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Opinion: In flood resilience debate, there are no solutions — only tradeoffs

The debate surrounding flood “resilience” has been filled with talk of rising seas, climate change and imminent coastal exodus — lures meant to distract us from rigorous thought.

On the surface, we all agree with the need for communities to be resilient to flooding and other threats. It’s like motherhood and apple pie; we all want it.

But how much can we afford and what kinds of resilience would achieve the best outcomes for the sacrifice? What does resilience really mean in the flood policy context? Congress doesn’t appear to know.

Last year, legislation directed the president to define the term by rulemaking. If he wants help clarifying resilience, he’d get it from legions of rent-seekers, academics and agenda advocates. Like “sustainability,” resilience is in the eye of the beholder. It can be whatever your special interest needs it to be.

We’re not sure that hitching our wagon to the resilience star has merit, but there is a good way to give operational meaning to the idea or to otherwise respond rationally to flood risk. Economist Thomas Sowell has taught us a profound insight: “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs; and you try to get the best trade-off you can get, that’s all you can hope for.”

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