2014-01-30

Weather, Population, And Meltdowns

According to the New York Daily News, "the South" is still struggling to gain control of things after the "mild" storm that recently paralyzed most of Atlanta. The nation's more populous metropolises are scratching their collective head and wondering how two inches of snow could possibly wreak so much havoc on a modern American city. To me, though, it is not much of a mystery. I'd like to say a few words about it, as a public service to all my Canadian readers, and my readers who are from regions that frequently get much bigger snowstorms, and yet still manage to function as cities and communities.

My first point is the most obvious. However normal two inches of snow might be for you, in places like Atlanta, Georgia, it is rare. While your city might be well equipped with snow plows, tow trucks, snow tires, tire chains, snow blowers, salt or sand on the road, etc., cities like Atlanta and Dallas have no such infrastructure. The reason is because it's not a good investment. I know it seems like a good investment, now that we've seen what havoc can be caused by two inches of snow, but the real trade-off is: tens of millions of dollars of municipal spending on snow maintenance infrastructure on the one hand, and public school spending, the social safety net, civil servant salaries, etc. on the other. When you stop to think that, in Georgia, two inches of snow all at once is something that only happens once every few years, the trade-off is not as obvious as it seems.

A second, related, point pertains to the decisions public officials made to try to manage the situation once the snow started falling. I'll grant you that if the mayor of Atlanta or the governor of Georgia grew up in New Hampshire or Salt Lake City, he should have known better. But if you grew up in a region of the world where major snowfall almost never happens, how good should we expect your judgement about snowstorms to be? Similarly, how well do I expect people in Columbus, Ohio to deal with hurricanes? You get the drift (pun intended).

My third point pertains to population. Ludwig von Mises observed that
...there prevails a tendency toward a distribution of population over the earth's surface in accordance with the physical productivity of the primary natural factors of production and the immobilization of inconvertible factors of production as affected in the past.*
This is a glorified way of saying that people follow the money. Elsewhere, Mises also discussed the Malthusian law of population - you know, the old idea that population will grow to the point where it becomes unsustainable, and then we'll all die. But in Mises' opinion, this is just a caricature what Malthus wrote. Mises rather saw the Malthusian "law" as being a special case of the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility - and he was right.**

What this means for Atlanta is this. People flock to Atlanta to avail themselves of its many redeeming qualities. What they find when they get there is: (typically) beautiful weather, a colorful culture, and excellent economic opportunities. I'd sure take that deal over a city that offered cold weather, an uninteresting local culture, and poor economic activities, wouldn't you? (Maybe this is why people fled Detroit and flocked to places like Atlanta.) But it's not a costless win. To get to Atlanta, you have to incur moving costs; but you also have to give up any of things you might have enjoyed about your old city. Maybe you don't mind giving up the cold weather, but you might miss the skiing. Maybe you don't mind giving up the non-existent nightlife of Butte, Montana, but you might miss the local tourist attractions.

Anyway, Atlanta also comes with its own drawbacks, which may or may not be deal-breakers to you. One such drawback, especially if you come from rural Georgia and move to "the big city" in order to "make it," is its large population. True, it's not as populous as many other American cities, but regionally speaking, it's up there.

Well, you'll notice there are no reports of crippling traffic jams and people sleeping in grocery stores from Athens or Macon or Savannah, Georgia, right? Much less are there reports of kids stranded at schools in Lafayette, or Anderson, or Tifton, or Douglas, or Inverness, or Troy... Is this because these cities all have better winter infrastructure? Or superior elected officials? Or better preparation? Not likely. No, the real reason is that smaller, more sparsely populated cities can better-handle freak storms than more populous cities (assuming, of course, that the storm does not result in total devastation) because the people in those towns do not have to worry about severe traffic jams and freeway travel. The roads might be equally as hazardous, but there are fewer people on them. There might still be car accidents, but commutes are shorter, so they have less of an impact on the victims' ability to get home. And so on.

Consider all of this when you ask yourself why "the South" has so much trouble with two inches of snow. My sister - who, like me, grew up in the snowy Intermountain West - also lives in the South. She laughs when school is cancelled over "a dusting of snow." But she lives in a small southern town, not unlike Rome, Georgia, where people can make due with bad weather conditions. But if you live in Atlanta, and the snow falls, and the heavy traffic grinds to a standstill, and the baby is crying and you need to buy diapers, you'd better believe you'll feel the hurt.

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* von Mises, Ludwig, Human Action, p. 627
** Ibid., p. 129, which reads as follows:
The Malthusian law of population and the concepts of absolute overpopulation and under-population and optimum population derived from it are the application of the law of returns to a special problem. They deal with changes in the supply of human labor, other factors being equal. Because people, for political considerations, wanted to reject the Malthusiam law, they fought with passion but with faulty arguments against the law of returns?--which, incidentally, they knew only as the law of diminishing returns of the use of capital and labor on land. Today we no longer need to pay any attention to these idle remonstrances. The law of returns is not limited to the use of complementary factors of production on land. The endeavors to refute or to demonstrate its validity by historical and experimental investigations of agricultural production are as needless as they are [p. 130] vain.