Friday, February 05, 2010

The emperor penguin has no clothes

Ok, fine, I'm starting to concede that there will be a significant amount of snow tonight and tomorrow here in DC. But the forecast for today, during the day, is only 4-6 inches. And yet the University of Maryland is closed today, all the Northern Virginia schools are closed today, DC and Maryland schools are dismissing early, the federal government is dismissing early, etc.

Like President Obama*, I come from Chicago, where snow is just part of winter, and where the culture is that life goes on even in adverse circumstances, and you do everything you can to make that happen. (In my whole school career, school was never canceled once for snow; the only weather-related cancellations were due to extreme low temperatures, I think the windchill was in the -30s.) So I'm still perplexed by the snow culture in the DC area, where snow is also a regular part of winter (it's not like when I lived in Jerusalem, where even an inch of snow was legitimately a freak occurrence), but the culture is that any amount of snow is a "snowstorm", and any amount of snow is a convenient excuse to cancel everything. (And there's enough crying wolf with minor snow that people like me get into the habit of scoffing even when the amount of snow is more significant.) I know the official response is that DC and surrounding jurisdictions don't have the same capacity to deal with snow that Chicago has, but that simply begs the question. If snow happens regularly, then they should have more snowplows and shovels on hand.

Back to the original point, even if it makes sense to shut things down tomorrow, there doesn't seem to be any justification for closing today. But I'm starting to see the underlying psychology: Washington is simply more susceptible than most places to the groupthink that Paul Krugman wrote about today, that facilitates the rapid spread of panic:

[T]he sudden outbreak of deficit hysteria brings back memories of the groupthink that took hold during the run-up to the Iraq war. Now, as then, dubious allegations, not backed by hard evidence, are being reported as if they have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, as then, much of the political and media establishments have bought into the notion that we must take drastic action quickly, even though there hasn’t been any new information to justify this sudden urgency.

So closing down all the schools in the area when not a single flake of snow has yet fallen comes from the same place as the Iraq war, the current deficit hysteria, the Social Security "crisis" of 2005, and all these other things that become unquestioned conventional wisdom inside the Beltway.

If it doesn't snow at all until tonight, will the people who closed schools and offices feel silly? Probably not.

* One quote that struck me from that article is from the Associate Head of School at Sidwell Friends: "No question, the president is right," Turner wrote. "The next time it snows, we would like to invite him to help us make the decision. His involvement will make it much easier to explain to our students why they won't be able to spend the day sleeping and sledding." I think this proves that private schools care more about fending off complaints than about education...



  2. You do realize that Turner's comment was entirely factitious? 'Cause, I mean, maybe you do, and your comment was equally so. It just all got a bit dry for me.