In Defense of the Corps

In the midst of Harvey’s unprecedented rainfall, the Army Corps of Engineers was faced with a difficult choice: release water from the Barker and Addicks reservoirs and flood homes downstream, or risk the dams being breached. They chose the former, and now the flooded homeowners are filing lawsuits seeking compensation for the damage to their properties.

The lawsuits are alleging that a “taking” took place–the government’s action effectively took the flooded homeowner’s property. Legal scholars are already debating the merits of the cases, which promise to drag through the courts for years.

I have long argued that any action on the part of government that diminishes the value of a property is a “taking” and compensation is due the owner. However, context matters. And in this instance, the concept of “taking” does not apply.

When officials announced the release of water from the reservoirs, they made it clear that water was going to come out of the reservoirs one way or another. At a minimum, water would overflow the reservoirs. And in the worst case, the dams would fail. In either of these cases, the release would be uncontrolled. And if the release were uncontrolled, officials could not predict how much water would flow into the bayous nor how many homes would be impacted. A controlled release allowed for more accurate predictions and gave property owners time to prepare.

At the time the release was announced, Col. Lars Zetterstrom, the Corps’ Galveston district commander, said,

If we don’t begin releasing now, the volume of uncontrolled water around the dams will be higher and have a greater impact on the surrounding communities…. It’s going to be better to release the water through the gates directly into Buffalo Bayou, as opposed to letting it go around the end and through additional neighborhoods and ultimately into the bayou.

In short, the homes that were flooded because of the release had a strong chance of flooding no matter what the Corps did. But a controlled release reduced the number of homes impacted.

It is understandable that those whose homes were flooded are upset. The flooding was not caused by the actions of the Corps. The flooding was caused by an unprecedented amount of rain.

The Personal Approach to Flooding

Barry Klein of the Houston Property Rights Association has a very good article on Houston’s perpetual flooding problem. Klein’s crucial point is that individuals must take responsibility for flood proofing their own properties, rather than looking to government to solve the problem.

In recent months I have decided that flood proofing needs to be routine for Houston area property owners based on their individual perception of risk. Each property owner would consider their elevation in the landscape, distance from nearby bayous and channels that can overflow, and whether their home or business sits on concrete pads or pier-and-beam foundations.

In contrast to Klein, many are calling for massive government intervention to address flooding. Some, such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, want to spend billions to upgrade dams and build more reservoirs. Another group wants tighter land-use regulations to control development.

Undoubtedly, either of these solutions will help reduce flooding in the future. But both come with enormous costs, and before we rush into embracing a solution, we should consider all of the alternatives, as well as their costs and benefits.

The advocates of tougher land-use regulations argue that development prevents water from absorbing into the ground, thereby flooding our streets and homes. It is certainly true that the ground absorbs water much more readily than concrete. But the clay soil found in the Houston region is not the absorbent sponge that many would like us to believe. And most streets include storm sewers that take runoff to drainage ditches and bayous.

For decades, those who want to control development have blamed nearly every problem Houston has faced on the absence of zoning. To listen to them, zoning will cure nearly every ill facing mankind. But zoning, along with any form of land-use regulation, comes with huge costs.

As an example, if large areas of land are removed from development, basic economics tells us that the value of the remaining land will increase. And when land prices increase, the cost of everything associated with land use–housing, businesses, schools, and much more– also  increases.  These costs will stifle economic growth.

More significantly, as history has shown us, government controls beget more government controls. Land-use regulations might be ushered in under the guise of reducing flooding, but we can be certain that additional controls will be enacted to address an ever growing list of “emergencies.”

The proper way to address flooding isn’t through massive government programs and more regulations. The proper approach is, as Klein tells us, personal responsibility.

Harvey’s Newest Victims

The Chronicle reports that more than 1,000 homeowners have requested that the government buy their flooded homes. The Harris County Commissioners Court has asked FEMA for $17 million to buy 104 homes that are considered high risks for flooding.

Since any money spent by government ultimately has to come from taxpayers, this means that individuals across the country will pay for these buyout programs. They will become the newest victims of Harvey.

It is certainly tragic when one’s home floods repeatedly. But one individual’s tragedy is not a license to force others to bear the financial responsibility. Yet, that is what the government does each time a natural disaster strikes.

