Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Bargain Life

We're of two minds about safety

Posted Aug 31, 2017

News plays up the Hurricane Harvey disaster as a struggle between epic destruction and heroism. First-responders, neighbors, even “blue collar owners of small boats” rescue hurricane victims from death. Like a boxing match or a gladiatorial combat, this is a thrilling contest of survival. 

Like a sports spectacle, hurricane reports are also a form of play. That sounds heartless, I know. But think about it. Cameras and eyewitnesses report suspenseful rescues from rooftops and other signs of a everyday reality turned upside down. They don’t linger over the suffering of people who've lost everything and face social death.The rich will do well, but others risk loss of uninsured house, savings, and belongings—that is, loss of identity. They may suffer bankruptcy and indebtedness tantamount to peonage or slavery. 

We watch testing ourselves and our image of the nation against the news story. The rescuers are selfless and plucky, as we would hope to be. We take for granted that the poor, young and old, clamber into the rowboat. Some will be triaged, but there are plenty of poor folks to take their place. But hiw did they get there in the first place? In fact, why is anyone settled in hurricane alley?

To bring these abstractions down to earth,  look at Houston’s history.  As NY Times journalists recount, the city has been “at war” over nature and money from the start:

 Not long after a pair of New York real estate speculators founded this city on the banks of a torpid bayou in the 1830s, every home and every business flooded. Though settlers tried draining their humid, swampy, sweltering surroundings, the inundations came again and again, with 16 major floods in the city’s first century. [1]

And many serious floods since then too.  Yet putting a city in harm’s way seemed a good gamble. “And yet somehow, improbably, Houston not only survived but prospered — and it sprawled omnivorously, becoming the nation’s fourth-largest city and perhaps its purest model of untrammeled growth.”

Notice the language: “survival” here means “prosperity.” The deep fantasy is that by risking everything, a survivor somehow gets to gobble up (“omnivorously”) more life. This is important. The N Y Times writers don’t see the implications, but then most Americans in the culture around them don’t see what’s implied either.

What we don’t see is that the “prosperous” city can be as vicious as nature. How can this be?  The answer—and the reality—is that the “omnivorous” appetite of the city increases the number of invisible victims who face social death in recurring disasters. Why? Because the city has preferred risky prosperity to sound development in dangerous terrain. Yes, the victims, too, shared that appetite, since they too gambled that they could buy a bargain house and be winners despite the likelihood that nature would sometimes demolish a city developed on the cheap. 

Like the original NY real estate developers, the Times journalists, and the rest of us, the victims haven’t really appreciated the danger. Like the décor of a casino, the idea of an “untrammeled” bargain made risk-taking seem irresistible.

“Untrammeled” means free, unrestricted, unbound. In politics, it means “unregulated.” The idea is confusingly associated with free market conservatism, although this is deceptive. Conservatives value preservation of what’s good, whereas untrammeled Houston "already has some of the laxest building regulations for structures in potential flood zones”—which magnifies known risks and the damage tallied up in repeated floods.

Rather than moralize about the obvious dangers of this fantasy, let’s ask why it attracts adherents. The Times journalists put it well:

if the region begins to put stricter regulations on building, there is a chance that one of Houston’s great lures — affordable housing — may disappear. This is a concern for Joel Kotkin, the urban theorist and author who has been a great champion of Houston’s lax regulation policies.

“If you put the kind of super-strict planning shackles on Houston, that would be the way to kill it,” he said. “Why would you live in a hot, humid, flat space if it was expensive?”

Like many others, he was quick to praise Houston’s energy and optimism, and said the city would recover [from Hurricane Harvey]. The Texas author Larry McMurtry, a former Houston resident, agreed. “Houston will accept anybody who’s got hustle — it respects energy more than any place,” he said. “Houston is a very resilient city, and it will overcome.” 

The enthusiasts of risk don’t see the terror of death and the victims destroyed. Instead they see risk-taking as invigorating morale. More deeply, Joel Kotkin implies that risky development is kill-or-be-killed.  He insinuates that all regulations would be “super-strict” and “shackles.” Any attempt to minimize destruction would “kill” Houston.

This is like going berserk in combat: facing death, a cornered soldier may run toward death with guns blazing in do-or-die frenzy. [2] Risking all, the berserker may survive certain death. Even if some or much of the city dies, the enthusiasts imagine that “resilient” Houston—and they—would “recover.” The word implies a rebirth for “us,” with vigor strengthened by sacrifice of the unmentioned and invisible victims.

The emphasis on rewards disguises the unsettling premise. Risk-enthusiasts can enjoy their optimism and ambition because others have been sacrificed. The Texas novelist Larry McMurtry dresses up this dog-eat-dog philosophy. Houston “respects energy more than any place,” he says. “Houston is a very resilient city, and it will overcome.” Once you realize that “respect” and “overcome” are honorific clichés, the morality they advertise seems creepy.

The Houston disaster sizzles with ambivalence.  We want to conserve and be safe even as we hope that risk and optimism will free up extraordinary powers in us. We want to plan defensively, but also "go for it."

And it’s not just Houston.

Many towns are located in coastal areas and riverine floodplains, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says “building codes are often insufficient in reducing damage from extreme events”. The number of “billion-dollar events” – natural disasters ranging from flooding to wildfires that incur more than $1bn in damage – has risen over the past few decades, increasing in cost from a roughly $10bn five-year average in 1985 to more than $50bn in 2015.[3]

In fact, the ambivalence evident in Houston is engrained in American culture. It is an expression of boom/bust dynamics that keeps Americans careening between boom and bust, fear and greed, investment and gambling, binge and purge. At the moment the willingness to gamble on optimism embodied in Mr. Trump, and directly involved in Houston’s behavior.

An executive order issued by Trump earlier this month revoked an Obama-era directive that had established flood-risk standards for federally funded infrastructure projects built in areas prone to flooding or subject to the effects of sea-level rise – like many of those now sinking in Texas. Houston already has some of the laxest building regulations for structures in potential flood zones and the president wants to spread that policy across the US. [3]

This is not just one policy or one personality: it’s a mindset. Mr. Trump, for example, generally echoes Joel Kotkin. He believes in less inhibition, more gut-level appetite and ambition. Attacking regulations, Mr. Trump would approve “omnivorous” urban sprawl. He is prepared to sacrifice “losers.” His housing, labor, education, and immigration policies leave the poor clinging to rooftops as reckless currents swirl around them.

Joel Kotkin’s themes are epitomized in Mr. Trump’s Atlantic City casino companies, which embodied euphoric resilience in surviving four trips to bankruptcy court. In Houston, private money such as The National Association of Homebuilders, which resolutely opposed government building standards, took for granted that public (taxpayer) funds would remedy the city’s losses. In his financial hurricanes, Mr. Trump likewise offloaded liabilities to public corporations and government. His political supporters are proof that some Americans tolerate, or even admire, such sharp dealing.

This, then, is the ambivalence that Houston reveals in American culture. As a nation we are coping now by splitting the ambivalence apart in left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative adversaries. In this spirit Mr. Trump likes to style himself the polar opposite of President Obama. Yet as individuals and as a nation, we harbor the conflicting themes within us. Like the confusion over political terms such as “conservative,” the refusal to own the storm within us leaves us stranded on a rooftop cursing and praying for rescue.

1. Manny Fernandez and Richard Faussetag, "A Storm Forces Houston, the Limitless City, to Consider Its Limits," NY Times, Aug. 30, 2017.

2. Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon: berserk style in American culture (Leveller's Press, 2015)

3. "Trump's rollback of flood protections risks further Houston-style calamity," Guardian, Aug. 29, 2017.