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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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Insurers: We're Not Picking Up the Tab for Climate Change


Friday June 20, 2014

[Note: A version of this musing first appeared in the Los Angeles Times]

Well, that took longer than I expected! Twenty years ago, I interviewed Frank Nutter, then and now president of the Reinsurance Assn. of America, on the threat climate change posed to the $2-trillion-plus global property and casualty insurance industry.

"It is clear," he said back then, "that global warming could bankrupt the industry."

But in the two decades since, the industry mostly limited itself to talk, sponsoring innumerable reports on the threat. Now a major insurance company has moved to protect itself, and it may be the most important milestone yet in the struggle to contend with global warming.

Illinois Farmers has filed nine class-action suits against municipal entities in and around Chicago for losses the company sustained when the sanitation system backed up, spewing geysers of sewage into hundreds of homes, after extreme storms in April 2013.

The suit explicitly says that officials in various governments were aware that climate change would bring more extreme weather and yet failed to take steps (such as draining parts of the system) that would have prevented the losses. Regardless of the outcome — courts give governments wide latitude in immunity from lawsuits — it puts an end to the charade that global warming is some scientifically uncertain threat far off in the future. [Subsequent to this writing, Illinois Farmers withdrew the suits, noting that they had served their purpose in encouraging governments to take preventive steps.]

It was predictable that a major industry player's first hardball action would be to protect itself from losses. Insurers bet their existence on being accurately able to detect, model and price changes in risk. The Farmers' suit tells the world that regardless of what politicians and pundits say about climate change, an insurer is going to try to avoid paying for losses that could have been foreseen and prevented.

Most property insurers base their pricing on historical data, which makes the industry retrospective and thus inherently conservative. This is one reason it has taken so long for insurers to react aggressively in the face of climate change — its losses only filter in slowly over many years. Even then, attributing blame is complicated by other factors, such as a vast increase in the building of ever-more expensive homes in coastal areas.

Moreover, a number of major insurers feel that the potential losses of climate change can be addressed through existing procedures for analyzing and pricing risk. For example, one thing they can do is simply leave the market in places that are highly vulnerable to foreseeable negative effects.

This was the case in Florida as insurers voted with their feet after the $26 billion in insured losses incurred by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and after Florida regulators wouldn't let them raise prices to adjust for the increased risks created by a rapidly growing population in harm's way. In 2002, the state was forced to set up its own insurance pool to protect against losses from windstorms.

The Citizens Property Insurance Co., which charges below-market rates thanks to the voter-conscious state legislature that set it up, quickly became the biggest property and casualty insurer in the state. Noting its precarious financing, a report on the state insurance market prepared by Florida State University in 2013 asserted that "Florida could be one major storm away from the state having to take all wind risk."

Should such an event occur, Florida would cover these losses by issuing bonds, which would be paid off by a surcharge on all insurance policies. That means any insured Floridian, even those with just an auto insurance policy, would take a hit.

Thus, Florida is shifting the burden of future catastrophic losses arising from wind damage from the affluent who have built along to coast to all Floridians.

While Floridians wait for the next big storm, sea levels — the most obvious worldwide signal of global warming — continue their inexorable rise. Rising waters have already created Venice-like conditions in the Miami area.

All the nation's taxpayers have assumed this risk as insurers routinely exclude flood and storm surge damage from policies. This forces homeowners to seek coverage with the National Flood Insurance Program, a tax-dollar backed program also forced by political pressure to under-price its coverage.

Between the state program and federal flood insurance, the American middle class has been given the burden of insuring and subsidizing the affluent. Let's call it climate change socialism for the rich.

After news of the Farmers' lawsuit broke, I spoke again with Nutter. He said he too was surprised at how long it has taken for the risk of climate change to percolate through the insurance community. He also pointed out that Farmers is affiliated with the Zurich Group, which is noteworthy because European insurers, with global reach and exposure, tend to be more attentive to the risks of climate change than domestic insurers.

Is it possible that U.S. insurers are also affected by climate-change deniers? A number of recent studies by the Insurance Information Institute have singled out Florida as having the most exposure to the combined impacts of climate change, but its governor, Rick Scott, and Sen. Marco Rubio are on record dismissing the threat.

And yet everyone can see that sea levels are rising. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine told the New York Times last month, "We are past the point of debating climate change."

Now, as insurers begin to shift the costs of that reality through rate increases, exclusions, lawsuits and market retreat, consumers can ask such politicians, "Why, if climate change is a hoax, are we paying for it?"

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


 

[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.
 



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