Disasters: Natural and Un-Natural

Catastrophes are a godsend to the media. It cannot be easy to report "news" day after day, when there may be, in fact, no "news" worth reporting, or proper and fitting to report, according to the norms of the broadcast moguls. Calamities, however, are inevitably fascinating, and can fill hours of broadcast time. And they do. The recent Indian Ocean tsunami is the obvious example.

Even a disaster of that magnitude, however, eventually disappears from the TV screens. Do you recall the earthquake in Alaska that filled the TV news in 1964? Or the quake in California that snapped overpasses as if they were crackers? How about Hurricane Andrew? They are gone, and for most of us, forgotten.

In fact, the news coverage of natural disasters, whether floods, fires, earthquakes, tidal waves, etc., is rather lopsided. The questions raised by these events: how do people manage? how long until their homes, or businesses, are rebuilt? where do children go to school? are ignored. We may see reports of people stocking up on water, sheets of plywood, or batteries, prior to an anticipated hurricane, and learn that the inventories of these materials have been depleted by the demand. But after the storm, the demand for supplies must be enormously increased: plumbing, kitchen sinks, appliances, roof shingles, nails, wiring, paint — you name it. And that demand is met. Walk through the areas of devastation some years after the storm, and what would you see? Not having done it, I cannot say with certainty, but I would be amazed if you did not find things pretty much as they were before the catastrophe struck. The truly newsworthy event is not just the storm itself, but the repair and reconstruction that follows. It is a powerful tribute to the ingenuity, skill, and efficiency of businessmen. It is a triumph — dare I say it? — of free enterprise. Perhaps for this reason it gets short shrift from the media, which never tires of showing us the acres of devastated buildings, and film clips of various politicians promising relief. Yes, it’s great that the National Guard is on the scene with bottles of water, and blankets. (Where do they get the water and blankets, and what happens to those, if any, that are left over?) But the real work gets done after the TV crews and guardsmen have left.

The United States invariably provides "disaster relief." But that is misleading. Has my own state of Missouri made any "disaster relief" available to, say, Sri Lanka? Not to my knowledge. How about Minnesota, Wyoming, West Virginia, or Connecticut? I doubt it. The "United States" which provides relief is the corporation headquartered in Washington D.C., and the assistance it provides is the only sort it can provide: money — or what passes for it. And it obtains that by creating it from thin air, i.e., inflation, or seizing it from people who have earned it, i.e., taxation. Very noble and generous!

Government disaster relief is, in fact, disaster redistribution. As is always the case with government programs, the benefits are immediate, obvious, and widely touted. The downside is subtle, gradual, and diffuse, and always ignored. The hundreds of millions that the U.S. will provide tsunami victims (or, more likely, their rulers) will have results visible at once: removal of wreckage, those perennial favorites: water and blankets, and other well-photographed benefits. The damage to the standard of living of Americans by the inflation of the dollar, or taxation, will be unappreciated and unreported. Just another straw on the camel’s back. Can anyone doubt that, eventually, the camel’s back must break? But surely, just one more straw can be tolerated!

I find it discouraging to see the public approval of these government relief schemes. It is good and proper for people to sympathize with their neighbors in time of disaster, and altogether fitting that they should come to their aid. But it is not, by the remotest stretch of the imagination, the proper business of government to provide material aid to foreigners. The fact that the burden of this aid is placed on the backs of Americans, whose property the government, in theory, exists to protect, makes the situation surreal.

An unappreciated and undetected disaster following upon an obvious one!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.