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How supplementary fire protection is the new 'privatize,' and other lessons from an en fuego Rick Perlstein

October 31, 2007 | 11:24 am

Rick Perlstein did not much care for my column of yesterday criticizing people like him and Naomi Klein for bemoaning the existence of private, supplemental fire protection. He brings up some interesting viewpoints worth further discussion.

First, a refresher on my Perlstein citation:

You would think that the cheap availability of potent fire retardant, and the creation of supplementary firefighting capability -- with costs borne entirely by the homeowners who choose to live in fire zones, instead of everyday taxpayers -- would be a cause for at least mild enthusiasm. Instead, it was greeted with howls of class warfare.

Liberal journalist/historian Rick Perlstein called it "a sickening indication about how the conservative mania for privatization is beginning to create two Americas: One that is protected from fires, and one that is not." (Never mind that no one within shouting distance of power or influence is calling for the privatization of fire departments.)

Now, a sampling from Perlstein's counter-argument, which comes under the headline "Solidarity in Flames":

Libertarian Matt Welch doesn't get it. He really doesn't get it. [...]

In so doing, he reveals how far down conservative ideology has fallen in grasping the most basic facts of collective security. In case Welch hasn't noticed, fires spread. Laying down fire-proof rings around islands of individual private properties does not stop fires from spreading; they'll just go around the island. Now, if every house was provided with Phos-Check (sic), the fires would not be able to spread. Everyone (and not just those with an extra $995 lying around, which is not "paltry" to someone living paycheck to paycheck) benefits. There would be no wildfire.

Before getting to the second half of Perlstein's complaint, I'll jump in and make a few relevant points:
1) Yes indeed, fires do spread (pretty rich for an east coaster to give a SoCal native a lecture on the local ecology, BTW), but the majority of homes that burn do so because of stray individual embers carried by the wind, not a raging wall of fire. In part, that's because firefighters Phos-Chek the hell out of endangered neighborhoods. During mandatory evacuations, the only people who can defend against embers are the limited number of available firefighters (the ranks of whom do not, for dumb bureaucratic reasons, include all the available firefighting talent from nearby military bases), homeowners who refuse to evacuate ... and a handful of AIG firefighting crews. AIG adds to the net firefighting capacity, and saved non-covered houses during the recent fires. If Perlstein indeed wants to provide every fire-zone home with $1,000 worth of Phos-Chek, well, good on him. Though something tells me that the same people who object to the rich having extra fire protection will squawk even louder when millionaire hillside dwellers get tens of millions in subsidized fire retardant every year.

Also, there is no fire-retardant valhalla in which "there would be no wildfire."

2) While I appreciate the "paycheck to paycheck" sentiment, that really, truly does not accurately describe the vast majority of people who live in Southern California's most fire-vulnerable areas. Recall that AIG's hated insurance, according to the L.A. Times, "is offered only to homeowners in California's most affluent ZIP Codes." (This itself is technically inaccurate -- the insurance is not available at such tony addresses as Palos Verdes Peninsula [90274], Manhattan Beach [90266], San Francisco [94123] and San Jose [95120].) It's a neat trick to begrudge the rich in one breath, and then imagine in the next that their next-door neighbors are living paycheck to paycheck. Recall, too, that one of Mike Davis' great critiques about letting Malibu burn was that the city had way too many fire stations compared to the poor folk in the flats. So if we don't want the rich to get more public assistance, and we don't want the rich to get more private assistance, what is it that we really want here?

Also, I said "lousy," not "paltry," though either can fairly describe the comparative and available cost for a SoCal canyon dweller to provide his/her own personal protection against certain catastrophe. For more disproportionate response, read on!

Perlstein continues, exasperatedly:

Firefighting is a public good. Privatize it -- provide a higher level of fire protection for those who can afford it, and a lower level for those who cannot -- and you do exactly what me, Hayes, and Klein complain about: you insulate certain individuals from the consequences of crises that wrack everyone else -- and don't make the crisis, as a whole, any better. In fact, you may make it worse -- for if you know your house is protected, why should [you] be willing to pay reasonable taxes to protect everyone else's? Or, say, to provide (horros! socialism!) Phos-Check (sic) for everyone in areas vulnerable to wildfires, and save Southern California from having to temporarily house one million people?

