There are certain subjects that we feel – in our hearts – should be “outside of politics.” We hear of human tragedy, whether an accidental death, or a hurricane, or earthquake, and we unite in prayer and support of the victims.
But that doesn’t really mean that it should be – or ever really can be – entirely outside of politics.
Ours is a political system, a nation run by representative governments at every level. So if a flooded subway is to be cleared, that’s a job for the political appointees of a mayor or city council. If power needs to be restored, we turn to a publicly licensed utility, chosen by city, county, or state. If a harbor is to be cleared of debris so that ships can again sail in and out, and so a critical transportation hub can continue to function, that’s a job for a partnership of local, state, and national agencies, from the local port authority to the Army Corps of Engineers. Whether these politicians or their appointees do their jobs well or poorly is certainly legitimate material for election season.
The government didn’t cause the earthquake, the tornado, the wildfire… but choices made by many branches of government along the way may affect the recovery, either positively or negatively.
It’s too early now to say whether government’s response to Hurricane Sandy was or will be good or bad; the devastation that resulted will take a long time to evaluate. The idea that an election might swing on a photo op between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Chris Christie, on the first day of cleanup, would be laughable if this election weren’t such a serious matter. But there are lessons we can learn from many such disasters, and the days before an election are an excellent time to review them.
Corruption and waste can be as devastating as a storm.
For seven years now, whenever storms and politics intersect, the first image to arise is that of Hurricane Katrina, back in the fall of 2005. A bad storm produced some flooding and some damage, all predictable, all normal for a Gulf-area hurricane. But the worst damage was from the collapsed levees of Lake Pontchartrain, which did far more damage than the waters from skies had done or ever could. For forty years, the federal government had been sending billions of dollars – yes, federal taxpayer dollars – to New Orleans, earmarked for the specific purpose of improving these levees and implementing a modern pumping system for storms like this. The Democrat politicians of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana had instead used federal dollars as a cookie jar, spending money on cronies, welfare, lesser projects, anything at all but the purpose for which it was intended. When the city flooded, it wasn’t Hurricane Katrina’s fault, it was the fault of generations of Democrat mismanagement in a corrupt Democrat state.
Economic Wisdom Aids Recovery with the Speed of Gale Force Winds.
In 1994, the Northridge Earthquake in California caused the collapse of a critical stretch of superhighway in the Los Angeles area, an area world famous for its traffic congestion, even on a good day. The loss of this highway made the Los Angeles metro area even worse than usual. Every additional hour a salesman, trucker, or consultant spends in traffic is lost revenue – to his family, to his business, to the tax authorities who take their share, to the charities he supports.
Republican Governor Pete Wilson, recognizing this, designed contracts with the roadbuilders to redesign and rebuild this damaged road network in record time. We Illinoisans are all too familiar with road construction projects that go on months or even years longer than anyone could have predicted, as the Chicago machine and the Springfield combine collaborate to funnel tax dollars into the pockets of slow-moving cronies and donors. Governor Wilson, on the other hand, recognized the truth of the Calvin Coolidge truism, “The Business of America is Business.” He made sure the roads were safe and usable quickly, and the local and state economy (and the national too, incidentally!) bounced right back as a result.
The Tragedies of Haiti and Yushu
When the third world suffers an earthquake or typhoon, it’s another world entirely. So many of the poor people of Haiti and China, for example, live in shabby shacks and lean-tos; their housing flies off like so many paper gliders when the winds pick up. The devastation may be complete, but in terms of property values, it’s minimal; worthless houses, worthless shacks, worthless rubble don’t add up to much worth writing about. The tragic loss of life is where these third world disasters make their mark, as thousands, even tens of thousands, are killed as much by the lack of sturdy structures as by the storm itself. Communist countries simply don't have economies that can support the much more safely-designed structures to which we are accustomed here in capitalist America.
Lessons for America
We watch the videos on television in shock and sadness. We grieve for the casualties; we sympathize for those who lose their homes and other property. And in America at least, we open up our checkbooks and donate to churches, missions, global charities like the Red Cross... Even when all we can send is money, we certainly do.
We cannot divert the paths of these storms; nature does what nature will (whatever Al Gore and his mindless acolytes may believe). But there are things we can do to minimize the damage.
Building codes: Here, we have building codes. In the United States, our buildings must be built to certain standards. Our windows are constructed so they’ll resist the winds; our roofs are covered with shingles that hold tight. Our roofing joists will withstand powerful storms. Our homes – at least the modern ones, built to code – can survive tornados better than those of China and Haiti. Now, we’ll all agree that sometimes these building codes go too far, sometimes place too onerous a burden on the property owner. But in general they do a good thing, in minimizing the damage as much as possible. Our storms still may cause broad minor destruction, but the most severe damage will be more narrowly focused.
Only those homes hit by the strongest winds, the biggest hail, the eye of the storm, will be horribly damaged, because those just a block or two away from its path have been built to endure the high winds and punishing rains. They may all have some damage, but the path of total destruction is much narrower here than when similar storms hit western China or Haiti.
It costs money to build to these standards. We don’t just build our city halls and churches this way; we require the use of proper framing, strong foundations, and highly rated siding and roofing on all our buildings, right down to the single-family home. And we can afford to.
Only an affluent society can afford rules that make home construction so strong and so secure. We didn’t get this affluent by accident, or by simply pulling raw materials like diamonds or crude oil out of the ground. It was capitalism that made the United States such a strong economy that its regulators can mandate expensive building standards, not just for the wealthy and the connected, but for everyone, even those living in welfare state housing. They’re all built to code, because capitalism has allowed us to afford that code. Take away that capitalism, and we’d be on the road to Haiti and China, the road to mass destruction with every storm.
Insurance: The capitalist system allows for a broad variety of insurance packages. There’s homeowner’s insurance, auto insurance, health insurance, life insurance… all of which help alleviate the pain of a disaster so that families aren’t utterly ruined by the event. But there are also subsets within these broad classes. Homeowner’s insurance might include suficient flood insurance, if you paid extra… sufficient basement coverage, if you paid extra… there are plenty of exclusions that are offered when you buy coverage. If we can afford to spend the money for the best plan, we’ll be the most fully covered when disaster strikes.
But most of us shop around for insurance when we’re broke; the temptation is heavy to save money by cutting out this extra or that one, to tolerate a high deductible or even a major exclusion. The people who felt forced to save money by shortchanging themselves on these kinds of insurance are the ones who suffer the most when the hundred year storm hits.
So there are two lessons here: first, that it is the free market that enables Americans to rebuild after a devastating storm… and second, that the better off you are to begin with, the less strapped for cash when you buy your insurance, the better you’ll remain afterward. Again, it is a vibrant economy and a strong job market that protect Americans from the most severe climactic events.
Rapid Response: During the immediate aftermath of a storm, when the roads are washed out or blocked by downed power lines or fallen trees, when there’s no power for heat or air conditioning or refrigeration, who comes to help? Yes, the government tries, to an extent. FEMA can write checks on the taxpayer’s account, and the Army Corps of Engineers can move in and consult on both short term and long term repair plans, but that doesn’t help warm a cold family or cool an overheated one. It’s the charities that save the day in those first few critical days – the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the local churches and other civic groups that populate a caring nation.
These charities are not a construct of the government; in fact, more and more, it appears that private charities are viewed by the statists of Washington, D.C. as the enemy. Our bureaucrats challenge their tax-exempt status, place mandates upon them that are contrary to their beliefs, subject them to Obamacare and other regulatory outrages. There can be only one reason: that the statist wing in government views private charities as their competition. After every tragedy, these charities are delivering donated clothing, food, beverages, and blankets to the site, offering medical care to those with shock, chills, and worse. All while the bureaucrats are still filling out forms and arguing over whether the president should pose to the right of the New Jersey governor for the photo op, or if he should pose to the left… “my left”, or “his left”??? Our bureaucrats simply don’t move at the pace that non-profits can.
