Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Sandy Report Part 3

Historically, cities have formed in the following places and ways:

  1. Along a coastline, at a natural harbor;
  2. At the intersection of major trade routes;
  3. Near to the site of a valuable resource;
  4. Where a government plants a major installation of some kind.

The first three sorts of city are "natural," in the sense that people flocked toward the embryo of the city for reasons of their own. The fourth type is "artificial," in that no city would have formed there if not for the application of State power.

New York City is a Type 1 city. It formed to exploit one of the world's finest natural harbors, and the access to inland resources and markets provided by the Hudson River. The greater part of the city's land area is within a few feet of sea level. Thus, any significant rise in the sea level will endanger the city and its residents.

We had such a rise, albeit a temporary one, because of Sandy. The Atlantic Ocean came for an unwelcome visit, especially around southern Manhattan and northern Richmond. Unfortunately, some of the water is proving very hard to "deport."

Dense cities such as New York share certain political and infrastructural characteristics. They tend to have quite a lot of government: government that goes way beyond keeping peace in the streets. The government of such a city is likely to control many of the necessities of life: the mass transit system, the water supply, the access routes, the emergency-services network, the waste-disposal system, even a large part of the medical-services system. As I wrote a long time ago:

When people are crowded together, transmissible diseases circulate easily among them, and affect a great many lives. This is because, to a disease microbe, the human body is a shelter from a generally unfriendly world, just as a house is to a human being. A greater density of "houses" means that, in jumping from one victim to the next, a bacterium or virus need spend far less time exposed to the cold, cruel world than it otherwise would. This sharply reduces the probability that the parasite will die before it finds its next host. When the expected duration of exposure falls a little way below the 50% lethality point -- that is, the point at which the microbe would be as likely to die from exposure as to survive and find a new host -- the disease becomes endemic; it will only abate if its victim population becomes immune, or dies off to the last man.

Dense environments also put great obstacles in the way of individual choice as regards water and septic systems. For practical purposes -- that is, if cost is a bounding factor -- all the residents in an apartment building must have a single water supplier and a single septic service. When apartment buildings are sufficiently close together, as for example in Manhattan, it becomes impossible for neighboring buildings to have different water and septic mains; there simply isn't room enough beneath the streets.

In consequence, when a city of sufficient density has formed, the drive to municipalize the water and waste systems becomes irresistible. More, the city is pressed to take charge of "public health" matters such as vaccinations and the tracking of epidemics. Municipalization inevitably means monopolies enforced by political power and funded by taxation; no amount of theorizing about fanciful alternatives can change that.

Under normal conditions, this can chafe. Under emergency conditions, it can kill.

It's a paradoxical aspect of contemporary city organization that necessities such as those listed above are steadily forced to the margins of political attention by non-necessities and outright luxuries. This is particularly the case in New York. Despite the supposed political power of the policemen's and firemen's unions, they get less political respect than the government office workers, who outnumber them considerably. Also, New York's large economically dependent population -- about a million persons at this time -- has a tremendous amount of influence, despite David Friedman's assertion that the poor tend to be politically weak. (Well, maybe if they were really poor...but that's a tirade for another time.)

One consequence of this political imbalance is that the "necessities providers" become ever more likely to act out their dissatisfactions. Some kinds of acting out can cripple or kill a city -- with actual deaths among individuals very much a part of the picture:

"When a city has grown so overlarge and crowded that it is in immediate danger of collapse...when food and clean water flow into the city at a rate just sufficient to feed every mouth, and every hand must work constantly to keep it that way...when all transportation is involved in moving vital supplies, and none is left over to move people out of the city should the need arise...then it is that Crazy Eddie leads the movers of garbage out on strike for better working conditions."

[Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote In God's Eye]

No American city has quite got to that point yet...but given the density of Manhattan Island, the prospect doesn't seem terribly distant.

And so, just now the commercial heart of the greatest city on Earth is totally dependent on an infrastructure crippled by an impersonal, merciless act of Nature, and must depend on unionized municipal workers who, for all practical purposes, cannot be disciplined for nonperformance, to recover the very supports of life.

Black Tuesday, September 11, 2001, evoked an exceptional degree of public spirit and dedication from New York's emergency workers and "first responders." It had become exceptional over the decades of the city's descent into beggar-thy-neighbor Leftist politics. Yet that me-first mindset yielded at once to the sight of the falling Twin Towers. Many men were moved to acts of courage well beyond anything one might ask of them. Quite a few lost their lives in striving to save others.

I pray that that same spirit of unity in the face of disaster will animate New York's public services this time around. There are a lot of lives at stake -- and nowhere for most of the endangered to turn, should the city not come promptly to their aid.

I also pray that, having made good my escape some decades ago, I never have to live in a city again -- and I'll bet quite a few New Yorkers are entertaining thoughts of relocation just now, should economic considerations permit it. One Sandy is enough for just about anyone.

And with that, enough of these "Sandy Reports!"


Anonymous said...

I do not understand how any city just a few feet above sea level could build subways and tunnels and have no provision for sealing the entrances and pumping them out in the event they begin to fill up. I would bet dollars to doughnuts some engineers at some point recommended both of these things and some high level bureaucrat rejected it.

rickl said...

I got my power back at 6:30 pm on Thursday, just shy of 71 hours.

I don't have a laptop or cell phone, so it was three days of flashlights, a hand-cranked radio, and a book. ("The Pre-Astronauts" by Craig Ryan. Highly recommended.)

It's late right now, so I'll have to read your posts in detail tomorrow.