For years a gathering storm of mortal threats to our well being, threats obscured by the Kabuki Theater of national politics, threats ignored by the Keystone Kops who pretend to be our leaders, threats fueled by the Masters of the Universe who are happily burning the world to stay rich a little longer, threats to our food and water and air and shelter and climate — all these threats have gathered, and worsened, and all this time we’ve wondered: where’s the breaking point?
Hurricane Irma may well decide. If she fulfills the worse expectations of her — and recent storms such as Harvey have wildly exceeded the worst expected of them — she will barrel into Miami, or close along the vulnerable Florida Coast, as a monster Category Five hurricane. If she does, she could well break us.
Before Harvey hit, FEMA was bankrupt, by any normal measure, it was holding $20 billion in debt that it has no possible way to repay. The fact that this debt is to the US government does not alter the fact that it is debt which, if not repaid, could ruin the deeply indebted creditor. Now, the governor of Texas says his state will need $120 billion to rebuild.
So what happens now if, in addition to Houston and southeast Texas, we lose Miami and much of the Atlantic Coast? While continuing the endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and maybe starting one with Korea? While cutting taxes for the rich and famous? And, let’s not forget, building the Wall.
The clown princes of D.C. talk as if the only problem in paying for all this is getting the votes. But where does the money — the actual, spendable money you need to buy food and water and fix up your flooded home — come from?
We get it the old-fashioned, American way — we borrow it. But our nation is up to its ears in government debt, our businesses are up to their ears in corporate debt, our people are up to their ears in personal debt. Eight out of every 10 people formerly known as the middle class are living paycheck-to-paycheck, with nothing saved for retirement and nothing set aside for a minor emergency, let alone the destruction of a home not covered by insurance.
Can we all just keep borrowing our way out of trouble forever? That’s the way the clown princes talk. They have never seen a disaster they wouldn’t promise to “rebuild, stronger and better than ever,” never heard about a war they couldn’t afford. Spending without end, amen.
But there is a limit, of course. Arithmetic tells you that. And in fact enough people have warned strenuously about the folly of drowning in debt that the Congress passed a law that put a limit on what they could borrow. Now, every time they reach the limit they set for themselves, they change the law. This is exactly like a chain smoker who sees the error of his ways and vows to stop smoking — one year from today.
But the smoker will stop smoking when he no longer has the money to buy cigarettes. And the borrower will get no more loans when he can no longer afford to pay the interest on his outstanding loans. Or when it becomes obvious that he will never be able to repay the loans he has already taken out.
In 1980 there were two storms in the U.S. whose cost exceeded one billion dollars. So far this year there have been 10. The most expensive storm in 1980 cost $2.2 billion. Harvey alone may run to $120 billion. A “500-year flood” was once expected to occur once in oh, about 500 years. Harvey was the third “500-year flood” in Houston in three years.
Disaster planners, like generals, are always prepared for the previous war. Every disaster plan in existence, as the writer of The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out years ago, is based on the worst previous disaster, which, when it happened, was unprecedented. We’ve had a Katrina, and we’ve had a Sandy, and as long as Harvey acted like them we were doing pretty well. But a Katrina and a Sandy within a few weeks of each other? That’s unprecedented.
There is a breaking point. It’s name could be Irma.