What went wrong, in general terms

by on September 5, 2005 at 7:42 am in Political Science | Permalink

Matthew Kahn asks:

1. How much did the people of the New Orleans metro area invest in their own levees? Given that property owners and public safety in this metro area are the main beneficiary of such investments, why wasn’t this sufficient incentive for the Mayor and the metro area’s other political leaders to tax citizens collect the money and invest in better, more modern levees?

Here is the full post, which includes three other to-the-point questions.  I am not into the blame game, but Randall Parker’s recent post also raises questions about the underfunding of New Orleans local government.  Of course the Feds messed up too.

Are democratic governments simply not very risk averse when it comes to very bad, low probability events?  The model behind this conclusion is simple.  Politicians would have to spend the money on protection no matter what, and lose the benefits of spending that cash elsewhere with p = 1.  The chance of reelection goes up only with a small probability, namely if the bad event happens and voters can tell their representatives were suitably cautious.  Why not instead spend the money with a higher chance of boosting reelection prospects?  The key stylized fact is that if a politician messes up very badly, there is no penalty worse than removal from office, which is a penalty (roughly) fixed in value.  And since the value of holding office may not fall in proportion to the suffering caused by the disaster, politicians’ utility maximization will not bring optimal spending either.

Addendum: David Bernstein has some good information on federal spending cuts.  And there is also a complicated story about overreaction ex post, although without necessarily doing much useful, read Daniel Drezner.

1 Jonathan Goff September 5, 2005 at 10:34 am

Tyler,
Not sure here, but I was under the impression that the levee system was government property, owned and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Without their permission and approval, nobody could repair the levees even if they wanted to and had the money.

That said, it would probably have been possible, had private or local entities pushed hard enough, for them to get permission to help with the levee restoration work.
~Jon

2 Charlie (Colorado) September 5, 2005 at 10:39 am

Of course the Feds messed up too.

Why “of course”? Can you name something the Feds could have done that they didn’t do? “Could have” here to include physical possibility and legality.

3 Marianne Coleman September 5, 2005 at 11:02 am

Writing that there is not much risk adversity on low probability events says it all. It’s unfortunately true.

Here’s to you Tyler.

4 Jos Bleau September 5, 2005 at 11:35 am

You are asking the wrong question. The right question is – how has the Lousiana political culture of extreme corruption exceded only by managerial incompetance survived so long?

The political culture once excluded women and minorities. Opening it up over he last 30 years, thus introducing more competition, should have broght new and better leaders to prominence.

Instead, the political culture produced even worse, more corrupt, and incompenat leaders than before.

How could this be?

5 Will Franklin September 5, 2005 at 1:49 pm

Honestly, it’s easy to armchair quarterback this thing, but the response has actually been quite amazing, given the magnitude of what happened.

6 Dave Schuler September 5, 2005 at 1:57 pm

Tyler, the Army Corps of Engineers has had statutory responsibility for flood control on the Mississippi for 70 years now. There is a problem but it is Congress’s problem.

Could the Louisiana government and the government of the city of New Orleans have lobbied more effectively for money for flood control? No doubt. But Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have all opposed flood control spending for as long as I’ve been alive. As recently as this spring the NYT editorialized in opposition to flood control spending as “pork barrel politics”.

7 so_cal_mike September 5, 2005 at 9:32 pm

John McPhee wrote about the Miss. River levee system in his book “The Control of Nature”, published in 1989. I recommend the book highly to anyone wanting to read about how humans “think” they have nature under control. I have discussed this book with my students in the past (there’s a third of the book devoted to Southern California and mudslides), and they all ask the same thing: “Why did they allow a city there in the first place?”

That being said, this issue is a lot more complex than what all of us are talking about. The levees upstream are definitely an issue, as is the destruction of wetlands, and the continual increase of the levees’ height. It is important to play the blame game, but this is going to be a long-term issue.

8 Nathan Zook September 6, 2005 at 10:45 am

So the local storm surge has only gone up 1,900 feet instead of 19,000? I feel so much better.

You’re demagogging a serious issue.

—-

If you let the river spread out just past NO, you get a serious problem with water going downhill (INTO NO!) You also get a serious problem with navigation because the channel is going to move every high tide.

I heard a comment that NO has been our busiest port. There is a clear federal issue here. How to fix it? That’s far from clear, but we have an opportunity to make a drastic change that will work better. Hastert is right.

—–

A sister of a friend was late heading out of Gulfport. She stopped by my friend’s house (my friend had already headed out). A thought crossed her mind, “I could siphon gas from the jeep”. Then immediate moritification set in.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it here. The looters are poor because they consistently make poor choices. Going down to your local Walmart and “finding” jewelry is completely different from “looting” gasoline to get out.

Nobody that I’ve seen has a problem with people getting food, water, and transportation by any means that doesn’t stop others from the same. These are “finds”, or whatever other non-negative term you want.

People justifying taking flat-screen TV’s & jewelry have to resort to the usual race-based rhetoric. These are “lootings”, and if you don’t want to be called a looter, don’t do it.

If most of the people taking food & water are white (and feeling guilty for doing so), while most of the people taking TVs and jewelry are black, then white people are “finding” while black people are “looting”. I don’t want this to be true, but if it is, then the black leaders need to attack the problem in their community and quit blaming everyone else for their own problems.

9 rmark September 6, 2005 at 2:51 pm

jewelry is good to trade for food and water, hiigh value in a small package.

10 anon September 6, 2005 at 9:00 pm

Just a quick comment about Andrew Wise’s comment. We face the time-consistency problem a bit here: The government ex-ante promises not to provide more than a certain amount relief when the hurricane comes. But if the hurricane does come, political pressure is going to force the government to provide more relief than ex-ante promised. So, I think that there is some reason that just deciding what we will do in the future and sticking to it is not so easy.

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