Author Article by Lyric Hale: Into the Eye of the Hurricane: Natural Disasters and Political Change

Lyric Hale

Lyric Hale

In last week’s installment of our weekly column from Lyric Hale, the What’s Next? author discussed the link between unemployment and social unrest. This week, following Hurricane Irene hitting the East Coast, the top economic commentator examines the effect of natural disasters on political stability.

Article by Lyric Hughes Hale

I am in northeastern Vermont, at a location without a zip code or a GPS marker. In order to install phone service at my husband’s childhood cabin in the woods, I had to call the 911 Registry Office and ask them to assign an address.  I am a bit sorry at taking this irreversible step, because we will now literally be on the map and on the grid, forever.  We will have lost what is now a luxury–absolute non-locatibility. In the face of Hurricane Irene however, it suddenly seemed that this quaint notion was best overruled by practical considerations of safety. We are also here on a book tour for our What’s Next? and it has been a bit less bucolic than we expected. The swollen streams, however dangerous, are magnificent.

The world has been buffeted by natural disasters this year. Politicians have strained to keep up. Now that the hurricane is winding down, were officials right to put 65 million people and all of the economic activity they create on hold for the weekend? In a very weak economy, will this perversely punch a bigger hole in the US recovery? Will there be anger that politicians overreacted? In the first blush of relief after disaster was averted on Manhattan, most New Yorkers at least seemed sensible about the precautionary steps that were taken.

Hurricanes at least have a path that can be broadly predicted days in advance. Warnings can be given, and preparations can be made. Other natural events, such as earthquakes, cannot be predicted with any accuracy, and can have a profound effect on the political landscape. Certainly this was true this year in Japan, but there are many examples throughout history. In China, there has always been a correlation, at least in the mind of the body politic, between natural disasters and weak governments. Since ancient times, it was widely supposed that nature signaled the displeasure of the gods with the country’s rulers by sending devastation in the forms of floods and earthquakes.

One of the most destructive earthquakes in Chinese history was the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, which can be seen as the demarcation line between the Cultural Revolution and China’s current era of modernization. Mao was in hospital at the time the earthquake struck on August 24th, and his wife, the notorious Jiang Qing, member of the Gang of Four, was left in charge.  Tangshan is a city of about one million people not far Beijing, and casualties were widespread in the region. “So what if a few hundred thousand people died?” Jiang famously said. She was more concerned about purging the memory of Zhou Enlai, who had died six months earlier, than the human toll of the earthquake. While she focused on politics, Zhou’s successor Hua Guofeng left for a personal visit to Tangshan, and it was a watershed moment in modern Chinese politics. The Gang of Four was doomed.

All this was told to be by an editor of the People’s Daily when he visited Chicago in the summer of 1985, before Hua became the hero of Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was a stifling hot day in Chicago, and he said that it reminded him of the day before the Tangshan earthquake. China, he told me, never makes a truly voluntary political change. Watch for natural disasters, that is what changes China.  Witness the worst natural disaster probably of all time, the Yangtze River Floods of 1931, which caused the death of at least 2 million people, and weakened the Republican government at a time when the Japanese military were on the march. Mayor Bloomberg, beware!

Since Editor Li’s remarks, I have been fascinated by the power of Mother Nature over our somewhat fragile human institutions, and the hubris with which we make prognostications of any kind. Natural disasters create periodic stressors that allow us to see the Emperor without any clothes, exposing the weaknesses of human institutions.

In his new book, Francis Fukuyama talks about the legitimacy of political institutions globally. Of contemporary China he says,

…neither rule of law nor political accountability exists in contemporary China, no more than it did in dynastic China.  The vast majority of abuses that take place are not those of a tyrannical central government but rather of a dispersed hierarchy of local government officials who collude in the stealing of peasants’ land, take bribes from developers, overlook environmental and safety rules, and otherwise behave as local government officials in China have behaved from time immemorial.  When a disaster happens, like shoddy school construction revealed by an earthquake, or the tainting of baby formula by a poorly regulated company Chinese citizens’ only recourse is upward to the central government.

In other words, there is no downward accountability to citizens.  When something happens like a natural or man-made disaster that that affects large numbers of citizens, it creates an upward draft of responsibility that in the absence of the rule of law can lead to a change in leadership.

The checks on state authority provided by the rule of law and accountability serve to reduce the variance in governmental performance: the constrain the beset governments, but they also prevent the bad ones from spiraling out of control.  The Chinese, by contrast, were never able to solve the problem of the bad emperor.

China is also unlucky enough to have been the site of at least five out of the greatest natural disasters in human history:


Rank Death toll (estimate) Event Location Date
1. 1,000,000–2,500,000 1931 China floods China July, November, 1931
2. 900,000–2,000,000 1887 Yellow River flood China September, October, 1887
3. 830,000 1556 Shaanxi earthquake Shaanxi Province, China January 23, 1556
4. 500,000 1970 Bhola cyclone East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) November 13, 1970
5. 316,000 2010 Haiti earthquake Port-au-Prince, Haiti January 12, 2010
6. 300,000 1839 India Cyclone India November 25, 1839
7. 250,000–300,000 526 Antioch earthquake Antioch, Byzantine Empire (now Turkey) May 526
8. 242,419 (the death toll has been estimated to be as high as 665,000) 1976 Tangshan earthquake Tangshan, Hebei, China July 28, 1976
9. 234,117 1920 Haiyuan earthquake Haiyuan, NingxiaGansu, China December 16, 1920
10. 230,210 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Sumatra, Indonesia and also affected India, Sri Lanka, Maldives December 26, 2004

At the heart of all of this is the distinction between government, and the State, now under discussion by economists such as John Joseph Wallis and Douglass North, and theories of developmental economics.  Natural disasters are real life experiments that test the viability and legitimacy of governments at all stages of development.  In countries where institutions are strong, hurricanes are unlikely to fundamentally challenge the viability of the state, although as President George Bush discovered, they can certainly challenge a government.  It is not unreasonable to ask if Barack Obama would be president today, absent Hurricane Katrina.

What's Next?

What’s Next?

What’s Next? Unconventional Wisdom on the Future of the World Economy by David Hale and Lyric Hale is available now from Yale University Press.

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