The Unbearable Lightness of Billions

Of course we’ll rebuild it, bigger and stronger than ever, but with what? (U.S. Navy photo of Hurricane Sandy aftermath by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ryan J. Courtade/Released)

I have been trying to apply arithmetic to the problem of hurricane relief. I know, this is like translating computer code to cuneiform tablets, but bear with me — ancient learning was, after all, learning. The costs of recovering from Hurricanes Harvey (Texas), Irma (Florida) and Maria (Puerto Rico) are now estimated at about $220 billion. Congress has thus far appropriated $15 billion for the purpose, acting on September 9, the very day FEMA was expected to run out of money.

By its timely action, Congress solved seven per cent of the problem. With a burn rate of two million dollars a day, FEMA will be broke again in 75 days (from September 9). Nobody’s talking about this. At least, not in any way that makes sense. In a cheery piece claiming that FEMA can never run out of money, the explainer website HowStuffWorks says it can’t happen in the future because in the past, Congress has always bailed it out in time, just like it did with its seven-per-cent solution of September 9.

But arithmetic suggests that the correct question is not whether FEMA will run out of money, but when the US government will run out of money. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this year alone, the government will spend $693 billion more than it takes in, and the CBP expects the deficits to increase and the national debt to keep going up for 30 years into the future. The national debt has recently sailed north of $20 trillion —  but could instantly be repaid in full if every US citizen wrote a check for $62,000 (and yes, that would include each of your infant children).

And no one is talking about this. Speaker of the House of Representative Paul Ryan surveyed the damage done by Hurricane Irma yesterday, called it “astounding,” but on the subject of paying for recovery became vague to the point of invisibility: “I’m sure that we’re going to do another, what we call supplemental, sometime in October once we have a full assessment of what is needed.” The last thing you will see is his smile.

There is some talk of doing something or other about FEMA’s National Flood Insurance program, otherwise known as socialized flood insurance. When privately owned insurance companies discovered many year ago that it was suicidal to insure the seaside and riverside houses that Americans love best, they stopped. That hurt homebuilders and developers, who of course demanded that the free market solve the problem with a government handout. But the government flood insurance has proven to be as suicidal, financially speaking, as the private insurance was, and the program was, before this year’s trifecta of Category Fives, $20 billion in debt. An amount that arithmetic (dark pagan art that it is) suggests can never be repaid.

And now? There’s talk of rejiggering the rates, redrawing the threat maps, maybe doing something. But there is no talk about the fact that Congress fixed the National Flood Insurance program four years ago. I am not making this up. They rationalized the cost of premiums, started phasing out the subsidies, and vowed to return flood insurance to private enterprise. Private enterprise, of course, erupted with rage, and the whole program vanished with hardly a trace in about 60 days. Now, there is only silence.

But the antiquated laws of arithmetic seem to be holding. Our debt, like the seawater all around us, continues to rise no matter how strenuously we ignore it. The implications of that debt, and our ignorance, are spreading like dry rot through the structures of the industrial age. As my ex-wife said to me one day: “You know, we really have to talk.”


Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Unbearable Lightness of Billions

  1. Dennis Mitchell says:

    Not much talk of the western fires. They should be good for a few bucks. An earth quake is about due too. The floods and mudslides from the fires should be added just for spice. War! Trump will need one to get to feel like a real president. Good thing we don’t pay our bills any more. Ever since we got that magic credit card life has been good.

  2. Max4241 says:

    “By its timely action, Congress solved seven per cent of the problem.”

    The seven percent solution! Hey, it worked for Sherlock Holmes. If applied properly, maybe it could solve all our debt problems -except for student loan debt, of course, that MUST be paid in full.

    I’ve been breathing too much cynical air, lately, so here’s a hopeful anecdote. I’m a golfer who lives in Buffalo, New York. Woe betides to me, right? Not necessarily. The situation in this local is improving rapidly.

