There was a brief gossip item the other day in the Washington Post that caught The Scrapbook’s attention. Well, not gossip, exactly, but what passes for gossip these days: a celebrity sighting. Steven Spielberg was spotted taking photographs of the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin! “Bundled up against the cold like all the other tourists,” the Post reported, a little breathlessly, “[he] was escorted along the pathway by a couple of Park Service rangers.”

It may be a measure of the widening gulf that separates The Scrapbook from the award-winning journalists at the Washington Post, but the element of this incidental item that plucked our antennae was not the presence of the great Spielberg in Washington​—​as it happens, not such a rare event​—​or the fact that he likes to take snapshots of tourist attractions. No, it was the National Park Service detail.

Steven Spielberg, we are pleased to acknowledge, has given the world Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), and Amistad (1997). And he is, perhaps, sufficiently well known that he might be recognized by some of his fellow tourists and shutterbugs among the cherry blossoms. But at this juncture in the fiscal life of the nation, was it really necessary to spend taxpayers’ dollars to provide a privileged Hollywood celebrity and deep-pocketed Democratic donor (who could easily afford his own private regiment of bodyguards) with “a couple of Park Service rangers” to protect him from​—​well, from what? The worst that could happen to a bundled-up Spielberg along the Tidal Basin would be a friendly greeting from the occasional admirer, or an autograph request or two. Bothersome, perhaps, to an artist of delicate temperament; but worthy of the cost of armed “protection” by the federal government?

National Park Service rangers are the people who tell you where you cannot park at the Jefferson Memorial (nowhere within walking distance, in case you’re wondering) and patrol the no-man’s-land between attractions on the Mall. When White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster committed suicide on federal property in Virginia in 1993​—​one of the stranger episodes of recent times in political Washington​—​the Clinton administration helped to create a sense of mystery by putting the National Park Service on the case.

Now the rangers are taking time out from ticketing drivers on Washington’s parkways and thoroughfares to protect Citizen Spielberg from his fellow citizens​—​or perhaps vice versa. Either way, a waste of public funds and another irritant of daily life in the nation’s capital.

Never Let a Disaster Go to Waste

Taking note of the calamitous natural disaster in Japan, California Democratic senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have proposed something called the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2011. Despite its wholesome-sounding title, the bill is actually a rather naked effort to put federal taxpayers on the hook for damage to private homes following any big earthquake that might strike California. (And nearly all seismologists believe that is a near certainty in the next few decades.)

Quite simply, the bill sets up qualifications met only by one insurer in the country—the semi-public California Earthquake Authority (CEA)—and then promises that the U.S. Treasury will reinsure (or “backstop”) it. This, CEA’s managers say, will let them cut prices because the federal government will charge less than the private sector does for reinsurance coverage. This, in turn, will encourage more Californians to buy earthquake insurance for their homes. Because it doesn’t actually appropriate any money from the Treasury, there’s a good chance that the people assigned to determine its costs will decide that the proposal is “free.”

Actually, however, it will cost a mint because, like any effort to insert government into property insurance markets, it cannot possibly work as advertised. Here’s why: Insurers and reinsurers spread risk all over the world while government programs concentrate it. Particularly when insuring against major catastrophes, insurers​—​even quasi-governmental ones like CEA​—​buy international reinsurance that might pool the risk of, say, a California earthquake with the risk of a flood in the United Kingdom and a cyclone in Australia. Because these events almost never happen at the same time, reinsurers can make profits in some areas even when they pay out mammoth claims in another.

By relying on U.S. government reinsurance, however, CEA’s risk will get concentrated right here. Thus, to break even, as Boxer and Feinstein promise the program will, Treasury will actually have to charge more than the private sector would for whatever backstop it provides, and the stated raison d’être for the bill will vanish. Otherwise​—​and this seems a lot more likely​—​the government will end up systematically underpricing coverage and somehow sticking taxpayers with the bill. The most similar effort currently in operation, the National Flood Insurance Program, already owes the Treasury more than $18 billion and has no way to pay it back. Bottom line: The country doesn’t need any more government-run insurance programs.

Michael Ramirez
Michael Ramirez

Life Imitates P. J., Yet Again

It’s hard out there for a satirist. Just ask our own P. J. O’Rourke. In these pages on February 9, 2009, O’Rourke jested (we thought):

The next great government crusade will be against soap. The president will appoint a Blue Ribbon Commission, which will determine that soap releases polluting grime into the ecosystem, leads to aquifer depletion, and contains fatty acids that laboratory studies have shown to be acidic and not fat-free .  .  .

The very next month, regulators in Washington state targeted dishwashing detergent, a move that set off a lengthy struggle between environmentalists and angry homeowners frustrated by suddenly ineffective dishwashers. (Jonathan V. Last chronicled that battle in our January 31 issue.)

And now comes word that nanny-staters are going after hand soap. While Reps. Ed Markey and Louise Slaughter are leading the charge against hand soap in Congress, the Natural Resources Defense Council is trying to make an end run in the courts by suing the Food and Drug Administration. They want the FDA to ban triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soap. FDA testing says triclosan “is not currently known to be hazardous to humans,” but fear not—the FDA is “engaged in an ongoing scientific and regulatory review of this ingredient.”

If you were previously under the impression that scrubbing yourself free from bacteria was a good thing, we hope the scales have fallen from your eyes.

Four Strikes?

Readers may recall the sad story of Tilikum, the orca. On February 24, 2010, Tilikum was performing in a show at Orlando’s SeaWorld when he attacked and killed his trainer. He was not a first-time offender. In 1991 he also killed a trainer. And in 1999, SeaWorld workers arrived at the park to find a dead man floating in Tilikum’s pool. There was not enough evidence at the time to convict him.

Despite these three incidents, Tilikum returned to work last week, performing in a show titled “Believe.” In a statement, SeaWorld animal training curator Kelly Flaherty argued, “we feel [participating in shows] is an important component of his physical, social, and mental enrichment. .  .  . He has been regularly interacting with his trainers and the other whales for purposes of training, exercise, and social and mental stimulation, and has enjoyed access to all of the pools in the Shamu Stadium complex.”

It’s not really a surprise that the marine biology set would view Tilikum’s rehabilitation the way many 1970s liberals viewed the rehabilitation of convicts. Except that in this case the root causes actually do mitigate Tilikum’s crimes: In the whole of recorded history, no orca in the wild has ever killed a human.

Even so, one wonders what Tilikum would have to do to get SeaWorld to revoke his work release. Let’s hope we don’t find out.

Recommended Reading

The Scrapbook has just received the spring issue of the journal National Affairs and, in accordance with the upbeat view of spring in this week’s lead editorial, can cheerfully report that it’s a barn-burner. Editor Yuval Levin ponders where we go “Beyond the Welfare State,” and law professor extraordinaire Richard Epstein dissects our emerging “Waiver State.” The Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro considers pensions, George Mason’s Todd Zywicki explains the auto bailout .  .  . and there’s much, much more, including Stanford’s John Taylor on “The Cycle of Rules and Discretion in Economic Policy” and Yale’s Steven Smith “In Defense of Politics.” Read it, subscribe to it, and tell your friends about it.

So There!

An emphatic correction by the New York Times of its March 30 article “Obama Lays Out Plan to Cut Reliance on Fuel Imports”: “A previous version of this article misstated how many of the president’s proposals to reduce the country’s reliance on imported oil were new in his speech on Wednesday. None of them were, not one of them.”

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