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September 2005

Sunday Night Journal — September 25, 2005

The Storms that Herald the End?

The subject of the end times came up at dinner the other night, apropos of the recent hurricanes: it seems that one of my daughter’s teachers suggested that they might be a sign of the end. I doubt that, myself. For one thing, hurricanes of this strength are far from unheard of, although it’s true that these have been unusually close together in time, were unusually strong at least while they were still well out at sea, and have struck in unusually close proximity to each other. Ivan, Dennis, Katrina, and Rita were all very strong storms, and they all struck a section of coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border on the west to the Alabama-Florida border on the east, a span of roughly four hundred miles, perhaps an eighth (I’m looking at a map and guessing) of the coastline bordering the Gulf of Mexico. I think those of us who live in that area can be forgiven for wondering if there is some design at work here. Still, if the events have been unusual, they can’t be said to have been so improbable as to be anomalous, and the fact is that more and more severe hurricanes struck the United States in the decade of the 1940s.

There’s a simple reason why Americans are engaging in apocalyptic speculation: these hurricanes have affected us dramatically. I don’t remember hearing any of us talk this way in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch, a late-season (October 29) monster, struck Nicaragua and killed some 11,000 people.

I’m a resolute agnostic as regards the end of the world, and in fact tend to believe that the more widespread the belief that it is near, the less likely it is to be so. Sooner or later, of course, someone is going to be right in predicting it, but every age has provided ample reason for those living in it to believe that wickedness is so widespread that it meets the criteria of prophecy, that the end must be soon or else the world will be utterly given over to evil, and so I neither make nor believe any very specific predictions.

There is, however, one thing that gives me pause. The old familiar wickedness of the human race we know very well: the wars, the tortures, the oppression, the lust and the lying. C. S. Lewis once speculated that the quantity of good and evil in the world remains more or less constant, but gets distributed differently in every age: so (for example) our age is horrified by the brutality and cruelty of punishments once handed out for very minor crimes, but has positively encouraged people to abandon on a whim marriage vows made before God, and to throw over the whole concept of sexual morality. Perhaps it all adds up to equal measures of virtue and vice.

But we have invented a new crime. We propose to meddle with the very substance of human life. We propose to destroy human embryos in order to improve our own health. We propose to tinker with the genes of the newly conceived so that when they grow up they will look like we want them to look and behave as we want them to behave. We propose to grow duplicates of living people in a laboratory for purposes of our own.

Once, back in the 1970s when I was more or less testing the waters of Christianity after a long absence, I had a conversation with an Episcopal priest known for his “liberal” views. I had the feeling that he was trying to impress me, under the mistaken impression that I was looking for a modernized and contemporary religion, long on secular enlightenment and short on revelations and commandments. I only remember one specific thing from the conversation; as best I remember, he said something like this: “We (the Episcopal Church) don’t hold the sort of only-God-can-make-a-tree position that the Roman Catholics do. We would see nothing wrong, for instance, in genetically engineering people with gills so that we could mine the bottom of the sea.”

I was dumbstruck and horrified by this, not yet being aware of the apostasy happening within every Christian community at the time. Ten years or so later I related the conversation to a great-aunt of mine, who as far as I know had no religion and was in her late 80s at the time. She considered what I had said for a moment, then replied simply “Well, I suppose people will always want to have slaves.” She saw plainly what the Christian bien-pensant could not.

Perhaps our experiments with cloning and genetic engineering and all the rest of it will prove to be unfeasible. Perhaps they are just slavery under a new name, and perhaps God will let us get away with it, as he has let us, individually and collectively, get away with so much. But it seems to me that they have the potential to distort beyond recognition the elementals of human life: the bond between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, one generation and the next. And I find myself hoping, if not expecting, that God himself will put an end to these obscenities, since it seems unlikely that we will voluntarily turn aside from this path, those of us who oppose it being, apparently, in the minority.

Sunday Night Journal — September 18, 2005

Is There Such a Thing as Price-gouging?

As usual when there’s a hurricane, the topic of price-gouging has come up, and, also as usual, I’ve come across a few columns by libertarian free-market purists saying, in essence, that there’s no such thing, and that what we may call price-gouging is just the natural operation of supply and demand. The latter part of that sentence may well be true; if it is, it is a confirmation of the fact that the law of supply and demand is not sufficient as an ethical guide.

I’m very much a proponent of economic liberty and believe that, speaking broadly, we’re better off if prices are set by market forces rather than legal mandate. But I emphasize the speaking broadly part. There are certainly situations in which prices can be set unreasonably and unethically high. To the libertarians who would argue that no price is unreasonable if buyer and seller agree on it, I would say that your definition of reasonable is unreasonable.

