“All Right, Very Bad Weather”

George Reisman, Objectivist economist, on “The Alleged Threat of ‘Global Warming,'” from his 1998 book, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (“A complete and integrated understanding of the nature and value of human economic life”):

Currently, the leading claim of the environmentalists is that of ‘global warming’. It is alleged that man’s economic activities, above all the burning of fossil fuels, are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This will supposedly raise the average mean temperature of the world by several degrees over the next century and will cause a rise in sea levels because of melting ice. …

Perhaps of even greater significance is the continuous and profound distrust of science and technology that the environmental movement displays…The one thing, the environmental movement holds, that science and technology can do so well that we are entitled to have unlimited confidence in them is forecast the weather–for the next hundred years!

It is, after all, supposedly on the basis of a weather forecast that we are being asked to abandon the Industrial Revolution or, as it is euphemistically put, “to radically and profoundly change the way in which we live”–to our enormous material detriment. …

The meaning of this insanity is that industrial civilization is to be wrecked because this is what must be done to avoid bad weather. All right, very bad weather. …

Indeed, it would probably turn out that if the necessary adjustments were allowed to be made, global warming, if it actually came, would prove highly beneficial to mankind on net balance. (pp. 87-89, all emphases in original).

This morning’s New York Times, on “How Hurricane Harvey Became So Destructive“:

Scientists say the effects of Hurricane Harvey, which has been stalled over the Texas Gulf Coast since Friday and dumped more than 20 inches of rain in some areas, were worsened by a lethal confluence of meteorological events: warm water in the Gulf of Mexico that intensified the rainfall, and a lack of winds in the upper atmosphere that could have steered Harvey away from land.

Exacerbating the situation, said Hal Needham, a storm surge expert and founder of the private firm Marine Weather & Climate in Galveston, Tex., was that the storm surge elevated Galveston Bay, blocking drainage of the rain that pummeled coastal and inland areas.

“A two- or three-foot storm surge alone would not have been catastrophic,” Mr. Needham said. “It was all these ingredients coming together.”

And it’s not over.

Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the driving rains would continue for another two or three days, pouring an additional 15 to 25 inches over parts of Southeast Texas. Some areas, he said, could see as much as 50 inches of rain.

“This is unprecedented,” he said.

So I guess the experts disagree, right?

The last word, of course, goes to a philosopher:

Any natural phenomenon, i.e., any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur; any phenomenon involving human action is the man-made, and could have been different. For example, a flood occurring in an uninhabited land, is the metaphysically given; a dam built to contain the flood water, is the man-made; if the builders miscalculate and the dam breaks, the disaster is metaphysical in its origin, but intensified by man in its consequences. To correct the situation, men must obey nature by studying the causes and potentialities of the flood, then command nature by building better flood controls. (Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 37).

18 thoughts on ““All Right, Very Bad Weather”

          • It’s good to see that we’re displaying the gravitas appropriate to the occasion. I sort of feel like: if “Policy of Truth” were the Muppet Show (bear with me here), “Riesbeck and Khawaja” would be its equivalent of “Statler and Waldorf.”

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          • Yes. It would be in bad taste to laugh in the face of disaster. Grave seriousness is the only way some of us can help.

            On an actually serious note, until a few months ago I lived on this street:

            Having lived there, I’m mainly surprised that many more people haven’t died. Houston floods at the drop of a hat full of water, so it’s more surprising that it still exists at all than that this happened. Global warming or not, Houston is going to continue to struggle with things like this.

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          • I don’t feel particularly bad about laughing in the face of tragedy. Every day brings news of tragedy, whether proximate or remote, so a ban on laughing in the face of tragedy would just be a ban on laughing–something I regard as a reductio. A thousand or so people recently died in the flooding in Mumbai; had Harvey not happened, I doubt that any of us would have thought twice about laughing in the face of it.

            I suppose there’s a mild ambiguity here about the meaning of “laughing in the face of” something, Houston being closer (to us) than Mumbai, both geographically and civically (and in your case, personally). But when you start a post by quoting George Reisman, humor is the only conceivable response. If you think I’m joking, try reading through the last post on his blog. It’s a heart-felt obituary for Ralph Raico, the libertarian historian, consisting in large part of Reisman’s fond recollections of the two of them, intellectual brothers-in-arms, fighting the good fight for….yes, Senator Joseph McCarthy. If you decide to read it, and manage not to puke or start crying half-way through, my guess is that you’ll laugh “in the face of” what you’re reading, as I did, maybe shaking your head along the way.

