Rant: Burn the Rich

Is it "apartheid" to pay for extra fire protection?


When Southern California really burns, as it does every fourth October or so, there can never be enough firefighters. Scorching Santa Ana winds turn parched chaparral canyons into wind tunnels begging for any spark—from lightning, cigarettes, blown-over power lines—to set whole mountain ranges ablaze. At the height of the October 2007 season, 23 separate wildfires from Malibu to the border of Mexico were simultaneously chewing through more than 2,000 homes and a combined land mass two-thirds the size of Rhode Island.

No firefighting force on the planet is equipped to cope with that kind of storm. Doing so would require standing fire squads of at least triple their current size, with nothing much to do until the next far-off catastrophe except draw salaries and qualify for pensions. So in the most recent conflagration the state of California bolstered its ranks of roughly 9,000 firefighters by deputizing more than 3,000 prison inmates to go on the front lines and recruiting an equal number of reinforcements from other Western states.

That much was uncontroversial. Then the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News revealed the shocking news that the American International Group (AIG), an insurance company, had been adding a very modest supplement to the firefighting effort—six trucks—on behalf of its clients. For premiums averaging a hefty $19,000 a year, AIG policyholders in the fire-vulnerable "wildland-urban interface" have their homes assessed for vulnerability, kitted with sprinkler systems, and doused with fire retardant. When wildfires rage within three miles of a covered house, AIG-contracted teams come out to lay down a fresh perimeter of retardant and check the roof and nearby brush for stray embers (the cause of most housing tract losses during an inferno). According to Bloomberg, AIG firefighters saved at least six houses, including one lucky enough to be next door to an AIG client.

You would think that the creation of supplementary firefighting capability—the costs of which are borne entirely by the homeowners who choose to live in fire zones, instead of taxpayers—would be a cause for at least mild enthusiasm. Instead, it was greeted with howls of class warfare.

The leftist critic Naomi Klein called it "disaster apartheid," proof that "the country is indeed in the grip of extremists who are determined to act out the biblical climax—the saving of the chosen and the burning of the masses" (the "masses," in this case, being millionaire homeowners who live near the millionaire homeowners who bought supplemental fire insurance).

The liberal historian Rick Perlstein called it "a sickening indication about how the conservative mania for privatization is beginning to create two Americas: One that is protected from fires, and one that is not," and then delivered this economically illiterate policy lecture: "Firefighting is a public good. Privatize it—provide a higher level of fire protection for those who can afford it, and a lower level for those who cannot—and you…insulate certain individuals from the consequences of crises that wrack
everyone else."

Leaving aside Perlstein's bizarre definition of privatization, what's noteworthy about his critique is that it's almost the exact inverse of what L.A.'s influential socialist/apocalyptic critic Mike Davis argued in his famous 1996 essay "Let Malibu Burn," which complained bitterly about "public subsidization of firebelt suburbs," "cheap fire insurance, socialized disaster relief and an expansive public commitment to 'defend Malibu.'?" Davis resented—and rightfully so—a system of government incentives that rewards development in fire zones that no private companies would insure while transferring tax money from the poor to the rich.

This year's critics, by contrast, balk at letting the wealthiest Californians finally pay their fair share. Since the Naomi Kleins of the world don't want the rich to get more public protection, and they don't want the rich to get more private protection, what options are left? Burn, Malibu, burn.

Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times.