Let me tell you about two businessmen and our recent spate of hurricanes. Both these men are in the home construction and remodeling business. One of them is the husband of a co-worker of mine; let’s call him Barry. The other is known to me only via the story I’m about to tell; let’s call him Harry.

Barry, like a lot of people in his line of work, finds, in the days before a hurricane, that his services are in great demand for boarding up windows. Before Hurricane Dennis, I was one of those who asked to be put on his list; we’ve never been consistent about boarding, had never kept the supplies on hand, and decided it was time to do it right. Barry had all the work he could handle, and in fact had to turn people away. He made money off the hurricane, money which I do not begrudge him in the least. He left his prices at their usual reasonable level, and took people more or less on a first-come-first-served basis, with perhaps some exceptions here and there for people whom he saw as having a stronger claim than others, such as several elderly widows who have come to rely on him. If he made more money than he might have in a normal week, he certainly earned it.

In fact, Barry embodied in that week the virtues that would give all businessmen a better name if they were more widely practiced. He worked himself to exhaustion, trying to service as many people as he possibly could, and made no attempt to jack up his prices to exploit the situation.

One reason I’ve never boarded up my house is that I didn’t know how to do it easily and effectively. It’s a brick veneer house, with the windows set back several inches into the brick. I wasn’t sure how to do it without a lot of drilling into brick and other things which seemed a little too much for my limited knowledge and skill. But some clever soul invented Plylox, and if he’s gotten rich off his invention I’m happy for him. It’s a brilliant solution to the problem consisting of spring steel clips which lock a sheet of plywood into place, making it pretty simple to put up and take down your plywood once you’ve cut it to the right sizes. Barry planned to use these on my house, but they were in short supply. Calling around the area, he located a store which still had some, and, since it was close to where his wife and I work, he sent her—let’s call her Ann—to buy them.

It was there that Ann encountered Harry, who got there just before she did and scooped up all the Plylox still in stock. They were selling for somewhere around fifteen dollars for a bag of eight or ten clips. He made the mistake of bragging that he intended to charge his customers thirty dollars a bag for them. A bit of an argument ensued. In the end, I think partly by appealing to the store manager, Ann was able to get a reasonable share of the Plylox.

It might be said that Harry was merely being a rational economic actor. Well, maybe, but he was also being a jerk, and what he was doing was wrong. No amount of abstract economic theory can convince me that it’s right to snatch the entire supply of a scarce commodity for the sole purpose of extracting an unusually high price from people who really need it. And any theory which leads to the conclusion that it is right has got some problems, most likely with some of its fundamental axioms.

Sunday Night Journal — September 11, 2005

A Few More Hurricane Notes

I haven’t felt much like writing since the hurricane, and still don’t. I don’t, in fact, feel like doing very much of anything. I realized a couple of nights before the storm, as we made merry in a restaurant after a high-school football game, that the discomforts I kept feeling were the early symptoms of a cold. That was over two weeks ago, and I haven’t felt entirely well since. And there’s been quite a lot of work to do, along with a vague uneasiness that seems to be some sort of effect of the disaster.

So here, in lieu of anything requiring that I think very hard, are some additions to the hurricane story:

First, regarding the question of global warming and its role in this year’s epidemic of hurricanes: this chart from NOAA seems to put that question pretty well to rest for the time being, at least as far as this country is concerned. There is no correlation between whatever warming has occurred since the 1850s and either the number or severity of hurricanes striking the U.S. The possibility remains, of course, that the U.S. is not representative of the entire planet.

This piece by Quin Hilyer strikes me as a pretty sound appraisal of the events surrounding the storm. Hilyer is an editorial writer at our local newspaper, the Mobile Register. He grew up in New Orleans and knows (or knew) the Mississippi coast well. He gets at the agony of knowing that a place one loved is, for all practical and near-term purposes, gone. He’s also seriously ticked off at everybody who had anything at all to do with the government’s response in New Orleans.

If this is not too paradoxical a thing to say, I’m not sure that all the anger is reasonable, although it’s certainly understandable. That is, I’m not sure exactly how much culpability to assign, and to whom. It can’t be denied that the failure of the levees was a possibility that could have been foreseen and prevented, and it certainly appears that the response, after the storm, was bungled in many ways. But I would like to see a serious and reasonably dispassionate investigation into both problems.

Regarding the first of them, let’s note that the widely-cited Times-Picayune story about the potential damage a big hurricane could do to New Orleans discussed the levees mainly with regard to the possibility of their overflowing, not breaking., which seems to be a reasonably even-handed source, confirms that yes, it’s true that the Bush administration cut funding for levee work, but that the failure of the levees was not considered a high probability. As a co-worker said when we were discussing this the other day, nobody builds for the absolute worst-case scenario. That’s why your car can move at speeds far greater than any at which it could protect you from the effects of a head-on collision.

