Private Firefighters

Some of California’s ultrarich are benefiting from an additional level of protection. Speficially, some AIG policyholders are paying for pretty extraordinary preventive measures.

The Wildfire Protection Unit has six trucks outfitted to spray Phos-Chek, the fire retardant used by the U.S. Forest Service. Customers can have Phos-Chek sprayed on brush surrounding their homes before each fire season. During a wildfire, the trucks are sent out whenever a fire comes within three miles of a home and spray all combustible areas.

Such protection doesn’t come cheap. It’s available only to customers of AIG Private Client Group, which serves affluent individuals and their families. The average customer spends $19,000 a year on the insurance, which may also cover yachts, art collections and ransom demands, Rivera said.

Fellow TAS contributor Chris Hayes thinks this is a bad thing. It is, in his view, yet another reflection of our New Gilded Age.

It’s a little known fact that back in the 19th century, most fire-fighting was done by private companies. The way it worked is that you would pay a certain company to protect you and in exchange they’d give a medallion that you would put on your building. Of course, this didn’t work out very well. But why not give it another try in the 21st century?

Of course, this is not how AIG’s Wildfire Protection Unit works. Rather, it offers a level of service that would be impracticable for a publicly-funded Fire Department. So the question is, should we legally prevent wealthy individuals from spending large sums to provide an additional level of protection to their properties?

To my mind, the idea that publicly-funded Fire Departments would expend substantially more effort defending a vast, sprawling estate against fire than a small ranch home seems inegalitarian. The expectation that public resources ought to be deployed in an equitable manner strikes me as valuable and important, even basic. And yet imposing a ceiling on the level of protection seems (a) difficult to enforce and (b) pointlessly punitive.

This represents a clash of two egalitarianisms, and it is a conflict that arises in many social democracies. If a wealthy person wants to pursue exotic medical treatments on her own dime, does she have a right to do so? Or should she be legally prevented from doing so on grounds of offense against equality?

I like the idea of leveling up. I don’t like the idea of leveling down. And of course the now-rare technologies and techniques deployed by AIG’s Wildfire Protection Unit will become steadily less expensive over time, so much so that they will become increasingly commonplace. At some point in the future, my guess is that publicly-funded Fire Departments will deploy similar resources. But that’s only because a handful of ultracautious pioneers were willing to fund the relevant innovations.

I have a hard time seeing this as a bad thing.