Disaster in Japan

March 11th, 2011 by

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people in Asia who are suffering through a disaster of unprecedented scale. The digital age allows us to watch the apocalyptic images: entire neighborhoods being swept to sea; burning houses borne upon the dark tide of water and debris; hundreds of vehicles swept along as if they were rudderless boats; the boats themselves powerless against the sheer force of the waters. We engineer our buildings, our infrastructure, our vehicles, our very lives on the assumption that the odds are always with us, that destructive forces of this magnitude are very unlikely to rise up from the depths of the ocean. And yet, on occasion, arise they do.
It will take months to sort out the damages. Indeed, the damage has not even run its brutal and indifferent course. But we cannot allow this horrific moment to pass without at least a glance at the implications for the subject of this blog, the insurance industry. Insurance is all about risk and risk transfer. Individuals and most businesses are too small to absorb the risk of loss that surrounds us. We purchase insurance as a hedge against disaster: loss of life, property, assets, physical ability, etc. The law of large numbers works in favor of the insurer: sell enough policies, expand your markets far and wide, and the risk of loss is spread out over an immense area. A catastrophe in one place is absorbed by the absence of losses elsewhere.
In the scale of what is happening in Japan, there is no elsewhere. No actuarial calculation can take into account the implications of losses on this scale. And even if the actuaries could come up with a number, the cost of the insurance would preclude anyone from buying it.
Here’s one relatively minor insurance issue emerging from the rubble in Japan: the quake hit at 2:30 in the afternoon. Many of the people being swept away by the surging waters were working. Their deaths will be compensable under whatever form of workers comp exists in Japan.
Our modern lifestyles do not recognize risk and disruption on this scale. We somehow think ourselves immune from disaster. It brings to mind a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley about another powerful and confident civilization that could not foresee an end to its dominion:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
A century of horrific wars and occasional natural disasters have taught us that our arrogance and presumed mastery of the world are illusions. The lesson is clear: Ozymandias and his ilk (Muammar Gaddafi comes to mind) rule with arrogance and contempt. By contrast, our actions must be as full of generosity and compassion as possible. The risks that lurk in our lives may be beyond calculation, but what truly matters is our ability to embrace the time given to us and help those whose lives have been devastated by chance.

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