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Friday, September 01, 2006

Rationally Irrational Politicians?

My brother in Savannah informs me that yesterday, the day that Ernesto was predicted to possibly, maybe, hit Savannah with estimated 40mph winds and 4 inches of rain, Savannah closed its schools:
The threat of Tropical Storm Ernesto downgraded to a tropical depression overnight Wednesday, nevertheless canceled classes today for Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools.

"The decision is to close the schools," Superintendent Thomas Lockamy said at a news conference Wednesday with officials from the Chatham Emergency Management Agency. "That's based on the fact we're in a tropical storm warning and based on the safety of our children."

Now, I grew up in Georgia and have lived through a couple of hurricanes after they have moved inland to a considerable extent, and I think I understand where the politicians/bureaucrats are coming from. However, the whole Ernesto qua Katrina/Ivan/Charley/Hugo/Andrew scenario never played out. To me, at least, it seems that the post-Katrina attitude towards rain and wind is considerably more weak-kneed than it should be.

I live in Texas where we can have forty mile per hour winds on a sunny July day. Do we get national coverage and the day off from school? Yeah right. Just last Sunday we had the first thunder-bumper in a long while. We got doused with an inch or so in a couple of hours. I wager that event passed with relatively little fanfare in the rest of the country.

It is a sad state of affairs when a rain storm - not a major hurricane - now has the politicians scared. Granted a Tropical Depression isn't something to absolutely ignore, but from a distance one gets the feeling that the politicians are balancing the expected response of a fearful public against political costs/embarrassment associated with a fizzled storm. The former outweighs the latter, and thus school's out.

One can imagine the following scenario: Ernesto turns West and makes a bee-line for Savannah. The storm isn't nearly as strong as advertised, but this is a post-Katrina world and Savannah, while not as far below sea level as New Orleans, isn't exactly Denver. Soccer moms and dads start to panic, some recalling the Rita-like exodus from the city during Floyd a few years back, during which the three-hour trip to Atlanta became a 24 hour trip.

Panic driving is not the safest driving. Thus, as moms and dads drive their SUVs in a maddening race to get their kids from school and bug out of town, they cause more accidents and personal/physical damage than the storm likely would.

This is an example of what (for the moment) I am calling the rationally irrational politician. The politician knows that closing the schools is probably an over-reaction to the situation, in that sense it is irrational. However, the political costs of not choosing the reaction, although carrying a relatively small probability, are now much higher in the post-Katrina world. This is because the constituency is acting somewhat irrationally. Thus, the expected costs of not acting are higher, and in turn politicians take more "action" and make more "decisions" that would have been considered a bit extreme just a few years ago.

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