The California Fires: Where were the Looters?

Did you see any looters on television last week? Neither did I. When New Orleans was flooded two years ago, there were looters all over my TV screen. Men with assault rifles waded through the streets menacingly. At first, I thought I was looking at footage from Somalia, but I looked at the crawl underneath the images – it wasn’t Somalia; it was Louisiana.

What about the rapists? There were rapists at the refugee camp formerly known as the Superdome, but did you see any reports about rapists at Qualcomm Stadium last week? I didn’t. Did the mayor of San Diego cuss and then lash out at George Bush on your TV screen last week? Did Governor Schwarzenegger cry for the cameras? Did he pass the buck?

San Diego had a major fire just four years ago. Did they wallow in their victimhood and demand more government funding? Did they play the race card, claiming that George Bush just doesn’t like Mexicans?

The answer to all these questions is ‘no’. Here’s why: culture matters. San Diego is an entrepreneurial city. It’s a technology savvy, business-friendly region with unusually high rates of self-employment. Few of its citizens are unemployed; few receive welfare. Not many of its employed residents work for government. San Diego has seen its share of troubles. Like Pittsburgh had been a steel town and Detroit had been a car town, San Diego had been built on the defense industry. But when the Berlin wall came down and the defense budgets dried up, it shifted towards the next big thing – biotechnology. These changes have come from the bottom-up; from the marketplace.


New Orleans isn’t any of those things. We can romanticize things all we want. I lived in New Orleans for awhile when I was a child. I have relatives there. I liked everyone that I met there. But let’s be honest, New Orleans is, and has been for many years, burdened by legendarily incompetent and corrupt leadership class. The big economic activities, off-shore platforms and large ports, are essentially colonial operations, run by distant managers, not emerging from the entrepreneurial action of the locals. The indigenous economy is basically a combination of tourism and bribery.

The culture difference is passivity versus self-reliance. Disasters can come to any town at any time, but some react differently than others. How they react depends on what they were the day before the disaster hit. Entrepreneurs are used to thinking for themselves. They’re used to organizing when there’s no playbook available. They have email and they check it often. They’re in touch with a wide range of other people. When the government says to evacuate, they generally do. They don’t stay home as so many people did two years ago, because their government checks were coming and they wanted to make sure that no one stole them. They volunteer to help their displaced neighbors, not loot their stores while they’re gone.

At Qualcomm stadium the line for volunteers who had come to offer help, was often longer than the line of refugees who had come to request help. At one point, the relief workers were forced to tell people, that no more food and water donations were needed.

I don’t remember that happening after Katrina. I remember people, many of whom had been warned to evacuate and didn’t, lashing out at the world for not helping them sooner. I was a talk show host at the time; we suspended normal programming for days to focus on raising money for the people of New Orleans. The frequent and angry denunciations of supposed American greed and racism didn’t make my job any easier.

Critics of entrepreneurial capitalism have long maintained that markets are a destroyer of social capital. Yes, they say, free-markets deliver high standards of living, but their gales of creative destruction unravel the social fabric. This has not been my experience. I used to run a non-profit agency serving at-risk children in certain low-income neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. There was very little capitalism occurring there (excluding drugs and prostitution, of course), but there was even less social capital. We had a tough time trying to keep a database of kids that we were helping, because the addresses were in a constant state of flux. The last names offered no real clue as to who was whom. The phone numbers changed continually, and they were almost never answered. Answering machines were rare – appointments were unheard of. Basically we learned through long experience that it was impossible to contact the parents (or guardians, or aunts, or whatevers) of the children we were trying to help. We just had to open the doors every evening and turn on the lights and see who came. I wonder if a reverse 911 evacuation call like the one that went out to a million San Diegans would have even worked in New Orleans.

I’m already bracing myself for the hate mail. “YOU’RE BLAMING THE VICTIMS!” they will blare. But I’m not blaming them, I’m trying to help them. Poverty stinks to begin with, but it’s even worse when a hurricane or an earthquake attacks. If I told you that today you were going to be hit with a natural disaster, but that you got the pick the city where your family would be when it hit, would you pick a rich one or a poor one? Would you pick one with honest and efficient road construction agencies or patronage ridden ones? Would you pick a town where almost everyone had Blackberries and cell-phones or where almost no one did? Would you pick a town were most people were business owners or where most of them were on welfare?

If you picked the former option in any of the choices above, then you have already implicitly agreed to my premise. Top-down central planning makes people less self-reliant and makes communities less resilient. I’m just asking you to make the same decision for them that you would make for yourself.