More on “Wanna Bet”

by Don Boudreaux on June 2, 2011

in Cleaned by Capitalism, Complexity & Emergence, Environment, History

Over at Carpe Diem, Mark Perry runs the data, a bit more formally than I did, on Americans’ risks of being killed, between 1940 and 2009, by tornados, floods, and hurricanes.  Here’s Mark’s concluding paragraph:

Excluding the year 2005 for Katrina, the trend lines in the two graphs above are statistically significant at the 1% level. Adjusted for the U.S. population, the average American was more than 2.5 times more likely to get killed in a flood, hurricane or tornado between 1940 and 1979 than in the period between 1980-2009. The bottom chart shows that 2009 was the safest year ever since 1940, with fewer than 0.25 deaths per 1 million population.

As for my bet, I have two people so far who have offered to accept it.  One is Roger Pielke, Jr., who was the first person to offer to accept my bet.  I’m in e-mail contact with Roger and we’re working out the details, such as the amount of money Roger is betting.  If that sum turns out to be less than $10,000, then I’ll let the other person in on the bet.

And at the risk of being too repetitive, I say again that my bet is not about the reality of climate change and it’s not about climate-change’s cause.  My bet is that, even if the frequency of severe weather events – specifically, tornados and floods and hurricanes – increases over the next 20 years in the U.S., the number of Americans killed by these weather events will be fewer in the 2011-2030 period than was the number killed by these events in the 1991-2010 period.  The official data set for the calculation and classification of these deaths will be one assembled by the National Weather Services under the rules and method that it used to classify such deaths for the 1940-2009 period.  (Roger Pielke links to this data set in his blog post mentioned above.)

My prediction is that, as long as ours remains a reasonably free-market economy – and, for all of its imperfections, I’m predicting that the U.S. economy will continue to be ‘reasonably free market,’ and one that, despite the absurd protectionist efforts of the likes of Sens. Sherrod Brown, Lindsey Graham, and Chuck Schumer, an economy increasingly and (hence) beneficially integrated in to the global economy – our increasing prosperity and the global-economy’s innovation will make Americans increasingly safe from the worst effects of tornados, floods, and hurricanes.

By the way, not only will Americans become more protected from these weather events; peoples in other market-oriented societies will, too.

UPDATE: Thanks to kyle8, here’s Pat Michaels writing at Forbes.

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Nathan June 2, 2011 at 7:20 am

Don – am a big fan, but you are wrong on the bet. Weather deaths will increase sharply due to forces not relating to climate change (there are other cycles) that also push weather events away from their usual regions where people are more prepared. I wrote an op-ed for the Post that I will send to you if it does not get published.

Ken June 2, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Then offer to bet.

Peter McIlhon June 2, 2011 at 7:19 pm

I for one wouldn’t take that bet. However, while I agree with Don, I think that we can all agree that increasing violent weather events aren’t a good thing. If we know the cause of it (which I don’t think we do) then we should try and find ways of reducing those events if at all possible instead of making bets on them in order to show that you’re right.

Ken June 3, 2011 at 1:14 pm


“I think that we can all agree that increasing violent weather events aren’t a good thing.”

If we can mitigate any damage due to increasing violent weather it isn’t a bad thing either.

Also, it’s not clear at all that weather violence is increasing. As noted elsewhere, the F5 tornado that touched down in Joplin wasn’t more violent that other F5′s, nor are F5′s becoming more frequent. This particular F5 happened to touch down in a densely populated area and still only killed a couple hundred, which in the past would have likely killed thousands.

“find ways of reducing those events if at all possible instead of making bets on them in order to show that you’re right.”

If you can’t show that you’re right, why would or should anyone listen to you? If you claim that something should be done about violent weather because more deaths are occurring, you would in fact be wrong, since the number of deaths has been declining. Additionally, betting markets on the future are the best known way to determine what events are likeliest to happen for extremely complex events, like the interaction of weather and human choices and preferences.

