Weekly Briefing

Who ya’ gonna call?

Hurricane provides another powerful reminder of why we need public structures and systems

In the aftermath of this week’s disastrous hurricane/“superstorm,” the New York Times published an utterly reasonable editorial entitled: “A big storm requires big government.” In it, the authors rightfully lambasted a prominent political candidate who has been arguing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be dismantled and farmed out to state governments and/or the private sector.

As the article notes:

It’s an absurd notion, but it’s fully in line with decades of Republican resistance to federal emergency planning. FEMA, created by President Jimmy Carter, was elevated to cabinet rank in the Bill Clinton administration, but was then demoted by President George W. Bush, who neglected it, subsumed it into the Department of Homeland Security, and placed it in the control of political hacks. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina was just waiting to happen.

The agency was put back in working order by President Obama, but ideology still blinds Republicans to its value. Many don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions, which this week includes living on the East Coast.

Over the last two years, Congressional Republicans have forced a 43 percent reduction in the primary FEMA grants that pay for disaster preparedness. Representatives Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and other House Republicans have repeatedly tried to refuse FEMA’s budget requests when disasters are more expensive than predicted, or have demanded that other valuable programs be cut to pay for them.”

Let’s hope that this week’s disaster – an event of the kind that seems likely to be increasingly common in years to come as storms become more frequent and intense – will serve to validate the views expressed in the Times editorial and hold the anti-FEMA viewpoint up to the derision it so richly deserves. Here is at least one basic function of government, it would seem, on which the overwhelming majority of Americans can agree: We need a robust and well-funded network of emergency responders and public systems to protect and serve the citizenry when natural disasters strike.

Far from the only needs

But, of course, destructive storms are far from the only events that lend themselves to large, well-funded and intentional public problem solving. As even a moment’s reflection reminds us, there are hundreds of societal problems that cry out for organized, publicly-planned and publicly executed solutions. This is why human society came together to form government in the first place!

Think about it: From the national army that helped the United States win its independence to the vast public works that helped make possible the population of the continent to the once general national illiteracy conquered by the availability of free public education to the public health programs that conquered disease and lifted life expectancy, the American story is in many ways the story of our public structures and systems. Sure, the accompanying growth of our vast private economy was also a remarkable and important achievement as well; one can’t easily build a system of robust public structures without the wealth generated in the capitalist economy.

But, of course, the opposite is frequently true as well. Just ask the businesses in lower Manhattan today (including the very hub of capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange itself) that are relying upon public programs to drain their streets, repair the public transportation system and protect them from fire, crime and disease.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that government and a thriving private economy are not enemies; they are, in fact, in a symbiotic relationship. You can’t have one without the other. Indeed, it is government—though its functioning judicial, law enforcement and monetary systems—that makes private contracts enforceable. Take away the institutions of government and we’re back to some Darwinian state of nature in which “the law” is truly whatever the person with the most money and biggest gang of enforcers says it is.

The tragedy of the current debate

Sadly, however, it is the hard reality of the modern American political debate that these simple truths are lost on a noisy and increasingly well-funded minority. For a host of reasons – some legitimate, but most of them twisted and unfounded – a lot of people in our country have fallen for the absurd bill of goods that government is the enemy of wealth, health and freedom. Rather than seeing the flaws, excesses and corruption of some public institutions for what they are (i.e. inevitable, but predictable human problems that must be constantly battled and curbed) these troubled souls want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and literally do away with the public institutions that have made so much of our freedom and prosperity possible. They want, as one troubled right-wing hero, put it so execrably, to shrink government down to the size where we can “drown it in the bathtub.”

And so, rather than contemplating great and monumental human achievements of the kind the Americans once took as their birthright – be it solving our planetary environmental crises, ending armed conflict, expanding human rights for all people or exploring the stars – here we are in 2012, debating whether everyone in the world’s richest country should have access to decent and affordable health care or a chance to go to college, or, for heaven’s sake, the right to expect their national government to respond to natural disasters.

A teachable moment?

In the aftermath of this week’s storm, thousands of dedicated public servants are fanning out across the eastern seaboard to aid in the process of returning our society to some sense of normalcy. Perhaps as the light bulbs come on in millions of homes, they’ll be accompanied by a light bulb of awareness and recognition for some segment of the people served. Indeed, there would be no better possible result from the tragedy of recent days than if a few million extra Americans finally came to understand the critical ways in which their freedom and prosperity are made possible by and dependent on the public structures and systems that bind our society.

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