Saturday, September 03, 2005

Unpredictable Disaster

Larry O'Hanson, The furious storm: one wild hurricane could drown a major American City. Can scientist prevent the disaster in time, Scholastic, Inc., Science World (October 18, 2002):
Here's a tip from the experts: If you're in New Orleans when the "Big One" hits, have a lifeboat handy. Some scientist[s] warn that the right hurricane--a tropical cyclone with at least 74-mile-per-hour winds--could strike the Gulf Coast in a way that would hurl millions of gallons of water to turn the city known as the Big Easy into the Big Soup Bowl....

A major flood could submerge much of central New Orleans beneath 20 feet of water, leaving many of the metropolitan area's 1.3 million residents clinging to rooftops--a prospect that has engineers and city planners scrambling for defensive strategies. "It's the luck of the draw," says hurricane expect Hugh Willoughby at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NDAA). He thinks it's a matter of when--not if--the Big One will pound New Orleans During some annual hurricane season between June and November.


The perfect storm could ... strike New Orleans east of the city, with gale-force winds blowing south, shoveling water from Lake Pontchartrain over the lake levees ....

Anticipate that these statements will be made during the next 100,000 or 1,000,000,000 years

1. "No one anticipated that an asteroid would hit the earth."

2. "No one anticipated that the sun would swell thousands of times."

3. "No one could have anticipated that a volcanic eruption would take place directly below Gotham City."

4. "No one could have anticipated that the fusion reactor would go awry."

5. "No one could have anticipated that a massive hurricane would hit New York City."

6. "No one could have anticipated that a cluster of rapidly-moving neutron stars would rip the planets out of their orbits around the Sun."

7. "No one could have anticipated that rebels would commandeer a star ship and steer it into our country's capital city."

8. "No one could have anticipated that glaciers would start to grow at a rapid rate."

9. "No one could have anticipated that the sun would begin to cool at a rapid rate."

10. "We can anticipate that many public officials will say in years to come that colossal disasters were not anticipated and could not have been anticipated."

Friday, September 02, 2005

Natural Disasters & Price Gouging

Mark P. Gergen, A Priest Responds to the Bean Counters: Leo Katz on Evasion, Blackmail, Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law (review essay), 22 Law & Soc. Inquiry 879, 890-891 (1997)(footnote omitted):
Consider the case of price gouging for food, water, or other essentials during an emergency. Price gouging is not blackmail (or even common law duress), no matter how extreme the price demand or desperate the needs of the victim. This is a difficult case for [Leo] Katz, for the price gouger can be made to seem a swine if we make the facts extreme enough. On the other hand, the case of the price gouger is an easy one to explain under some other theories. James Lindgren would explain that the price gouger is not a blackmailer because he is bargaining with his own rights. Robert Nozick would explain that price gouging is not blackmail because, on balance, the victim is better off for having the opportunity to buy necessities from the price gouger. But Katz's theory better describes our feelings about the price gouger than do these other two theories because it expresses our unease about the price gouger's behavior. Katz tells us that the question finally turns on whether the price gouger is committing a sufficiently grave immorality, and while from some moral perspectives he is not acting immorally (Lindgren's and Nozick's theories are evocative of some of the reasons), from other moral perspectives he is.
See also Gregory R. Kirsch, Hurricanes and Windfalls: Takings and Price Controls in Emergencies (Note), 79 Va. L. Rev. 1235, 1236-1237 (1993)(footnotes omitted):
... Hurricane Andrew provides a "disaster context" for this Note's inquiry into the rules of price controls, emergency takings, and just compensation, and whether the rules encourage and facilitate effective disaster relief. Andrew struck South Florida on August 24, 1992, with 150 mph winds, destroying more than 60,000 homes and leaving as many as a quarter of a million people homeless. The victims' need for food, water, home-repair materials, and other necessities exceeded available supplies. The destruction of much of the public and private infrastructure exacerbated the shortages. As microeconomic price theory predicts, established merchants and opportunistic entrepreneurs began charging sharply higher prices. For example, sheets of plywood, each priced at eight or nine dollars before the hurricane, were selling for as much as sixty dollars per sheet after the hurricane and milk was selling for up to six dollars per gallon. To combat this "price gouging," state and local officials enacted emergency laws prohibiting sellers from charging more than prehurricane prices. Four days after Andrew passed over South Florida, the federal government sent in troops to provide food and shelter.

When disasters such as hurricanes strike, most Americans expect the government to intervene where markets fail to provide basic necessities. In this century, the federal government has enacted emergency price controls during three wars, during a period of high inflation, and during periods of turmoil in the petroleum markets. The federal government also conducted major takings programs during both World Wars to obtain the materiel necessary for the prosecution of war.

When prices rise quickly, price controls are an appealing "quick fix." But it is well known that price controls are likely to result in shortages, queues, and black markets. Because price controls may not be an effective solution to market failures, the government may choose instead to buy or take (i.e., requisition) needed goods and distribute them to the public (or, as in wartime, consume them itself). Thus, takings and price controls are alternative modes of emergency market intervention.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Famous Last Words

Commenting on the release of Larry Peterson, one of Peterson's attorneys told a television reporter that witnesses lie but that DNA doesn't.

Do you suppose the attorney will say the same thing when the prosecution offers DNA evidence against a client represented by that attorney?

The statement is a nice example of rhetoric that trades on its literal accuracy but misleads. To wit: It is literally true that DNA cannot (as far as we know) intend to affirm the truth of a statement that it believes to be false -- or vice versa; but it is not true that DNA evidence is incapable of falsely pointing to innocence -- or, for that matter, guilt. See, e.g., Tillers on Evidence and Inference August 27, 2005.