Are Chile’s Building Codes Getting Too Much Credit?

Many commentators have pointed to Chile’s stringent building codes as a key reason why the death toll from its earthquake (in the hundreds at this writing) has been so much lower than in Haiti (in the hundreds of thousands).

Unfortunately, much of this commentary confuses two separate concepts: building quality and building codes. Building quality clearly played a key role in minimizing death and damage from the earthquake. Indeed, Chilean buildings are well-known for incorporating earthquake resistance techniques such as the strong columns, weak beams system.

That doesn’t imply, however, that building codes deserve credit for the quality of the buildings. Indeed, I can think of three other factors that likely deserve some credit as well:

  • Chile’s wealth. In 2009, per capita income in Chile was eleven times higher than in Haiti. Even in the absence of any building codes, the relatively rich Chileans would not be living in buildings as fragile as those in Haiti.
  • Chile’s history of earthquakes. In 1960, Chile suffered the largest earthquake on record (9.5), killing several thousand people. Even in the absence of any building codes, memories of that quake would have encouraged Chileans to construct more earthquake-resistant buildings. In Haiti, in contrast, the last major earthquake was in 1842, before the memories of any living Haitians.
  • Chile’s enforcement of building codes. Building codes are just pieces of paper (or their electronic equivalent). Governments can create all the codes they want, but if unscrupulous officials don’t enforce them—or get bribed to look the other way—they can be next to useless. Chile ranked among the 20 least corrupt nations in the world in 2009; Haiti was among the 12 most corrupt.

My point is not that building codes had no effect. I bet they did. But that’s not the whole story when it comes to building quality. Chileans would have built better buildings than Haitians anyway.  And Chileans live in a society where building codes actually get enforced. For both those reasons, we shouldn’t overstate the importance of building codes alone in explaining Chile’s resilience and Haiti’s devastation. Nor should we leap to the conclusion that the way to deal with Haiti’s future earthquake threats is to import Chile’s building code.

My second point is a scientific one. In principle, Chile’s earthquake provides an opportunity for researchers to evaluate just how important building codes have been in protecting Chile’s buildings. Enterprising analysts should look for situations that allow us to identify the effect of building codes versus other factors. For example, much has been made of the building code revisions that Chile adopted in 1995. That suggests one empirical strategy: compare what happened to buildings that were constructed in 1994 to buildings that were constructed in 1996. Did the 1996 ones perform much better? That would suggest that the building codes really helped. Or did 1994 buildings do just as well as the 1996 ones? That would suggest that the codes had little effect, perhaps because they were just capturing practices that were already in use by Chilean builders.

For related discussions, see this piece from Fast Company and this piece from the Infrastructurist. The comments on the second piece include an interesting discussion of the extent to which Chilean buildings would have been earthquake resistant in the absence of building codes. One commentator offers the extreme view that the building codes had no effect, while others offer the other extreme. I think the truth is in the middle.

Budget Thoughts from Steny Hoyer

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is building a reputation as one of our most thoughtful leaders when it comes to budget matters. Thus I commend to you the speech on fiscal responsibility he gave at the Brookings Institution today.

Highlights include his criticism of “selfish” budget choices:

[W]hen it comes to budgeting, what is politically easy is often fiscally deadly. It is easier to pay for tax cuts with borrowed money than with lower spending; easier to hide the true costs of war than to lay those costs before the people; easier to promise special cost-of-living adjustments than explain why an increase is not justified under the formula in law; easier to promise 95% of Americans that we won’t consider raising their taxes than to ask all Americans to contribute for the common good. Those kinds of easy choices are so often selfish choices—because they leave the chore of cleaning up to someone else. Easy choices may be popular—but the popularity is bought on credit.

And his discussion of budget options:

On the side of entitlement spending, an agreement might recognize that Americans are living longer lives and raise the retirement age over a period of years, or even peg the retirement age to lifespan. Another option is to make Social Security and Medicare benefits more progressive, while strengthening the safety net for low-income Americans. That could preserve those programs as a central part of our social compact, while protecting their ability to help those of us in the greatest need.

On the side of revenues, President Obama was correct in refusing to take any options off of the commission’s table. No one likes raising revenue, and understandably so. But if you’re going to buy, you need to pay. … If need be, I am hopeful that both parties will agree to look at revenues as part of the solution—not as a gateway to higher spending, but as part of a compromise that cuts spending and balances the budget.

I don’t agree with everything Leader Hoyer has to say in his speech (e.g., I am much more concerned about the budget impacts of the pending health bills, and I view the recent PAYGO bill less favorably because of its many exceptions). But I appreciate how seriously he takes these issues.

P.S. Bruce Bartlett also recommends the speech.