    Here’s some pagan math. In the old days (roughly 1974 thru 2014), I could expect to play only 5 months out of the year (with 3 good and 2 crappy). Last year, I got in a full 7 months (6 good, 1 crappy). This year I’m praying for 8 ( with 4 good and 4 crappy -the crappy due mostly to a wet spring).

    8 means viable December golf in Western New York. Crazy! Right? Until two years ago, I never played a single round of golf in November. Not one. Hell, in all my 40 years of controlled slicing, I remember, at most, a handful of desultory half-rounds I may or may not have played in October.

    I now have 4 quality rounds of November golf under my belt.

    So I’m thinking 8, I’m thinking December golf in Buffalo, in part because this coming Sunday I felt compelled to move my tee time back from 1pm to 4pm, as it’s projected to be 90 degrees mid-day, and there’s no reason to play in a post-noon autumn steam bath if you don’t have to.

    Note: You might say, “well, he’s one of those weirdos who is out there swinging in a parka.” Nope. That’s not me. 52 degrees/wind chill is my cut off, as true/52 is all this old hacker can handle.

  3. Max4241 says:

    Paul Ryan. I hope his original copy of Atlas Shrugged, the one that rests on top of the Bible on his night stand, receives global warming induced flood damage.

    Maybe that or a similar act of God will wipe the cheesy smile from his face!

    Do they have floods -of any kind- in Wisconsin? I really don’t know. I do know they will be playing year round golf in the once, links unfriendly Badger State, by no later than 2030.

    Of course, there will no longer be any wild badgers in Wisconsin by that time. The state will be too hot for em.

    • Ken Barrows says:

      Anyone whose heroes are Ayn Rand, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Rage Against the Machine has got to be an a***ole.

      • Max4241 says:

        We have the modern right and left covered with Rand and Rage, and with Aquinas, the exact political center of Europe 800 years ago.

        Interesting group! Interesting too that I think Rage and St. Thomas would find lots to talk about, and argue about, whereas neither would even approach that misanthrope Rand.

        Why bother? All she can say is …”mine, mine, mine, mine.”

  4. Rob Rhodes says:

    There is lots of talk about where the money will come from to repair the storm damage but from where will the resources; lumber, steel and concrete come . Congress can choose to have money printed but resources are trickier. Oh, wait, they’ll have it all run off on a 3d printer, sorry, never mind.

    • Max4241 says:

      Congress will not print money. They are not suicidal. Thus, they will borrow it.

      If Congress tried to issue debt free currency they would be gunned down in a conspiratorial crossfire, or killed by a lone-nut assassin.

      20 trillion dollars of debt is better than ending up like say, that trickster Nixon, who had similar strange ideas about debt free printing. No politico wants to be killed or cast out into the wilderness over this issue.

      Besides, nations borrowing money for no reason, so they can later be torn apart by creditors to the point where they can no longer provide any real assistance or security to their citizens, is good policy and sound, fundamental economics, according to pretty much everyone who has a say in this.

  5. Max4241 says:

    “So here we are at the work place, surrounded by cage after cage of dead canaries, with no one making a move to begin what is obviously now required: the evacuation of the planet.”

    Found this in the post next to the link. How times have changed, eh, with the immortal Musk on his way?

    True story. Last night I shouted at 6 young people. Screamed really. “Do you people not understand. As long as this planet has a United States Senate, it is doomed, and you will have two future choices, die amidst the chaos that is coming, or rocket off to Mars with Elon Musk.”

    Ryan and his lunatic ilk in the House could be swamped and replaced by realists. It is conceivable. At the very least, I can envision a single American representative body were the insane have been completely marginalized, where across the globe progress -toward an unlikely salvation- could then be initiated and maintained.

    But with a Senate? No way. The Senate will always be filled with a super-majority of semi-pathological members that pave the way for the more gifted and powerful, truly pathological non-members that control them and the destiny of this dying world.

    Either the Senate goes, or we go.

