Volcano Monitoring and the Stimulus: Cost Effective and a Clear Public Good

I've already talked about the basic dishonesty Bobby Jindal exhibited when he took a swipe at the mention of "volcano monitoring" in the stimulus - Jindal claimed that there was $140 million in there for "volcano monitoring", when it's actually only one of a number of projects listed under that line - but there's something more important that I didn't discuss. I took a swipe at the messenger, but what about the message? Jindal may be a liar, but that doesn't make him wrong.

He is wrong, of course. He delivered the argument dishonestly, but the argument still fails on the merits. Volcano monitoring is a legitimate governmental function, and it would still be a good investment even if we were spending the entire $140 million on nothing but monitoring.


Before I get into the public policy questions, let's take a quick look at the costs. Volcano monitoring is (as many others have already pointed out) something that needs to be done if you want to avoid losses of life and property in a volcanic eruption. Unless you're near a Hawaiian-type volcano, with it's picturesque slow-flowing basaltic lavas, you really need to get out of the way before the mountain goes boom and falls down. If you want to be able to get out of the way before the insanely hot wall of burning rock, mud, and ash hits you, you probably want to have someone monitoring the thing.

The best example we've got of a case where volcano monitoring has worked really well is the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. The Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology had been monitoring the volcano for a while, and when it started to show signs of life USGS geologists came to assist. The US Air Force, acting on the advice of the USGS scientists, evacuated Clark Air Force base.


(Source: Wikipedia)

That's a 1990 picture of part of Clark's flight line. Take a look at the row of aircraft. The three or so visible at the far right are F-4 Phantoms, which were being phased out of service at the time, but the 12 planes to their left are F-16 fighters. The early model F-16s cost $14.6 million each (in 1998 dollars). Twelve aircraft times a $14.6 million unit cost works out to $175 million. That, you'll note, is well under the $140 million that Jindal (falsely) claimed was going to be spent on volcano monitoring, and that's just those 12 aircraft.

I think we can reasonably say that volcano monitoring is cost effective.

Public Policy:

OK. Volcano monitoring is cheap. But is it something that the government should be spending money on?

This is a subject I'm reasonably comfortable addressing, particularly in the aftermath of my recent debate with Timothy Sandefur. During that debate, Tim gave us a good explanation of what a "public good" is in the technical sense of the term:

"Public goods" doesn't mean "good for the public," which science obviously is. It means something that is non-rivalrous in consumption and non-excludable: something you can't keep people from stealing and something that everyone can enjoy at the same time.

Volcano monitoring seems to fit that definition reasonably well, at least for a given definition of "everyone". Anyone who is near a potentially active, monitored volcano benefits from the monitoring - they've got a greatly improved chance that they'll get sufficient warning to clear the danger zone. That's true regardless of the number of people in the danger zone, so it's clearly non-rivalrous in consumption. It's also non-excludable. Even if we ignore the moral difficulties that would ensue if only people who paid for a monitoring service were warned, it's still impossible to keep people from stealing the service (if half your neighbors all suddenly decide to go on a long vacation in overloaded cars, you're probably going to be smart enough to clear out).

Volcano monitoring is clearly a public good. The next question we have to address is whether this is a public good that can or should be provided by private enterprise. It might be possible to make a case that it could be, but it's going to be a real stretch.

If you had to come up with a group that would have an economic incentive in doing volcano monitoring, the insurance industry would probably be the first one that comes to mind. If you take a minute or two to think about it, though, they don't really have all that much of an incentive to do full-time monitoring.

Remember, most of the insurance losses in an eruption are going to be property losses. Most of these losses are not going to be preventable. You can move yourself and your car out of the hazard area, but (Hawaii again occasionally excepted) you're not going to be able to move your house. Industries won't be able to take their heavy equipment, and commercial outlets aren't going to be able to move most of their stock out. That creates an incentive to do periodic hazard assessments in order to set appropriate premiums, but it doesn't provide an incentive to do continuous monitoring.

There's a bit of a difference when you look at life insurance, but there's not much more incentive there. Volcanoes are typically going to represent a low risk compared with day-to-day life most of the time. The number of insurance companies that are typically writing policies in an area is going to cut the risk for each individual firm, and it's also going to provide an incentive for some of the firms to try to get the free ride by refusing to participate in a monitoring program. Their ability to buy reinsurance is also going to reduce their incentives. The reinsurers, in turn, have the same free rider issues, and most of their risk is also going to come from the (non-preventable) property losses.

If there's an industry other than insurance that would have a motive, I'm not sure what it would be. Volcano monitoring isn't just a low-cost public good, it's a low cost public good that is unlikely to be delivered by private firms. We've met the classic conditions for a service that's best provided by the government.

The only question we've got left is whether this is best done by the federal government, or whether it's better left to states and/or localities.

Each of the volcanoes at risk of erupting is found in a single state, which would seem to be an argument in favor of making this a state function. However, the effects of an eruption are not necessarily limited to a single state. The Mt. St. Helens eruption, for example, dropped measurable amounts of ash across a large chunk of the country. A Yellowstone eruption is unlikely, but potentially has global effects.

The active volcanoes are not restricted to a single state. They're spread out over a number of states. A single federal monitoring program also has quite a few efficiency advantages over a many separate state programs.

Finally, the volcano monitoring also fits into the existing federal role in interstate commerce - in particular, it fits into aviation safety. In 1989, a KLM 747 with 245 people on board lost power in all four engines as a result of flying through a volcanic ash cloud. The plane landed safely, but that's obviously not an event that you want to repeat (particularly since the plane suffered $80 million dollars in damage).The NTSB noted that one of the causes of the incident was, "the lack of available information about the ash cloud to all personnel involved."


The last question we need to address in order to see if Jindal was making any sense at all is whether spending money on volcano monitoring represents a good stimulus. The stimulus, after all, is supposed to be a short-term funding boost. Volcano monitoring is a long-term project. If we fund the volcano monitoring with stimulus monitoring, what's going to happen when the short term funds dry up?

In this case, I don't think we need to worry. If we take a moment to look at the language in the bill, most of these concerns should dry up. The law specifies that the money is to be spent on:

...repair, construction and restoration of facilities; equipment replacement and upgrades including stream gages, and seismic and volcano monitoring systems...

This isn't money for the program as a whole, or for things like salaries that are going to be an ongoing expense. This is money that's going to be used to improve the infrastructure that the volcano monitoring system uses. It's money to replace older equipment with newer, and to do things like repair the buildings that are used. It's going toward infrequent expenses, and it will go back into the economy in the form of purchases from equipment vendors and payments to contractors. In the short term, it's the government acting as a consumer when citizens are reluctant to spend. In the long term, it's buying us a better volcano monitoring system - basically, we're spending the money on something that we have a use for.


Like Palin with her "fruit fly research" complaints, or McCain's moaning about bear DNA and "overhead projectors," this is clearly another case where a Republican in the national spotlight is saying things about science that just don't make sense. I'm not sure if this is because they think that bashing science is a good way to score cheap political opponent, or if they just don't understand how any of this science ties into public policy. Both are bad; I don't know which is worse.

But it really has to stop.


I just had a chance to read through some of the backlog in my google reader. I was relieved to note that Paul Krugman cited Volcano Monitoring as an example of a classic nonrival, nonexcludable public good.

18 responses so far

  • Damn, even I would hesitate to criticize funding for volcano monitoring. The federal government is seldom so innocently occupied as when it is funding the monitoring of volcanoes.
    It is a constant problem in this country that opposition to expansive government is routinely paired with genuine ignorance and even outright anti-science attitudes. Hence the "fruitfly research" embarrassment. And you could not find a better embodiment of that problem than Bobby freakin Jindal.

  • I think it is very important for each of us to take personal responsibility for geothermal tectonic activity! Eleventeen fucktillion gigajoules of magmatic energy is no match for the home-spun down-to-earth common-sense ingenuity of real hard-working Americans!

  • llewelly says:

    Most (if not all) of the volcanoes that are a potential eruption risk are found in a single state, which would seem to be an argument in favor of making this a state function.

    That's a baffling assertion to make in an article that mentions volcanoes in both Hawaii and Washington. It's even more baffling in light of the Pinatubo / Clark AFB evacuation you mention, which shows America has interests all over the globe.

  • Mike Dunford says:

    @llewelly (#3)
    Yeah, that was badly phrased, and I've fixed it. What I meant to say was that each individual volcano is found in one state.
    Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Is Volcano monitoring really under-funded? There is already extensive monitoring of Volcano's in the US. Check out the usgs.gov web site.
    Jindal may have used a bad example of the crap that is in this "Stimulus" package, but it's still a load of crap.
    I think every one believes that Volcano Monitoring is important. The issue is $140 million for it?
    I think we'd be better off spending $140 million preparing for the invasion of alien Space Monkeys. Makes just as much sense.
    How much more information will $140 million buy us when it comes to monitoring Volcano's. 5-10 more minutes of warning before an eruption? LOL

  • Dan S. says:

    "That's a baffling assertion to make in an article that mentions volcanoes in both Hawaii and Washington."
    That threw me for a moment too, but Mike's saying that volcanoes are mostly (always?) contained within individual states, instead of straddling borders. (Yellowstone's an exception, but that'd be the least of our worries if there was a major eruption . . . )*. Plus, this is basically a rhetorical device - he points out that while the volcanoes are state-localized, the effects are not.
    * Huckleberry Ridge, 2.1mya:
    A tuff act to follow.

  • Dan S. says:

    BradRamsfansinWV - would you like to try commenting again, preferably after actually reading the post this time? (The previous one too, perhaps).
    "How much more information will $140 million buy us when it comes to monitoring Volcano's. 5-10 more minutes of warning before an eruption? LOL"
    I'm curious on what basis you make that estimate.

  • Pele V. says:

    If you care about volcano monitoring funding, please check out and join the Facebook Volcano Monitoring group! http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=59952445247 Because no one wants to be surprised by a volcano.

  • joerg s. d. says:

    @ BradRamsfansinWV (#5)
    "Jindal may have used a bad example of the crap that is in this "Stimulus" package, but it's still a load of crap.
    I think every one believes that Volcano Monitoring is important. The issue is $140 million for it?"
    This is definitely not the issue, since the $140 million are NOT all for Volcano Monitoring. Why are you repeating Jindals misleading and factual wrong statement?

  • Troublesome Frog says:

    I think we'd be better off spending $140 million preparing for the invasion of alien Space Monkeys. Makes just as much sense.

    You've clearly crunched the numbers. How much should the USGS be spending on its volcano programs? What's the risk / payoff ratio?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Isn't the real question how many jobs does the $140M generate? Obviously people will be employed by companies to make stuff, to transport teams, etc. and people will be employed to do the monitoring. I suspect it is a fair to middlin' job generator.
    Some talk on TV that the story about the Right-Wing-Republican-Bushie-Big-Government guy wanting the boats licensed and registered is a made up story; that Jindal was not there at the time, but in Baton Rouge.
    I don't knock him too much on that. I was riding in New Orleans with a lady who had just shown us her house up on concrete pillars. The same guy called her on her cell phone to tell her she needed to get an engineering report on whether it was feasable to raise her house. She told him FEMA had sent her a $30,000 check (it cost $33,000)and her house had been raised for some six weeks now. Thank you very much, Goodby.
    Incidentally, there is an argument that disasters are in fact economically positive events. The company which raised the house in New Orleans was from Ohio.

  • Robert Carnegie says:

    If Yellowstone explodes then, well, this appears to be the relevant map. (???)
    The U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory maintain that they "see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable." (Wikipedia)
    No evidence. Not predictable. O-kay.
    And if La Palma goes over, the whole east coast takes an unexpected cold bath. According to some.
    I don't think it's an each-state thing, and anyway the states seem not to have any money until President Obama gives them some. That's what this is -about-, isn't it?

  • Don Eggert says:

    I just finished teaching my junior college students threir unit on volcanoes and volcanic hazards and stressed the importance of the USGS volcano program in its efforts to recuce the human cost of volcanic natural disasters.
    My undergraduate class mate was the USGS geologist killed by the 1982 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The geologists of this program have been willing to risk their lives to make observations to better understand volcanoes to reduce the risk for not just the US but to share with all nations the knowledge that has and will save lives.
    Jindal is a fool. I wonder if the Governor of Alaska shares his views. Perhaps she should suggest that president cut the funding for hurricane research, tracking, and forecasting. After all the southern states have not really taken a stand to prevent development along their coasts.

  • Don Eggert says:

    Opps, I ment 1980 for the eruption that killed my classmate, not 1982. David Johnston was an outstanding student and friend.

  • djofraleigh says:

    IF you are at a site, and a new monitor comes in, made in Asia, to replace an existing, but adequate monitor, would you blow the whistle as requested in the bill?
    We all know a wish list went out from congress and departments had to come up with a list of expenditures in a hurry for the bill. Do you think we are going to spend the money wisely? Will you heed President Obama's call and blow the whistle where there is waste or foolish spending?

  • JakeS says:

    Your demolition of the case against volcano monitoring is excellent, and far more detailed than the quality of the opposition deserves.
    However, I wonder about one thing: WTF is a USAAF base doing in the Phillipines? Didn't y'all de-colonialise that place, like, several decades ago?
    It always has struck me as somewhat ironic that the US party that prides itself in being against "big government" is so silent on the subject of wasteful military expenditure (a.k.a. around nine tenths of it...). Maintaining 700+ bases in a hundred or so different countries is not cheap (and that's not even counting any concentration camps - sorry, "covert interrogation sites" - that aren't on official lists).
    - Jake

  • Gerald Patrick O'Bryan says:

    Clark Air Force Base, and Subic Bay Naval Station were closed in 1992 by a decision of the Philippine Congress. I think the U.S. objected much less strenuously than it otherwise would have since the airbase was essentially destroyed by Mt. Pinatubo. I just drove the highway a number of miles away from Pinatubo last year and still a lot of dust and sediment-clogged streams were evident.
    As a Ron Paul sort of Republican, and Obama voter, I sure wish the party would stop embarassing me with their anti-science worldview.

  • John says:

    I got a better idea, lets save 140m and just not live/build next to volcano's! This is the funniest thing I've read in quite some time.
    If you don't agree, caveat emptor.