Thoughts on my seventh wedding anniversary

Looking back seven years…

I didn’t expect to laugh so much, and I didn’t expect it to be so hard for Helen. And I didn’t expect her to change so many people’s lives.

——————-

I married Helen seven years ago today. I had known her five months to the day. There were people who thought I was taking a big risk; I was not one of them, and I was right. The past seven years have not been easy, but they would have been far harder without her, and immeasurably less full of joy.

Back when I announced my intention to marry Helen on the blog I maintained at the time, I tried to describe to my American friends just what kind of person Helen was. I think that’s a good place to start: after seven years of marriage, how much do I agree with my younger self?

  • She has a lively and sneaky sense of humor.

I so underestimated this. This isn’t just true; it’s far more true than I could have imagined back then. Especially after the first couple of years, as she slowly found her footing in the midst of the storm that she unwittingly hurled herself into by marrying into my life, it seems as though whenever I have been around her I have always been more or less constantly laughing. She sees the world so differently from the way I see it, and yet so accurately in her way, that I never know what she will say next that will strike me as both true and hilarious.

I have often told, for example, how after months of nagging the kids and I finally convinced Helen to watch football with us. And when we finally got her to look at the screen and pay attention, she watched intently for about two minutes and then said, with a tone of astonished dismissal, “This is a very rude game.” Now I will wager two things. First, Gentle Reader, I wager you have never heard football described that way ever before in your life (unless you have heard me tell this story). And second, I wager that now that you have heard her describe it that way, you have to admit it’s a pretty accurate description.

Helen is so good-natured that she is a delight to tease, because she takes it all in good fun – and also, because she can give as good as she can get. I hadn’t realized how much of our conversation consisted of this affectionate, tongue-in-cheek give and take until my son Rusty’s girlfriend spent two days in the car with us en route from Houston to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for his boot camp graduation. Poor Christy, we didn’t realize it, but she spent the whole two days in a state of confusion, because she literally couldn’t figure out whether we were really fighting or just playing. But whatever it was, we did it constantly. (He assured her that we are careful never to fight in front of the children and therefore she could relax and enjoy herself.)

You can tell from this that I was pretty much on point for the next two as well:

  • She is of an astonishingly even temper and calm disposition.
  • She has just enough occasional air-headedness about her to make her empathize with my habitual absent-mindedness, and to be amused by it.

Even after seven years, and occasional episodes of absent-mindedness on a truly epic scale, she responds to what most people would consider provocations with pure grace. (“Oh, you’ve gotten to work and you’ve just realized you forgot to wear a shirt? Ah. Well, don’t drive all the way back home; just go to Wal-Mart and buy one. Love you, see you this evening.” This really happened, and that’s really pretty much how she responded.)

Of course we haven’t gotten through seven years without any fights at all. But really truly furious with each other fights, involving yelling and stomping out of the house and staying away from each other until we could calm down and apologize? I think we have one of those about once a year. Oh, Helen gets mad at me more often than that. (The two times I have accidentally addressed her with my ex-wife’s name? Yeah, that’s a three-day recovery period.) But when she does, she has the immense good sense to simply stop talking to me, rather than say things that hurt. And I have the sense to stay calm myself and offer periodic conversational olive branches. So our marriage has been astonishingly peaceful, in this respect.

But in other respects, peaceful was the last word you could have applied to the life we lived when Helen first got to America. I mentioned earlier “the storm that she unwittingly hurled herself into by marrying into my life.” Those first four or five years were difficult to a degree I can’t describe without violating other people’s confidentiality (and legal non-disclosure provisions). But I have to talk about them at least in general terms in order to address the next few points my younger self made all those years ago.

  • She walks around wearing joy the way other people wear clothing.
  • She has a habitually positive attitude and does not indulge in self-pity.
  • She has an extremely robust sense of responsibility, and whatever she considers her responsibility to be, she does whatever it takes to fulfill it.
  • She keeps her word.
  • She has enormous emotional resources and resiliency – her heart may be as soft as warm butter in its compassion and concern for others, but it’s indomitable in its strength and courage.
  • She is very, very smart; very, very prudent; very, very hard-working; and very, very practical. I strongly suspect that I will never, ever have to ask her to be more careful or less foolish with money, and if anybody gets lazy and tries to get away without carrying their fair share of the load it’ll probably be me, not her.

That bit about joy? Well, at first, I clobbered that well and truly. I had tried to explain to Helen honestly some of the difficulties she would take on by becoming my wife; but she simply had not been able to imagine how incredibly difficult it was going to be. I still had my divorce lawyer on retainer because my ex-wife’s behavioral episodes required legal attention with monotonous frequency. I was trying to fight my way out of bankruptcy while paying mountainous legal bills and trying to deal with an IRS liability that ultimately took several years and over a hundred thousand dollars to settle; as you can imagine, this meant that it took years of scrimping to get back to even a $0 net worth. When Helen first set foot in my house, I had living with me my oldest adopted daughter (who pretty much spoke only Russian and also suffered from severe epilepsy), her student-visa-holding husband who couldn’t work without risking deportation, their infant child, my second-oldest adopted daughter, a foster daughter in her late teens, and my adopted son who was four years older than Kai, Helen’s seven-year-old. Of these, all but my youngest adopted son spoke Russian, not English, as their primary language; and they were culturally Russian in behavior and diet. So Helen was trying to adjust to American culture but also to the quite different Russian culture at the same time, while dealing with mountainous debt. There were also five other children who under the initial terms of the divorce decree were to live at my wife’s house; it didn’t stay that way but now we start getting into some of the really nasty stuff that I simply can’t share. All of these burdens, which I had carried for years and continued to carry for years after our marriage, became Helen’s. And they became her burdens all at once.

I had friends who expressed astonishment that I had been able to survive those last few years of my catastrophically bad first marriage and insanely nasty divorce. They credited my faith in God, and there is no doubt that without that faith, and without the knowledge of the Biblical principles by which I tried to guide my dealings with my ex-wife and children, I don’t know how I could have survived. But in comparison to Helen I had so many advantages. I at least was more or less used to the stress. For example, I didn’t go from having no children to having nine; I worked up to it gradually, one or two kids at a time, not, “You did okay with one so let’s go straight to ten.” In the same way, all the other stressors in my life, as unbearable as they might have seemed to outsiders looking in, were stressors that I had years of practice in learning to bear.

But Helen’s life in Shanghai had been very well-organized and simple and fully optimized for her happiness. She had been making good choices for a long time and so she had her life set up exactly as she wanted it. She was full of joy, partly because she loved God, but also because her life had few problems – since she had not created a lot of problems for herself by bad choices. Life was pretty much perfect for her until she met me…

…and then she walked into my life. From one child to, effectively, ten. Americans and Russians crammed into the same house, and behaving in ways she found unpleasant and incomprehensible and sometimes outright shocking. An ex-wife to whom I was legally tied, as co-conservators of children, for years to come, and against whose malice I had to constantly defend myself, at great legal expense. A country, or at least a state, in which it was not possible to function without being able to drive a car. Every friend and family member she’d ever known in all her life, seven thousand miles away. A mountain of crushing debt, with years of scrimping ahead just to get to zero and start all over, and then a husband who would have to find a way to put up forty-five years’ worth of retirement savings in only fifteen years, unless he planned to work until he was eighty.