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      I doubt it will help much if the US Senate goes (assuming it can be made to), because by now virtually all of the rest of the world has already been converted to the gospel of endless growth. So much so, every ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ country has already its own equivalent of the US Senate.

      As for Elon Musk’s pipe dreams, all I’d have to say is: if we really can migrate to another planet, in a short time we’ll also screw it up like we did Earth.

      • Max4241 says:

        Not disagreeing, SIA. If I had priority list of the 20 things that must be accomplished -as of yesterday!- to give the world a fightin’ chance, getting rid of the US Senate would come in around 16th place.

        And what are the chances of abolishing the Senate? I’d squish em right up there against the zero bound.

        As for Elon, I’m rooting for him. His endeavor is pointless, which makes it all the more admirable to me.

  6. Tom says:

    Sooner or later it will dawn on everyone paying attention that there is no “future.” All that we see and experience these days is DISTRACTION from this basic truth. The global banking system “controls” what’s going on (to a limited extent), making decisions that impact all of us (but ALWAYS in their best interest).

    There’s no solution to Fukushima (or Chernobyl), or climate change, or depleting resources, or pollution (including plastic and radiation), or our dying environment (habitat). It’s all connected and we’re just being ignorant thinking otherwise.

    There will be no re-building of Puerto Rico, Barbuda, Houston and large swathes of Florida and Mexico. The available energy is not there, let alone the resources, money and/or political will. Christchurch NZ was hit by a devastating earthquake 7 years ago – and hasn’t been “re-built” to its former state. The damage from Hurricane (or Superstorm) Sandy hasn’t been repaired or replaced completely (even thought the money was dispensed to NJ) due to political chicanery, new regulations by the insurance industry (which is hemorrhaging money at this point) and loss of interest after years of delays.

    We’re watching as our world is dying. It’s the end of the movie and we’re the “lucky” ones to be born at this time to experience it. It feels like we’re all simply waiting for the death bus to pay us a visit in the form of “natural” disaster, violence, disease, lack of food and/or water, among other factors.

    Thanks for this essay, Mr. Lewis – it gives one pause, realizing the implications of what’s occurring.

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      QUOTE: ***The global banking system “controls” what’s going on (to a limited extent), making decisions that impact all of us (but ALWAYS in their best interest).***

      You mean, what they fancy is in their best interest. Which in the end it emphatically won’t be.

      I’d love to play Connie Francis’ Who’s Sorry Now to them when they finally face their comeuppance.

  7. SomeoneInAsia says:

    Speaking of the laws of arithmetic, it never fails to amaze me how all those theoretical physicists out there — Hawking, Kaku etc — can understand and handle all the difficult mathematics underlying the theories about which they prattle on endlessly, but don’t seem to understand the far more basic rules of arithmetic which dictate that endless exponential growth is impossible in a finite world. If they did understand, they should have come together and tried to warn the world about the suicidal path taken by modern industrial ‘civilization’. But they don’t, except for the late Albert Bartlett.

    Ernest Rutherford reputedly said, “Science is either physics or stamp collecting.” My rejoinder would be that science either helps put food on the table (this being understood in the broadest sense as helping us survive and survive comfortably) or is so much useless sh*t. Looking at where we’re all now headed plus how scientists themselves are behaving, it’s beginning to look more and more like the latter case IMO.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      It seems to be the fate of experts in every field; they learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.