            My impression is that the journalism coming out on Harvey is coalescing around three significant issues and a long list of insignificant ones. The three significant ones are whether anthropogenic climate change has anything to do with the severity of the storm; what role Houston’s lack of a commitment to zoning might have played in exacerbating Harvey’s effects; and the justifiability (or not) of price gouging during a storm (or disaster) like this. I guess those are the biggest significant issues. There are, I suppose, other significant issues of smaller scale, like: can we really trust the Red Cross with our funds? Probably hard to count the insignificant issues, but I mean things like the Melania Trump Stiletto Heel Backlash and the like.

            As far as I can see, the debate on the three significant issues has been essentially inconclusive, though I thought that the anti-price gougers had a bit of an edge over the pro-price gougers in that debate.

            On the “role of climate change” issue, in addition to your Atlantic item, there’s this thing from Vox and this one from Scientific American. As far as I can see, this seems to be the consensus view.

            On the zoning issue, there’s this but there’s also this. It’s not clear what the upshot of the two views is, since lack of zoning may have made Houston more susceptible to flooding, but a cheap and flexible housing market might make it easier to bounce back.

            Incidentally, though I agree entirely with what Krugman has to say about zoning, it’s a little puzzling why he has contempt for “both sides” arguments in general: is there some a priori reason why the truth is generally not distributed in complex ways across two contending sides of a conventionally-defined ideological divide? And some a priori reason why contempt should be in order?

            On price gouging, the “locus classicus,” I suppose is this or this:

            http://www.learnliberty.org/videos/price-gouging-immoral-should-it-be-illegal/

            I’ve taught the article a couple of times, but have never been entirely convinced by the argument. So I thought this was a useful corrective. The preceding article seems to have exercised the bloggers at Cafe Hayek, who make a few good points in response here and there, but not enough to sink Hiltzik’s main point (so to speak). (I just saw this, but haven’t listened to it. “Your daily dose of liberty education starts here!” is where I tuned out.)

            I guess I forgot insurance/moral hazard as another one of those perennial Big Topics when disaster strikes. And I guess it’s fitting that Fortune has something to say about that.

            OK, that ends my Serious Commenting Quota for today. Now, it’s back to editing the forthcoming issue of Reason Papers, scheduled to appear on Monday–yes, on Labor Day. Just what you’d expect of a journal edited by a pair of Objectivists….Wait till the Copy Editor’s Union hears about this outrage.

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          • “Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life — without faith in reason in life. Again and again the human race will decree from time to time: ‘there is something at which it is absolutely forbidden henceforth to laugh.'”

            I of course find this quite funny.

            But not everything is a laughing matter. Death and destruction by natural disaster, generally, aren’t. The sanctimonious, sour-faced insistence that a dour, grave, and decidedly unhumorous attitude toward such things is somehow morally efficacious, let alone obligatory, is a laughing matter.

            The real surprise to me is that many more people haven’t died; according to Wikipedia, only 38 deaths have been recorded for the entire state of Texas, despite the massive damage. Of course we shouldn’t want to minimize the impact of the hurricane on those who were impacted, but it’s really pretty amazing that more than ten times that number didn’t die in Houston alone.

            I would have more patience for the debates about zoning and such if most of the participants in that debate were not the usual suspects, apparently motivated entirely by their ideological commitments to zoning and government regulation or to economic freedom and hence opposition to regulation. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but I don’t see libertarian-leaning people commending zoning laws or staunchly progressive types denouncing them.

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          • Comment overheard tonight at dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village:

            What happened is Houston is kinda sad, but it’s also kinda funny, cause, like, they voted for all these policies and now Harvey’s kicking the shit out of them. Kinda serves these people right, right?

            Not sure what policies he had in mind, not that I really wanted to know. The speaker appeared to be about 30 years old. I wonder if he’s ever heard of the Taggart Tunnel disaster in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and what he thinks about it. I kind of felt like punching him, but I know we’re not supposed to punch people whenever we feel like it. So I just paid the bill and was glad to leave.