Those first two years here…well, there were a lot of days when you wouldn’t have been able to find much joy in her eyes. Several times she went so far as to ask whether we could stay married, but let her and Kai live in China while I lived with my kids in Houston until the youngest could graduate (even as I write that is still months in the future) and I could join them in China. Sometimes I could go as long as two or three days without seeing her smile or hearing her laugh.

But she never actually left. Her time of testing was severe, and it was long in duration, and even to this day there are still burdens. But she stayed the course, shouldered her part of the burden (without her black-belt Chinese saving skills I’m sure my net worth would still be negative), climbed that long mountainous road right along with me even though not one of the burdens was of her own creation or fault. And even at the worst, I don’t think I ever went for a full week without our laughing together.

And eventually, by God’s grace, the joy started coming back. Meanwhile she grew spiritually at an insane rate. And she began to accomplish things that neither of us could have imagined.

 

  • She has exactly the kind of simple, yet inquisitive, vibrant and deeply pragmatic faith in Christ, and love for God, that my parents have.
  • She has the gift my mother has, of finding natural joy in serving and loving other people.
  • She couldn’t be selfish or manipulative if you held a gun to her head.
  • If there’s a kinder, sweeter, gentler person alive than Helen, then whoever it is I haven’t met ’em.

Helen did learn to drive, but she was terrified of driving on Houston freeways those first couple of years. We even decided that we needed to change churches from our beloved Houston Chinese Church, up near Reliant Stadium fifteen freeway miles away, to Fort Bend Community Church, a Chinese church in our own community that Helen could drive to using ordinary streets.

But Helen had started volunteering to help Chinese cancer patients who had come to America for a last, desperate attempt at survival by seeking treatment at M.D. Anderson. And being Helen, she simply went up there and loved them. It wasn’t just that she helped them and never asked for money; it’s that the love of Christ simply radiated from her and from our friend Ju who was Helen’s partner in service, and these patients knew that they were loved. They couldn’t understand it – how could two strangers love them, with such obvious sincerity and such utter lack of self-interest?

And so, one by one but steadily, they started asking Helen and Ju where that love came from; and then they started becoming Christians. So of course they needed to go to church. And it happens that almost none of them could speak English; so they needed to go to a Mandarin-speaking church. And it also happens that most of them lived within three or four miles of Houston Chinese Church, which may be fifteen freeway miles from our house but is not much more than a few stones’ throws from the Medical Center. But we had switched churches, and the children (especially Rusty) had made friends and gotten involved at the new church and it didn’t seem right to make them switch back; so we really felt like I needed to keep taking the kids to the new church…

So Helen started driving that freeway every Sunday morning, terror or no terror, in order to pick up the cancer patients and take them to church. And before we continue with that story, let’s bring in a couple more things that I said:

  • She has a very sweet and pure singing voice, but oddly enough a very rich chuckle with a lot of texture and timbre to it.
  • She’s rather absurdly modest.

Now here is where I grossly underestimated her. This woman is the single most talented person I’ve ever met, and all I said about her was that she sings nice.

God has a habit of rewarding faithfulness with unexpected impact. I didn’t foresee that Helen was going to play a major role in helping lead fifty or so (not kidding) Chinese cancer patients to peace with God. I also didn’t foresee that I was going to find myself married to a celebrity.

I knew that Helen had a blog that had quite a few regular followers, and I knew that in the past one series of her blogposts had been selected by the editors of the largest blog site in China to be linked on their home page as an “Editors Choice,” and that she was very diligent about responding personally to people who wrote to her – and, because the blog post dealt with the difficulties of life as a single mother in China, and because she wrote about the trials she faced honestly but with grace and without bitterness, many other single mothers wrote to her in some desperation. But I had no idea how good a writer she really was – because I couldn’t, of course, read Mandarin.

It turns out that she is astonishingly good. I have been told this by others who read Mandarin fluently, and I have gotten to where I can read Mandarin well enough to be able to translate her work with reasonable accuracy, and even in my deeply inadequate translations she writes movingly and powerfully. Literally thousands of people in China have signed up to make sure they automatically get copies every time she posts anything, and one piece that she wrote over the weekend of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was read so widely in China that she got an e-mail from one of the bereaved thanking her for the comfort they had found in her article. As the years went by and she continued to grow deeper and deeper spiritually through her faithfulness in helping me bear my burdens, her articles grew richer and richer and her audience wider and wider. There are several Chinese online magazines now that not only publish her work regularly, but occasionally contact her and ask her whether she can write bespoke pieces on topics they badly want to address but on which they can’t find adequate pieces. She even edited a book with true stories from the cancer patients.

Then one of the cancer patients, as she entered the last few weeks of her life, went blind, and no longer could read Helen’s blog posts. So she asked Helen whether it would be possible for Helen to record herself reading the articles out loud, so that even in her blindness she could have the comfort of listening to the articles over and over, as she had until then been comforting herself by reading them over and over.

And that’s how the podcasts started. For Helen of course did what the patient asked. But, being Helen, she went to the internet to find out what articles were supposed to sound like when they were read aloud. There she discovered that people don’t just read books and articles aloud; they perform them, with sound effects and music tracks designed to heighten the emotional impact.

Of course what that actually means is that somebody who is good at writing, writes stuff that is worth reading. Then somebody who is good at reading reads the stuff, usually with several takes, each of which usually gets some of the reading just right and some of it not. Then somebody who is good with music finds, or composes, music suitable to the reading. Then somebody who is technically good with computer software, and who has an ear for timing, mixes the music and the reading together, including mixing readings from different takes to produce what sounds like a single read-through but is really a painstakingly and seamlessly patched-together set of cuts of the various takes, using the best of each. And lastly an editor looks at the length and, if it’s just too long or in places wanders too far afield or slows the pace too much, figures out which pieces to cut out in order to tighten everything up. I’m quite serious; this is a typical team for a professionally published audiobook or artistic podcast.

Helen listened to all of this and did not think, “Oh, I need to get a team of people together.” She listened to all of it and thought, “Oh, so that’s what I need to get my podcasts to sound like.”

So she did.

It turns out that she has a highly expressive reading voice that is also extraordinarily calming and comforting. It turns out that she has a keen ear for just what kind of music each piece needs, and near-flawless judgment in exactly where within the reading the music should appear, and where it should swell up or die off. It turns out that she has the patience to take two hours of reading takes and transform them into twenty minutes of reading perfection. And all this, with no training whatsoever.

Really, I bought her a high-end microphone, and she found production-mixing software on the internet and downloaded it, and taught herself to use it, and the next thing you know – I kid you not on this – she had done a series of podcasts that was the entire text of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity in Chinese, single-handedly…and it went to the top ten on the podcast download charts for the People’s Republic of China for religious podcast audio books. Every time she wrote a blog or magazine article she would do a podcast version of it, a process that would take several hours; and then the podcast would go out with the article. By the time the year was out, not only were there more than a thousand people who were downloading every self-written, self-performed, self-produced podcast she published as soon as she published it, but she had been contacted by a lady in Wuhan who wanted Helen’s permission to collect those podcasts and publish them on a CD. Which she did, and people ordered that CD from every province of China, I think. Last year the local Chinese Christian radio station got in touch with Helen and worked out a contract under which they pay Helen every month to produce content specifically for them to air.

