Every time a disaster strikes—whether it's natural, man-made, or a combination of the two such as Hurricane Katrina—politicians, the media, and the public immediately start playing out a script that is every bit as threadbare as it is stupid.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, then we are never so nuts as when in the grip of a big storm, earthquake, accident, or attack.
Here are three enduring myths that were blown back into public circulation even before Hurricane Sandy started ripping through the Eastern Seaboard like a bat out of hell.
1. This is Going to be Great for the Economy!
The water surge caused by Sandy hadn't even stopped rising when the first upbeat stories touting the storm's positive impact on local and regional economies started clogging the intertubes. At Yahoo Finance, University of Maryland economist Peter Morici wrote that "rebuilding after Sandy, especially in an economy with high unemployment and underused resources in the construction industry, will unleash at least $15-$20 billion in new direct private spending—likely more as many folks rebuild larger than before, and the capital stock that emerges will prove more economically useful and productive."
It's just a shame that we can't have a massive disaster every season. And boy, let me tell you: Pompei is really going to be something once the dust finally settles!
This is a variation of what's known as the "broken window fallacy," which was formulated by the Frenchman Frederic Bastiat in the early 19th century. The mistake here is that it confuses short-term spending with long-term economic growth. As Reason's Scott Shackford pointed out, Morici jitterbugs around the broken-window fallacy by talking about a time horizon that is ever-so-slightly longer than the immediate present. Professor Morici says we need to think about what happens when insurance checks get cashed and owners start building their dream homes with fancy new fixtures and hardwood floors and adding powder rooms. But as Shackford notes, though, "the money spent from those insurance claims is hardly growth. It's money shifted from one part of the economy to the other (or, you know, spending money we don't even have)."
The ultimate example of broken-window lunacy comes from Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. On September 14, 2001, Krugman used his New York Times column to lecture Big Apple residents about the upside of the utter destruction of the World Trade Center and a good chunk of lower Manhattan just a few days earlier: "Now, all of a sudden, we need some new office buildings…the destruction isn't big compared with the economy, but rebuilding will generate at least some increase in business spending."
Given that Frederic Bastiat's That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, which includes the broken-window bit, has been available in English for over a century, there's really no good excuse for this sort of repetition disorder.
Next: You Can't Spell Massive Failure without F, E, M, and A—and You Shouldn't Have To!
2. The Feds Should be in Charge of Everything!
The effect of Sandy on the outcome of Election 2012 will be debated for a long time but supporters of Obama and the Democrats are already making great hay about year-old comments by Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
In a 2011 debate, the self-evidently barbaric challenger took time away from pinching babies to suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could be shrunken down and many of its responsibilites shifted to state and local governments. The former Massachsetts governor opined that, "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction."
To Washington Post columnist and reliable Obama supporter Eugene Robinson, such thoughts are nothing more than a "glib exercise in ideological purity" and just another way of transferring "unfunded liabilities to the states." The New York Times has flatly declared that "A Big Storm Requires a Big Government," which is sort of like saying that a foot-long hot dog needs a 12-inch bun. This sort of response—that the feds should not only be on the hook for just about everything that happens everywhere but that Washington alone is capable of coordinating effective relief efforts, is widespread.
And simply wrong. As Matt Welch noted earlier today, FEMA spends a whopping "$10 billion on disaster coordination and relief." For all sorts of reasons—the foremost being the immutable law of geography—first responders will always be largely drawn from local and state sources. Those are the people who will not only be most numerous but will also have the best knowledge of a given area. And other than immediate humanitarian aid, is there any reason to shift the costs of living near the ocean, or a river, or in a fire-prone desert area to taxpayers who choose not to inhabit places that are so risky and expensive? In a 2004 story for Reason, millionaire TV anchor John Stossel wrote about how federal dollars rebuilt his waterfront home on Long Island. Who would have thought that wealthy, politically powerful people would be able to get cheap insurance from the feds? While the exact program that benefited Stossel doesn't exist in the same form anymore, it's been replaced by similar deals— including a bipartisan boondoggle that President Obama signed into law just this summer.