            Ain’t I a libertarian-leaning person who commends zoning laws? Or if I haven’t before, I hereby do: I do think that zoning laws, properly understood and properly circumscribed, have a legitimate role to play in municipal planning. I even believe in the legitimacy of municipal planning! It’s essentially impossible to talk about property in a society like ours without talking, in the same breath, about the role of zoning. And I find it hard even to imagine a working system of property that didn’t involve some version of zoning. (The article I link to at the bottom suggests that contrary to popular belief, Houston did in fact have a functional equivalent of zoning.)

            And isn’t Krugman (in the link I provided) a progressive denouncing (some) zoning laws, or praising the deregulation that gets rid of some of them? (We tend to forget that it was Jimmy Carter who started the contemporary trend toward deregulation in American life, at least at the federal level.)

            Hard-core libertarians and leftists aside, I think there are plenty of reasonable people who regard zoning laws as in some sense necessary, while also finding some of their effects (and some reasons for adopting them) problematic. And if you think the ideological zealots are bad, don’t forget the entirely non-ideological types whose views on zoning are motivated entirely by the material consideration of the moment. Those are the sorts of people who actually flock en masse to zoning board meetings, hoping to effect (or affect) policy outcomes. Try to raise an ideological point of any kind at such a meeting–a principle of any kind–and people will immediately tune you out. Honestly, ideological zealotry would be an improvement in such contexts.

            Another article on zoning and Harvey:

            http://www.slate.com/articles/business/metropolis/2017/08/how_houston_and_harris_county_s_zoning_approach_affected_hurricane_harvey.html

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          • You gave up your claim to be libertarian-leaning a while back, I think. You are a formerly libertarian-leaning person who is now a centrist Democrat. Livin’ the life.

            I don’t have strong views about zoning laws (surprise, surprise) but my imperfectly informed sense is that it’s more a question of what than whether. I’ve no doubt that there are sensible discussions of the question out there; maybe Krugman’s is one. I haven’t spent much time looking; what I’ve heard and read in passing has been almost entirely ideological claptrap that had plainly reached its conclusions before considering any of the details about the case of Houston in particular. If you say otherwise I’ll trust your judgment, but I don’t have the sense that Krugman hadn’t reached his conclusions about zoning laws and their relevance to Houston before he thought about floods in Houston.

            I have been told that Houston is to blame because they ignored the flood problem. When I pointed out that the flood problem was a constant topic of discussion in the three years I lived there, that the city did numerous things to address it, and that the problems have more to do with politics and difficulties coming to agreement on what measures to implement, and that the city probably deserves some credit for the relatively low number of deaths inflicted by the hurricane, I was met with silence.

            I suspect your 30-something burrito chomper would have been just as silent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had no idea what ‘laws’ he was talking about. Texas seems to convince people who know nothing that they’re experts.

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          • Well, a centrist Democrat can “lean libertarian” as long as he manages not to fall over. Viviendo la vida loca.

            Krugman’s post itself implies that he reached his views on zoning well before Houston. I just think the point he’s making is essentially unassailable and commonsensical. It doesn’t turn on the details about Houston; it was intended to induce progressives not to mouth off too hastily about zoning–a clear and imminent danger.

            The whole problem with debates about regulation (and by implication zoning) is that when they’re not driven by pure material opportunism, they’re driven by mantras half-devised to shut out certain inconvenient facts. For libertarians, zoning violates “NAP” (the non-aggression principle); NAP-violations are evil; so zoning is evil. Then we get the parade of horribles that arises from this evil. For a certain kind of leftist, neo-liberal capitalism releases the greed that is man’s original sin; since capitalist greed leads to injustice (the politically relevant sort of injustice), and regulation exists to contain injustice, the worse things get, the more that regulation becomes necessary (lest we become complicit in injustice). Zoning is a form of regulation, so zoning is necessary.

            One side has spent fifty years relying on NAP without feeling the need to specify or justify it. The other side sees no problem with forcing people to do the right thing on an ad hoc basis, where “ad hoc” refers both to the justification of the use of force and the content of “right thing.” Given the stakes, a disaster becomes the perfect occasion for each side to wag its fingers in the face of the other. Which I suspect is why so much of the debate takes the form of one or the other side fixating on some causal variable at the expense of another and saying, “It’s not about X, it’s about Y.” To which the other side rejoins, “Don’t listen to them! It’s about Y, not about X!”

