Me and Hurricane Ivan

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I first became personally aware of Hurricane Ivan on Monday, September 13, 2004. There were newscasts telling of the havoc it had played, and the lives lost in the Caribbean a few days before, but it didn’t dawn upon me until this date that it might visit New Orleans, my home of some three years.

Particularly disturbing was the story of what might happen if Ivan impacted the Crescent City directly: then, since we are perched at the bottom of a geographical bowl, we would be inundated. Large parts of Lake Ponchartrain, our northern neighbor, a bit of the Mississippi River to the south, and also some of the Gulf of Mexico, further to the south, would land in our laps. In this worst case scenario the water level would rise to about 20 feet, higher than many buildings in town. The dikes and pumps would not be able to handle such an onslaught. I reside on the seventh floor of my building, but my home would be commandeered by those living below. Electricity would of course not be available, and New Orleans is pretty hot and humid in September. Worse, the water would be percolated through with toxic wastes from the numerous refineries nearby, by oil, and by alligators, fire ants and water snakes, I kid you not.

I was told by several old time dwellers in this city that this was an unlikely occurrence. Much more probably the storm would miss us by miles, but that we would still likely lose electricity, and I would be advised to stock up on water, canned food and flashlight batteries. Not a very pleasing scenario, even if the worst of this disaster passed us by.

Estimated time of arrival of this hurricane: Thursday morning, Sept 16. Naturally, I thought of retreating to higher ground, along with most other townsfolk. I tried to get a flight out of the local airport on the next day, Tuesday, but nothing was available. There were some standby flights available later that night, but I literally couldn’t get to within 10 miles of the airport, traffic was so heavy. (Further complicating the airport situation was that it had high-rise parking, taken up not only by air travelers, but also by locals fearing drowned automobiles).

The announcement was made that the New Orleans Airport would be shut down as of Wednesday morning, September 15. I made travel arrangements in Houston, Texas (ordinarily about 6 hours away by car) and Lafayette, LA (some 2.5 hours away) for late afternoon Wednesday, September 15, and set out to reach either of them at around 4 A.M. that day. However, I soon experienced literally bumper-to-bumper traffic, and was informed on the radio that this would hold all the way west to the Texas border. It took me some seven hours to reach Baton Rouge, where I had no plane reservation (ordinarily, a 90 minute trip) by dint of some heavy lane-switching New York City—type driving. Luckily, at 11a.m.I was able to purchase a ticket on the spot for that afternoon, and spent the next few days in Seattle.

It is likely that hurricanes are on the minds of many people in New Orleans, what with the near miss of Ivan, and Jeanne in the offing. Floridians, too, experienced a spot of bad weather. However, hurricanes are only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak: there are also typhoons, earthquakes, lightening strikes, tornadoes, tidal waves, storms, cyclones, monsoons, and just plain old bad weather. All of them are a pain in the butt, and dangerous to boot. These catastrophes are all the fault of — wait for it — government. Had the voracious state not gobbled up oh, about 40% of the annual GDP for the last half century or so (in Western Europe, the figure is more like 50%), it is likely that mankind would have made at least some progress not merely anticipating these cataclysms, and plotting their future paths, but, also, stopping them from occurring in the first place.

Needless to say, this prediction cannot be definitive. It is extremely difficult to analyze contrary-to-fact conditionals such as these. All we can say for sure are first, richer is safer: the more wealth in a society, the better able the people who comprise it are to figure out a way to ward off natural disasters (and unnatural ones too). Second, governments have instead wasted these vast amounts of monies on killing their own citizens (R.J. Rummel puts the figure on this at almost 200 million in the last century), warred with others of their ilk (at the cost of hundreds of millions of more lives), and engaged in various and sundry welfare type schemes (for example social "security," socialized medicine and economic regulation) which have reduced economic growth and development, played havoc with economic incentives, and undermined private property rights and economic freedom, the last best hope for humanity.

So, gentle reader, the next time you are stuck in traffic attempting to escape from one of these conflagrations, remember who, really, is likely at fault. It is your friendly neighborhood local government, along with those in the state capital, and with them the denizens of the federales.

Now, there are those, benighted souls, who resist this eminently reasonable economic analysis. They might attempt reductios ad absurdum such as: "I guess Hong Kong, which was one of the most ardent supporters of free markets, was able to prevent typhoons and other such natural disasters."

Let me say the following in response to such an objection. Surely, it cannot be denied that hurricane prevention (not mere tracking) is a normal good, forgive the economic jargon. That is, the richer is the society, the more likely it is to want and get this service. Therefore, it follows, logically, that the richer we are, the more likely, or the sooner, we are to have this service of natural disaster prevention.

Let us stipulate that the government spends some 40—50% of Gross Domestic Product. If it did not do so, we would be far richer, ceteris paribus. It may be that under free enterprise, we would get full hurricane, etc., prevention in "only" 100 years from now, while under the semi socialist fascist system we now have we would have to wait 200 years for it. Who knows? Stopping these things, cold in their tracks, I admit, is tough to do. But, it is a matter of pure economic logic to say that this happy day will come sooner, ceteris paribus, the richer we are, and that government is a drag on the economy. QED.

This does not at all imply that Hong Kong, a very small country, even when it was (relatively) free, would have by NOW have discovered a cure for these natural disasters (or for cancer, or AIDS, or whatever); only that a free Hong Kong is MORE LIKELY to have done so, at any given time, than a less free Hong Kong.

Second objection: an individual cannot expect to earn a profit from good hurricane forecasting, let alone stopping one from starting in the first place. There is a classic free rider problem here. The benefits are so widespread whoever could stop such natural disasters from taking place could not exclude non-payers from enjoying them.

Here is my reply: we already have hurricane forecasting, not all of it provided by government. This demonstrates that the market has overcome the so-called free rider "market failure" problem. The free enterprise system has not seen fit to "exclude" non-payers. Rather, entrepreneurs give it away for free, sometimes as a loss leader; sometimes it serves the function of advertising.

If I knew how to stop Ivan (at very low cost) I would be the most popular man on the planet. Surely, I could find a way to turn that to my financial advantage without threatening that if I were not paid off, I would desist. There is no doubt I would win a Nobel Prize in physics, or some such. Without question private foundations would give me millions to get further discoveries out of me.

There is a whole libertarian-Austrian literature on the difficulties with the free rider argument. The interested reader is encouraged to access it.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.

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