    • Denis Frith says:

      I am an Australian physical research scientist. i now belatedly understand that the systems of industrialized have been produced, supposedly, by energy doing work on irreplaceable materials. The reality is that when energy flow does positive work, friction invariably does negative work. This is an unsustainable tangible process that is not influenced by the production of intangible money

  8. geo says:

    Gulf Coast cities will have to spend countless more millions on cleanup. Harvey created 153 million cubic meters of trash, mostly wrecked contents of residences, that is all dumped at the curb:

    • colinc says:

      For clearer visualization, that number translates to approximately 5.4 Billion cubic feet which could be imagined as a “block” that is roughly 1,754 ft (0.33 mile) on each edge (x, y & z axes). According to this list there are only 6 buildings in the world taller than that and none of them have a footprint that is 1,754 ft each side on the ground (or nearly 3.1 million sq.ft.). Personally, I still find that somewhat difficult to visualize so a little more work is in order. If we imagine the trash pile at the height of a “common” 5-story building (~50 ft.) it would cover about 108 million sq.ft., almost 2 miles on each side. If we bring the height down to that of a regulation basketball hoop (10 ft.) the trash would cover 540 million sq.ft. which would be 4.4 miles on each side of a square on the ground. Of course, if we reduce the height to 5 ft., a “short-ish” adult human, the area covered would double (1.08 Billion sq.ft.) and be 6.2 miles on each side.
      Moreover, I’m guessing that due to cleanup-time constraints, little-to-none of that “trash” will be recycled and I doubt any numbers will ever be published regarding how much could have been or was. Additionally, I have to wonder how much of that trash would be classified as “extremely toxic” and “normally” banned from being dumped in a landfill. The full impact of Harvey will not be realized for many years yet a significant number of Houstonians remain delusional AGW-deniers and, more frighteningly, would/will continue to embrace and vote for “the orange menace.” Then there’s the destruction caused by Irma and Maria which surely each generated similar amounts of “trash,” especially when accounting for the islands that were hardest hit. How will CO2 levels be affected by the “extra” hauling of trash and rebuilding materials? The beginning of “The End” is in the rear-view mirror and an acceleration in the number and severity of these types of events, among others, is in “plain sight.” Life is going to get a lot more interesting much, much sooner than most even dare to suspect.

  9. Max4241 says:

    I just read that between them, Irma and Maria knocked down 1,360 of the Puerto Rico’s 1,600 cellphone towers.

    I don’t understand that. Couldn’t you design them to fold up before a storm hits? Or, when danger lurks, allow them to be laid flat, then braced to the ground. Something.

    I know, cost. But still, in hurricane zones? Power lines I get, but indestructible cell phone towers seems like easy pickens infrastructure to me.

  10. Max4241 says:

    I’m looking into buying a used M1 Abrahms main battle tank. I think I can get one -with less than excessive combat fatigue- for as little as four million.

    Why? Because I can kill three birds with one stone (a two bird philosophy is no longer acceptable to me in the Age of the Exponential).

    The first dead bird represents domicile defense. I will park my Abrahms on my front lawn, and use the 50 cal and duel M240’s to ward off hooded intruders, intimidate nosy neighbors, and discourage Pervasive Big Gov from doing what They do best, which is to reach deep into 2nd amendment homes to take away the hard won freedoms They provide.

    The second gone bird is all about Road Rage and the alleviation of it. I suffer from RR from time to time, I admit. Driving a tank, I no longer will, as no one will cut me off on any road ever again! And searching for a premium parking spot in a crowded lot, which can provoke a kind of inner-madness, will now be a snap, as I will be able to park anywhere, including on top of already parked cars.

    The third killed allegorical bird represents -what else?- licensed hunting. Come November, I will use my mounted, extremely accurate 120 mm cannon cull deer with compassion. No more inhumane blood trails to follow or not follow! The deer will be dead no matter where I hit it, as a depleted uranium round, even from a mile out, can penetrate and kill any lightly armored animal.

    And I will slow-cook and eat radium-venison stew, and thrive, as radiation -and organic proteins- are good for me.

    • Ken Barrows says:

      Good to see you have a plan.

      • Max4241 says:

        I was going to purchase a 5th generation F-35 multi-purpose fighter, but at 90 million stripped down, they are a fraction out of my price range.

        Plus the jet blast from vertical take-offs and landing might add unwanted blotches and blemishes to my impeccably manicured lawn. So when it comes to home defense, I’m resigned to being a simple ground and pound tanker.