If you watch the news you’re familiar with natural disasters. But – perhaps because it’s not a sexy topic – you might not know that most of the consequences can be prevented or mitigated. No, we can’t prevent an earthquake, un-burn a wildfire, or stop a hurricane in its tracks, but we can engineer buildings and structures capable of withstanding these forces when they happen. It’s entirely within the government’s rights to mandate not only that government projects be built to prevent such disaster, but that private residences and buildings do so as well. And yet it doesn’t happen.
The intuitive answer is that prevention costs money. Building a fire-proof, wind-proof, shake-proof home or office costs more than one that will burn, scatter, or crumble under duress. But when it comes to stuff that’s important to us it’s not uncommon to pay a little more and sacrifice a little freedom to keep it safe. We willingly put our most valuable documents in a bank vault or lock them in a home safe. Our government ensures that we drive on roads with speed limits in cars that have airbags, a third brake-light, an inside trunk latch, and seat belts – and can fine or imprison us if we’re not in compliance.
So why do we – and the government – spend to ensure safety in some situations but not when it comes to the big stuff? Is it the money, or something else?
A 2009 study by Andrew Healy and Neal Malhotra
examined government investments in disaster preparedness and disaster recovery. In the paper, they show that spending on preparedness significantly reduces the cost of recovery, giving a dollar invested towards prevention the net present value of $15. A single dollar increase per-capita would have a societal impact of better than $4 billion. So it would seem that this is a no brainer. Nothing to stop the government from hopping on the prevention bandwagon!
Except the government didn’t. From 1988 to 2004 the federal government decreased preparedness spending by 3/5ths, and raised disaster recovery spending by 13,636% per-capita. While during the same period…
- Disaster-related damages increased by 250% per-capita
- Disaster recovery funding increased from 11% to 58% of the incurred damages per-capita
- The ratio of preparedness to recovery spending slipped from $1 per $3.50 to just $1 per $142.85 per-capita
We have a preparedness funding method that returns fifteen times the value we put into it, and over 20 years we gutted it by over 60%. Makes you wonder what we did with the money we took out. (It was enough to pay for about 1% of the funds spent recovering from disasters that could’ve been prevented or mitigated through preparedness funding in the first place.)
If it’s still not adding up as to why a politician would voluntarily do something that would greatly increase the likelihood of disaster to their constituency, what follows may help.
Healy and Malhotra found that spending money on disaster relief is directly linked to an increase in votes on election day for the incumbent. (Want to know what a vote is worth? They ran the numbers and it turns out that it takes about $27,000 in recovery funding to net a single vote in a county.) The strong correlation may have something to do with the fact that most recipients of disaster relief are individuals. If the administration saves your bacon, are you really going to vote them out of office?
The chart above (with my colorful annotations added) is pulled from their study. It shows that when there’s a disaster, the incumbent is harshly penalized if there’s a reduction or insufficient funds available for recovery (4%-14% drop in votes), but well rewarded if they can make it rain.
The same cannot be said for the funding of preparedness-related activities, as shown above. It turns out that voters don’t dependably respond positively to any kind of preparedness investment, regardless of whether the funds go to individuals, businesses, or governments. Reasonable adjustments to preparedness funding have no discernible impact on votes for an incumbent; they remain steady at 3%-4% likelihood of loss through most of the spectrum. It’s only when considering the extreme expenditures and cuts that the data begins to suggest correlation – and this (sparse) data seems to indicate that spending a lot loses votes, while cutting preparedness budgets can win them back.
Here’s the political motivation in brief…
I will lose votes if I:
- Substantially increase prevention spending
- Fail to allocate recovery funds post-disaster
I will win votes if I:
- Substantially reduce prevention spending
- Allocate substantial recovery funds post-disaster
And then there’s the fact that if a preparedness investment succeeds in preventing disaster, the politician no longer has the ability to allocate the disaster funds that lead to increased votes. The politician loses the ability to play the white knight and come to the rescue. There’s no guarantee that the voters would acknowledge the preparedness investment as the cause for their good fortunes, and there’s a near certainty that some in the persuasive media will portray any successful prevention initiatives as examples of dumb luck rather than skill or kindness. From an election-day perspective, this is very close to a no-win situation.
Do you represent a prevention-oriented cause or organization? If so, I’m guessing that you get lots of verbal support from politicians, but when it comes time to write a check there’s no ink in the pen. It’s depressing to consider, but if you want to get financial investment for prevention or preparedness activities from the government, you have to stop telling them that it’s the right thing to do, and start proving to them that doing the right thing means votes, not lives. Otherwise, the only politicians who will open their wallets for you are the ones who (by choice or popular consent) are closing out their political careers.