Monday, December 27, 2004

The Purpose of Government

The United States has an excellent early-warning system for tsunamis. So do Japan and Australia. And Thailand and Indonesia are both members of an international tsunami-warning system for the Pacific Ocean. The system is pretty simple: earthquakes are noticed, tsunami swells are measured with gauges, and people who are in danger are warned. In Hawa'ii, they use a siren.

Let's imagine this state-of-the-art system in action: A large earthquake happens, and generates a tsunami. Scientists notice it. They make phone calls to regional authorities in threatened areas, who turn on a siren telling people to get off the beaches and seek higher ground.

Yesterday, such a system would've given people anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours to get away from the coast. But as we know, that's not what happened:

Australia's national agency for geological research, Geoscience Australia, said it alerted Emergency Management Australia half an hour after the massive earthquake.

That information was sent to Australian emergency services, police and the army, but not to Indian Ocean villages that needed it most....

In Los Angeles, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, Charles McCreery, said US officials who detected the undersea quake tried frantically to get a warning out about the tsunami but were hampered by the lack of an official alert system.

"We tried to do what we could. We don't have any contacts in our address book for anybody in that particular part of the world," he said.
A primary duty of government is to anticipate hazards, and to protect citizens from them to the greatest extent possible. That means preventing military attacks, of course, but it also means protecting the public from epidemic disease, environmental catastrophes such as spills and pollution, and natural disasters.

If a government in a developing country can't protect its people from these disasters, then rich nations like the United States and the EU need to give them the money and the training to start doing it. Obviously, it's the right thing to do, morally speaking, and that's why I favor it. But let's put the bleeding-heart stuff aside for a moment and look strictly at "rational self-interest."

First-world nations have an economic stake in a lot of these regions, as well as populations of resident aliens and tourists; an early-warning system could protect these national assets. God knows the United States is willing to do far more reprehensible - and far more expensive - things to protect its interests abroad.

Also, it makes sense scientifically. Huge earthquakes and tsunamis don't stop being of scientific interest because they happen beyond the Pacific Rim. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) We should be closely monitoring geologic and oceanographic events no matter where they happen, especially because anomalous events often provide far more interesting scientific data than expected ones do.

Furthermore, if there had been an evacuation attempt yesterday, it could've provided important data on the effectiveness of evacuation methods, which could've proved instructive if a tsunami later threatened, say, California or Florida.

All this being the case, we probably could've invested in a few tidal gauges and a bit of early-warning infrastructure for countries on the Indian Ocean. Now that we're going to give these stricken countries millions of dollars in aid, some of that money surely ought to be allocated to developing and maintaining an international monitoring and early-warning system. It's in everyone's best interest.


Aquaria said...

I brought this up at Atrios yesterday in the Quake thread.

What galled me was just the poor organization. This is a really lame excuse. Not in your address book? Why not? Don't these guys talk to counterparts in other governments? Hell, you couldn't pick up the phone book and call the frickin State Department, or CNN International?

Of course, what did it matter, really? Just a bunch of brown people, not our concern. /sarcasm off


Phila said...

Joshowitz, I don't think I'm being hard on them at all. A tsunami warning system has been discussed for that region for years; it hasn't been put into place mainly because it's "expensive," and first-world countries have been unwilling to chip in.

The fact is, countries bordering the Indian Ocean have LOTS of hurricanes and floods; the very same early-warning system that would save lives in those situations (e.g., a goddamn siren) could save lives in a tsunami. Again, this is one of the few uses that governments have, and if these governments are falling short it's a logical place for us to focus our aid dollars.

As for the God thing, no man's convictions are any of my business...but it's worth noting that the formulation "vast suffering = no God" is bankrupt on strictly logical grounds, and says way more about human vanity than anything else. And even if that weren't true, the fact that Christmas is a syncretic holiday with no relationship to Jesus' birth makes the point even more vague.

Which reminds grandmother often used to say, "Nuts to you on your birthday!" I find it to be a supremely useful ontological principle.

Phila said...


Yeah, that's the thing. There are so many instances where taking care of one problem could take care of who knows how many others. And as I keep doing this blog thing, I think that's what I keep coming back to most often: the idea of false economy, and the unwillingness to look beyond immediate problems to see the larger context. This matters to me because a lot of us, I'm afraid, think that science is going to "save" us, and I don't see much evidence that that's the case. Or at least, not unless we purge it of the very same faulty cost/benefit concepts that are destroying political life. What I see is that all around the world, governments and scientists are consistently failing at their most basic tasks.

And so is religion, obviously, if - like me - you think that the proper business of religion is to justify and promote compassion (a supernatural virtue that certain strains of scientism claim doesn't even exist...go figure!). You're right that fundamentalism is sometimes prone to consider God as personally doling out suffering (or "justice," if you prefer). But those folks are also very likely to see the tsunami as God's wrath against infidels, and the fact that it happened at Christmas as a warning to the heathen. For that matter, they tend to think of their own actions as God's wrath against infidels (e.g., al-Qaeda), which seems pretty close to blasphemy in my book. In any case, it's always funny to see cruel people sitting down to ponder why the world is so cruel.

Then again, the "problem of evil" always struck me as being pretty goddamn silly whether philosophers or priests or scientists were tackling it. The "problem" isn't that evil and suffering exist; the problem is how we respond to 'em.

Rmj said...

On the "problem of evil" (which, I agree, is a red herring. Arises more from the "This Bud's for you!" mentality than anything else; but that's a discussion that carries us back to Augustine and forward through Romanticism to existentialism, so let's not start that now), see "Job, Book of." I'm thinking especially of his answer to his wife, who told him to "Curse God and die!"
"You talk like any fool of a woman," Job replies (I know, I know, but it's an old book, okay?). "If we accept good from God, shall we not accept evil, also?" The rest of the book is an examination of the question of "What'd you do to piss God off?" All the friends who raise that question are rebuked by God, although no "answer" to the "question of suffering" is supplied. Make that no "direct" answer.
As for the warning system: an expert on NPR just noted that escaping a tsunami is relatively easy. As opposed to a hurricane, where one might need to go 100 miles out of the path, one can evade a tsunami by simply moving a mile or so, at least to high enough ground. Which is what makes the warning system so necessary, and this loss of life (topping 55,000 as I write) so tragic.

Phila said...

RMJ, feel free to expound on Augustine and existentialism at your leisure! It's always instructive.

I've often heard it said that this is a flawed world, and that this proves something about deity (or the lack thereof). I prefer to think of the world not as flawed, but as serious.

Rmj said...

On Augustine and existentialism, I need to write a book (and as I'm just starting Feuerbach on "The Essence of Christianity," I'll have to get around to that project sometime soon).

On the "flawed" world, you instruct me. The notion of the world as "flawed" is one Xianity imported from Hellenism. Hebraic thought was much closer to what you call "serious," methinks. And it's a better explanation, as "flawed" presumes some sort of Platonic perfection toward which the cosmos is either moving, or from which it deviates. And I've never thought that made any sense.

Phila said...

RMJ, re movement towards perfection...I tend to agree. I'm a big fan of C.S. Peirce, and he had notions along those lines, but I never found them - or his notions of creation - very compelling. I know that de Chardin, who has never impressed me, went in for that stuff too, and it did strike me that to think of divinity as subject to evolutionary forces was very silly indeed. Peirce had similar problems; it's nice to imagine absolute truth drawing nearer every year through an evolutionary process...or at least, it is until you start comparing Epictetus or Duns Scotus or Abelard to the likes of Richard Dawkins, at which point it's hard to escape the suspicion that we're moving more in the direction of amnesis.