Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Sometimes the American public and its elected representatives seem breathtakingly stupid

leave a comment »

It’s almost as if elementary arithmetic were far, far beyond their ability to comprehend, and logical thought an impossibility. James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker:

On February 1, 1953, a fierce, sustained storm created a huge surge in the North Sea off the coast of Holland. Floodwaters overtopped the dikes, swallowing half a million acres of land and killing nearly two thousand people. Within weeks of the storm, a government commission issued what came to be known as the Delta Plan, a set of recommendations for flood-control measures. Over the next four decades, the Dutch invested billions of guilders in a vast set of dams and barriers, culminating in the construction of the Maeslant Barrier, an enormous movable seawall to protect the port of Rotterdam. Since the Delta Plan went into effect, the Netherlands has not been flooded by the sea again.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which brought havoc to the Northeast and inflicted tens of billions of dollars in damage, it’s overwhelmingly clear that parts of the U.S. need a Delta Plan of their own. Sandy was not an isolated incident: only last year, Hurricane Irene caused nearly sixteen billion dollars in damage, and there is a growing consensus that extreme weather events are becoming more common and more damaging. The annual cost of natural disasters in the U.S. has doubled over the past two decades. Instead of just cleaning up after disasters hit, we would be wise to follow the Dutch, and take steps to make them less destructive in the first place.

There is no dearth of promising ideas out there, such as building a seawall beyond the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis has proposed a movable barrier, like the Rotterdam one), burying power lines in vulnerable areas, and elevating buildings and subway entrances. The question is whether we can find the political will to invest in such ideas. Although New York politicians like the City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, and Governor Andrew Cuomo have called for major new investment in disaster prevention, reports from Washington suggest that Congress will be more willing to spend money on relief than on preparedness. That’s what history would lead you to expect: for the most part, the U.S. has shown a marked bias toward relieving victims of disaster, while underinvesting in prevention. A study by the economist Andrew Healy and the political scientist Neil Malhotra showed that, between 1985 and 2004, the government spent annually, on average, fifteen times as much on disaster relief as on preparedness.

Politically speaking, it’s always easier to shell out money for a disaster that has already happened, with clearly identifiable victims, than to invest money in protecting against something that may or may not happen in the future. Healy and Malhotra found that voters reward politicians for spending money on post-disaster cleanup, but not for investing in disaster prevention, and it’s only natural that politicians respond to this incentive. The federal system complicates matters, too: local governments want decision-making authority, but major disaster-prevention projects are bound to require federal money. And much crucial infrastructure in the U.S. is owned by the private sector, not the government, which makes it harder to do something like bury power lines.

Continue reading to feel even deeper despair: for example, he points out that working on our infrastructure would be extremely beneficial to the economy.

But we won’t do it, will we? Just as we will not take steps to fight global warming.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2012 at 3:19 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: