Chapter | The Irrational Economist: Making Decisions in a Dangerous World | 2010

The Peculiar Politics of American Disaster Policy: How Television Has Changed Federal Relief

by David Moss

Abstract

Particularly since the 1960s, the federal government has played a significant role in financing disaster losses in the United States. The federal government may thus be thought of as providing an implicit form of public disaster insurance. However, unlike many long-standing public insurance programs, federal disaster "insurance" collects no premiums other than for flood risk. Why is public disaster relief financed differently from other forms of public insurance, such as unemployment insurance and deposit insurance? Although there are many possible explanations for this puzzle, one that deserves particular attention relates to the peculiar politics of disaster policy at the federal level and the special role that the news media appear to play in driving policy outcomes. As is well known, media coverage surges upward in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, throwing a bright spotlight on the victims, and then quickly dissipates. As a result, although the accumulated costs of disaster relief are quite high, the politics are typically played out one disaster at a time, in line with the media coverage. This dynamic appears to focus public attention more on the immediate benefits of emergency disaster assistance than on the long-term costs. Unless and until the public discussion can be reframed to look across disasters, rather than focusing on one disaster at a time, insurance-based policy reform may remain exceedingly difficult to achieve.

Keywords: Insurance; Policy; Government and Politics; Media; Natural Disasters; United States;

Citation:

Moss, David. "The Peculiar Politics of American Disaster Policy: How Television Has Changed Federal Relief." Chap. 18 in The Irrational Economist: Making Decisions in a Dangerous World, edited by Erwann Michel-Kerjan and Paul Slovic, 151–160. New York: PublicAffairs Books, 2010.