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Really Bad Ideas, Part 4: US Federal Flood Insurance

Politics / US Politics Sep 20, 2017 - 10:44 AM GMT

By: John_Rubino

Politics

As Hurricanes Harvey and Irma wreaked their havoc over the past couple of weeks, several interconnected questions popped up, the answers to which make us look, to put it bluntly, like idiots.

Why, for instance, are there suddenly so many Cat 4 and 5 hurricanes? Is this due to man-made climate change and is this summer therefore our new normal? The answer: Maybe, but that misses the point. There have always been huge storms (like the one that wiped Galveston, TX off the map in 1900, long before global warming was a thing), and barring another ice age there always will be. So the US east coast will remain one of Mother Nature’s favorite targets.


A second (and vastly more pertinent) question is why we’ve been encouraging millions of people to move into this bulls-eye in recent decades. Since 2000, Houston and surrounding Harris County have added 1.2 million people. Since 1980 Florida has added 10 million people – most of them in the coastal corridor from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.

Seems a little unwise, doesn’t it, to put tens of millions of people and millions of houses and cars where they’re guaranteed to be damaged or destroyed by inevitable future storms. But it’s not an accident. Government programs actively encourage this migration by picking up part or all of the tab for homes that are flooded by storms. The result: A massive and growing liability for future damage on top of all the other massive and growing liabilities for Medicare, Social Security, underfunded state and local pensions, etc. From last week’s Wall Street Journal:

One House, 22 Floods: Repeated Claims Drain Federal Insurance Program

Brian Harmon had just finished spending over $300,000 to fix his home in Kingwood, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey sent floodwaters “completely over the roof.”

The six-bedroom house, which has an indoor swimming pool, sits along the San Jacinto River. It has flooded 22 times since 1979, making it one of the most flood-damaged properties in the country.

Between 1979 and 2015, government records show the federal flood insurance program paid out more than $1.8 million to rebuild the house—a property that Mr. Harmon figured was worth $600,000 to $800,000 before Harvey hit late last month.
“It’s my investment,” the 49-year-old said this summer, before the hurricane. “I can’t just throw it away.”

In years past, he had considered a buyout from local officials seeking to purchase often-flooded properties. Now, he finally wants to get out. “I never want to go through this again,” said Mr. Harmon, who bought the house in 1995.

As they tally up the losses from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, government officials are looking for ways to step up purchases of frequently-flooded houses, which have become a huge drain on the financially troubled federal flood insurance program.

Homes and other properties with repetitive flood losses account for just 2% of the roughly 1.5 million properties that currently have flood insurance, according to government estimates. But such properties have accounted for about 30% of flood claims paid over the program’s history.

Some thoughts
The government buying up and bulldozing these damaged houses would seem to make the problem worse rather than better by relieving homeowners of responsibility for their decisions, which is exactly the kind of moral hazard that has led to, for instance, the current half-quadrillion-dollar financial derivatives market.

The libertarian (that is to say, rational) alternative would be to eliminate federal flood insurance and require homeowners to pay the full cost of the risks they take on. If an extra $10,000 a year is a deal breaker, then don’t move to a sea-level city in Hurricane Alley. Developers and local politicians would hate the resulting mass exodus but the local environment would appreciate it. Maybe the Everglades would survive in that scenario.

If this sounds heartless, it’s because the other side of the ledger is less obvious. Someone has to cover these payments and as always it’s not the poor because they don’t have the money, and it’s not the rich because they can hire accountants to minimize their taxes. This leaves the middle class holding the bad policy bag. They pay taxes because they can’t avoid them. And their savings, being mostly in bank accounts and other financial assets, can be stolen by inflation’s stealth tax.

Of the two groups – clueless homebuyers in floodplains and middle class people trying to save for retirement – the latter obviously deserves more protection. But beyond the obvious moral angle, a society with tens (maybe hundreds) of trillions of dollars of such hidden obligations is setting itself up for a complete loss of faith in its currency, making it impossible to help even those who actually deserve it.

By John Rubino

dollarcollapse.com

Copyright 2017 © John Rubino - All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.


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