            You see this pattern even when the two sides claim to be focusing on the same general topic (the moral hazard of federal flood insurance). One side wants to say: federal flood insurance incentivizes over-building, so let’s get the federal government out of the flood insurance business. The other side wants to say: yeah, federal flood insurance incentivizes over-building, but if we’re going to do that, let’s not try to do it on the cheap.

            One of the few (positive, but probably unintended) political lessons I learned from Objectivism is that the basic problem with most political debates is each side’s failure to integrate the legitimate claims made by the other(s). Or maybe I learned that from Chris Sciabarra. Or Aristotle’s Topics. Or some combination thereof. But frustrating as it is, it explains a lot.

            On the silence you mention, here’s a hypothesis. Imagine someone reading about Houston from, say, New York–someone without the benefit of having heard local coverage for years. They open, say, the print edition of Friday’s New York Times. Here’s the lead story from the print edition. In the print edition (though not the online edition), it’s titled “Fiery Explosions Elevate Fears for Chemical Plants Flooded by Texas Storm.”

            I read it three times over. The authors desperately want the less-than-careful reader to come away with the impression that the blasts at the Arkema plant (and fumes released by them) had something to do Arkema’s unsavory and self-interested bid for deregulation via the Trump Administration. The exact causal relationship (between deregulation and the explosion) is left conveniently vague. Even the title of the article suggests that the topic is not what happened but people’s emotional reactions to a series of counterfactual events. The solicited emotional reaction is clear enough (fear), but the counterfactual events producing that fear are left vague: at one level, the fear is supposed to arise from the thought that more plants could blow up, making things worse than they already are; but at another, the fear seems to arise from contemplating the possibility that deregulation is functioning as a ticking-time-bomb, set to explode any moment now, causing the plants to blow up…etc.

            But if you read the article carefully, asking the obvious question, “To what degree did the proposed deregulation produce the outcome in question?” you get nothing. If you buckle down and ask, “Had the proposed deregulation even gone into effect?” you still get nothing. When you get to the part (near the end) where they say this….

            The Obama-era rules would not necessarily have prevented the explosions, and peroxide itself is not on the list of chemicals the regulations cover. But the plant previously disclosed that it stores two other chemicals, sulfur dioxide and isobutylene, that are covered by the rules.

            …I find myself wondering what they’re talking about. Isn’t “would not necessarily have prevented” an understatement? The EPA spokeswoman quoted earlier on in the article is saying that the agency’s recent action to delay the effectiveness of the 2017 Amendments had “no effect on the major safety requirements that applied to Arkema Crosby plant at the time of the fire” (my emphases). Doesn’t the latter statement entail that the Obama-era regulations did not prevent the fire?

            What never gets clarified (at least in this article) is whether the Trump Administration’s recent bid to delay enforcement of “the regulations” (which ones, exactly?) led to actual non-enforcement of any regulation the implementation of which was relevant to the actual explosion. And if it’s unrealistic to expect all that, the problem is, we’re not told that that is the real issue.

            Nor are we told what the Trump Administration did, to what extent it was successful in trying to do what it was doing, to what extent its success was operationalized, or to what extent any operationalization of the success was causally relevant to the outcome. But if we’re not being told that, we’re not being told anything of great importance. Most of the article consists in quoting people’s PR and speculating about counterfactual possibilities.

            In other words, the whole article is mostly an exercise in producing a certain kind of politicized anxiety in the sort of reader susceptible to it. I guess the Times‘s market research tells its marketing team that its readers like to get scared by stories like this, with or without the understanding that would bolster the fear. It’s very easy for such a person, fed on such a journalistic diet, to come away with the vague impression that deregulation must have had something to do with the Arkema explosion, hence with any other explosions that end up taking place, hence with the toxic fumes in the air, hence with the casualties arising from those fumes. Hence the problem is that Houston, in thrall to developers and industry, ignored the flood problem. Obviously, you can create the reverse impression on a different kind of reader with a different kind of reporting.

            So what we need is a regulation that forces journalists to read Aristotle’s Topics. Or Chris Sciabarra. Or both.

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          • I like it when I just run my mouth (or fingers, I guess) and you go on to say a whole bunch of interesting and helpful stuff that makes a serious contribution to a discussion. It’s like having someone else do my work for me.

