Ramo, Joshua Cooper. The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo is both fun to read and full of valuable insights. It is included in this Liberal Republican bibliography, however, because of its discussion of two concepts: (1) the Sand Pile Effect, and (2) Resilience.  Both are concepts that should inform a Liberal Republican platform.


  1. The Sand Pile Effect

Think about California immediately before a devastating earthquake, or Texas a few days before a devastating storm, or the Soviet Union ‎shortly before its collapse–all appeared stable, but a day or so later everything had changed. In physics, the condition of something appearing to be stable and calm, but actually being in a “critical state”, way out of balance, gave rise to the concept of “the sand pile effect”. This term was coined by the Danish-American physicist Per Bak and his co-authors Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld to describe how, as someone builds a sandpile by dropping one grain of sand on another, the pile eventually becomes so steep that little sand slides occur and then, eventually, an avalanche. But it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to predict which single grain of sand will create the cascading avalanche. One grain of sand is dropped and nothing appears to happen. Then, the next grain of sand is dropped… and there is an avalanche.‎


According to Ramo, “Bak believed that sandpile energy, the energy of systems constantly poised on the edge of unpredictable change, was one of the fundamental forces of nature.” Ramo goes on to illustrate how the sandpile effect also exists in the political and economic worlds. Seemingly small and random events (for example, one Tunisian street vendor igniting himself and thereby igniting the Arab Spring) can undo complex political systems in momentous and unpredictable ways.


‎Given the complexity, unpredictability and interconnectedness of today’s world, a Liberal Republican platform should be mindful of the sand pile effect—taking note that small events can have momentous adverse consequences. In particular, Liberal Republicanism should reject the American political habit to “kick the can down the road”.[1] Instead, in the words of Singapore’s famous Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew,”Let’s start thinking about it now” should be a motto of Liberal Republicanism.[2]


  1. Resilience

“Resilience” is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty, misfortune or change, the ability to adapt successfully in the face of disadvantage and adversity.

Ramo queries how a country like the United States can protect itself from sandpile effect-like natural disasters, health pandemics, environmental adversity, or sudden economic or political meltdowns‎. He rightly argues that it is impossible to foresee and prevent every conceivable thing that could go wrong, and it would be ludicrously expensive to do so in any event. What Ramo argues we can do, and should do, is make America more resilient, and build national “immune systems.” He advocates for good national health care, transport, infrastructure and education. [3]


I would add to Ramo’s list the need to build more social cohesion. Social cohesion may be the most important thing for America to enhance if we are to become more resilient. Neither families, businesses, religious congregations, nor sports teams stay strong if they are divided against themselves. Neither can a nation. We need to find political space in which more Americans can meet, and to change the political culture so that our politicians are only reelected if they compromise and succeed in enacting broadly-supported legislation. As John McCain stated on the floor of the Senate recently, “I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate…Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”


Houstonian volunteers during and after Hurricane Harvey and the British rescuers depicted in the recent movie Dunkirk both illustrate the kind of social cohesion of which America is so in need. Unfortunately, President Trump’s election has not broken the fever among many Republicans, who continue to angrily eschew compromise. Instead, now ‎we have a similar angry fever among many Democrats, who are committed to “resistance.”

[1]  America’s decrepit infrastructure is one such problem where “kick the can” seems to have been the political order of the day for a long time. The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on America’s infrastructure every four years. In 2017 it graded America’s infrastructure D+. Since 1998, America’s infrastructure has earned persistent D grades. The aviation, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, roads, schools, transit and wastewater sectors all get D’s. (Solid waste, ports and bridges each get a C+, and rail a B.) See www.infrastructurereportcard.org. In terms of the obvious costs of such neglect, think about the destruction of  Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and Maria, or the Interstate 35 eight-lane bridge spanning the Mississippi River that collapsed into the river in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2007 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtuK8Jdgx_4&app=desktop] But as the Report Card points out, there are also less visible costs, including to America’s households, to many of America’s industries and to American competitiveness generally.


[2]  See Mydans, Seth, and Wayne Arnold. 2007. “Modern Singapore’S Creator Is Alert To Perils”. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/02/world/asia/02singapore.html. Lee Kuan Yew said “Let’s start thinking about it now” in the context of the island city-state using Dutch dyke technology to deal with a future of rising ocean waters due to global warming. But, as the authors of the article point out, “Let’s start thinking about it now” could be Singapore’s national motto. Imagine how different the devastation from Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Eastern Texas would have been if Texas had “started thinking about it now” with Dutch dyke technology or other solutions.


[3] See the blog entry about German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. [here] Notwithstanding his ultra-conservatism, Bismarck was the originator of mandatory employer-financed health care and other social welfare legislation. He understood that a strong nation needed healthy and educated citizens.