To top it off, a few months ago Helen was contacted by the director/producer of a documentary about a couple in China who for years have run a private orphanage for children with extreme special needs – spina bifida, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, paraplegia…just a truly astonishing couple. The director had years of documentary footage available, but needed to be able to tie it all together with explanatory commentary, which she wanted to be told from the perspective of the wife. Tragically, however, Xinwei died of cancer a couple of years ago. But the director had heard Helen’s podcasts…

So last month the documentary came out, and I have rarely sat through a more moving and inspiring two hours. And the narrative sections are in fact told through the voice of Xinwei – as provided by Helen.

But all those people in China weren’t just reading and listening. Helen publishes on the Web, primarily; and when you publish on the Web, you get comments. And when Helen gets comments, she answers them. A Web community started to form around Helen’s posts, and it migrated from there to WeChat, which you can think of as the Chinese version of Facebook, more or less. People began contacting Helen privately, in desperation, because they were struggling with ferociously difficult problems, and they knew Helen had fought through ferociously difficult problems in her past, and they didn’t have anyone else to turn to. For a not insignificant number of people, Helen’s podcasts became a lifeline, the one thing above everything else they hung onto in order to make it through, the one voice of comfort they could find (for China can be a cold, hard world to the lonely, and there are many Christians in China who are the only Christians in their village and who therefore endure a special kind of spiritual loneliness). They would listen to her podcasts until they had them practically memorized. And they would reach out to her to thank her…and often, to ask for help, for advice, for a word that would help them find their way.

I’ll tell you frankly, this scared Helen. It still does. She has researched what it would take to get a degree in Christian counseling simply because she finds herself doing counseling already – because for so many of her listeners there is nobody else to do it. She feels the weight of the responsibility keenly. She comes and asks me for help, sometimes – “What can I say to somebody who is going through this? Could you write something about this that I could translate?” She tries, I think, to communicate as much love and acceptance as possible without giving much advice, because she feels so inadequate to advise but wants so badly for them to know they are loved.

Only, I’ll tell you a true story. At one point Helen mentioned on WeChat that she was struggling with the decision of whether or not to go back to college and get a counseling degree. It turned out that one of the members of her WeChat community is in fact a professional counselor, with at least one and I think more than one doctoral degrees to go with years of experience. And her response to Helen was, if memory serves, “Why do you need a degree? You’re already one of the best counselors I’ve ever seen.”

At any rate, in the meantime she started finding that lots of her listeners were struggling with the same problems. So she began starting special-project WeChat groups dedicated to having a small community of a hundred or so people take on short-term sort of group-therapy projects: “One Hundred Days Without Catching Fire,” for example, which is a Chinese way to say, “We are all going to try to make it a hundred days without losing our temper and yelling and screaming at our spouses and kids.” She has done several of them, and they fill up promptly. And every day, she checks all the comments, and follows the conversation, and if she finds anybody who makes a comment and then doesn’t get any reply, she answers herself, so that she can be sure that nobody in the group feels ignored and left out.

And all this time, she has still kept on ministering to the cancer patients. A couple of months ago, she successfully completed a course and passed the state exam to become an accredited medical translator. She had never studied anatomy, and so she didn’t just have to learn the English medical terminology – she had to learn the Chinese terms, too, from scratch. She spent two weeks immersed in endless notes and diagrams and vocabulary lists while the rest of us fended largely for ourselves at dinnertime…

Then she passed the exam, first try.

I pause here to note that Helen got to read the first section of this post before I wrote this section, and she complained of various “inaccuracies.” One of them was that she objected very strongly to my statement that she was “very, very smart.” This had a big “X” placed next to, along with the annotation, “Just not very stupid.”

She went from knowing pretty much nothing about human anatomy and medical terminology even in her own language, to passing the state medical exam for medical translators. In two weeks. On her first try. I leave it to the Gentle Reader to decide whether I have been guilty of an “inaccuracy.”

Also, I need to assure you: she means it. She really, genuinely, thinks I exaggerate her virtues and abilities, because she really, truly, genuinely is one of the most humble people you’re ever likely to meet. Meanwhile I’m like…look, you passed the test, for cryin’ out loud.

One last note: she recently has taken up drawing with pencil, and from there moved on to painting. A couple of weeks ago she decided to try her hand at acrylic on canvas, applied with a palette knife rather than a brush, which was a technique she had never used before. She found an instructional video on YouTube and started to follow the artist’s instructions to paint a nice little study of bright color on a background that is deliberately muted and dark in order to render the splashes of color even more vivid by contrast. But she was literally painting this during Hurricane Harvey, and she wound up turning what the artist thought of as the background into the lead character, as it were, and she decided not to add the bright colors at all – thereby completely changing the character and mood of the piece into something I think is best described as “elegaic.”

I thought it was awesome. I put a picture of it on Facebook and people thought it was awesome. I took it to work and co-workers thought it was awesome. And it happens that one of my company’s partners has a sister who has made her living for years as a painter in oil and as a commercial artist and instructor; she has sold hundreds of paintings. My partner’s wife sent her a photograph of Helen’s picture and asked whether it was actually good enough to sell, and if so, how Helen ought to go about trying to sell it.

The answer came back today – and remember, this is the first time Helen has ever tried to paint with a palette knife instead of a brush. The professional artist said Helen should frame it (which – I’ve checked already – would cost about $110), and that it absolutely was good enough to sell, and that if Helen wanted to start selling paintings, she (the professional artist) was willing to offer consultant services to help her.

Oh, and she even said what she thought Helen should expect to be able to get for that painting, if she were willing to sell the original. That would be $900, plus the cost of the frame.

A thousand dollars.

Here’s another of my “inaccuracies,” according to Helen. Where I said she was “very, very talented,” there was another “X,” and another note: “Just have some hobbies.”

Again, I leave it to the Gentle Reader to decide whether I have been guilty of an “inaccuracy.”

 

  • She is transparent and honest; what you see is what you get.
  • She has no talent for dishonesty whatsoever.
  • She is very good at business, but is literally incapable of carrying on business in a dishonest or unethical manner.

 

  • She can pray the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” in perfect safety – I’ve never heard even a shade of anger or bitterness in her voice when she talks about the past.
  • She has never allowed herself or any member of her family or friends to ever say anything bad about Kevin’s father in front of him, because that’s Kevin’s dad.
  • When she smiles at me the world wobbles and my blood catches on fire.

Seven years later – it’s still true.

 

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On reporting vs. advocacy

Yesterday, while working at Starbucks, I overheard one side of a phone conversation between an AP “reporter” and the lawyer for a group of illegal aliens who were witnesses to a crime of some sort and who were uncovered by the police in the investigation of the crime. The questions were all about what the lawyer’s strategy was for keeping the illegals in the country, and what the barriers to success might be (“How many of them had pre-existing deportation orders?”). The last thing the “reporter” said before hanging up was, “Well, I just want to make sure the victims’ voices are heard for as long as we can manage it.”

