Two earthquakes

Thomas Sowell

12/30/2003 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

Within a week of each other, two earthquakes struck on opposite sides of the world -- an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale in California and a 6.6 earthquake in Iran. But, however similar the earthquakes, the human costs were enormously different.

The deaths in Iran have been counted in the tens of thousands. In California, the deaths did not reach double digits. Why the difference? In one word, wealth.

Wealth enables homes, buildings and other structures to be built to withstand greater stresses. Wealth permits the creation of modern transportation that can quickly carry people to medical facilities. It enables those facilities to be equipped with more advanced medical apparatus and supplies, and amply staffed with highly trained doctors and support staff.

Those who disdain wealth as crass materialism need to understand that wealth is one of the biggest life-saving factors in the world. As an economist in India has pointed out, "95 percent of deaths from natural hazards occur in poor countries."

You can see the effect of wealth by looking at the same country at different times. The biggest hurricane to hit the United States was hurricane Andrew in 1998 but it took fewer than 50 lives. Yet another hurricane, back in 1900, took at least 6,000 lives in Galveston.

The difference was that the United States was a much richer country in 1998. It had earlier warning from more advanced weather tracking equipment. It had better roads and more cars in which to evacuate before the hurricane struck, as well as more and better equipment for digging victims out of debris, and better medical treatment available for those who needed it.

Those who preen themselves on their "compassion" for the poor, and who disdain wealth, are being inconsistent, if not hypocritical. Wealth is the only thing that can prevent poverty. However, if you are not trying to prevent poverty but to exploit it for political purposes, that is another story.

There is another side to the story of these two earthquakes and their consequences. It gives the lie to the dogma being propagandized incessantly, from the schools to the media, that one culture is just as good as another.

It is just as good to lose tens of thousands of lives as not to? What hogwash! It is just as good to lack modern medicine, modern transportation, and modern industry as it is to have them? Who is kidding whom?

This dogmatism prevails at home as well as internationally. Cultures that lead to most children being born to single mothers are just as good as cultures where children grow up with two parents -- if you believe the dogma.

Facts say the opposite. Whether it is education, crime, or poverty, there are huge differences between single-parent families and two-parent families. Even race doesn't make as much difference in outcomes. The poverty rate among black married couples is in single digits. The infant mortality rate among black married women with only a high school diploma is lower than the infant mortality rate among white unmarried women who have been to college.

None of this makes a dent in those who promote the big lie that one culture is just as good as another. What does it even mean to say that? Does it mean that facts fit the dogma? Or does it just mean that they choose to use words in a certain way? It may not make any difference in their theories, but only in the real world.

None of this means that one culture is better than another for all purposes. The cheap vulgarity and brutal ugliness of so much of our media is a legitimate complaint at home and abroad. The sheer silliness of our fad-ridden public schools is a national disgrace.

By the same token, cultures that are less advanced in some ways often have contributions to make in other ways. We all take different things from different cultures to create our own personal lifestyles. We need to stop pretending that it makes no difference when all the facts show that it makes a huge difference, from poverty to matters of life and death.