Preparing for Unknown Threats

Posted: Jun 12, 2010 2:07 AM
Preparing for Unknown Threats

BP has moved from villain to comedian.

This week, the Associated Press released a study of BP’s 52-page plan (written in TK) for a possible disaster at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site. “BP Exploration and Production Inc. has the capability to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge, resulting from the activities proposed in our Exploration Plan,” the company’s report said.

Rush Limbaugh

As a Nixon apparatchik might put it, that statement is no longer operative.

Yes, BP’s “plan” was a joke, as it quoted a deceased expert and promised to protect “walruses, sea otters, sea lions and seals,” animals that don’t live in the Gulf of Mexico.

But it brings up a larger question: Is it really possible to plan for, and protect against, every possible disaster? Of course not. Even attempting to do so would exhaust people and resources that need to be invested elsewhere.

“It would be nice to be able to draw up a complete list of disaster possibilities, rank them by their expected cost, decide how much we want to spend on preventing each one and proceed down the list until the total cost of prevention equals the total expected cost averted,” notes Judge Richard Posner in The Washington Post’s June 2 Outlook section. “But that isn’t feasible. Many of the probabilities are unknown. The consequences are unknown. The costs of prevention and remediation are unknown.”

Posner literally wrote the book on disaster response. His 2004 tome “Catastrophe: Risk and Response,” mentioned several possible catastrophes. “Yet I did not consider volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or financial bubbles,” Posner explained in the Post, “simply because none of those seemed likely to precipitate catastrophes.” Yet those are the messes we’ve faced in the last two years. There will be other messes, many unanticipated, in the months and years ahead.

Furthermore, even our apparent successes in dealing with disasters aren’t necessarily successes. Posner points to the Y2K threat of 1999. “The risk of disaster probably was quite small, but the fact that it had a specific and known date made it irrational to postpone any remedies -- it was act now or not at all,” he writes.

And act Americans did, spending billions to rewrite code and head off any potential mishaps. And indeed, disaster didn’t strike at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999.

Computers worked. Bank accounts weren’t wiped out. Nuclear weapons didn’t launch. CNN, which had planned to welcome the apocalypse with 100 hours of non-stop coverage, gave up around noon Jan.1 and went back to its much ignored canned programming.

Yet computer programmers in, say, Zimbabwe spent next-to-nothing to prevent Y2K, and they obtained the same outcome: Nothing happened there either.

The millennium fell in the middle of a massive stock market bubble, so American companies were rich enough to throw away money battling a false threat. But our country isn’t as wealthy these days, and we simply could never afford to prepare for all the possible disasters that might happen.

So what should we do?

Well, the best way to prepare would be for the federal government to slash wasteful spending and build up an emergency fund. It’s impossible for Washington to predict when and where disaster will strike. But it is possible to have a government with the resources to respond when it does.

Instead, lawmakers pretend everything’s an emergency.

For example, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been paid for by emergency supplemental bills, as if lawmakers expected them to end years ago and have been surprised over and over. President Obama promised to end that policy last year, but instead called for another supplemental bill this year.

The Senate has passed a version that would cost $39 billion. The House wants to spend even more -- $84 billion, including $23 billion to pay for teachers at local public schools. Meanwhile, lawmakers keep extending unemployment benefits, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. Each time, they claim they’re dealing with an “emergency.”


“We must brace for further crises, magnified by increases in world population [read: more potential victims] and by the relentless march of technology, whether in oil extraction or financial speculation,” Posner wrote in the Post. He’s certainly correct.

A federal government that hasn’t spent our national birthright on false “emergencies” would be better prepared to respond to an actual disaster than today’s federal government is. Let’s hope lawmakers learn that lesson -- before there’s another catastrophe.