Now this is precisely why the press has no credibility. This “reporter” is not doing journalism; he is doing advocacy. (This is why the word “reporter” will appear within quotation marks throughout this post.) He has a desired political outcome (for which, as it happens, I have great sympathy), and he is shaping his coverage in order to achieve the desired political outcome. But his piece is not going to appear in the editorial pages. It will appear in “straight” news pages.

I do want to emphasize here, before going further, that I really do have a lot of sympathy for his cause. I myself know people whom I like very much and whom I know are here illegally and whom I do not want to see deported, and I have for years censored my social media postings pretty ruthlessly in order to be sure I didn’t accidentally say anything to get them in trouble. I am rather bitterly opposed to the deportation of DREAMers, and while I don’t think we have any business giving a general amnesty as if the law had never been broken, I want to find a compromise that allows thirty-year-olds whose parents brought them here when they were six months old, to stay as long as they want in literally the only home they have ever known. But the fact that my sympathies are with the reporter in this case does not change the fact that he is being deeply dishonest – and probably is sufficiently morally crippled that he has no idea that there’s anything wrong with what he’s doing. So this post is not about illegal immigration. It is about the difference between reporting and advocacy.

I would not accuse him of advocacy based purely on his questions – but he has explicitly stated his intent and motivation, in so many words. So it is perfectly reasonable to assume that he means it. Given that, it is safe to say that, for example, whether the answer to the question about pre-existing deportation orders will appear in the article at all depends entirely upon the answer. If the reporter answered, “All of them,” then you would be pretty safe to bet that the question of pre-existing deportation orders will not appear in the article; it will be as though the question had never been asked. If, on the other hand, the lawyer’s answer was, “None of them,” then the fact that none of these “victims” had pre-existing deportation orders will figure prominently in the article, as proof that these “victims” are not really “criminals.”

After all, if they were all under deportation orders, then if the general public were made aware of the fact that all the victims had already been rounded up once and were supposed to have been deported, that would make it much less likely that the “victims’ voices would be heard,” which is victim-language for “the victims would get what they want.” (If someone whom a Leftist considers a victim says, “Here is what I want,” and the general public listens, deliberates, and then says, “We understand, but we regret to inform you that you can’t have it,” then I’m not sure there is a Leftist alive who would agree that their “voices were heard.” In the minds of the Left, a “victim’s” voice is only “heard” when the “victim’s” demands are met in their entirety. Note that the reporter could, with a higher degree of confidence in precise correspondence to objective fact, have said, “Well, I just want to make sure that the people who have been discovered to have come here in violation of this nation’s laws will not be required to comply with this nation’s laws.” But precision in the statement of facts rarely is conducive to Leftist-designated “victims’” having their “voices heard;” and it has been a while since the AP has given any sign that factual precision is high on their list of professional goals.)

On the other hand, if none of these unfortunates were under deportation orders, then this can be used to paint them as harmless. None of them are “criminals,” since any laws that Leftists disapprove of are spoken of as if they do not exist and as if the people who break laws disapproved of by Leftists are not lawbreakers. The facts will be included in the story only insofar as they can be used to create the desired emotional effect on the reader – that is, that the reader will feel about the “victims” the same way the reporter does. For this “reporter” does not have the goal of presenting the facts; he did not ask about deportation orders because he thought the public had a right to know how many of the persons in questions were under pre-existing deportation orders. His goal is to ensure that the individuals in this case who are illegally in this country, are allowed to remain here because people feel sufficiently sorry for them; and he asked the question in search of ammunition for his propaganda. He is not reporting. He is pretending to report, while actually attempting to manipulate his audience into supporting his desired political outcome.

And again, I myself happen to be in great sympathy with his pity for the individuals involved, assuming that they are like the overwhelming number of the people I know who are in this country illegally and whom I have spent a decade being careful not to report because I don’t want them deported. With his pity I have great sympathy. With his complete and utter lack of integrity, however, I have no sympathy at all.

You know what, though? If you could see him, it would be hard to be very hard on him. He looks to be about twenty-five, and his car has a “Northwestern University” sticker on it. It is entirely possible that in his entire university career he has never met a person of honesty and integrity, and that nobody has ever made clear the difference between journalism and advocacy, and that he has no idea that what he is doing is in fact unethical and dishonest. He has probably been told that “speaking truth to power” is the mission of the journalist, by Leftist professors who have not drawn the connection between their abandonment of “bourgeois” or “middle-class” standards of journalistic integrity, and the fact that modern Americans trust journalists even less than they trust Congressmen. He probably is simply one of the legions of young reporters that Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes so contemptuously manipulated (“We created an echo chamber…they were saying things that validated what we had given them to say”), and so sneeringly described in these words: “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

The saddest thing about this whole incident is that this pitiful young man almost certainly wants to Do The Right Thing, and sincerely believes he is doing his job well. It’s the people who pretended to educate him that deserve the reprobation. At any rate, the “reporter” followed the call to the lawyer with a call to a government representative. All of his questions had to do with allowances the government planned to make for the difficulties that the undocumented immigrants were going to have in collecting their documents in the wake of Harvey. They were perfectly reasonable questions to ask and I actually would like to know the answers to them, and I hope the answer is that generous accommodations will be made.

But the reporter was very careful NOT to tell the government official that his goal was “to make sure the victims’ voices are heard for as long as we can manage it.”

That, you see, would have involved honesty and integrity. So it was never going to happen.

On “Levee Improvement Districts” and the unnoticed consequences thereof

[Note: I have not checked the math herein at all – it is a first cut using very rough estimates and simplifying assumptions. I don’t think it’s off by orders of magnitude, though; and for illustrative purposes it is good enough to serve to organize my ideas.]

This is a public policy piece, inspired by the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in my home town of Sugar Land and in other localities along the Brazos River flood plain. In this piece I take one particular issue – that of “levee improvement districts” (“LID’s”) – and try to explain how they are destructive in ways that neither legislators nor the people who live in them, and possibly not even the developers and local politicians who profit enormously from them at the expense of others, are equipped by their life experience to understand. Indeed the biggest problem I face in writing this is quite simply the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people who make impactful decisions in our country, including many of the people who live in these LID’s, need to have explained to them, at some length, things that I could take for granted everybody who grew up on farms and ranches will already have understood clearly by the age of six or seven. This would be a very short essay if I were writing for Kiamichi Mountain ranchers; but as I am writing primarily for white-collar netizens, “short” is going to be very far from being le mot juste.

And by this I do not mean any insult to lifelong American suburbanites and city-dwellers. Not at all. One cannot be expected to know that which lies outside of one’s experience, and American suburbs and cities are very highly artificial environments. Whatever their good points may be – and as I choose to live in a suburb myself one may take it that I recognize the many advantages thereof – they simply do not give the people who grow up there the opportunity to have the experiences that rural dwellers, living in constant day-to-day simultaneous partnership with and struggle against nature, grow up with as a matter of course.

Ignorance, in other words, is not stupidity. But our policy-makers are now drawn overwhelmingly from a single social class, and that class consists, to what may literally be more than 99%, of people who have lived their entire lives in American suburbs and cities with parents who worked in offices rather than on the land. As in inevitable result, there are enormous blind spots in our ruling class that arise from the fact that not only are its members lacking in certain types of experience (every person is), but its members are practically all lacking in exactly the same types of experience (which is a very bad thing). We have an entire ruling class that shares immense blind spots due to shared lack of experience, and one of the blind spots is the very fact that there is a common blind spot – for the members of our ruling classes overwhelmingly talk only to each other (and, if they are on the leftish side, far too often hold rural dwellers in undeserved contempt).

