Yesterday evening I received an e-mail from my friend Jay who is “living the dream” in Tahoe City, California. Last year, on my annual winter ski trip, we hooked up with him for a night in Reno and a day at Alpine Meadows where he was working as a Supervisor/Cook/Liftie/Photographer. This spring he started working as a firefighter, and he’s been called down to the newly minted disaster area to fight the raging fires that have ridden roughshod over parts of California for the past week or so. I wish him luck and look forward to seeing what pictures he brings back, they’re sure to be pretty amazing.
I do, however, stand by my statements about social insurance programs from earlier this year, despite of course, wishing for Jay’s safe return from fighting fires to protect some McMansions, such as that of Richard Sanders, whose home “was recently renovated, on half an acre with a pool and a spa,” which had “escaped damage in the 2003 and 1990 fires.” If you think I’m singling anyone out here, I’m not. Mike Davis, a historian at the University of California at Irvine suggests that much of the new construction in SoCal was essentially built atop a powderkeg.
“About two-thirds of new building in Southern California over the past decade was on land susceptible to wildfires.”
“It gives you some parameters for understanding the current situation. Another way to look at it is you simply drive out the San Gorgonio Pass, where the winds blow over 50 mph over a hundred days a year and you have new houses standing next to 50-year-old chaparral.
You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans.”
Building a house in these parts of SoCal, or building a house in a flood plain is unsystematic risk which is not insurable. In plain english, I emphatically believe that those people smart enough to avoid high risk areas should not be forced through taxation (or otherwise) to subsidize the lifestyles of others. Look: there is no such thing as a “no risk” area. Life is full of risk, and we all have to choose the level with which we’re comfortable, and accept responsibility for it. If you are uncomfortable being responsible for a house in a flood plain, the proper response is to not buy a house on a flood plain, it is improper to force one’s neighbors to assume the risk that you deem excessive.
I’ve also noted that the “public” nature of such programs as flooding or fire “insurance” succumbs to morale hazard, which actually tends to increase the magnitude of damage claims. For instance, after the 2003 fires, the “resulting controversy brought calls for reform, but San Diego voters declined to fund improvements for the fire department, the smallest per capita for any large city in the country.” This is political economy 101: confident that others will pay, voters tend to demand high levels of protection, politicians tend to promise just that, and eventually the voters (when faced with the bill) decide on an inadequate level of funding.
“These smoke jumpers drop out of the sky miraculously to fight the fire for you, so there’s incentive for county commissioners and land use departments to withhold the permitting of homes,” said Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics. He was reached in Washington, where he was presenting a study showing that 50 to 95 percent of Forest Service firefighting costs went to protect private property.
How many more times will the taxpayers (federal, local, or otherwise) be called upon to “share” the burden of a few people’s bad decisions in the name of community and compassion? If those people had any true sense of community or compassion, they would never have made me responsible for rebuilding their homes. What is happening right now in SoCal is unfortunate — but it is not in the least bit unpredictable. Quite to the contrary, the severity of the current crisis situation is precisely how we should expect events to play out when people are not made to bear responsibility for their own (probably poor) judgements.