Determining who is right and who is wrong is very important. I’m not sure why you just dismiss this out of hand. This dismissal even contradicts the first part of the sentence. After all, how can we “[reduce] those events” if we don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong about “those events”? What do you propose? Just randomly trying things out, without regard to knowledge we all ready have?


kyle8 June 2, 2011 at 8:08 am

There is some interesting information today in Forbes here:

That puts the recent tornados into perspective. Hat tip to Craig Newmark,
(The economist, not the Craigslist guy).

Kyle June 2, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Dr. Newmark is also a great professor!

Nevada Doctor June 2, 2011 at 8:44 am

Counterintuitively, things will get keep getting better. The power of free markets is so great that even though the vast majority of people are mouth breathing dilettantes, they get to leverage the achievements of those few remaining geniuses.
I downloaded Idiocracy from movie2k and was listening to this speech by president Camacho: “Shit. I know shit’s bad right now, with all that starving bullshit, and the dust storms, and we are running out of french fries and burrito coverings. But I got a solution.”
[South Carolina Representative # 1]: That’s what you said last time, dipshit! [South Carolina Representative # 2]: Yeah, I got a solution, you’re a dick! South Carolina, what’s up!

Ken June 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm


“Counterintuitively, things will get keep getting better.”

Why is this counterintuitive? Things have gotten better in every conceivable way for the last 250 years. Why is it counterintuitive to think otherwise?


Economiser June 2, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Hear, hear.

SweetLiberty June 2, 2011 at 9:09 am

If the U.S. population increases like it did from 1990 to 2010, there will be an additional 60 million citizens to account for. I may have missed this, but is your bet factoring in population increases?

Slocum June 2, 2011 at 7:43 pm

U.S. population increased fourfold during the 20th century while storm deaths declined dramatically. So there’s no good reason to think our much slower population growth now will be a critical factor.

Josh S June 2, 2011 at 9:21 am

The trick that hides the decline is that Don is *actually* betting that the Federal Reserve will have so devalued US fiat that by $2030, it won’t matter whether he wins or loses, since $10K won’t even buy a week’s worth of groceries.

vidyohs June 2, 2011 at 10:10 am

Entirely real scenario.
1945, $1,000 = new family auto from any of the big three.

2011, $1,000 = 20 tanks of gas, or less, in any family auto from the big three.

2030, $1,000 = 20 sixpacks of Samuel Adams Lager

Gil June 2, 2011 at 11:35 am

Then Don will have to make the bet in gold coins.

vidyohs June 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm

naw, just cut to the chase. $10,000 = 200 sixpacks of Samuel Adams lager, or 2,000 sixpacks of Fosters. Haw haw haw, gotcha my lil straliun!

vidyohs June 2, 2011 at 10:20 am

I think it worthwhile to look at Don’s market solution to the problem of escaping a tornado alive, even an F5 that comes right over.

When settlers moved out onto the plains during the 19th century push westward, they quickly learned that they couldn’t do anything about the tornados except hide from them. The wisdom of having a deep root cellar with a stout door on the surface was learned, put into practice and taught to children and other newcomers. The tornado could tear hell out of everything above, but at least the people were alive to rebuild.

I would think it very obvious that as the population density of the plains increased in the 20th century, people began to ignore that simple precaution. For those of you in construction and out of work, you have a market in tornado alley building tornado cellars.

Go forth and prosper.

magilson June 2, 2011 at 10:21 am

I wish these kinds of myths would stop immediately:

” Joplin is also very close to the Ozarks, whose rough surface clearly makes the state of Missouri an island in the annual tornado tsunami. No one in either city is constantly worrying about having their home pulverized like they do in Oklahoma City every time the dewpoint gets above 75 degrees.”

There is little proof (if any) that ground conditions can alter the behavior of a tornado. And people do worry (thought I don’t know a single human who worries about anything “constantly”. What an amateur writer thing to say)

The issue in Joplin, coming from someone who lives in the region, was not that they were so unaware of the danger or dismissed the probability. It’s that more often these tornadoes are spotted outside of town with more than a few minutes warning as it enters a populated area. I don’t have the data to lay this out as some kind of truth but tornadoes that seem to have the most lost of life associated are the ones that literally touch down in the populated area. Again, as a local, if you went into your storm shelter every time a storm like this came through you’d be there multiple times a week and 99.999% of the time you’d be wasting your time.

That storm was warning 325 of the season. Just grasp that number. The tragedy occurred, and this is just my opinion, because we now have so much information about storms that don’t end up destructive that it’s become commonplace and is therefore ignored. It’s tragic. But it’s very human. Or none of us would get in our cars every morning to drive to work.

vikingvista June 2, 2011 at 5:38 pm

“There is little proof (if any) that ground conditions can alter the behavior of a tornado.”

Doesn’t that depend on the size of ground conditions? It seems a mountain range as high as the Rockies might make a difference, and is thought to affect local weather, whereas it is unlikely that any man-made structures would have an effect.

magilson June 2, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Fair. But the “rough surface” of the Ozarks isn’t the Rocky Mountains and hasn’t stopped anything. We’ve had many tornadoes here.

brotio June 3, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I’m not so sure it’s the size of the Rockies, rather than the altitude. If I understand Dr. Roy Spencer, a thunderstorm needs wind shear to get turning. Given Dr Spencer’s assertion, my guess is; when your at an altitude of 9-10,000 feet, there’s typically not enough temperature difference between the storm, and ground level to generate enough wind shear to get the cloud turning.

Jorge Gonzalez June 2, 2011 at 10:31 am

what happens if the west coast is hit by a massive tsunami? does that count as flood? ’cause if so, and if that does happen, you could be out $10g’s long before your deadline…not that I’m predicting a tsunami or anything. Just sayin’ you might wanna exclude floods caused by tectonic shifts.

Shidoshi June 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm

I read some information that claimed the way the tectonic plates are arranged in the Pacific make it very unlikely for a tsunami to occur on the west coast of the U.S.

vikingvista June 2, 2011 at 5:39 pm

The recent earthquake in Japan tipped some small boats on the California coast. I suppose that doesn’t have the magnitude to count as a tsunami, though.

vidyohs June 4, 2011 at 9:34 am

Actually the 1964 Earthquake off Alaska caused the second highest tsunami ever recorded. Theoretically a deep ocean quake, say in the area of Tahiti, could radiate energy in 360 degrees and send tsunami around the entire compass. As a matter of fact that is basically what happened in the last quake in Japan; and, VV was correct the west coast of the contiguous 48 states did see a weak wave, so did Alaska. Japan was hit hardest because the wave didn’t lose much energy from the epicenter to the Japanese coast.

Gil June 2, 2011 at 11:32 am

Considering being “poor” in the U.S. is well-to-do in India then Americans could suffer a significant loss in their standard of living without dying per se. Many Americans can be displaced by harmfull weather but whether they’d really die in large numbers is highly unlikely.

ettubloge June 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm

In 20 years, life in America won’t be worth 2 cents (unless you are part of the new Soviet).

SheetWise June 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Because Americans are armed, I think another civil war is more likely — and it won’t look a thing like the past.

vikingvista June 2, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Unless some significant Federal forces took their equipment and changed allegiances, it would be short-lived slaughter.

vidyohs June 2, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Which is a better bet than you might hope.

I spent 25 years with military men and I can’t remember more than a handful that that thought we were serving for the welfare queens. The vast majority resented being used to keep the worthless safe with their good food, comfortable homes, and designer clothing, not to mention smoke booze, and entertainment.

Ryan Vanno June 2, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Eh, I think it would play out in a much more drawn out, but still brutal fashion. For one, I don’t imagine states leaving the union and dawning uniforms, but much more of a guerrilla style fight. This would render a lot of the typical suppression techniques somewhat useless (namely superior air control). Collateral damage of ones own people would probably not be tolerated long, if at all. Likewise, it would probably be an asymmetrical approach. Essentially, the USM would have to put cities on pure lock down and heavily use detention centers, random arrests, and a whole mess of nasty tactics.

vikingvista June 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm

It would have two things in common with the prior war:
(1) it would be an awful tragedy
(2) the country would be forever worse for it.

Don June 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm

FYI, with regard to Hurricanes at least, looks like some folks at MIT would tend to be on Don’s side on this one.

Tony Fernandez June 2, 2011 at 8:15 pm

As we become richer structures become stronger and so we would see less deaths from natural disasters. Furthermore, goods like water and food would more quickly arrive at the scene of the devastation. This is a no-brainer. Only in a regressing economy would this not be true.

Medico Nevada June 2, 2011 at 8:28 pm

The polls I’ve seen say 33% things will get better and 66% things will not get better.

Will the Next Generation be Better off Than Their Parents’ Generation? …Gary Becker….
“The great majority of parents would like to see their children become better off economically than they are, and that hope would be even more common among the children. Yet, polls for a while have suggested that neither the majority of children nor parents in the United States are confident that this progress will happen. Despite frequent recent commentary on these polls, little systematic analysis has been presented of what determines whether the average child will be better off than the average parent, and why pessimism about such progress has apparently grown in the US…”

As individuals, we are less prepared to deal with the weather, not more so. It’s especially troublesome that the Feds order every one out of a disaster area, and only a fraction of 1% of people have a problem with that. It’s nearly 100% socialistic.
The first step is to regard your weatherman, emergency responders, and government civil engineers as statist stooges, using archaic military technology and politburo decision models. The entire 911 / Army Corps / Fema system is based on theft and property rights violations.
I would much rather pay a climate mitigation service, if the jackboot of public good designation were ever lifted.

Mark Anthem June 2, 2011 at 8:53 pm

I don’t see how things are better in reality. In the face of environment variance, most people are shell shocked that elected or corporate leaders are unable to cope. We lash out at our minders for granting people the freedom to live near a beach, river, or fault line. Vast regions are simply abandoned where men once thrived.
Those few able to assist manage only to fill sand bags and donate items to victims. It’s a total triumph of the mystics of muscle and mystics of spirit over men of action and men of reason. Donald Trump unlike “robber barrons[sic]” of old, does not privately protect New York City on spec.

Here is the relevant precedent of why.

The American Letter Mail Company was started by Lysander Spooner in 1844, competing with the legal monopoly of the United States Post Office , in violation of the Private Express Statutes. It succeeded in delivering mail for lower prices, but the U.S. Government challenged Spooner with legal measures, eventually forcing him to cease operations in 1851.

The company had offices in various cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Stamps could be purchased and then attached to letters which could be sent to any of its offices. From there agents were dispatched who travelled on railroads and steamboats, and carried the letters in hand bags. Letters were transferred to messengers in the cities along the routes who then delivered the letters to the addressees.

Spooner’s intentions were founded on both an ethical perspective[sic!], as he considered government monopoly to be an immoral restriction, and an economic analysis, as he believed that 5 cents was sufficient to send mail throughout the country. The American Letter Mail Company was able to reduce the price of its stamps significantly and even offered free local delivery, significantly undercutting the 12-cent stamp being sold by the Post Office Department. Although the business was forced by the U.S. Government to close shop after only a few years, it succeeded in temporarily driving down the cost of government delivered mail.

Tony Fernandez June 2, 2011 at 9:19 pm

I think you’ll find complete support here against that government monopoly of first class mail.

vidyohs June 4, 2011 at 10:42 am

“I don’t see how things are better in reality. In the face of environment variance, most people are shell shocked that elected or corporate leaders are unable to cope. We lash out at our minders for granting people the freedom to live near a beach, river, or fault line. Vast regions are simply abandoned where men once thrived.”

In your first sentence, with the two words things and better, you want to force a more precise definition of how the words are used. It isn’t necessary for Don to do that to make, decide outcome, and resolve his bet.

In the general sense it is (IMHO) correct to say things (our ability to deal with potential disasters) are better (Detection of potential hazard, alerting public, convenient escape routes, rescue) than they were even 60 or fifty years ago.

“In the face of environment variance, most people are shell shocked that elected or corporate leaders are unable to cope. “

If that is indeed true, and I agree that it is to a fair degree, it factually reveals we have a population divorced from the wisdom of our forefathers who lived on nature, in nature, by nature, and at the mercy of nature, a nature they could not change in anyway and a nature that considered them no more than it considered the cockroach. Perhaps, if nothing else, these current storms will compel even the idiots in government, and the sycophants who believe government is all powerful, that humans have to go back to responding to nature, because nature is not going to respond to us. That means recognizing that when you build in tornado alley, sooner or later you will experience the pleasure of tornado up close and personal. The only options one has is either prepare a hiding place, hope to have time to use an escape route, or move out.

“We lash out at our minders for granting people the freedom to live near a beach, river, or fault line. Vast regions are simply abandoned where men once thrived.”

Don’t say we, please. I know that the government sycophants who believe government is all powerful may lash out at government when nature rolls over them like a boulder; but, there are still a majority that recognize that George Bush no more created and guided the landfall of Katrina than he did to order the alignment of the universe.

Also, I think you show a statist viewpoint to say our “minders for granting people the freedom to live near a beach, river, or fault line.” Most people I know do not believe for a second that government (our minder) has the right or power to grant a freedom, including the freedom each of us has to live where we choose and can afford.

What I fault “our minders” for is the twisted conclusion that you and I should insure against risk those people who exercise their freedom and choose to live in a potentially hazardous zone where any intelligent person recognizes hazard is inevitable even though the when is not known. I would not for a moment support “our minders” dictating where people might live. I also do not support “our minders” using my money to make good their loss when the inevitable happens.

Like many other things in the Libertarian philosophy, I like the idea that people who risk should suffer the results of that risk, beneficial or harmful. No lessons are learned when that process is short circuited by “our minders” and the public is made to absorb the risk of fools.

Doofor Smith June 2, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Our free economy is an illusion. Why can’t citizens of the primitive, herding, farming, village, and wired worlds all co-exist in harmony? How can one say that Adam & Eve should be happy since Cain is wealthier than all his brother Abels he’s murdered or forcibly subjugated to his way of living?

Conor June 2, 2011 at 9:12 pm


Tony Fernandez June 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Is this the stuff you come up with when high?

Peter McIlhon June 3, 2011 at 4:15 am

I read this and my nose immediately starting bleeding. Go to Africa, and go see how harmonious the citizens of the herding, farming and village worlds are with each other.

Prevalent June 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm

For a small fee you can buy a disaster survival suit from Virgin Galactic. You’ve all seen Jetman fly across the Grand Canyon, now you too can enjoy piece of mind knowing you’ll fly safely away from the fray of any wanna be apocalypse.

Dan June 2, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I believe Dr. Sowell has written many times about how our advancements reduce the tragedies from natural disasters. And, there will always be an event that will trump the last biggest event. Mother nature has little limitations. Not to mention the projectiles hurling about in space. One is bound to hit sooner or later.

kyle8 June 3, 2011 at 7:31 am

Just to play Devil’s advocate, it must be noted that one of the reasons that things like hurricanes and earthquakes do not take as many lives in the United States as they do in many other nations is because of actions of government.

In this case local building codes which mandate a much safer type of structure than those commonly found in areas with no building codes.

Gil June 3, 2011 at 10:27 am

Not to mention the West doesn’t have the population densities of the poorer nations.

Economiser June 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm

This is a red herring. Building codes exist (and are followed) because societies are wealthy enough to build such strutures. Importing American building codes to, say, Haiti would not result in fewer earthquake deaths. Instead Haiti’s buildings would remain as they are now but with most everyone ignoring the building codes.

Consider this: if government mandates alone improve safety, why not mandate that every structure be 100% tornado-proof?

brotio June 3, 2011 at 7:18 pm


Gil June 4, 2011 at 1:33 am

* rolls eyes *

kyle8 June 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Yes, you have to have the wealth in order to use them, but it is also a partly political phenomenon. Building codes vary widly and not every nation we would call wealthy has codes as substantial as The USA or Japan.

jcpederson June 3, 2011 at 11:03 am

When economists bet a handsome sum on commodity prices, it’s illuminating. When people survive or greatly die from calamities and economists exchange money, there’s just not the same clean joy to be taken from it.

steve June 3, 2011 at 11:05 am

No, or few, trauma services in hospitals from 1940-1979. Note that wounded in the military are less likely to die. You should look at incidence of injury also.