So here is the outline of what follows.

First, for the benefit of people who did not grow up living off the land, some basics about how rivers work, including why one side of any river or floodprone creek or bayou is practically always worth more than the other.

Second, what exactly a “levee improvement district” is, the history behind them, and the people who profit from them.

Third, the unique nature of “used-to-be-flood-plain” land, and the problem with the government’s current classification thereof.

Fourth, the fundamental fact that the building of a levee is an assault on other people’s land and represents a potentially, and most often inevitably, catastrophic tort imposed upon innocent people who, under the current laws of the State of Texas, are given neither input into the decision nor relief from its catastrophic consequences from themselves, even when those consequences are 100% certain to arise from the building of the levee.

Fifth, examples of how the laws might be changed to assure appropriate protection of innocents in the design and licensing of new LID’s in the future, without simply banning them altogether. This does not rise to “proposed legislation” because I haven’t put enough thought into it and don’t propose to.

Sixth, thoughts on what changes to the law could be put into place now in order to mitigate the harm done by those LID’s that are already faits accomplis.

PART 1. “THE HIGH SIDE”

If you grow up alongside natural (that is, non-flood-controlled, non-leveed, non-dammed, generally non-interfered-with) rivers or creeks, there is one fact that you can’t fail to notice: Mother Nature almost never makes both banks the same height. I mean, almost never. Even if a stream starts off going through land that is basically level, the stream itself moves land around or moves itself around until one side is higher than the other, at least on the curves (and the flatter the land, the more curves the streams have). The only exception I can think of off-hand is on something like China’s Yellow River, where you get land that is flat enough, and a river that is big enough and muddy enough, that the river builds its own levees, in which case it builds them to more or less the same height on each side. (The riverbed of the Yellow is higher than all the land around it and the river flows entirely between levees that it built itself – if you didn’t know this then you really should go read up on the Yellow because it is fascinating.)

What this means is that along any given stretch of floodable river, there is a “high side” and a “low side.” And in any minor flood, the low side floods and the high side does not. This means two things. First, for most uses the high side is more valuable than the low side, and the higher the high side is the bigger this difference is, as long as the high side doesn’t turn into a sheer fifty-foot cliff that means you can’t access the river from the high side at all. But second, the low side gets most of the silt that comes from flooding and is therefore typically much richer soil.

What you see in non-flood-controlled streams, then, is that crops are planted on the low side, and the price of the land is driven by how rich the crops are in the years that don’t flood (answer: very rich indeed, because that is fabulously rich soil) minus how often you don’t get any crops at all because the floods drown them. Meanwhile houses and other permanent structures are built on the high side, to minimize the risk of loss due to flooding. Floods come, as they do, but all that is lost – all that is lost to society as a whole – is a year’s worth of the crops being grown in the flood plain. And that is lost by whichever individual decided to buy the land, at a price that factored in the occasional crop loss. There are no national disaster areas, no million-dollar houses wiped away in flooding; it doesn’t even make the news outside of the local county’s weekly newspapers and some pictures the people take from their high-side houses during the flood and post on Snapchat.

A hundred years ago, by the way, this used to not be the case in very wide flood plains, because in the absence of motor vehicles the only way to grow crops in wide flood plains was to live there. Then when the floods came, you got a Johnny Cash “Five Feet High and Risin’” scenario; it was poor people and sharecroppers who worked the river-bottom fields. But today relatively few people are silly enough to do that outside of twenty-mile-wide flood plains like the Mississippi’s: you live outside of the flood plain, and you drive out to the flood plain in the mornings to work the fields. And even in the biggest flood plains it is now quite feasible to put your house and garage on big concrete pilings and surround it, when the necessity arises every ten years or so, with a twenty-foot wall of sandbags, something that in the 1940’s would have been unthinkable to the everyday farmer. That cost can be factored into the price of the very rich farmland on which the major-flood-proofable house is to be built.

Now let us suppose that there is a ten-foot difference between my side of a ten-foot-wide creek and your side of the creek, and you are on the high side. Also let us say my side slopes upward away from the creek very gently and uniformly, so that my side only reaches ten feet above the creek a hundred feet from your bank. Say we both have a thousand feet of creek footage. Then the first three or four million gallons of flood water will go to my side, before you get any at all on yours. (And this is a small creek, not something like the Brazos River.)

You see, we ordinarily say that a river running through open, reasonably flat land (as opposed to a mountain gorge or canyon) has “escaped its banks.” But in small floods, what actually happens is that the river escapes its bank, singular, no s on the end – that is, it gets out on the low side. As soon as it does, then the rate of vertical rise slows dramatically, because the river starts widening faster than it is rising.

Say that our creek is ten feet wide and that the creek bed is ten feet below its banks. If the creek is dry when the rain starts, then it takes about 750,000 gallons to raise the water level ten feet and start flooding my side. But it takes another three or four million gallons to raise the water level another ten feet and start flooding your side.

Say that we live in a part of the country that occasionally gets hurricanes, and that every ten years or so a tropical storm will actually cause the creek to overflow both banks. If your land slopes away as gently as mine does, then another five feet of flood will require another three to four million gallons. Do you see how it works? The higher the water gets, the more the river widens rather than rises. The flatter the land, the more land there is that floods, but the shallower the flood is on any given piece of land.

Now let’s say that you and I both agree that we don’t want ANY flooding, even in a hurricane where at any given point there could be seven million gallons of water in our thousand-foot stretch of creek. If we were going to build levees on both sides, to equal heights, in order to keep either one of us from being flooded in the seven-million gallon flood, we would have to build levees over ninety feet tall! And of course a levee is only a levee from the creek side; from the other side it is a dam keeping water from reaching the creek; which means to keep ourselves from being flooded by the water coming through our property and trying to reach the creek, we would have to pump all that water over those ninety-foot levees.

In other words, somebody’s property is going to get flooded from time to time. It’s just a question of whose.

Now, let’s say that we are in a part of the country that does not get hurricanes, and that in the entire recorded history of our area our little creek has never gotten, even in the worst recorded flood, more than fifteen feet deep – that is, it has never risen to more than five feet of flood water, five feet below the top of your bank. You bought your property knowing it was the high side, and knowing that with a creek that size and a cubic low-side capacity that large, you would never get flooded; so you built your house just twenty yards or so from the creek, in order to enjoy the view to its fullest.

Now what happens when I decide to install a twelve-foot levee?

PART 2. THE NATURE AND HISTORY OF LID’S

The concept behind a Levee Improvement District is quite simple. A developer buys cheap flood-plain (that is, low-side) land at the low price that the land brings when its only use is agricultural because any high degree of non-agricultural capital investment will periodically get wiped out in a flood. The developer then goes to the local taxing authorities and says, “You know, if I put a bunch of quarter-million-dollar houses on this land, you’d be taking in fistfuls of property-tax revenue.”

“But you can’t build there – it’s a flood plain.”