Regarding the second, well, there seems to be hardly any doubt that some egregious errors were made, but I’m waiting for a balanced appraisal before I pass judgment on the entire effort. In sheer scale, if not in loss of life (at the moment reports on this count are encouraging), this is one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. But it’s also been one of the largest rescue efforts, with an enormous number of relatively happy endings (I mean, how happy can the ending be if it involves losing everything you own?). This editorial provides a needed reality check. I don’t think we should be surprised that things did not go smoothly, but I also don’t think we should leave it at that. There are worse things that could happen, and, wherever the blame may lie, we need to be better prepared to deal with them.

I’m afraid that the political climate is going to prevent an honest appraisal of what went wrong. My most intense disdain right now is for those who have leapt upon the crisis to exploit it for immediate partisan advantage. In that war, truth is not just a casualty but a primary target.

Sunday Night Journal — September 4, 2005

Uneasy in the Aftermath


The photograph above was taken last year as Hurricane Ivan bore down on the Alabama-Florida Gulf coast. The restaurant survived Ivan with light damage. When I drove by it on my way home the day before Hurricane Katrina, it looked very much as it does in this picture, except that the writing on the plywood used to board it up said “Pray for New Orleans.” When I drove by it two days after Katrina, nothing remained of its first floor except the pilings that still support the upper floor, which looks salvageable.

Everybody knows what happened to New Orleans, and I don’t have any intention of speculating on what role prayer played or didn’t play in it, or for that matter what role God played. It seems to me that the only reasonable answer to the question of Why? in these situations is We don’t know. I said this at slightly greater length last summer, in this journal entry, and that may be as much as I will ever have to say on the subject.

We got off pretty lightly here on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. No lives were lost, and serious property loss was limited to homes directly on the waterfront. I got a good scare but only light damage.

We decided to stay in town for this storm. We have two children at home these days, and my wife’s brother, who’s diabetic and spends most of his time in a wheelchair, lives across town. My wife and son went to sit out the storm with him, while my seventeen-year-old daughter and I stayed at home. Around 11am or so it looked like the wind might be about as bad as it would get, and it didn’t seem too bad, so we figured we were all right as long as a tree didn’t fall on the house. Then I looked out from the glassed-in porch on the northwest corner of the house and saw water lapping into the backyard. For the next hour or so it continued to rise until it was lapping against the house. We have a little sailboat which was soon tossing around in a light chop in the back yard, so we had to wade out and secure it. Part of the picket fence floated up out of the ground, concrete footings and all.

To hear little waves slapping against your house when you live a hundred yards from the water is a disturbing sound. I’m glad the storm arrived during the day; to have these storms come at you in the dark, when you can’t really see how bad they are—where the water is, how much the trees are swaying—is far more frightening. But the water came right up to the house and then receded. Aside from the carpet of debris, the broken fence was, in the end, the only real damage.

Our lives were not in danger, because our house is at the bottom of a thirty-foot-bluff, and if the water had kept coming we would simply have walked up the hill. But it was clear that if we got a direct hit from a storm like Katrina we would most likely lose the house. To contemplate that, and its aftermath, is enough to give me some sense of what the people from here to New Orleans must be feeling. By American standards my home and possessions are pretty modest, but they are part of me, and I don’t want to let them go, especially family memorabilia and other things that have sentimental value. My wife and I have begun to expand our disaster preparation plans to include packing the family scrapbooks early in hurricane season and leaving them that way for the duration.

I’ve lived in this area for fifteen years now. I’ve always been too busy to explore the coast to the west of us, which is rich in history and atmosphere, but expected to have the leisure to do it one day. On the occasional trip to New Orleans, usually to pick up or drop off someone at the airport, I’ve noticed the sign pointing to Jefferson Davis’ home and marked it in my mind as one of the places I’d visit when the time came. Now it’s gone, although it had been there a hundred and fifty years and had weathered storms like Camille in 1969. (“This storm can’t be worse than Camille,” many people thought. But it was.) The whole coast from Bayou La Batre in Alabama to New Orleans is, in its human structure and history, gone. Whatever is built there now will not be the same—and indeed the Mississippi coast had already lost a lot of its charm to casinos.

I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me a that a sense of melancholy and unease hangs over even the areas that were not badly affected by Katrina. It comes partly from knowledge of the terrible misery, loss, and disruption to the west of us, and partly from the knowledge that it could be us next time. With near misses from three major hurricanes in less than a year, and most of September, which is generally the most active period, still to go, there’s an anxiety in the air, a sense that it would be unwise to let one’s guard down, worsened by the unnerving speed with which this storm went unexpectedly from relatively mild to one of the most intense on record—as Erik Larson puts it in Isaac’s Storm, the story of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, “it exploded forth like something escaping from a cage.” God keep all other such creatures locked up and far away.

This is the Oyster House after Katrina: