Hurricanes and Big Government

So, unsurprisingly, Paul Krugman and others are arguing that Katrina is a vindication for large-government liberals  (One would think we would love GWB, who has been a better large-government builder than Clinton, but that is another topic).  Anyway, I think it is worth thinking for a second about the federal government and hurricanes.  I will divide the post into two parts:  Preparedness and Response, and show that in fact, large central-government thinking is at the heart of many of the problems that are being faced.

Disaster Preparedness
I cannot come up with any justification for the US Government taking the lead role in local disaster preparation or protection.  The types of disasters are just too wide and varied:  Tidal waves in Hawaii, earthquakes in LA, mudslides in San Diego, fires in the west, tornados in the plains, hurricanes on the gulf coast, blizzards in the north, etc. etc.  And why would anyone want the feds taking over their local disaster plans anyway?  Do you really want to rely on the hope that a national organization has the same priority on your local risks that you do?  The resources, the knowledge, and the incentive to prepare for emergencies are all local, and such preparation should be done as locally as possible.

The only reason locals would even tolerate federal involvement in disaster preparedness is $$$.  Every local politician loves federal dollars.  And even a hardcore libertarian like myself is probably willing to admit that some of the preparedness investments truly are public goods.  Take levees for example.  I am willing to have them as public goods.  However, no one can convince me that levees whose sole purpose in life is to protect New Orleans are federal public goods.  Why do I need to pay for them?  Why don't New Orleans people bear the full cost of their choice to live below sea level?  My family chooses to live in a place that is relatively free of disasters (though if the Colorado River dries up you can come visit our bleached bones as we are consumed by the desert).  Why should I subsidize people's choice to live in a location that sits in mother nature's cross-hairs?

But beyond my cantankerous libertarian desire not to subsidize you, those of you who live in disaster areas should demand to take responsibility for your own preparedness.  The feds are never going to value your safety the same way you do (as evidenced in part by the 40-year ongoing fight for levee funding in New Orleans) and are never going to understand your local problems like you do.  In fact, the illusion of federal responsibility for disaster preparedness is awful.  It gives irresponsible local authorities an excuse to do nothing and a way to cover their ass.  It creates a classic moral hazard and sense of false security.

I have resisted saying this for a week or so out of respect for the plight of individuals still struggling in Louisiana and Mississippi:  If one divides the world into the ants and the grasshoppers (per the classic fable), New Orleans and Louisiana would make the consensus all-grasshopper team.  They have lived in a stew of bad and corrupt government for years, mixed with a healthy dose of Huey Long-style patronage that created expectations that "you would be taken care of".  Their state officials have for years not only been grasshoppers, but have demanded that they be supported by the ants, and seem lost and confused that the ants didn't protect them somehow from Katrina.

Disaster Response
Its probably good to have a national body that can help focus resources from around the nation onto local regions that have been devastated by some disaster.  But here is the key point.  The federal government itself is never, ever going to have the resources stockpiled somewhere to handle a disaster of this magnitude.  They can't have the doctors on staff, the firemen waiting around, the medical supplies in a big warehouse, a field full of porta-potties ready to deploy, etc. etc.  There is just too much needed, and the exact needs are too uncertain.

What they can do, though, is understand that in an emergency, Americans from all over the country are always willing to help, to volunteer their time or skills or money to aid the victims.  More than anything, the Fed's role needs to be to remove barriers from these resources gettting to the the right places as fast as possible, and to backstop these private efforts with federal resources like the military.  Take the example of refugees.  There are over a million from this hurricane.  Of those, at least 90% will be helped privately, either from their own funds or friends or family or private generosity.  Probably more like 95+%, if you include resources offered by local governments.  The feds role then is to help the remaining 5% find food and shelter.  Note, though, that the problem is not dealing with 100% of the problem, it is dealing with the 5% the leaks through bottom-up efforts, while removing barriers that might stand in the way of bottom-up efforts helping the other 95%.

Unfortunately, the feds don't think this way.  Most feds, including Krugman type large government folks, distrust private and bottom up efforts.  They are top-down technocrats, putting an emphasis on process and control rather than bottom-up initiative.  I wrote much much more about the failed technocratic response to Katrina here.  I think one can argue the reason that the refugee situation for 95% of the people worked well is that these folks quickly got out of the sphere of influence of the FEMA folks -- in other words, they got far enough away to escape FEMA control.  Can you imagine what a total disaster would be occurring if FEMA tried to control the relocation of all 1 million people?  But on the LA and MS gulf coast, FEMA is exercising total control, actually preventing private initiative from helping people, and everyone is the worse for it.  I encourage you to read more in this post about valuing control over results, but I will leave you with this one anecdote that sums up the big government technocratic top-down world Mr. Krugman longs for:

As federal officials tried to get some control over the deteriorating
situation in New Orleans, chaos was being replaced with bureaucratic rules that
inhibited private relief organizations' efforts.

"We've tried desperately to rescue 250 people trapped in a Salvation Army
facility. They've been trapped in there since the flood came in. Many are on
dialysis machines," said Maj. George Hood, national communications secretary for
the relief organization.

"Yesterday we rented big fan boats to pull them out and the National Guard
would not let us enter the city," he said. The reason: a new plan to evacuate
the embattled city grid by grid - and the Salvation Army's facility didn't fall
in the right grid that day, Hood said in a telephone interview from Jackson,

"No, it doesn't make sense," he said.

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  • Max Lybbert

    "Do you really want to rely on the hope that a national organization has the same priority on your local risks that you do?"

    The trouble Mayor Negin is having with the National Guard is a good example of this. He keeps asking them to forcibly evacuate the city, and they keep saying they don't take orders from the mayor (yes, I know they take orders from the Governor, so that's not quite a "national organization").

    The model that seems to work OK in most disasters (although it may be distasteful) is for the feds to provide money and clean-up. The locals usually handle the rest (vis. New York). In this particular disaster the local/state machinery was apparently destroyed in the flooding (and many police quit), so they didn't take care of what they normally do. The feds operate on a timeline where it's fine to be late, because they're usually just rebuilding houses, not stopping armed looters.

    I like your solution to the problem. When we need money, the government usually finds a way to get it there (again, whether this is distasteful is another issue), but if we need people, perhaps we should make it easier for people to select themselves and volunteer. In a country of 300 million people I'm sure we have enough potential volunteers near any potential disaster site. Why not mobilize and use them?

  • Jack Benway

    Two unrelated comments:

    1. I suspect the reason that local government was unable to take control of the fate of the levees is that the fed has jurisdiction over waterways in the US. Even if they wanted to (which is certainly in question), I'm not sure that N.O. could affect the state of the levees.

    2. The problem with reliance on the nanny state goes far beyond your summary. Federal or local makes no real difference in this case. Some people didn't evacuate before the storm because they were waiting for the government to provide them with a means of evacuation. People didn't stockpile food, water, and basic survival goods because they expected the government to take care of them after the hurricane. There is a segment of our population that has come to believe that their individual lives are worth more to the government than to themselves.

  • markm

    Jack: Each levee has its own control board - it's mandated by the LA constitution. This might be too much local control...