“Well, here’s what we do. I’ll put in a levee all around my land so that whenever it floods, the water will be pushed onto somebody else’s land rather than mine. Then we’ll go show the state regulators the new map and say, ‘Look here – now this land will only get flooded in a hundred-year flood; so it’s not part of the flood plain anymore.’ Then I’ll build a thousand quarter-million-dollar houses on this land I bought from the farmer at a thousand dollars an acre, and I’ll get filthy rich, and you’ll get all the tax revenue.”

Now what do you think the chances are that the local official will say, “Well, that sounds good, but what about the people whose land you’re going to shove all that water onto”?

And this is exactly what has happened with LID’s. Step 1: developer buys land from farmer at cheap price because flood plains can’t be built on and aren’t worth much. Step 2: developer installs levee to push water onto other people’s property. Step 3: state flood board says, “Oh, I see; those houses won’t get flooded except in a hundred-year flood so they no longer meet the legal definition of ‘flood plain.’ Congratulations! Your land is no longer flood plain land; build away.” Step 4: developer fills the flood plain with expensive houses. Step 5: developer gets filthy rich and local government’s tax revenues go way, way up.

Step 6: The floods come – and people who never got flooded before lose their houses.

Step 7: Step 7 never happens, because Step 5a happens first. And we will explain this mystic utterance in a later section.

Sugar Land, Texas, is a perfect example of this process. “Town Center” in Sugar Land, with its extremely expensive new town hall with the extremely expensive water feature and very large and expensive brass sculpture, and the fancy shops and restaurants that line the new and needlessly decorative patterned-red-brick streets – Town Center is nowhere near the historical center of Sugar Land. The historical center of Sugar Land is a couple of miles north and west, up toward the old (long-since closed) Imperial Sugar plant. That is because, up until the 1960’s, all the houses in Sugar Land were built outside of the Brazos flood plain, which, in very large floods, can be six or seven miles wide (even though it will be less than ten feet deep across most of those six or seven miles).

On the left, the spot that Google Maps marks with a dot as Sugar Land, with the old water tower and abandoned Imperial Sugar factory (Main Street runs between the two). On the right, the new Town Center, in LID #2, built with property tax money that comes in large part from LID’s.

Then the first LID was put in. Everybody involved made scads of money. Then another, and another, and another…and with every year that went by the houses got more expensive. Riverstone, Sienna Plantation, New Territory, Telfair…the overwhelming majority of the population of Sugar Land / Missouri City now lives in the Brazos flood plain. Levees protect an area that used to be underwater in major floods, and that is roughly fifteen square miles of land that in the current flood, had there been no protective levees in place, would have been flooded to an average of maybe five feet deep. The levees held, and all that water was pushed onto other people’s land.

That is 234 billion gallons of water pushed onto other people’s land.

The part of Sugar Land that is not built in the flood plain? The part of Sugar Land that does not owe its existence to levees that push billions of gallons of water onto other people’s land in major floods? That part is the part where all the poor people live. If you are poor and you live in Sugar Land, that is the part you probably live in; and also you probably can’t afford to eat dinner very often in any of the fancy restaurants that line the streets of Town Center. The entire lifestyle of upscale Sugar Land – all the houses, all the tax revenue that pays for the amenities – all of that depends on the ability of the rich people who can afford the houses – and property taxes! – in the LID’s, to force floodwaters onto other people and other communities, and to do so without paying those other communities anything at all in exchange for worsening their flood woes. Sugar Land as we know it would not exist without LID’s. And if my political tastes were other than what they are, I think at this point the word “problematic” would come into play.

On the left, Lakeview Elementary School in old Sugar Land. On the right, Fort Settlement Middle School in LID #14.

On the left, Lakeview Drive looking west from the parking lot of Lakeview Elementary School. On the right, model houses for Riverstone, in LID #15.

But don’t think I’m harshing on the relatively wealthy families who have bought all those quarter-million dollar houses. They also have been taken advantage of…

PART 3: USED-TO-BE-FLOOD-PLAIN LAND

When Hurricane Harvey hit, most of the homeowners in Sugar Land found themselves, to their shock, under evacuation orders. And practically none of them had flood insurance. Had Harvey not veered east at the last moment and headed up the coast to make landfall — had it followed the path it was projected to follow on Harvey Sunday — its eye would have gone smack across my house in Sugar Land and continued on up across downtown Houston. And then instead of topping out at 55.19 feet, the Brazos would have gone to 59 or even higher…and all those houses would have been flooded. All those houses, that is, whose buyers had to been led to believe that they didn’t need to fear flooding.

When you go to buy a house, one of things you naturally ask is whether you are subject to flooding. And what the developer who set up the LID will always tell you is that you are “not in the flood plain,” while the mortgage company tells you that you “do not require flood insurance.” But this is deeply misleading. For in fact you are in the flood plain — you’re just behind a levee.

Telfair across flooded plain after water had already receded eight feet

Houses in Telfair behind the levee, looking across the flooded plain, a day after the river had crested and begun to drop.

closer view of telfair houses behind levee

A closer view of the houses behind the levee. Note that what you are looking at is the second storey.

Now let me explain why it is a deeply deceptive practice for the government to tell you that you are “not in the flood plain” when in fact you are in the flood plain behind a levee. My house, in Sugar Land, is in fact a few hundred yards from the edge of the true flood plain, at 74 feet above sea level, on the high side of Oyster Creek — which would have to fill all five miles between itself and the Brazos before it could rise the extra four feet or so necessary to reach my house. Now if we had gotten the true Harveygeddon — if Harvey had taken the path it was originally projected to take straight across Sugar Land — then there were genuine fears that the water level in Sugar Land would rise to 76 feet above sea level and pour over the tops of the levees; and if we had reached that point then I might have had a couple of feet of water in my house.

But it was simply never going to reach the second storey. I will never have water ten feet deep in my house because the Brazos would have to spread out across twenty miles of flat land to rise those extra few feet. I am, you see, really and truly not in the flood plain.

I have friends, however, who were in the evacuation districts. Take my friends who were in one of the safer sections (LID #2), and whose slab is 66 feet above sea level. As long as the water didn’t come over the levees, then they, like me, could hope that water would not enter their house; and even if it did it would only be for a couple of inches and only for a day or two, and they could salvage all of their possessions by simply moving them to the second storey.

But if the levees did overtop, then they would instantly be in huge trouble. For their slab was 66 feet above sea level – and that put it eight to ten feet below the tops of the levees.

When the water does come over the levees, then it fills up the flood plain behind the levees like a bathtub. So you don’t go from having no water in your house to having a couple of inches. You go from having no water in your house to having eight feet or more of water in your house – and it happens fast.

The thing is, sooner or later you will get a big enough flood to top the levees. If there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that the government consistently and significantly underestimates the likelihood of major floods. And most “flood control” structures have one thing in common: they are built, by design, to be overwhelmed by the outliers.

Take “flood control” reservoirs – such as the Barker and Addicks reservoirs whose inadequacy is so greatly magnifying the suffering of several thousand families as I write, including friends who are three weeks from being allowed back into their destroyed neighborhood which is behind the dam, because the dam pushed the water backwards into their homes. The Corps of Engineers will talk about how these dams “control floods;” but like all other flood control structures, the dams merely alter which land gets flooded – and how badly the “protected” land gets flooded when, as is inevitable by design, the “flood control” structure’s capacity is overwhelmed.

What you have to understand is that when you put in a reservoir you are making a tradeoff.

1. You can make the reservoir deep enough so that not even a “2000 year” flood (0.05% chance in any given year) will break it. But the marginal cost between that and a “100 year” (1% chance in any given year) is quite high, not so much in build cost as in the opportunity cost: you have to take so much otherwise useful land out of use in order to defend against the <1% outlier. For a reservoir may keep the river bottom below the dam from being flooded so often – but only by permanently flooding the land below the reservoir. Always remember: somebody’s land has to get flooded. The “flood control” structures just redirect the flooding onto the land of people who have less political clout.

2. Otherwise you install the “flood control” measures that actually mean, “All the minor floods will no longer cause inconvenience, but when the major flood comes it will be unimaginably more catastrophic.”

Most public policy and private real estate investment decisions (such as whether to buy a home downstream of a “flood control” reservoir) would be made far more effectively if those reservoirs were named something more accurate than “flood control reservoirs.” I’m not sure what to call them, but if people recognized what the real tradeoff was, they probably would in many cases still make the tradeoffs, but under fewer illusions and with much better preparation for when that 0.5% flood actually arrives — and every few years SOMEWHERE in the country such a catastrophe happens. We’re talking about Harvey now, but google up the Guadalupe floods of the early 2000’s and you’ll see exactly the same dynamic at work. In particular, note the difference between how much property damage was done on the Upper Guadalupe and how much was done along the San Marcos, in exactly the same 1% flood event. The flood levels were the same, but since there is no “flood control” on the San Marcos nobody had built million-dollar houses in the flood plains.

If you’re sitting where I am, truly out of the flood plain, then anything less than catastrophic, once-in-a-generation flooding won’t reach my house; and the once-in-a-generation flooding will drive me to the second floor for a couple of days and destroy my floors and the first couple of feet of sheet rock on the first floor. If you’re sitting ten feet below the top of a levee and the developer has told you that you are “not in the flood plain,” then anything less than catastrophic, once-in-a-generation flooding won’t reach your house – but when the once-in-a-generation flooding does come, it may well destroy everything you own. (And if you believed the developer, you won’t have flood insurance.)

Yet to the government, there is no difference between my house and yours. Neither one is “in the flood plain.” In my case, that is the truth. In your case, you have been told a lie.

There is simply no way I would ever knowingly buy a house that sat below the top of a levee without having flood insurance. But the problem with LID’s is that they are frequently huge. My friends at 66 feet, six to ten feet below levee level – they had no idea where the levees were that protected their house, because the nearest levee was literally a mile away. The folks who bought the house literally twenty yards from the levee that overlooks the Brazos in Telfair…well, okay, arguably nobody should be that dumb, at least if they bought it thinking they were perfectly safe and blew off flood insurance because the bank said they didn’t need it. But my friends had no idea that they were in a LID at all until they got the evacuation order. They were simply told, “You aren’t in a flood plain; you don’t need flood insurance.” Several of my friends elsewhere in Sugar Land got evacuation orders only after local flooding had already made it impossible to leave – because the local flooding made the streets impassible before the Brazos models showed the levees being overtopped.

This relatively long video shows the devastation the floods caused one family. If you’ll notice in the section where the son-in-law is describing how deep the levee is and then backing out to show where the house is, the houses’ first storeys are all clearly several feet below the level of the bayou-side levees. Then you move forward to where the house owner is explaining how the water came up so quickly that he had to hammer out the skylight to escape…those two facts are not unrelated.

“Yeah, but look here,” the Sugar Land authorities might say at this juncture, “we had Hurricane Harvey, for God’s sake, and the levees didn’t get overtopped. So if Harvey didn’t get us, nothing else is going to.”

Oddly, what people who ruthlessly exploit others’ vulnerability for profit so often, and so inexplicably, fail to grasp, is that what they have done to others, others can do to them. And absent changes to state law, LID developers are going to keep right on building levees, and a lot of those levees will be upstream of Sugar Land. Indeed, Sugar Land has already had done to them what they have been doing to others – on just the other side of the Brazos, there is a new LID called Greatwood, just put in during the last few years. And the levees of Greatwood, at 77 feet above sea level, are designed to hold water even at 59 feet of Brazos flooding. At about 58 feet of Brazos flooding water starts pouring in to the Sugar Land LIDs on the other side of the river – the tops of whose levees are 76 feet above sea level. And because the topping of the Sugar Land levees gives the river hundreds of millions of gallons of additional room for more water, it takes a long time for the river to rise that extra foot.

Do you think it’s an accident that the Greatwood levees are a single convenient foot higher than the older levees on the other side?

inundation map 56 feet

I can’t find the image, but at the height of Harvey almost all of the blue and grey areas on this map were red, for mandatory evacuation due to expected overtopping of the levees. If memory serves, only LID #2 on the north, and the Greatwood neighborhood of LID #11 on the south, were still yellow as voluntary evacuation zones. Greatwood is literally right next to the river and yet it was still yellow — because its levees are a foot higher than anybody else’s.

In the meantime, Greatwood is roughly two square miles of land that varies from 66 to 72 feet above sea level. Say that it averages, conservatively, 72 feet, or five feet below the top of the levee. That is about two billion gallons of flood water that ten years ago the Sugar Land levees would have pushed to the other side of the river. Today it is water that the Greatwood levees would push into Sugar Land.

Ten years from now, it may not take a Harvey to top a 76-foot levee in Sugar Land or a 77-foot levee in Greatwood. For there is nothing to stop the LID developers upstream of Sugar Land from building their own levees and shoving the water downstream on top of Sugar Land as callously as Sugar Land’s developers have shoved their hundreds of billions of gallons of waters onto the suffering souls of Brazoria County. Greatwood has, after all, already shown the way, as Sugar Land itself did before Greatwood was thought of. And what Sugar Land has done to Brazoria County, and what Greatwood has done to Sugar Land…why shouldn’t Richmond do the same thing to Greatwood?

The worst thing about this? When the levee is built and the government re-evaluates the land, I believe that it only re-designates the land in the LID. So far as I know – and persons who know better can correct me if I am wrong – the rest of the flood plain map does not automatically get redrawn. So far as I know, not one person who bought land behind the 76-foot levees in Sugar Land was informed, when the 77-foot levees were erected in Greatwood, that their houses had just been rendered significantly more likely to take on a sudden ten feet of flood water in hurricane-level flooding. The old levee took them officially (though not in reality) “out of the flood plain” by taking their chances of being flooded in any given year to 1%. And I can assure you that the Sugar Land developers built their levees to 76 feet because 76 feet was the bare minimum necessary to reduce the probability of flooding to 1% — because every extra foot of levee costs developers money. So now that there is a 77-foot levee on the other side, the odds of being flooded if your house is behind the 76-foot levee have gone up – and if they have gone up at all, then I bet they are now >1% and you are back in the flood plain.

But what do you think the chances are that the government even considered changing the Sugar Land designation when the Greatwood levees went in?

And consider this: for the past several years, Fort Bend Country has been adding a hundred thousand residents every year. A whole lot of those people are moving into the used-to-be-flood plain. And most of them have no clue that that’s what they are doing.

PART 4: THE LID AS A GENERATOR OF TORTS (“WHY HAVE I SUFFERED THREE ‘HUNDRED-YEAR’ FLOODS IN THE PAST TEN YEARS?”)

Imagine that you and I both live on a small, non-navigable creek that most of the time is dry but occasionally fills up in a rainstorm. You have built your nice, $200,000 dollar house just on the other side of the fence line. Now, because the stream is non-navigable, I (in most states at least) have the right to dam the stream up to make a stock pond. But what happens if I put in a dam that is high enough that my stock pond’s new normal level is three feet above your kitchen floor?

Obviously there is no way on God’s green earth I would be allowed to do that on my own. If I wanted to do that to you, I would have to enlist on my side government officials whom I had adequately incentivized to declare my pond a public necessity and to slap some eminent domain on your luckless butt. (See Kelo v. New London.) And even then somebody would have to at least pay you something that pretended to be the market value of your land. In physically destroying your property by pushing water onto it, I would be committing a tort, and you would have legal recourse to stop me or at least to force me to pay adequate damages.

But building a levee to push water off your land onto your neighbor is exactly the same thing in fact – but not in law. There is simply nothing in state law to keep Greatwood from deliberately building its levees a foot higher than the Sugar Land levees for the express purpose of ensuring that floodwater stops going into Greatwood and goes into Sugar Land instead. And the developer who made millions off of Greatwood didn’t have to give a penny to the homeowners of Sugar Land.

If you can’t see that this is a travesty of justice, then I am not sure what else we can have to say to each other.

PART 5: ON THE APPROVAL OF FUTURE LID’S

I referred earlier to Step 7, which never happens, and Step 5a, which always does; but I put off telling you what those steps were until now.

Step 7, is that the people onto whose land the levees are going to push the water, are adequately compensated by the developers and local tax jurisdictions who build the levee, for the harm done to them by the levee. This, at least under current law, never happens. For Step 5a always happens instead: the developers budget enough lobbying dollars to ensure that they can buy enough legislators to ensure that Step 7 never happens.

If we ask ourselves what the approval of a newly proposed LID should involve, the basic principle is obvious: all persons and communities down- or across-stream from the proposed LID, and even for several miles back upstream in some cases, should be informed of the proposal, and a determination should be made of how the proposed LID would increase the likelihood of others suffering from flood. Then all persons who are likely to affected should be compensated according to the increase in expected loss over the next, say, fifty years – and should be compensated directly out of the developers’ pockets and profit margin. You might still get LID’s – but they would have to provide enough value to cover the costs of the damages imposed on other parties. So you would no doubt get fewer LID’s, and when you did get LID’s they would pay the true costs.

Now the details of this…at this point you go beyond me because I have little experience in regulatory environments. I don’t know what processes would have to be in place to ensure that the impact studies were honest; government officials notoriously are able to make impact studies show impacts that are suspiciously close to what those government officials wish the impact to be. But either the people in Sugar Land should have been able to veto the building of the Greatwood levees, or else every homeowner behind the Sugar Land 76-foot levees should have been compensated for the prospective damage to their property under some type of eminent domain arrangement. And the developers of the Sugar Land LID’s, long before Greatwood was a gleam in its developer’s eye, should have been required to pay compensation, in some form, to everybody who owned floodplain land in Brazoria County. There is no reason we couldn’t reform the law to impose these requirements on LID’s to be built in the future.

But of course the existing LID’s are faits accomplis. So what can be done now?

PART 6: ON THE MITIGATION OF TORTS ARISING FROM EXISTING LID’S

We aren’t big fans of ex post facto penalties in America. But we have a 200-plus-year tradition that says that taxes are not penalties. So perhaps some sort of compromise could be struck. The developers are long gone; I don’t think you could manage to get much money from them – they could have gone bankrupt in the twenty years since the LID #1 levees went up, for example.

But you could, and probably should, put a moratorium on the development of new LID’s until you could take a legally-close-enough stab at measuring the impact that existing LID’s levees have on people who do not live behind LID’s. Then you could set a target for a LID relief fund to be established to mitigate the people adversely affected by LID levees, and impose upon all cities that collect property taxes from LID’s, the requirement that some percentage – say, 5% — of taxes collected from LID properties was required to be paid into that fund. Once the fund reached the initial target level you could reduce the required pay-in to something more like 1%.

The fund would have to be managed, which of course would give scope for politicians to abuse it the way they have abused the Social Security fund. You would want to learn from past abuses – perhaps you could specify by law that the funds would have to be kept in a fixed-percentage basket of currencies and precious metals, not invested in stocks or loaned out via bonds…there would be many technical details to be hammered out. Exploring them in detail would turn this from a paper about the abuse of levees into a paper about the abuse of government funds. The principle, however, is I trust clear: you cannot fairly impose a massive out-of-nowhere cost on people who probably were not even told that they were buying houses in a LID to begin with; but it is also clearly unjust to keep drowning people downstream without at least paying them for the privilege. Sometimes justice can only be roughly approximated by a compromise that is not as fair as one would wish to either side; and the homeowners who live in the LID’s are deriving direct benefit from the levees that cause direct loss to those onto whom the levees push the water. It seems to me that at the very least the people behind the levees should have to help mitigate, at least to some degree, the suffering of the people whom their levees directly harm.

And if the homeowners in present-day LID’s object…well, they should remember that time marches on, and that so do developers and local tax jurisdictions who aren’t restrained by laws ensuring the public good, and that if the law doesn’t change they are likely to find themselves, in the not-necessarily-distant future, having to take what their own levees currently dish out. If the redirection of some of their property taxes is the price that has to be paid for legal reform that will keep the next wave of levees from being built a foot higher than their own…to me, at least, that would seem to be a price worth paying.

Well, at least they are trying

The Occupy Democrats are some of the most toxic and race-obsessed people on the web, as I have had occasion to note in the past; but they actually tried their best to produce a positive meme for once.

White and black rescuers

The problem, of course, that instantly strikes anybody who is not in the Occupy Democrat fold, is that very obviously they DID notice the difference, or else they would not have created the meme. In absolutely any situation in which two pictures are even vaguely similar, and one of them has a black person while the other has a white person in an analogous position, if you show them to the Occupy Democrats staff the first and possibly only thing they will notice, is the racial difference. They’re just psychologically crippled that way, which is sad.

But at least they are trying, here; so I give them very sincere points for effort. Perhaps one day they will actually reach the point at which they could look at those two pictures and not notice the skin color of the people involved. It would take a miracle, of course; but sometimes miracles do happen.

(The other irony, of course, is that there are tens of millions of people in this country who WOULD notice the race right away, and who WOULD think the race was significant enough to matter — and 99% of those people vote Democratic. I posted the top picture on this very blog a couple of days ago and it never crossed my mind to point out the guy was white and the woman and baby were Asian, even though I am a redneck who has been known to wear baseball caps and camouflage and my wife is Chinese…but the Occupy Democrats people are unshakably certain that it’s the people like me who are racist. People are very, very fascinating once you rid yourself of the expectation that their ordinary mode of mental functioning is be honest with themselves. As long as you DO have that sadly unrealistic expectation, they are insanely frustrating, of course. As always, the secret to being in charity with your neighbor: low expectations.)