If the owner of a flooded home began robbing others to obtain the funds to repair his home, we’d recognize his action as theft. The principle does not change simply because government acts as his proxy. One individual’s need, no matter how dire, does not justify robbing others.

Many will claim that denying government disaster relief is heartless and uncaring. But how is it compassionate to rob non-victims? How is it just to force Iowans and Ohioans to pay for our tragedy?

Similarly, Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for an 8.9 percent property tax increase to pay for the city’s efforts to clean up after Harvey. Again, non-victims will be forced to pay for a tragedy that befell others.

Altruism underlies these disaster relief efforts. Altruism holds that we have a duty to self-sacrificially serve others; we have a moral obligation to satisfy the needs of others. If someone suffers repeated floods, we must repair his home or buy it from him. According to altruism, one individual’s need is a claim on the property of others.

Those who wish to voluntarily help the victims of natural disasters have ample opportunities to do so. Private charity, not coerced government aid, is the proper response to helping disaster victims.

How Cronyism Made Harvey Worse

The flood waters from Harvey not even stopped rising before pundits began casting blame. And the blame focused on man-made causes: climate change, the failure of city and county officials to control or mitigate flooding, and Houston’s lack of zoning.

The pundits got it partly right. There is a man-made factor that contributed to Harvey’s devastation: cronyism.

While it is true that Houston’s lack of zoning allowed development in flood prone areas, that development was largely encouraged by the policies of the federal government. By subsidizing flood insurance, the government has encouraged developers to build in areas prone to flooding.

As the economist Walter Williams has pointed out, when we subsidize something we get more of it. When government subsidizes the cost of living in a flood plain, we get more development in flood plains. More development in flood prone areas leads to more flooded homes and businesses when significant rainfall occurs.

Congress has repeatedly attempted to reform the government’s flood insurance program, but intense lobbying from real estate interests have derailed those efforts. Developers and realtors are among the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, and they have used their political clout to protect policies that help them sell homes. And one of those policies is subsidized flood insurance.

Real estate interests deliver votes and campaign donations. Politicians deliver favorable legislation for those who provide electoral support. That is cronyism—the exchange of political support for political favors.

Cronyism has encouraged developers to build in flood prone areas. And it has encouraged individuals to buy homes in those areas. For those who think short-term, cronyism seems to be a win-win. Developers, realtors, and home owners get subsidies, and politicians get campaign contributions and votes. But in the long-term, cronyism leads to disasters like Harvey.

It is unlikely that we will ever completely prevent flooding in Houston. But a first step in mitigating flooding is to prevent the flood of money from special interests that allows them to buy political favors. This doesn’t mean restricting campaign contributions; it means getting the government out of the insurance business. It means ending cronyism.

The federal government dominates the market in flood insurance. Few private companies offer flood insurance, because they price their policies to reflect the actual risk. The government doesn’t, and that is why the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is currently $25 billion in debt. If a private company priced its policies like the government does, it would have gone out of business long ago.

In pricing flood insurance below rational standards, the NFIP reduces the cost of living in a flood plain. And that encourages more development in flood prone areas.

If the government got out of the insurance business, the market would determine the rate for flood insurance. When those rates reach a point that the market won’t bear, developers will quit building in flood prone areas because they won’t be able to sell homes. And if they do build in those areas, the buyers (and insurance companies) will be the ones assuming the risk, not taxpayers.

Subsidies discourage rational decision making. Indeed, the very purpose of subsidies is to encourage individuals to undertake economic activities that would otherwise be irrational. A $3,000 flood insurance policy may prevent an individual from buying a home. Reduce that cost to $500 and he might be willing to buy the home. The risk of flooding hasn’t changed, but the cost of that risk has.

If a developer wants to build in a flood prone area, he should be free to do so. If an individual wants to buy a home in a flood prone area, he should be free to do so. But they—not taxpayers—should bear the responsibilities of those decisions.

Houston’s relative freedom in land use has been one of the primary motors of its economic success. Regulations might solve the problem in the short-term, but they will undoubtedly create greater problems in the long-term.

The free market has served Houston well. It’s time we let the free market serve us just as well in flood insurance. It’s time to end the cronyism.

A “Necessary Evil” is Still Evil

Taxes, many Americans believe, are a “necessary evil.” They are the price we must pay to have a civilized society. As an example, one commentator, Bishop Michael Goings, states:

I would like to make a bold and perhaps un-American declaration. I hate paying taxes! Now I know that I have just expressed the conviction of arguably the vast majority of every red-blooded American about this constitutional responsibility; this dreaded thing that we all must do to some degree in various segments of our culture. Paying taxes is, in my estimation, a necessary evil and just as much of the rich history and heritage of America as baseball, apple pie, hot dog or Chevrolet.

The writer goes on to say, “A ‘necessary evil’ can be defined as an act perpetrating an act or practice that causes harm or great injury to oneself or others to preserve life or promote the greater good.”

To declare something a “necessary evil” is to say that we must accept–and even embrace–evil. Calling it necessary doesn’t change the fact that it is evil. According to Goings, engaging in evil is the only way to “preserve life or promote the greater good.” Perpetrating evil is neither civilized nor necessary.

Goings later states that both self-defense and war are also “necessary evils.” In other words, killing an intruder in one’s home is the moral equivalent of the intruder’s threat to one’s life. America’s actions in World War II were morally no better than the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Goings makes no distinction between self-defense and homicide. Certain actions, he believes, are intrinsically evil, regardless of context.

The Oxford dictionary defines evil as “profoundly immoral and wicked.”As moral guidance, Goings tells us that we must engage in an immoral action. This is the dead end of any attempt to construct a moral code while rejecting reason.

Those who advocate an ethics of duty believe that certain actions are necessary. When those actions prove to be harmful, they refuse to question their moral premises. Instead, they declare those actions to be a “necessary evil.” It is only “necessary” because they reject reason as the means to identify a proper moral code. And that is their greatest evil.

Why Houston Didn’t Evacuate

I’ve watched a lot of coverage of Hurricane Harvey on both the local and the national level.  I am struck by the incredulity of the national newscasters that the people of Houston didn’t just leave. They almost sound like we are deserving of criminal punishment for endangering our lives.

First and foremost, each individual has the right and a responsibility to himself if he wishes to survive to make the best decision he can regarding evacuation.

Three days before landfall, Harvey was a depression over the Yucatan expected to go into Mexico. No one in Houston evacuates for that.

Two days before landfall, Harvey was a category one Hurricane in the Gulf predicted to go into northern Mexico.  No one evacuates for that.  But we do start preparing when a hurricane is in the gulf.  Many did.

One day before landfall, Harvey was a category 2 Hurricane in the Gulf predicted to go into southern Texas as a category 3.  One day is way too late to evacuate Houston.  Those out of town stayed out of town. Those on the direct path near Corpus Christi evacuated.  Those in Houston and surrounding areas made preparations such as getting  food, water and supplies for a few days blow and lack of power.

The official recommendation for Houston was to shelter in place but evacuate storm surge areas.   That is best for a hurricane if you can’t get out.  This recommendation was based in part on the tragic loss of scores of lives in the Rita evacuation, as well as the cost, inconvenience and danger of sitting trapped in a car in traffic for a couple of days.  Texans learn from mistakes.

Landfall was north of Corpus. Harvey was a category 4 hurricane predicted to stall between Houston and San Antonio, which it did, bringing rain in unprecedented levels for several more days.

Evacuate now, at landfall?  NO!  More people die when they go onto the roads, especially at night, and drive into deep water which they either think is shallow or never see.  Flowing water pushes them from the road or rises until they drown.   In the first day a number of roads became impassable.  Very few people drowned, however, because most did stay off the roads. Still hundreds were trapped in cars, trucks and busses on overpasses just driving through Houston on the highways.

Evacuate to local shelters?  Some of them flooded too, and they couldn’t begin to handle the population.

Most previous hurricanes move through quickly.  In twelve hours it’s gone.  When the storm is over you come out and clean up. This one lingered for 4 days dumping something like 10 to 20 inches of rain each day over an area 100 mil north-south and 200 miles wide, covering a population of something like five million.

If the storm had stalled almost any other spot than it did the effects on the highly populated areas of Houston would have been much less.  We had no idea it would be anywhere near, or that it would stall, or that it would be such a powerful storm in enough time to evacuate.  The best choice most of us had was to shelter in place.

Further ignored is the huge cost of evacuation.  Many cannot afford transportation and lodging.  Gas becomes impossible to find once an evacuation begins. Many would have had to leave and possibly lose jobs.  This cost would be borne in any unwarranted evacuation. Even if successfully evacuated, getting back to begin repairs would be difficult.  Many cannot get to their homes yet nine days after landfall. Cleanup is well underway for most areas.  Those people are cleaning up their homes to prevent toxic mold and rot that could further damage their homes.

It is also difficult to tell where to go.  South was out. That’s where the storm is coming from.  Due east is out.  That is the Gulf.  West is out.  That’s where the eye of the storm was headed.  North is just about the only choice.  But half the population has to travel though the other half to get out.  That is a traffic nightmare.  Again, by the time we could tell what this storm could do many roads were being inundated with water.

What about the people who stayed in their homes till the second, third and fourth days?   The roads were impassable.  People living in homes that had never flooded in 100 years went to bed on the 3rd or 4th night and woke up with water lapping the mattress.  With that kind of rain over that kind of area every stream, river and bayou had record flood stages sometimes several feet higher.

My home, Mother-in-law’s home, several friend’s homes, neighbors’ homes and the homes of four tenants were not flooded.  My sister-in-law has one of the homes that was flooded five days after landfall when some streams were receding. They’re now living in a friend’s house.  I parked a mile from her home and waded through thigh high water to get to her house to assist today.

So although this was an unprecedented tragedy flooding about 10 percent of homes it still means 90 percent of the homes sustained minor damage or less.  I think 90 percent of Houston thinks they individually made the right decision not to evacuate.  Some of those flooded also think they made the right decision in not evacuating.  They are getting a head start on the clean-up.

Yes, someone who lives in an area that frequently floods is wise to seek shelter away from home before the rains come, but all have the right to make that decision for themselves.  We are not criminals, and many of us have been helping our neighbors and friends recover from their losses long before we could successfully  return from an evacuation.  So national media, please do not sneer at us.

A Picture is Worth Zero Words

We are told that a picture is worth a thousand words. A picture, we are supposed to believe, can convey truth far more effectively than an essay. A picture, the argument goes, captures true reality while words can be twisted and their meaning obscured.

In truth, a picture is worth zero words. Or, as philosopher Leonard Peikoff puts it, “A picture is not an argument.”

As an example, consider a recent photo of Ashley Smith with Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott. Unbeknownst to Abbott, Smith arranged the photo as a part of a political stunt. Smith, who is a transgender, shared the photo on social media, asking, “How will the Potty Police know I’m transgender if the Governor doesn’t?”

Smith and her ilk believe that if Abbott can’t recognize a transgender when he sees one, his position on the “bathroom bill” is thereby refuted. TexasLeftist.com claimed that “Ashley Smith Makes the Point About Bathroom Bill.” But the photo proves nothing, other than the fact that Smith posed for a photo with Abbott.

According to the Dallas Morning News:

Smith said she hoped the photo helps educate others about the transgender community. “We’re just regular folks,” she said Monday. “We’re teachers, doctors and police officers in the community.”

Her photo with the governor shows “how ridiculous this legislation is and how it can’t be enforced,” Smith said.

Smith failed to explain how the photo shows that the legislation is ridiculous. Apparently, words aren’t necessary because the photo supposedly tells the entire story.

And the story that Smith wants told is: transgenders are just “regular folks.” It is an attempt to play on our emotions rather than appeal to our reason. It is an attempt to generate compassion and sympathy, and thus, support for legislation that outlaws discrimination against transgenders.

The “bathroom bill” is certainly controversial and important principles–property rights–are involved. Debate over the bill should focus on those principles, and that requires much more than a photo. It also requires more than the non-essential issues raised by the conservative defenders of the bill.

The entire controversy arose when many local governments passed ordinances forcing businesses to allow individuals to use the restroom of their choice. The state government responded by properly trying to override these local violations of property rights, and then improperly trying to dictate who may use which restrooms.

All the state government has to do is pass a bill that prohibits local governments from passing ordinances that tell property owners what terms and conditions they require of those using their property. The debate and controversy ceases to be a political issue at that point, and each individual would be free to determine what terms and conditions are acceptable and act accordingly.

For example, if a business owner wants his customers and employees to use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, as most of the bathroom bills have stated, then it will be up to him to determine how to enforce that policy. And his customers and employees can decide whether that policy is acceptable or not.

A picture cannot address this principle, either pro or con. And the reason is, a picture is worth zero words.

First Responders

Politicians in their public announcements and remarks have repeatedly praised the “first responders.”

I would like to praise the real first responders – my friends and neighbors in Houston who got out their john boats, high trucks, and all kinds of flotation devices and rescued people trapped by flood waters. They often worked for many hours before police, firemen, national guard and Coast Guard were engaged in those same neighborhoods.  Local coverage of the storm is testament that when the official first responders were present, five times as many neighbor volunteers and volunteers from hundreds of miles away continued side by side with the official responders.

When national news organizations arrived they got the ride-alongs on the Coast Guard helicopters and boats leaving a dramatically different picture of who the real first responders were.

I praise the dedication and valor of all the first responders whether official or not.  Our politicians need to spend less time patting each other’s backs to recognize the real contribution of the volunteers who were quick to act in aid of themselves and their neighbors.

Helping Others Can Be Selfish

To the good people of Houston, Texas and surrounding communities so devastated by Hurricane Harvey:

I, with you, am suffering Harvey’s mal-effects and sympathize with you.  I’ve provided direct help and plan to make financial contributions to help.

It is profoundly selfish on my part to provide emergency help to my loved ones and friends and then to the good people known and unknown who work to provide my groceries, build my home, fuel my car, mow my lawn, care for me when I am sick or show what Texans can accomplish in space.  Help is what I want to do for these good people who are achieving their own dreams. These good people would never dream of taking away my dreams by theft or force. I value all that they make available to me. So I help in an emergency.   Please don’t call it giving back.

I never took from those good people more than what they offered for my payment. Those good people gave me what I expected as a customer, each of us acting in our own interest.  It is in support of my selfish interest in living in a community of such people that I have helped them.  Please do not call it unselfish.

What I have done this storm and previous storms is to make sure my family and I were safe and as comfortable as possible through both plan and action.  Then I would verify relatives and friends were similarly safe and comfortable. Then I would check on the welfare of neighbors.  This  sometimes entailed putting people up for a night, running electric wires to a neighbor’s house,  putting food in my refrigerator to keep when neighbors did not have power, cutting up fallen trees in the subdivision, cleaning ditches with my tractor to abate flooding or listening to someone’s story.  These are the kinds of things many Houstonians are doing for their own neighbors.  I liked the adventure in the face of a tropical enemy.  Eventually when I had money, I contributed to the community of just such good people. Please don’t call any of it sacrifice.

Our culture praises the selfless sacrifice of the boat rescues.  It would be a selfless sacrifice for someone to leave his wife, infant child and sick grandmother on a rooftop in the dark and rain while he ferried any number of strangers to dry land.  Such selfless stupidity should rightly be condemned.

The real heroes are all those thousands of Houstonians who in an emergency such as Harvey make sure they are themselves safe, then help their loved ones, friends and neighbors – the good people valued by the heroes themselves. Only then might they enjoy taking their boats out to rescue strangers.

The last are my heroes.  Please don’t call it selfless sacrifice.

 

In Defense of Price Gouging

When hurricane Harvey struck the Texas coast, state officials trotted out their usual warnings about price gouging. Under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, price gouging can result in civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation and up to $250,000 per violation for victims over 65 years old.

When an item is in short supply, prices rise. Those who value that item the most will pay the higher price. This is true whether a natural disaster is involved or not. However, when businesses are prohibited from raising their prices to reflect the supply, consumers have an incentive to hoard–to buy more of the item.

As an example, on Thursday I saw people buying up to ten cases of water at Lowe’s. I suspect that the store had no water for sale by the end of the day (my local HEB was out of water on Thursday and a nearby Wal-Mart was out of water on Friday morning). Because the price did not reflect the higher demand and lower supply, people bought more water than they probably needed. However, if the price had been increased, individuals would have probably bought less and more people could have bought water. Each individual could choose for himself whether the higher price was worth it.

When natural disasters strike, we hear warnings about gouging, but nothing about hoarding. Gouging helps ensure a supply. Hoarding diminishes the supply.

Penalties for price gouging are intended to protect consumers. But if a consumer is willing to pay $50 for a case of water that normally costs $4, how is he harmed? He values the water more than the $50. It’s his choice. If there is no water available, the price doesn’t matter. Rather than prosecute businesses for raising their prices when a natural disaster strikes, government should encourage the practice.

A business transaction is a voluntary trade in which each party benefits. What we regard as beneficial should be our personal choice, not a determination made by government officials.