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The insurance, of course, has encouraged more people to build on the edges of rivers and oceans. The National Flood Insurance Program is currently the biggest property insurance writer in the United States, putting taxpayers on the hook for more than $640 billion in property. Subsidized insurance goes to movie stars in Malibu, to rich people in Kennebunkport (where the Bush family has its vacation compound), to rich people in Hyannis (where the Kennedy family has its), and to all sorts of people like me who ought to be paying our own way.
When my crew was working on the 20/20 story on this indefensible insurance subsidy, producer David Sloan was shooting on the elegant Outer Banks of North Carolina. A man who saw our camera invited Sloan to videotape inside a luxurious beach mansion he was renting. Sloan accepted and was surprised to see, taped to the refrigerator, a picture of presidential hopeful (then House majority whip) Richard Gephardt.
"Why is his picture here?" Sloan asked.
"He’s an owner of the house," answered the renter.
Aha, a surprise twist to our story: A Missouri congressman owns expensive beachfront property insured by taxpayers. We called Rep. Gephardt’s office and asked to interview him about flood insurance. I was excited. He and I had something in common: We were both welfare queens. I thought he might say something like: "Yes, it’s disgraceful -- we shouldn’t get special protection because we are rich enough to build on beaches. I’m trying to end this boondoggle." But when I interviewed him, he just smiled blandly and kept saying Congress would "look into the program."
Why subsidize affluent people like Gephardt and me? Why not let us sink or swim on our own? If my house erodes away, it should be my tough luck. FEMA chief Witt at least attempted an answer: "The American people are pretty compassionate toward their neighbors."
Government flood insurance is so "compassionate" that the program didn’t even raise my premiums when, just four years after I built my house, a two-day northeaster swept away my first floor. I could still use the place, since the kitchen and bedrooms were on upper floors, though some guests were unnerved when a wave sloshed through the bottom of the house. After the water receded, the government bought me a new first floor.
Federal flood insurance payments are like buying drunken drivers new cars after they wreck theirs. I never invited you taxpayers to my home. You shouldn’t have to pay for my ocean view.
Actually, I don’t have such a great view anymore. On New Year’s Day, 1995, I got a call from a friend. "Happy New Year," he said. "Your house is gone." He’d seen it on the local news. (Or rather, he saw the houses that had been next to mine, and nothing but sand next to them.) The ocean had knocked down my government-approved flood-resistant pilings and eaten my house.
It was an upsetting loss for me, but financially I made out just fine. You paid for the house -- and its contents. I’m not proud that I took your money, but if the government is foolish enough to offer me a special deal, I’d be foolish not to take it.
I could have rebuilt the beach house and possibly ripped you taxpayers off again, but I’d had enough. I sold the land. Now someone’s built an even bigger house on my old property. Bet we’ll soon have to pay for that one, too.
I interviewed beachfront homeowners in New Jersey, asking why they should be entitled to this brand of welfare. They got angry:
First Homeowner: We create a lot of employment here -- look at the dishwashers and the chefs and the waitresses and the waiters.
Stossel: This is welfare for you rich people.
First Homeowner: I am not rich.