Charlie Harper: Diamonds and Water From Charlottesville to Houston

Charlie Harper

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

For the past few weeks I’ve been focused on the ins and outs of Georgia’s tax structure and how those monies are spent.  There’s still a couple of installments to go before I’m finished, but the events of the past couple of weeks need to be addressed.

A couple of weeks ago we had a despicable march of Nazis in Charlottesville Virginia. The death of Heather Heyer at the hands of a domestic terrorist was unconscionable. The President’s lack of consistency in his response condemning those that organized the march has served to deepen the divisions among Americans.  It seems to many that the world, even our own country, has gone mad.

And yet even as I write this, the rains are still falling over Southeast Texas.  The winds of a Category 4 hurricane have certainly caused damage that would normally dominate newscasts.  Instead, as much as 50 inches of rain may fall this week on the Houston metropolitan area.  As a comparison, tropical storm Alberto dropped just under 15 inches over south metro Atlanta and peaked at 28 inches in Southwest Georgia that resulted in the great flood of 1994.  

The situation in Texas is dire.  We won’t know the extent of how bad this really is for at least a week, as rivers won’t crest for days to come.  We will see tragedy in real time, in slow motion.

In the midst of this, I take note of a question from a friend of mine on Facebook.  She asks a simple question, “Why does it take disasters, natural or manmade, to bring out the best of us or remind us what truly matters or holds real value in life?”.

Before I attempt an answer, a bit about her. She and I opposite in almost every way.  She’s an African American female.  While I’ve never attempted to specifically label her political beliefs, I believe she would see it as an honor rather than a pejorative if I called her a socialist.  Our views on economics and the proper role of government couldn’t be more different.  And yet, I’m proud to call her a friend – even when she’s wrong.

I say this because I know she means well.  I don’t mean that in a “bless her heart” sort of way.  She’s a good person.  She’s trying to get herself and the rest of us to a better place.  She and I differ on how to get there, but in all of our conversations, we’ve not once questioned each other’s motives, intentions, or beliefs.  Politics, it seems, doesn’t have to be personal.  

Politics is just a process.  Life is what’s personal.

Back to her question.  One of the earliest lessons one will study in economics is that of the diamond-water paradox.  In normal conditions, water has no value.  It’s ubiquitous. Those of us that have a water bill likely don’t realize that we’re not really paying for the water, but the charge per gallon is for the cost of operating the distribution system.  

Diamonds on the other hand have great value for such small objects.  Their value is in that they’re extremely rare.  Value in economics is always relative, and is always tied to scarcity.  

The paradox comes when times aren’t normal.  A person lost in the desert for days with a bag of diamonds will surely give them up for enough water to get them back to safety. It is necessary for life itself. 

In this paradox the water, once taken for granted, becomes the only thing of value. It’s the only thing that matters.

So the answer to my friend is that, perhaps, we have taken some of the very basic principles of our country for granted.  We must remember that our founding fathers had much in common, but came together to put a framework around how to live with our differences, not to force us all to be the same.  

That understanding seems to be what is now scarce in a political environment where winners believe they get to take all, and losers refuse to bow to the will of elections. Both major parties have prominent members who have been guilty of this regardless which side of the coin they have been on over the past couple of decades.

And yet, here we are again, in the midst of a national tragedy, witnessing individual triumphs of humanity that temporarily eclipse the real and deep divisions we have forced upon ourselves.  Hurricanes and floods aren’t inherently political.  Those facing 130 mile an hour winds from their multi-million dollar beach front property or rising flood waters from their blighted neighborhoods all understand the value in the diamond-water paradox. No one asks the political affiliation of their rescuers. 

When life and family are threatened, nothing else is of value.  It’s time we start to look at our neighbors who disagree with us as the only ones who can join in the rescue of what makes this country so valuable.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.