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.