            Your description of the usual ‘debate’ captures my sense of it; hence my reluctance to wade very far into it. I did, however, actually go read the Vox piece you linked to before, which is good. It addresses the complexities of the issue well and in detail, and it fits with the vague understanding of the situation in Houston that I formed from listening to discussions about it when I was there. I wish ordinary talk about the flooding would be more like that.

            I don’t know that one needs to learn that lesson from Rand in particular, or from Sciabarra’s Rand, or even from Aristotle, but it’s certainly a lesson that more of us need to learn. Most political discourse isn’t worth listening to in part because the parties haven’t learned it.

            But I probably shouldn’t be so cynical.

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          • Well, thanks. No, one doesn’t need to learn the “dialectical” lesson I described from Rand, Sciabarra, or Aristotle, but once you learn it from Aristotle, you tend not to forget it (even if you only half-learned it in the first place). It’s interesting that there is (as far as I know) no literature on Aristotelian dialectic comparable to the literature on Aristotelian virtue ethics–by which I mean, not a scholarly literature on what Aristotle said, but an Aristotle-inspired literature intended for contemporary readers thinking about contemporary concerns. Here’s one thing I saw online, but they’re few and far-between.

            This article on the Arkema plant and regulation is better than the one I cited. It is interesting, though, that the failure-that-didn’t-happen takes precedence to an account of how it was, exactly, that a catastrophe was in fact averted. That was how the Fukushima story was at first told. Later, it became a “they ignored the warnings” story. Eventually, it became a “man-made disaster” story, implying to some that nuclear power wasn’t as safe as it been thought to be, and implying to others that yet more regulation was necessary.

            Any of these stories is or would have been a legitimate one to tell, as long as it was true.

            What one doesn’t get in journalism are stories that cover inferential issues: If a disaster occurs despite the existence of credible warnings, could that be because credible warnings are issued more often than anyone could possibly respond to any appreciable number of them? Or is culpable negligence involved, pure and simple? Again: if an industry operates in a highly regulated environment, but one that involves some self-policing, does a disaster prove that self-policing must yield to more regulation, or does it prove that the regulatory regime is itself flawed? In the latter case, do we infer that structural correction of the regime is required, or should we opt for scaling back the regulations themselves?

            The problem with our discourse is that it’s considered a sign of weakness to treat both disjuncts of these questions as being prima facie on par with each other. Each of us is supposed to come to each question preferring one disjunct to the other. But some of us don’t.

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          • I’m not aware of any such literature either, but it strikes me that Stephen Boulter’s work (The Rediscovery of Commonsense Philosophy, Metaphysics from a Biological Point of View, and various articles) is an extended development and application of Aristotelian dialectic — though not of quite the parts of it you have in mind, I think. His “The Aporematic Method and the Defense of Immodest Metaphysics” is probably the best short overview of his general project (https://www.academia.edu/2761083/The_aporetic_method_and_the_defence_of_immodest_metaphysics). I also sometimes think that much of what MacIntyre — or at least MacIntyre since Whose Justice? Which Rationality? — has to say on these things is pretty much just Aristotle with a more elaborate historical consciousness; I doubt whether he departs from Aristotle so much as he thinks he does.

            I’d say that I’ve lost all respect for journalism, except that there’s bad journalism and then there’s journalism so bad that it isn’t even journalism. So I have to have some small amount of respect for the journalism that is at least something like an honest attempt to get at truth. Not that that’s saying much, but it sadly sometimes seems to be quite a lot.

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          • That said, in the time I lived in Houston and listened to the local “Houston Matters” radio show, I couldn’t count how many times flood planning was a topic of discussion, and the general agreement surrounding various disagreements seemed to be that more needed to be done, whether or not zoning in particular was the answer.

            Really, though, even with better zoning and less global warming, a hurricane as massive as this one was going to kick Houston’s ass. My inexpert prediction is that it will rebound much faster than New Orleans did from Katrina; it’s notable that despite facing far more water than New Orleans did, things never got nearly so bad. Whether that’s due to planning or luck, and in what combination, I don’t know.

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  1. I too am amazed that more people did not die (though of course the final count is not in…). My sense is that more than luck was involved: (a) people were ordered to stay put, (b) it is rumored that FEMA learned from the shortcomings of the response to Katrina, and (c) the multifarious private rescue efforts seemed to me pretty impressive. Some luck probably as well, but my sense is that why and how so few lost their lives here deserves serious study and emulation.

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