The Definition of Insanity

What an ancient philosopher can teach us about infrastructure spending.

image via Jasu Hu in The New Yorker

“If you are defeated once and tell yourself you will overcome, but carry on as before, know in the end you'll be so ill and weakened that eventually you won't even notice your mistake and will begin to rationalize your behavior.”

That quote is a more eloquent way of stating the definition of insanity. It was said by Epictetus, a Roman Stoic philosopher who died nearly 1,900 years ago.

If you read old books (and the surviving lectures of Epictetus are pretty damn old), one of the fascinating things you discover is that many of the issues that we face in today’s modern world are not altogether different from what human beings were dealing with a couple of millenia ago.

People, and the challenges we face, haven’t evolved all that much. We like to think we live in such a complex world, but human nature has remained mostly unchanged.

Case in point: the insanity of doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.

I do it in my life (I keep eating spicy food, acid reflux be damned!). And I’m sure you do it in yours as well.

Where this really goes from being a mundane life detail to a real problem is at the societal level. We’re seeing the ramifications of our American insanity in several different manifestations, from politically-motivated violence to racial and economic exploitation to environmental disasters.

Right now, the Biden Administration is attempting to advance a giant spending package for infrastructure. The proposal dubs itself as “bold,” “visionary,” and “building back better”, but there’s a lot of the same old, same old in there, and the usual watering down by Congress threatens to render it increasingly limp and inadequate.

After 75 or so years of doing things the same way over and over with how we build, despite glaring inefficiencies and inadequacies in the process and the results, the federal government is going right back to the well.

What we need is for the final iteration passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by the President to pass Epictetus’ insanity test, not blatantly prove it. To begin a process of u-turning the American pattern of development into something more amenable to people and places and real, lasting prosperity.

We need to take space from cars and give it to people, not build more lanes and create more congestion. We need a robust transit system both within and between our cities. We need an electrical grid that doesn’t lead to hardships and tragedies. We need updated water systems that protect drinking water and treat and dispose of wastewater and storm water in environmentally-conscious ways. We need housing that is affordable, safe, and close to good employment, good schools, and outdoor recreation.

We need to build the kinds of places and support systems that treat people as actual human beings rather than mere cogs in service to our corporate overlords, that improve quality of life, that take pains to mitigate the effects of global climate change.

In short, we need to end the cycle of insanity.

It’s all a matter of our choices. Epictetus understood that way back in the times of the Emperor Domitian. For us here in the United States in 2021, it would be insanity not to understand it as well.


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Something I wrote

One thing about working in local government: when one project ends, there is no delay before the next one comes around. As such, after submitting a grant application last week, the product of 3-4 months of work, I was immediately handed three new funding opportunities to dig into.

Long story short, I only got a chance to write one little blog post this week. But it’s about city planning for dogs!

Representative line from the piece: “And it turns out, these improvements don’t have to be limited to merely us bipedals.”


Some Things Worth Checking Out


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