Friday, December 31, 2004

All Dressed Up and No One to Call

A few brief words on this tsunami business.

Let me say by way of preface that this truly was a terrible natural disaster. The loss of more than 100,000 people is truly staggering, even in an area as populous as the Pacific Rim. My heart goes out to those who have lost property and loved ones.

That said, here is an example of sheer shortsighted stupidity on the part of the affected governments on a scale as large as the wave. I read where seismologists in California and other countries monitored the 9.0 earth quake as it happened, and quickly concluded based upon their calculations that the likelihood of tsunami wave action was quite high for those land masses surrounding the epicenter. But we didn’t have anyone to call.

In this country, we have more emergency alert systems than we can count. We have that ridiculous color coding system for the terrorism level, there is a siren on my local fire department that whines like it’s the nuclear holocaust when there’s a fire (or in the Midwest when there is a tornado), many urban areas have EAS loud-speaker systems throughout the town, and the local weatherman interrupts my regularly scheduled programming for every stinking lighting flash and rain drop. And if the stuff really hits the fan you can be sure that the sheriff or the national guard will be driving through the neighborhood with bullhorns like they do in the aftermath of a hurricane. The point here: if there’s an imminent problem that requires quick action like evacuation, we’re on that.

Of these many and varied ways of disseminating warning of danger, these countries failed to employ any of them. Apparently, no one even picked up the yellow pages to start calling beachfront hotels and say something like, “Uh, you might want to avoid the really big wave about to crash into your hotel.” And I am forced to ask: at what point does negligence become criminal? If there is any example of how government interference and ineptitude can be dangerous, this is it.

Chris mentions in one of his recent blogs that the UN has already been critical of our low-ball offer of financial aid for these countries. I say that since we called them up and told them to tell their people (and some of ours) to get the hell out of the way, we’re not obligated. Apparently, these folks couldn’t even get a dial tone. What really grates me about this situation is that despite the fact that this was a one-in-a-million kind of thing our technology nonetheless detected it, saw it coming, and was ready to act. Not only was this was a preventable tragedy, but the governments there blatantly, and arguably criminally, failed to act. If we send them any money at all, it should be for attorney’s fees.


-Ron said...

President Bush announced today from Texas that our contribution for tsunami aid will now be $350M. I can only hope that somebody at the White House won the Power Ball Jackpot and is making the contribution personally. Whilst that is only about $2 bucks for every American taxpayer – and most of us would be glad to pay it if asked – nonetheless reinforces how the government could care less whether its 35 million or if you throw in an extra zero, it’s not their money they’re spending.

David said...

Actually, my beef with the aid program is it creates a disincentive for people to adapt to the world and for the money to be spent most efficiently. While I don't think we should flick off these people, we shouldn't condone tax and aid plans either. Private organizations are better at figuring out what people really need and have an incentive to act on that knowledge. Governments don't. Sure we can all agree that food and water are priorities, but how much of each? What level of purity? How diverse should the food be? Should we include animal food (for pets and farm animals)? What kind of medical supplies should we send? How much toliet paper do they need? Let's not forget that government aid crowds out volunteer donations.

At the risk of sounding heartless, I rarely approve of government funded aid. It distorts incentives by taking people's money. This is similar to Flordia hurricanes: whenever they hit they send the government the bill, defraying the costs in an area they know is harmful. I admit, in this case it's a little different: there is no "tsunami season;" this episode was a lot less predictable. But could it have been forseen? It's not like people believe earthquakes are caused by angry gods or tsunamis by an enraged Posideon. By providing a clear case of guaranteed funds (guaranteed because they are created through force), there's less incentive to take preventive procedures (of course, this is technically a minor influence: lives were lost-something money can't by back-and governments over there aren't that good).