn't defined her campaign, or been specific on the issues. Actually, she's actually put lots of specific proposals on the table. Perhaps Grant's been too busy co-chairing Salmon's campaign to notice. Also, her specifics make a lot more sense than Salmon, who is saying he will (a) cut taxes and (b) spend more on education. At least Janet's math works.

3. I'm totally fed up with Dick Mahoney. Keep in mind a couple of things: (1) You never hear what Dick Mahoney's ideas are, only that he has ideas. His campaign is about the idea of having ideas, not any actual ideas. (2) The only people taking Dick seriously and praising him are serious Salmon supporters, like Grant, Chuck Coughlin, and Bob Robb. Nobody who isn't voting for Salmon thinks well of Mahoney. Ask the next person you hear praise Mahoney if they're actually voting for him, and dollars to donuts, the answer is "no." (3) In line with point #2, also notice how Mahoney never attacks Salmon, only Napolitano. He' s just a stalking horse for the Republican. Independent, my eye.

4. When given a choice, Democrats voted for the more moderate candidate; when given a choice, Republicans voted for the more conservative candidate. You had to get down to state legislative races before a GOP moderate defeated a right-winger. Salmon won by so much for the same reason that Horne beat Molera and Thomas won for AG and Trent Franks (Trent Franks!) won the congressional race--there really aren't any Republican moderates anymore. That's why Grant was on TV Tuesday instead of on the ballot.

5. In new CD-7, a very impressive win by Raul Grijalva. He dropped below 50% but still took 40% of the vote in a crowded and capable field, which included multiple Hispanics and at least three candidates who garnered significant funding and newspaper endorsements. A real shoe-leather campaign, apparently; less TV, more get-out-the-vote. It's perhaps part of a national trend, with campaigns suspecting declining effectiveness of TV ads and greater emphasis on traditional, grass-roots campaigning, as tentatively noted by Adam Nagourney in The New York Times. On a more catty note, Mark Fleisher's poor showing in that district was reassuring, too; nobody could tell in advance how big the "doofus vote" would be in a new district.

6. Here's my cynical explanation for Alfredo Gutierrez and Art Hamilton refusing to endorse Janet for governor. It looks like Alfredo's campaign really was never about issues but was simply about ego. But I suspect what's really going on is that both Alfredo and Art now are lobbyists--and their ability to garner clients and rake in the bucks should Janet Napolitano be governor will be limited. They both will make more money is Salmon wins, and they can be the GOP establishment's favorite Democrats. I guess to them, the governor's race is all about their wallets.

Monday, September 09, 2002

The Problem with Politics Isn't the Politicians--It's the Voters

My column ran on Saturday, instead of Sunday; apparently, the "blackout" period for the primary election Tuesday started on Sunday, so editor Bob Schuster put me in a day earlier because of my rather backhanded endorsement of Jay Blanchard. I got two emails in response, one from a friend who supports Rod Rich (on substance! Geez, can't a guy urge people to vote for really superficial reasons like campaign slogans?) and another 1,300 word response from somebody who is really, really upset about politics but I can't tell, despite the length of the email, whether he/she is an unrepenitant Naderite, a right-wing true believer, or a unreconstructed libertarian.

Problem is, you can get all three types to agree that the status quo stinks, or that people in office are skunks. But it's much more difficult to get them to agree with your views and beliefs, and then to get them to decide to give you the power to put those ideas into place. And in the case of my emailer, thank goodness.

The Arizona primary election is Tuesday. I'll be appearing on Horizon on Phoenix channel 8, KAET-TV, our local PBS station, along with Grant Woods to comment on the results at 9:30 - 10:30 pm. I will NOT be appearing the next evening, which the Horizon website lists as a "A warp up and ananlysis of primary election results". Too bad--I could have brought the liberal Star Trek viewpoint to that evening's show, but I'm not very good on ananlysis.

Low turnouts for most elections are a societal disgrace

East Valley Tribune, September 7, 2002

I automatically vote against anybody running for office who says “I’m not a politician.” It made the Democratic primary for Superintendent of Public Instruction easy. Never mind Jay Blanchard’s platform, or his vacillating legislative style (although anybody who beat Jeff Groscost in that district should deserve a “Get Out of Primary Free” card good for the next election of his choice). As soon as Rod Rich put “Not A Politician” on his signs, I’m voting for the other guy.

The state’s chief educator should know semantics. (Isn’t it part of AIMS?) The dictionary defines “politician” as “a person experienced in the art or science of government; one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government.” If you seek or hold public office, you’re a politician.

How does a “not a politician” campaign for votes? If a “not a politician” wins, does he have to refuse to take office? So if you’re voting in the Democratic primary Tuesday, vote for Dr. Jay Blanchard -- by definition. Forget ideology; vote semiotics!

The only thing worse than politicians refusing to admit involvement in politics, and the reason for it, is because voters always say they hate politicians.

Every American loves the idea of democracy, but always has some reason not to like its practice. It’s the “Colin Powell effect”: To most voters, the perfect candidate, the one they most want to vote for, isn’t running. As soon as a person actually decides to seek office, then he or she becomes just another lousy politician.

