Tuesday, October 30. 2012
Woke up this morning thinking of the folly of drowning the federal government in a bathtub. For starters, like without the US National Hurricane Center would be much more precarious. Otherwise, who would have suspected that when Hurricane Sandy crossed Jamaica on Oct. 22 a week later it would drop 24 inches of snow on West Virginia? More important, of course, were the storm surge warnings and evacuations. For a recounting of death before such warnings see Erik Larson's book on the 1900 Galveston hurricane, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, although recognize that even then Isaac Cline was a federal employee, working for the U.S. Weather Bureau. The Norquist mob would have had him in their sights as well, and may well relish how close he literally came to drowning.
Forecasting helps. For the past week responsible authorities have been preparing to repair the inevitable breaks and disruptions that the storm was expected to leave. The cleanup may look messy, but it would be far worse without the preparation and the concern, and that happens because of and through government -- which is right, because only the government represents the interest and will of the people. Private businesses may look out for themselves, and charities may help patch some of the cracks, but only government moves deliberately enough to make a big difference. (That is, of course, when it does try -- something Bush's patronage cronies had trouble understanding.) Ronald Reagan once joked that the most fearsome words in the English language were, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Funny line, except in the midst of a disaster. In such times, no one sits around contemplating how the free market is going to come to their rescue. No matter what their political stripes, they demand action from their government: lots of it, and now.
I suppose the good thing about a disaster is that it helps focus the mind. Otherwise, some people can get pretty confused. Take, please, Mitt Romney. Ed Kilgore quotes Ryan Grim, quoting Romney (for video, follow the Grim link):
Decentralizing government is fine and dandy in principle, but it doesn't necessarily work, and is certain to fail for disaster relief. The obvious problem is that the states have much tighter budgets -- they have to pay as they go, which means they'd have to save ahead of disasters (most likely through buying private market insurance), whereas the feds not only have deeper pockets, they can refill them as needed. You might try arguing that you can have the feds fund (or at least insure) the states, but you'd still get a whole series of inefficiencies and inequities: redundant or missing expertise, coordination problems (many disasters, like Sandy, cross borders), inconsistent policies and red tape. Even now, with the feds doing most of the work, you have vast differences from state to state -- Florida, which has a lot of practice, is relatively effective in doling out federal money, while Mississippi and Louisiana don't seem to be able to do anything competently (or without the taints of corruption and racism).
Romney compounds his ideological delusions about disaster relief with further idiocy about the federal debt. The core fact is that the federal debt, unlike your mortgage or car payment, does not have to be paid off -- not in your lifetime, or in your children's, or in their children's. Sure, that doesn't mean that you can expand it infinitely, but it means there's no clock-running-out scenario. (Also, things get tougher for debts that are denominated in other currencies, as you can see from Greece, Spain, etc. But US debt is exclusively denominated in dollars, and within some limits can be floated in inflated dollars.) Such harping on the debt only works if you assume government have to live like you do -- an assumption that defies our every experience. (Another telling joke: if you owe a bank a thousand dollars, that's your problem, but if you owe the bank a billion, that's the bank's problem.)
The point Romney and other deficit hawks are trying to drive home is the idea that we're broke, and when we're broke we can't afford things no matter how much we need them. (So suck it up, and plod along until you can. Better yet, get rich like Romney -- ignoring that he did it all with borrowed money, the debts for which he was able to pass on to the companies he ruined.) But when disaster hits, debt is often the only way out: e.g., you need to clean up the muck and broken windows in order for your your business to earn the cash to pay for repairs. And disaster shakes loose your illusions about individualism, so it's not just about you: if you repair your business but your neighbors do not, your location is soon worthless. Likewise, you depend on access roads being repaired, the power grid; you depend on public sanitation and health; you depend on police and firemen and courts and a solvent government, and those are all things that federal disaster relief make possible. And you depend on the economy bouncing back so people will buy from your business. The Republican dream of drowning the government will make all of that impossible. "Starving the beast" just withers the hand you may someday depend on to rescue you.
John Nichols has another piece that quotes the same Romney transcript. Alex Seitz-Wald has another; also later a piece not on what Romney was thinking but on what he's doing in face of the actual disaster: collecting canned goods, the ultimate hack charity drive:
Today, we got a look at Romney's charity in action, when he held an event that he swears was not a campaign rally in Ohio aimed at "storm relief" (the choice of a song with the lyrics "Knee deep in the water somewhere" was perhaps ill advised). The Romney campaign encouraged attendees to bring canned goods, clothes and other items to be sent to hurricane victims. "We have a lot of goods here . . . that these people will need," Romney said in his brief remarks. "We're going to box them up, then send them into New Jersey."
Most likely he just wanted a photo op to look like he was doing something at a time when the actual president was -- a structural problem which, I think, is one of the reasons why we shouldn't let sitting presidents run for reëlection. Looks like Romney also flipped on getting rid of FEMA, although from what little sense I can make of his new position the least I can say is he didn't make a very clean landing.
While we're at it, Republicans are often confused about who actually benefits from that government largesse they incessantly moan about. Like the old canard about how everyone overestimates how much federal money goes to foreign aid, they also have (and prey upon) a truly irrational fear of supporting the needy (and unworthy). In fact, an awful lot of what government does is to support businesses and their owners, and disaster aid is one of many chunks that fit. Indeed, you have to wonder when the rich are going to wise up and realize that they need the government much more than the poor do, and that the wholesale destruction of public goods and values is going to come back to hurt them. Robert H. Frank has a piece that starts to make this case, although he could go a lot further. The piece is called "Higher Taxes Help the Richest, Too." More on that, later.
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