At the time of this writing (a week prior to publication) the total death toll from Sandy is 110. I have always found these figures hard to comprehend, because taken literally one would think that the deaths are caused by people being swept up in 110mph winds, but that is not typically what happens. We typically see people injured or killed from things like downed power lines electrifying puddles that people accidentally walk in, from trees smashing through homes, and the like.
And I don’t need to make light of this. We know someone who was tragically killed in the storm two weeks ago (a brother of a football teammate of mine). But I think that is even more of a reason to think clearly about the storm. I don’t feel like writing about gouging and shortages and things like that, but three other topics today.
(1) Deaths by storm: In NYC alone, about 150 people die every single day – this is for a population of about 8 million. My guess is that the storm affected a population closer to 100 million. So on any given day, about 2,000 people die every day from all sorts of things. This is not meant to minimize the loss of life from the storm. But the storm occurred (and its aftermath) over a large geographical area over a number of days is is thought to have added a total of 110 deaths. While shocking, this still represents a small addition to the number of deaths that are occurring all around us. There is a debate and policy question here of course. Could we have done anything to prevent that thousands of deaths that occur on every particular day? How easy would it be to do something about them as compared to the storm related deaths? And of course, we don’t see newspaper reports every day reporting that, “November 16th killed 2,000 people” which of course it “did.” Just a little perspective here is all.
(2) In terms of the economics of the storm, there is not good evidence that hurricane intensity or frequency has increased, though people argue that there is more ambient moisture in a storm to cause more damage and that sea levels are higher today leading to the chance that storms are more harmful (how much of that sea level is due to global warming vs. other factors is actually not part of the mythical “consensus” by the way). So the relevant question is not to attribute ALL of the deaths and ALL of the billions of damages to global warming but to ask the counterfactual of how many deaths and how much less damage we would have seen if the planet was 1 degree cooler. We may actually never know the answer to that question, but THAT, is the only way to sensibly think about the damages.
And remember that even if we think about the damages that way, that is just the starting point of the discussion. How hard would it be to make people safer by adapting to the storms and improving response systems and the electrical grid as compared to instituting a global carbon tax that is almost surely going to have a small or negligible impact on warming to begin with? Plus, to use the language of green energy optimists – isn’t it possible that these adaptation solutions have all kinds of positive spillovers anyway that climate policy does not have? Particularly when the corporatists get their hands on climate policy?
(3) Finally, people tell me that storms and the like are NOT a time to talk politics. But pardon me. If there is ANY time when politics should be discussed and invoked it is in times like this. We have huge collective action problems that result in the storm damage itself and also make recovery difficult. Are you meaning to tell me that we should only discuss and analyze politics when we are all on the beach sipping milky bananas? Give me a break. And the politics here, at least to this writer, is particularly appalling. We are told that we have an electrical and transportation infrastructure of a third world country. We are told that this is the result of bad politics and evil Republicans (or whatever your favorite demon is). And indeed in this crisis those chickens seem to be coming home to roost. But remember the ugly fact – isn’t it, so I am told, government’s most important job to keep people safe and to solve collective action problems like infrastructure and communications? And isn’t this a big giant failure? If you want to pay public employees lifetime retirements after 20 years of working and slacking on the job, you want to plunder the public coffers, you want to spend all of your political capital banning aluminum bats and transfats and big gulp sodas – then don’t be shocked when your sewer system dumps millions of tons of toxic sludge into your waterways, when your power goes out for weeks and roads and bridges are wrecked in a storm.
Don’t … be … SHOCKED!
But when I talk of tradeoffs when analyzing such policies I am told, “thank you for your opinion. There is more to the world than “economic-y” thinking.” Thanks indeed! We’ll post shortly on the fallacy in that comment. But storms help focus attention. While the alarmosphere is going to use this storm as evidence that we need more government, or as proof that global warming is going to ruin the world, I see it as precisely the opposite (of course). Actually, use the alarmists intuition here. They tell us that the storm makes it visible to see the dangers of global warming. They tell is it makes it visible to see the lack of action on carbon taxes.
But the storm and the tragic consequences makes it plain as day that we’ve been looting the taxpayers and each other while shirking our responsibilities for securing infrastructure and keeping people safe. You can’t argue one and not the other, at least using that train of reasoning. This is precisely what economists are talking about when we invoke the language of tradeoffs and scarcity. Finally, I find it incredibly ironic that many folks ignore the lessons of economics leading up to these disasters, but again ignore them when it comes to clean-up and recovery. Many of the communities suffering from disaster, prior to the storm, embrace the economic stupidity of buying local and eschew the evils of big box corporations. How many Home Depots are in Manhattan? Walmarts? But now when it comes to storm prep and recovery, it is the very existence of not buying local and the global supply chains of the big boxes that are key to a quick and affordable recovery. Where are all of the localists running around telling Northeasterners to buy only local wood, food, and supplies during the cleanup effort as a way to “keep money in the community?”