Belmont Club

Rear Window

“Using statistics,” my teacher used to say, “is like driving a car down a road with the windshield blacked out, guided only by your rear-view mirror.” The notion of the future as a probability is at the heart of the Washington Post‘s survey of natural disasters. Typhoon Haiyan was not unique. It was individually unpredictable, but it was statistically just what one would have expected: “33 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones on record have occurred in southern or southeastern Asia – due to a confluence of meteorology, geography, population density, poverty and government.”

The deadliest tropical cyclone in recorded history is largely considered to be the Bhola Cyclone that struck Bangladesh on November 12, 1970, claiming between 300,000 and 500,000 lives. Six of the top ten deadliest tropical cyclones have occurred in Bangladesh, and the vast majority of the top 35 have occurred in the countries that lie along the Bay of Bengal.

The older readers might still remember the Bangladesh typhoon because the following year it spawned the Concert for Bangladesh, at which George Harrison performed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The other catastrophes you may have forgotten.


1. Great Bhola Cyclone, Bangladesh 1970 (Nov 12) Bay of Bengal 300,000 – 500,000
2. Hooghly River Cyclone, India and Bangladesh 1737 Bay of Bengal 300,000
3. Haiphong Typhoon, Vietnam 1881 West Pacific 300,000
4. Coringa, India 1839 Bay of Bengal 300,000
5. Backerganj Cyclone, Bangladesh 1584 Bay of Bengal 200,000
6. Great Backerganj Cyclone, Bangladesh 1876 Bay of Bengal 200,000
7. Chittagong, Bangladesh 1897 Bay of Bengal 175,000
8. Super Typhoon Nina, China 1975 (Aug 5) West Pacific 171,000
9. Cyclone 02B, Bangladesh 1991 (May 5) Bay of Bengal 138,866
10. Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar 2008 (May 3) Bay of Bengal 138,366

Wikipedia has a list of record-breaking typhoon statistics.  It may surprise some to learn that the biggest recorded storm surge in history was 1899’s Cyclone Mahina in Bathurst Bay, Queensland Australia, killing 400 people — a lot considering the sparse population of the area. “A storm surge, variously reported as either 13 meters or 48 feet high, swept across Princess Charlotte Bay then inland for about 5 kilometers, destroying anything that was left of the Bathurst Bay pearling fleet along with the settlement. Eyewitness Constable J. M. Kenny reported that a 48 ft (14.6 m) storm surge swept over their camp at Barrow Point atop a 40 ft (12 m) high ridge and reached 3 miles (5 km) inland, the largest storm surge ever recorded.”

The problem with statistics is there’s always an outlier.

The dates of the disasters are particularly revealing because some happened long before any “carbon economy” was in evidence or the term even invented. Recent calls to combat “climate change” assume that bureaucrats know how the weather works.  Considering how much of our received wisdom is contrary to the evidence in the rear-view mirror, we might conclude that we are still without a reliable predictive model; and without such a model, what tinkering we embark upon may make things worse, rather than better. You only operate on a patient when you can see and not before.

How do people prepare for an unknown future?

The classic response of a decision-maker facing irreducible uncertainty has been to form a reserve. Reserves also go by the name of “savings” or “stockpiles” or design margins. They are intentional surpluses prepared against an unpredictable future. We all know, or used to know, the Biblical advice on risk management. “Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up.”

When are the seven years of lean due? Science cannot tell us, since it cannot foretell the future as yet, which is why we have politicians. Politicians know everything. Take Barack Obama. Rich Lowry cites Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of Game Change and the sequel about 2012, Double Down, who describe Barack Obama’s struggle to conceal his own certitudes during the 2012 campaign.

In the fall of 2011, they recount, “All too often, Obama felt as if he were driving with his foot on the brake.”

In a strategy meeting with his political advisers, Obama brought up climate change as an example of his undue caution. According to Halperin and Heilemann, the president said: “Maybe I should just come out and say what I really feel about this. Maybe I should just go out and say what I think about everything.”…

At that session, he brought to the Roosevelt Room a stack of pages from a yellow legal pad on which he had scrawled his more heartfelt initiatives.

What were they? Climate change. “We’re never gonna outdrill the other guys,” he said. “We gotta take some risks on this issue.”

Immigration reform. His Latino allies were right that he had been too timid.

Poverty. He needed to do more.

Peace between “Israel and Palestine.” He had let politics get in the way of working toward a settlement.

Closing Gitmo. Again, he hadn’t tried hard enough. “No one is gonna persuade me that we should run a penal colony in perpetuity in America,” he said.

Gay marriage. He didn’t want to keep dissembling about his real position.

He wanted to take his foot off the brake; wanted to go all out. Because he knew with preternatural assurance what lay head. No need to fumble along with the rear-view mirror.

However his campaign advisers eventually persuaded him to … misspeak. The net result were the sudden surprises Obama has become famous for. It is the contrast between Barack Obama the mortal and Obama the visionary. He ran by misrepresenting his position on policies that a critical percentage of voters disagreed with because they would not go along. But once in power he switched to his inner certainties. Because he knew what was right and could now take his foot off the brake.

The most famous example was his pledge that “you can keep your health care. Period. You can keep your doctor. Period.” Neither of these was true. One could say that he lied. Period.

But that would be to miss the bigger point. Obama didn’t lie. He discarded his public uncertainty for his inner certitude. He threw away a great deal of information derived from the public’s fear of future risks because he knew they were unfounded. So great was his prescience that, rather than building up a reserve, as one does facing uncertainty, Obama instead built up a deficit. He bet the farm because he had a sure thing. The national debt jumped from $10 trillion to $17 trillion in the time since he took office. Someone more uncertain would have tried to build up a surplus instead.

That was, after all, Joseph’s advice:

Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine.

Today we are fortunate enough to be led by a person who knows exactly when the seven fat cows are coming out of the river. Exactly how the weather works. There’s no need to save. No need to worry that we are making climate worse rather than better by a government program. We can spend the stash. The difficulty for the visionary is what to do when his gamble doesn’t come off. Yesterday Amy Goldstein, Juliet Eilperin and Lena H. Sun at the Washington Post concluded that “software problems with the federal online health insurance marketplace, especially in handling high volumes, are proving so stubborn that the system is unlikely to work fully by the end of the month as the White House has promised, according to an official with knowledge of the project.” Statistics released by the administration say that only 27,000 people enrolled through his $600 million website. In return, almost 40 times that number have lost their health coverage in California alone.

But hold on, ye of little faith. It will of course work in the end because it’s got to work. Those who ask “what is Plan B?” should realize there is no Plan B. There is no Plan B because Plan A is so sure-fire that the only option for the administration is to keep doubling down until Plan A works. That is the attitude of those able to see through the blacked-out windshield. As for the rest of us, there is only the trail of wreckage in the rear-view mirror.

But maybe it’s not good to be too certain, as history sometimes reminds us.

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