Why do I have to explain this?

1) Note Perlstein's bizarre definition of privatization. It's no longer the traditional sense of selling off a government-owned business (like, say, what European countries have done with their telecommunications monopolies and "flag carrier" airlines); nor is it subcontracting a government-guaranteed service through a competitive bidding process (like what the city of Lakewood has done for the past several decades). According to Perlstein, it now means the limited provision of an overall "higher level" of service -- regardless of provider -- on what is widely understood to be a public good. By this exact same definition, the Aflac goose is no longer merely an irritating pitchman for supplemental insurance policies, it's a Trojan Horse for dismantling the very concept of government-provided insurance! Condominiums that employ their own security guards? Privatization! Neighborhood business improvement districts that clean the streets a tad more thoroughly than street-sweepers? Privatization!

2) The second half of Perlstein's definition contains a gem of zero-sum logic -- "a lower level for those who cannot." Yes, by definition, those who do not pay for extra protection will be, um, less protected. But they won't be one drop less protected by the firefighting effort provided by the government. The latter, to me, would seem the most pertinent public-policy question, it (after all) having to do with how tax dollars are spent. The only way in which extra protection is therefore objectionable is that it leads to inequality of outcomes. I had thought that demands for equivalent outcomes -- as opposed to equal opportunity, or equally provided public services -- died out around 1989. Wonders never cease, etc.

3) The assertion that AIG's firefighters "don't make the crisis, as a whole, any better" is refuted by the following passages in this Oct. 26 Bloomberg story:

While protecting the AIG client's home [in Rancho Santa Fe] Monday night, [firefighter Sam] Crays was able to stop a blaze next door as well. "We love putting out fires," Crays said.

The Wildfire Protection Unit has treated about 400 to 500 homes with retardant since 2005. Before this week's fires, [AIG's Stan] Rivera said, the unit had three "saves," instances where "the wildfire has burned right up to our Phos-Chek lines and then stopped."

The unit has deployed all six of its trucks to Southern California to help fight this week's wildfires. The trucks have provided emergency service to about 150 homes this week, said Eddie Hosch, sales and marketing director for Firebreak Spray Systems, a closely held contractor that operates the AIG trucks.

"Since Sunday we've had somewhere between six and 10 saves," said Hosch, who was in Orange County with a truck spraying retardant on homes threatened by the Santiago fire in northeastern Orange County. "It is effective, what we do."

Does saving six to 10 houses, including at least one of a non-client, amount to making "the crisis, as a whole, any better"? In my world, yes. But if the goal is equality in outcomes (i.e., everybody must get burned), I guess not.

4) Providing Phos-Chek to "everyone" on the fire frontier does not, in fact, horrify me. Though making all taxpayers (including the paycheck-to-paycheck types) subsidize the dangerous housing choices of the affluent strikes me as suboptimal, both politically and in terms of fairness. How about starting by making a home Phos-Chek system a mandatory purchase for anyone receiving government-subsidized home insurance in fire zones?

5) At last, we come to what might be the real fear: "if you know your house is protected, why should [you] be willing to pay reasonable taxes to protect everyone else's?" Allowing individuals to pay a hefty premium to receive extra fire protection (as opposed to sitting back passively while enjoying subsidized home insurance and counting on a FEMA bailout) is bad because ... that will make you less enthusiastic about paying taxes? Again, by that logic private schools (and charter schools) are equally bad -- actually moreso, since they're used thousands of times more frequently than supplementary fire-protection plans. Cedars-Sinai is bad because it's better than King/Drew.

No one in Southern California fire country knows that their house is protected; not even the most gilded of solidarity-crushing insurance premiums can control nature. But it's true that the rich will occasionally spend their money to improve their chances, whether in beating fire or traveling by private jet instead of Amtrak. The choice confronting the rest of us is how to use tax money best to fight fires. In that discussion, I'm far less concerned by the extra-public choices made by the fire-vulnerable rich, and much more worried that available public resources -- aircraft and military personnel, especially -- went unused while my brother was evacuating his house in San Diego. The fact that some commentators are far more exercised by the former than the latter speaks volumes about their priorities.

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