The non-profits are a construct of the private sector. As long as our economy is productive, the overwhelmingly generous American people donate money, donate in-kind contributions, donate their own time. The charities are so good because the American people are so good, and because they can afford to be. But a six-year-long period of – whatever this is, not technically a recession but nothing like a recovery, a six year period of stagnation and foreclosures and epidemic joblessness that began virtually the day Nancy Pelosi took over the House of Representatives after the elections of 2006 – well, these six years of Obama/Pelosi/Reid economic doldrums have caused there to be much less money in the economy, much less for people, and so, less money for the charities. The American people are generous, but we need jobs and prosperity to write checks. Government gives us bureaucracies; capitalism gives us the rapid response of charities who so often seem to be on site faster than the wind.
The Cost of the Destruction: Early estimates indicate that the result of Hurricane Sandy will be some forty to fifty billion dollars in damage to repair and rebuild. Such numbers are often proven in the months thereafter to have been optimistically low.
Governments have to rebuild roadbeds for those roads that were washed away. Governments have to replace streetlights and sidewalks, clean out the subways and fix the electrical systems in them. Railroads can’t be used until the gravel beds below the tracks are shored up. And governments have their own buildings to repair too - lots of them losing shingles or doors or windows, just like homeowners’ houses and businessmen’s office buildings. Governments don’t have the same insurance rules that the private sector does; they are often under-insured, sometimes not insured at all. Who’s on the hook for all this? The taxpayer.
Some taxing bodies are flush enough with a rainy day fund to handle this without further tax increases or bond issues; most are not, and will go back to the well to pay for these new and unexpected government expenses.
So here too we see that, in the end, what we need to bring recovery to a storm-ravaged region is a productive, capitalist economy. From the rebuilding of homes to the repouring of concrete, from the smallest broken window to the biggest toppled bridge, it takes the affluent society of a prosperous nation to rectify the millions of individual losses that a storm can bring. The more economic activity there is, the more flush with cash are both the government coffers and the homeowners’ bank accounts to fund the rebuilding effort. The more sluggish the economy, however, the longer it will take – the longer our towns will look blighted as they can’t afford to rebuild quickly, or the longer our roads and bridges will be blocked with those dreaded signs: “road closed” or “bridge out”… or just plain “condemned.”
Many observe Hurricane Sandy, as they observe so many events, in the moment, from the shortest of shortsighted vantage points. We are tempted to see a president acting presidential, a governor looking concerned, and think this should be a deciding factor in our opinion of whether this or that politician is really deserving of our respect and our vote.
But that’s the wrong way to view it. We must take the long view, and see the world as it is. There is a reason why the USA suffers less loss of life than a third world location hit by a storm of the same magnitude… a reason why the USA recovers from such events faster than others do… it’s capitalism. It’s the prosperity that funds an array of solutions. The candidates who favor our capitalist system are the ones who really help us get through such crises; the candidates who work toward socializing our once-free market are the true enemies of our rebuilding efforts.
Capitalism saves; communism and other forms of statism kill. So, the question to ask, when confronted with an effort to politicize such a tragedy, either by the press or the punditry or the pols themselves, is not “which candidate had the most concerned expression in a photo op” or "which candidate was quickest to hug someone who lost his house" or “which candidate was fastest to put his pen to a government checkbook.”
The question to ask is “which candidate will work to support the free market, and which candidate – despite his façade of sincere-looking eyes or his generosity with other people’s money – is trying his best, with every measure, to hamstring, hobble and hold back the one institution that differentiates the greatest nation on God’s green earth from the long-suffering and barely surviving Third World?”
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and trade compliance lecturer. A proud lifelong resident of the upper Midwest, he shares his fellow citizens’ concern for those affected by Hurricane Sandy, and he prays that voters will see the big picture, on this and every issue, as the most important election of our lifetimes rapidly approaches.
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