You’ve heard (and probably made) the usual sneering remarks. The top two are “they never keep their promises” and “they’re all crooks.” But the real problem with politics, and the people to whom those slurs actually apply, isn’t the politicians -- it’s the voters.

You’ll never hear it from candidates; they have to mouth all the false pieties that you demand to hear. But the recent ethical record for politicians is far better than that of CEOs and CFOs. And when politicians do go bad, they somehow manage to violate our trust without wrecking our 401(k)s.

If you really want to know who breaks their promises in the political equation, it’s the voters. We really don’t ask very much of citizens. You’re supposed to register to vote, but vast numbers don’t bother, even though they now can do it online from home or office, and those without a computer just need a form and a stamp. Over the past few years, while Arizona’s population boomed, the number of registered voters actually dropped.

Worse, even though less than two-thirds of those eligible bother to register, most of you who are registered simply don’t vote. We’ve made voting incredibly easy; you can vote by mail for every election, request a ballot via mail or the Internet, or just go to a neighborhood location twice a year, but sometimes only once, and say “howdy!” to the retirees working the polls. But the vast majority of you aren’t keeping your promises as citizens.

In Tuesday’s primary election, which, with rare exceptions, will determine the ultimate winners, maybe some 20 percent of the registered voters will vote. Most experts predict 10 to 15 percent turnout. That means that when combined with the unregistered, some 85 to 90 percent of citizens aren’t doing their job.

The percentage of bad apples among politicians is way less than 85 or 90 percent. But that’s the number of citizens who “don’t keep their promises.”

What’s worse, in Arizona, convicted felons can’t vote, which means all you non-voters (not the politicians) are the ones behaving like crooks.

The numbers don’t lie. If politicians as a group behaved half as poorly as voters as a group, then we’d really have problems.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Is Mickey Kaus My College Classmate? If So, Do I Need To Disclose That?

Mickey Kaus, in going after Paul Krugman yet one more time, cites a paper by Gregg Easterbrook to prove that the Bush Administration’s environmental record isn’t as bad as portrayed in the media. Maybe so, but Easterbrook's paper ignores a Bush administration rollback of a Clinton administration environmental initiative — one that just may counteract any good in any overall emissions reduction proposed as part of Blue Skies.

In his review of Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago in the August 12, 2002, edition of The New Yorker (not available online), Malcolm Gladwell notes that the investigation of the 1995 Chicago heat wave by the Centers for Disease Control concluded that air conditioners might have prevented more than half of the deaths. But many low-income people couldn’t afford to run their air conditioners, and those that could have also suffered power failures that week.

As Gladwell notes, all air conditioners are basically the same. A small motor and small heat exchanger are cheaper to buy, but more expensive to run. A better motor and larger heat exchanger are more expensive to buy, but the energy savings dwarfs the higher purchase price.

Rational consumers would buy the more expensive units, knowing that they would recoup the extra cost in their electric bills. But the market didn’t quite work, because the people who bought air conditioners — builders and landlords — weren’t the people paying the utility bills to run them. So Congress adopted a minimum efficiency standard for air conditioners, which had to score at least a 10 on the seasonal energy-efficiency ratio (SEER) scale.

In its last days, the Clinton administration raised the SEER standard to 13. This spring, however, the Bush administration cut the increase by a third, to SEER 12. I suppose Kaus would call this a case where the Bush administration is getting a raw deal, because SEER 12 is still better than the old SEER 10 standard, but it’s still a rollback from the Clinton SEER 13 standard, and one with serious consequences.

Gladwell notes that SEER 13 isn’t technologically more difficult than SEER 12, simply slightly more expensive to make and more-than-slightly cheaper to operate. The battle wasn’t a typical business-versus-the environment dispute either, because while the largest air conditioner manufacturer, Carrier, favored SEER 12, the second-largest, Goodman (maker of Amana), favored SEER 13. Gladwell believes that the Bush administration felt politically safe to roll back the Clinton standard because most of the time, the difference between the two standards is “negligible” — except, because of the difference between average and peak electrical demand, during heat waves.

The Bush administration decision to cut the SEER upgrade, Gladwell calculates, means that by 2020, national peak electrical demand will be 14,000 megawatts higher than it would have been under the SEER 13 standard. The extra peak demand will require constructing about fifty new power plants, increasing the cost of electricity for everybody and straining local distribution systems when a heat wave hits.

In Chicago during the summer of 1995, extraordinary peak demand for power put an overwhelming strain on the local utility. Over 1,300 equipment failures left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity during the worst of the heat wave. If more than half of those who died could have lived only if they had had air conditioning, then those were not just interruptions in service, but killer outages — and outages that didn’t have to happen, as Gladwell writes:

But what is really staggering is how easy it would have been to avoid these power outages. Commonwealth Edison, the city’s utility, had forecast a year earlier that electricity use in the summer of 1995 would peak at 18,600 megawatts. The actual high, on the Friday of the heat wave, was 19,201. The difference, in other words, between the demand that the utility was prepared to handle and the demand that brought the city to its knees was six hundred and one megawatts, or 3.2 per cent of the total – which is just about what a place like Chicago might save by having a city full of SEER 13 air-conditioners instead of SEER 12 air-conditioners.