Bill June 3, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Why did Mark Perry’s calculation exclude Katrina deaths from 2005? That is like excluding 9/11 deaths from a study of the liklihood of dying on a plane in 2002.

Justin P June 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Because most of the death during Katrina were because of faulty levees, that were known to be faulty before Katrina struck, but our wonderful benevolent politicians didn’t think it was worth taxpayers money to fix. Instead they get their Reps, stashing cash in the freezer.

brotio June 3, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Excellent point, Justin. But, I’d change this to read, “but our wonderful benevolent, Democrat politicians didn’t think it was worth taxpayers money to fix.

Never pass up an opportunity to rub Yasafi’s nose in the virtue of the Democrat Party.

Dan June 3, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Mayor of Norleans and governor of LA should be in jail

Gil June 4, 2011 at 1:35 am

Oh gee what was that bit about building codes? Maybe we should exclude all deaths from nations with no building codes then?

brotio June 4, 2011 at 3:39 am

What does building codes have to do with Louisiana Democrats bilking taxpayers for levee maintenance that instead went to Democrat cronies?

JoeInNewOrleans June 5, 2011 at 10:39 am

The fact that you remain partisan on the topic of levee failure in New Orleans only reveals your small-mindedness. The blame can rightly be distributed everywhere: short-sightedness in Congress (all parties); a culture of ineffectiveness at the Corps of Engineers; cost cutting when the levees were built; lack of proper oversight. The list goes on. And the problems with the levees were not borne only from political issues, either. You’re ignorant and advertising it. You deeply unimpress.

brotio June 5, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Which political party has controlled Louisiana, and New Orleans for the bulk of the last 75 years? Which political party was largely responsible for appointment to the Orleans Levee Board?

I will acknowledge that there was plenty of government failure to go around, but it doesn’t spread evenly. Louisiana Democrats practice corruption on a scale that would impress even Chicago Democrats. We have several regulars here who never fail to tout the benevolence of government. The unnecessary loss of life and property in New Orleans is largely a Democrat creation and Yasafi and his fellow State-worshipers can revel in the glory that is democracy, Louisiana-style.

You’re hypersensitive and advertising it. You deeply unimpress.

JoeInNewOrleans June 5, 2011 at 10:10 pm


I wonder, what city do you live in? How distant are your observations? I made no defense of the Democratic party, while your insistence that Democrats deserve more blame than Republicans distracts anyone who believes you from the rotten truths about Katrina, too many to list here. Partisanship regarding Katrina serves no good at all.

Bill June 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Ok, true enough, but they are still deaths caused by weather, and we can probably all agree that governmental incompetence is fairly constant and will continue to be a common factor in the sort of infrastructure that protects people from weather. Therefore, all weather deaths should be counted, as there is no reason to think the government was any more competent in the prior 20 year period, or that it will be any more competent in the next 20 period.

Anyway, the correct answer to my question, I think, is that if one includes Katrine deaths, then Mark Perry’s number would not support the hypothesis that weather-related death risks have significantly decreased. It appears as if he got his answer first and then he devised an equation to give him the answer he wanted.

Chucklehead June 4, 2011 at 2:20 am

I think what you are really betting on is; the dollar will be worthless, the federal reserve note will no longer exist, and/or, the federal government will self destruct by then.

JoeInNewOrleans June 5, 2011 at 10:29 am

It strikes me as terribly inappropriate to be betting on human death, in any context. Whether betting on fewer or more, whether your point is to emphasize safety in the face of increasing risk, this bet of yours is in poor taste and is really quite offensive.

I read your blog and listen to EconTalk regularly. I respect the Austrian School. But regarding this bet, your means of expression are poorly placed.

Cameron Murray June 5, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Don, shouldn’t you really bet on the cost of avoiding a human death from natural disasters?

If we are willing to pay to avoid deaths, than they will be avoided. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to incur these costs, when many people suggest that you could prevent these cost by reducing greenhouse gas emissions at lower costs.

At least you will get some publicity, and very few people will comprehend the details or implications of this skewed bet.

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