I was watching At Issue this morning and they were discussing the current debate in Minnesota about requiring new homes to be equipped with sprinkler systems. Here’s a good link to a discussion of this issue, going through costs and benefits, and providing some facts about house fires. The House rejected such an idea, but the Senate could take it up.
I was just hearing about it for the first time, and of course the libertarian streak in me thought “If I want to put a sprinkler system in my home, I’ll probably pay less in homeowner’s insurance, but that should be a choice I make, not one the goverment imposes on me.” I haven’t been through a house fire and I can’t remember anyone I know ever going through one. They’re not that common these days. In 2009, only 2,564 people died from a fire in a home. I say “only” because more people than that die each year while waiting for kidney transplants they never receive, but the government still won’t let people sell their kidneys to people whose lives would be saved. And now suddenly we have to require people to do spend $3,000 to $5,000 (plus 30 years of interest on it) so that we can stop all the deaths caused by housing fires?
When this came on the television, I said to my girlfriend Sam, “The real question is, how many houses catch on fire every year?” Is it even worth the cost? In 2009, firefighters responded to 362,500 home structure fires. There are over 128 million homes in this country, so your odds are pretty slim that you’ll need a fancy new sprinkler system in your home. As a sign of how much she’s rubbing off on me, my initial concern wasn’t even the price tag it would add to a new home. It was how it might affect the aesthetics of the ceiling.
And as a sign of how much I’m rubbing off on her, her answer to me was, “Actually, the question is, how many house fires result in neighboring houses catching fire?” In that one question, she showed me she understands externalities, insurance markets, and personal responsibility.
I was proud of her last week as we swam with dolphins, snorkeled, and ziplined our way through the treeline outside Puerto Vallarta, and she did it all like she’d been doing it for years. But I think I’m more proud of her for this.
P.S.: A note from a colleague: According to him, the estimated cost is closer to $12,000, and the number one issue with them is false alarms that cause major water damage. Since he’s an economist, he reminds me there are always both Type 1 and Type 2 error. This reminds me of a recent Valentine’s Day dinner gone wrong resulted in a small fire in the dining room. Apparently really tall candles can fall over relatively easily. Who knew? Anyway, I shudder to think that something like that, which we put out in 10 seconds and which caused essentially no damage, could have flooded our whole house.