Far from being some sort of paragon of competency and sagacity, FEMA is notorious even among other Washington-based bureaucracies for failure to perform. The terrifying extent of the agency's incompetence become horrifyingly visible during Hurricane Katrina (itself a case study in the failure of local, state, and federal governments to provide basic safety for residents). Democrats today can claim that everything's jake with FEMA now that Michael D. "Heckuvajob" Brown is gone, but that just isn't true, especially when it comes to the narrow question of disaster coordination. Consider this 2011 Government Accountability Office report, which flatly states that FEMA "has not followed sound management practices to design, administer, and evaluate pilot programs that advance and integrate state and federal catastrophic planning efforts." As often as not, the difference between a relatively quick and successful recovery effort—such as the one following the 2011 tornado that flattened Joplin, Missouri—and a botched one is the ability of locals to circumvent bureaucracy rather than wasting time engaging it.
The feds are good at throwing massive amounts of money at problems, but they remain pretty bad at actually fixing things. Part of the reason that the response to Sandy was so robust (and proactive) is that major local and state politicos in the affected areas—including New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell—all had experienced major weather-related SNAFUS in recent memory. These guys were on top of things because the last time around—during 2010's blizzard for Bloomberg and Christie, and last summer's freakish electrical storm for O'Malley and McDonnell—they were caught flatfooted and caught holy hell for it.
It's all to the good they were on tiptoes this time around, but it doesn't somehow point to increased efficiency on the part of FEMA or the feds more generally.
Next: I Told You This Was Coming!
3. This Latest Event Confirms Everything I Have Always Believed In!
On Monday's Morning Joe, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute underscored that Hurricane Sandy was evidence that man-made climate change needed to be addressed pronto and wasn't it shameful that the topic didn't even come up during the presidential debates? Worse still was the continuing—and frankly inexplicable—reluctance of people everywhere to sign on to his preferred plan to save the world (which predates Sandy by many years and will doubtless outlive all memories of the storm too).
He was joined in such deep thoughts by Chuck Todd, who noted that when he was a kid growing up in Florida, he just didn't remember storms getting named with letters so deep into the alphabet (an indication that the number of storms in a given season is growing). The Post's Eugene Robinson perfectly summarizes a widely observed mind-set where hunches are better than actual information:
I know it's impossible to definitively blame any one storm on human-induced atmospheric warming. But I'm sorry, these off-the-charts phenomena are becoming awfully commonplace. By the time scientists definitively establish what's happening, it will be too late.
Former Vice President Al Gore, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm scatted variations on this theme too. For Gore, the 2010 flood in Nashville was a milestone that led him to understand better that "Dirty energy makes dirty weather." Given that Gore's Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which featured miles of footage of Gore musing about catastrophic climate change, came out in 2006, it's kind of hard to believe that the Nashville flood was that a big a deal for him, but whatever.
Look, hunches are bad ideas at the race track, at a singles bar, and for rogue cops who play by their own rules but deliver results, dammit! They're not all that much better when it comes to proposing massive geo-political restructuring of global energy production and use.
On the specific point about the number of storms and the severity of the damage they cause, it's worth actually looking at something a bit firmer than Chuck Todd's remembrance of things past. In a 2007 piece for Reason.com, Ronald Bailey noted that the data about the annual number of storms is not a slam dunk one way or another, though the theory that global warming might boost the count (and the severity) certainly makes sense. At the same time, it's likely that storm trackers underestimated storms in the 20th century for the same technological reasons we can follow them better now. Arguably more important—after all, by most climate-change models, even pulling the plug on all energy use now will have next to no effect on weather for decades if not centuries or milennia to come—is the fact that deaths from extreme weather events have continued to drop throughout the past 100 years. The dollar amount of damages goes up because there are more people on the planet, more folks live near a coast than ever before, and inflation keeps on rising (despite Ben Bernanke's promises).
On the more general point of using any specific disaster or tragedy to prove your pre-existing (and ex post facto) beliefs, keep in mind what Jerry Falwell said on September 13, 2001—right around the same time Paul Krugman's wife must have been doing final edits on his grotesque and inaccurate Times col about the stimulative properties of mass destruction.
Speaking with Pat Robertson on The 700 Club, Falwell waved aside such minor details as the Allah-loving nutjobs who had hijacked planes and flown them into buildings in New York and D.C. Instead, he laid into "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…and the ACLU, People for the American Way" for working to "secularize" the good old U.S. of A. "I point the finger in their face and say, 'you helped make this happen,'" preached Falwell.
Look here,—three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab;
Yeah, yeah, we get it already, Cap'n A! Everything that happens just happens to perfectly confirm everything you already know to be absolutely true. Even Falwell didn't want to be Ahab; he tried to apologize the next day for his outburst.
It may just be that especially in times of catastrophes, zipping your mouth for a couple of minutes may be the smartest course of action. And the most comforting to those who are actually in distress.