Horizontal Political Externalities: The Supply and Demand of Disaster Management

By Depoorter, Ben | Duke Law Journal, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Horizontal Political Externalities: The Supply and Demand of Disaster Management


Depoorter, Ben, Duke Law Journal


ABSTRACT

This Article discusses the dynamics of shared political accountability and provides a supply- and demand-side analysis of disaster management. Because multiple levels of government share political accountability in national scale disasters, disaster management is subject to a collective action problem. Introducing the concept of horizontal political externalities, this Article explains the shortcomings of disaster management in terms of asymmetric political accountability costs for ex ante preparedness and ex post relief. In the presence of shared accountability, investments in prevention and relief by one government actor confer positive externalities upon other government actors by reducing the overall chance of being held responsible in ensuing disasters. In contrast, ex post disaster relief involves negative externalities when action by one agency makes other agencies or representatives look worse. Because positive externalities are undersupplied and negative externalities are oversupplied, political externalities distort disaster management policy. When political accountability is shared, no single actor bears the full brunt of accountability. In addition, uncertainty and finger-pointing reduce the total sum of political accountability. The different effects of ex ante and ex post disaster management on political accountability may shed light on events before and after Hurricane Katrina. I provide suggestions for further avenues of empirical and theoretical research on this new positive political theory of horizontal political externalities and political accountability losses.

INTRODUCTION

Hurricane Katrina left parts of a famous American city uninhabitable and demoralized much of the Gulf Coast region. The Katrina disaster differs in many respects from the hurricanes that regularly visit the American Southeast. Ever since French colonist Jean Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville built his settlement on hurricane-prone swampland in the middle of three huge water pools--the Mississippi Delta, the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain--experts have viewed these geographical features as a disaster waiting to happen. (1) Although destruction was unavoidable with a storm of Katrina's size, (2) the repeated warnings and anticipation of the storm accentuate the striking lack of emergency preparedness and raise doubts regarding the nation's investments in critical infrastructure. (3)

Hurricane Katrina exposed major weaknesses in government emergency management, including disaster mitigation and response and relief procedures. Inadequate planning led to critical problems regarding food delivery, medical supplies, personnel, communication networks, and evacuation assistance. The events surrounding Hurricane Katrina are sad evidence of the lack of government investment in ex ante action, i.e., disaster preparation. This stands in contrast to the expenditure on ex post disaster relief. The government currently spends billions of dollars on relief and reconstruction, (4) but it consistently shorted precautionary investments that would have reduced today's losses at a small percentage of the costs. (5) This Article focuses on the underlying causes of such deficiencies in national disaster planning.

In this Article I model disaster preparation and relief policies in a public choice framework in which politicians are "sellers" of disaster management policies who compete for votes from voters who are "consumers" of such policies. (6) My analysis of the supply and demand of disaster management predicts that disaster preparation will be undersupplied and ex post relief will be oversupplied. (7)

There is an overlap in political accountability among the different levels of government with regard to national disaster management. (8) Consequently, the decision of one political actor affects the political standing of other actors. In particular, when accountability is shared among different government actors, investments in disaster preparation confer benefits upon other government actors. …

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