The Bush administration’s rollback to SEER 12 means that electricity generally will cost more, because of the higher costs in building, maintaining, and operating plants only needed to meet these infrequent higher peak demands for power. The rollback also means that local distribution systems, when faced with heat like Chicago in 1995, will operate that much more at or above capacity, and face a greater risk of crashing. Both factors mean that vulnerable people in places like Chicago — the elderly and the infirm — will die from heat waves unnecessarily. But the extra fifty power plants needed to meet the higher peak demand also will discharge more pollutants into the air, perhaps even more than the Blue Skies initiative allegedly will remove.

If that’s the counterexample of the Bush administration’s commitment to the environment, maybe somebody owes Paul Krugman an apology. Then again (and here’s my rhetorical overkill), I’m sure it’s a lot more fun to participate in some self-referential debate about bias in The New York Times than to worry about elderly people living alone in Chicago who didn't have to die during a future heat wave.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

What Makes a "Natural Disaster"?

I got bumped from Sunday to Tuesday but the column didn't have a hook for Labor Day weekend--other than it was really, really hot here in Phoenix. But the problem with killer heat waves isn't found in cities that are hot and dry, like Phoenix, or steadily hot, again like Phoenix, but those cities that have variable weather and large numbers of vulnerable populations of the elderly and the infirm--like Chicago.

You can read a 2002 article in Slate by Klinenberg here, and read some additional quotes from Klinenberg (who pointed out the correlations between ethnicity and fatality rates--with jobs and younger residents leaving, black and Anglo elderly were left alone, while growing Hispanic population meant that family connections were growing--in a 1999 Slate article here. Note the potential link between Robert Putnam's "social capital" theory and surviving a heat wave.

East Valley Tribune, September 3, 2002

Which killed more people: Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida? TWA Flight 800, when it plunged into the ocean? The 1994 Northridge, California earthquake? The Oklahoma City bombing? Or the 1995 Chicago heat wave?

The answer? As Malcolm Gladwell noted in The New Yorker, more people -- 739 -- died from heat in Chicago during July 14-20, 1995, than in the others combined. But which of those five disasters received the least attention? Same answer: the Chicago heat wave.

With publication of Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, maybe that will change. Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, finds responses to an epic disaster utterly inadequate. Chicago officials considered the predictable heat wave an extreme weather event, one that government couldn’t change.

Newspaper columnists treated the heat as a novelty, to be accepted and endured. People considered those deaths unavoidable, believing that many elderly simply succumbed due to existing frailty or their unwillingness to seek help.

Officials and citizens just assumed that most victims were close to death anyway, and the heat just accelerated the process. But Klinenberg noted that if true, then fatalities in the weeks following should have been lower -- and they weren’t.

Hundreds of people died in Chicago that week because of decisions, both large and small, all shaped by one idea: that the heat was a “natural disaster” beyond government’s power. But Klinenberg proves that many deaths weren’t inevitable, but instead preventable -- if only we realized how much of this natural disaster was really our doing.

Klinenberg studied two adjacent low-income Chicago neighborhoods, Little Village and North Lawndale. Both had large numbers of poor and elderly residents, similar income, and (of course) the same weather, but 10 times as many people per capita died in North Lawndale.

Little Village is densely populated, with a growing Hispanic population, relatively low crime, and bustling street activity. Relatives and friends could check on their elderly neighbors, who felt safe enough to leave their hot homes for relief.

North Lawndale is sparsely populated, high crime, and drug infested. The exodus of blue-collar jobs from the city meant many elderly residents lived alone, far from family, and feared going out.

It wasn’t the heat alone that killed; it turned deadly only when combined with a dangerous, isolated neighborhood. Most who died, died alone. When we let neighborhoods become drug-infested and depopulated, when the elderly live far from relatives and trusted friends, hot weather can kill.

The “natural disaster” viewpoint made city government respond more slowly and inadequately, too. Chicago ran out of ambulances, yet could have nearly tripled the number available by calling for help from the suburbs. But streamlining and outsourcing of social services distanced officials from the neighborhoods, and when the city realized the scope of the disaster, it was too late.

Many “natural disasters” result because of human decisions: Building housing in flood plains and fire zones, failing to test and reinforce old dams, and letting civic and social institutions on which the elderly depend decay. But calling something a “natural disaster” means we don’t search for causes, even if the natural event only became a disaster due to our decisions.

As Gladwell and Klinenberg note, we judge most institutions on how they perform under “normal” conditions, and excuse performance under peak demand and extreme stress. But that’s not how we judge electric utilities, which we expect to perform on the year’s hottest day -- which deregulation boosters ignore at our peril.

We can create systems that handle great and rare stress, like the Chicago heat wave. But it takes both will and wallet, and something even more rare -- recognizing that what makes a natural event a disaster may be human acts and omissions.