The Republic of T.

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Conservatism’s Disastrous Disaster-Relief Model

In recent years, the metro-DC area has faced its share of natural disasters. There was the derecho, and before that, there was the earthquake. Both of those were unexpected disasters. Now we sit waiting for Hurricane Sandy, a potentially devastating disaster that was forecasted weeks ago, to make landfall.

But there’s an even bigger disaster looming behind this hurricane. It’s not a natural disaster, but an ideological disaster that could strike the whole country, and promises to cost more in terms of human misery and human life than any natural disaster we’ve faced so far.

By now, you’ve probably seen the video from a 2011 GOP primary debate that’s been making the rounds. It features Mitt Romney calling disaster relief “immoral” and suggesting that a Romney administration would cut FEMA funding.

First Romney says: “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”

“Including disaster relief, though?” debate moderator John King asked Romney.

His response:

We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.

Even if you read between the lines, as David Frum tries to do, it doesn’t come off much better. At best, Romney dodged the question. But his answer (and this is why Frum immediately pivots Obama’s answer to a question about Israel during the third presidential debate) is basically a generic version of Ron Paul’s position on the role of government.

Taking his anti-government ideology to its logical extreme, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) told NBC News’ Jo Ling Kent today that there should be no national response to Hurricane Irene, and that government responses should revert back to how they were over 100 years ago. “We should be like 1900, we should be like 1940 1950 1960,” he said. “I live on the gulf coast, we deal with hurricanes all the time.” Of course, the Gulf Coast sometimes deals with them less well thanks to a botched national response. Paul, who has called for abolishing FEMA, dismissed the organization because it is “a great contribution to deficit financing.”

Mitt’s position on disaster relief also lines up with the Heritage Foundation, which jumped on the bandwagon with an email about Hurricane Sandy this morning. Buried three paragraphs deep in that email was a reference to a post touting “individual-based” disaster relief.

After the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005, Washington was justly criticized for the shortfalls in federal assistance.[1] However, too much attention was given to the role of government and too little to the efforts of those who can and should make the biggest difference in the critical first hours and days of a crisis-people in the communities themselves. The greatest advance that America could make in preparing for catastrophic disasters is to build better individual-based programs, a culture of preparedness, and resilient and self-reliant communities.

Achieving this goal requires thinking differently. Throwing money at states through homeland security grants or turning the responsibility over to the federal government entirely will not make Americans much safer. Instead, Washington should play a limited role, enabling and encouraging states and communities to take the lead by empowering individuals to care for themselves and others during disasters.

Leave it to the Heritage Foundation to lead off by citing a classic example of conservative failure like Hurricane Katrina to make their case. Without, of course a hint of irony.

The Romney disaster relief model is essentially the same as the Ron Paul model and the Heritage model: “empower” state and local governments, by cutting funding and then cutting them lose.

Frum points out that Romney “appears to endorse returning FEMA’s functions to the states,” but misses the point that the Romney/Ryan budget would severely limit the states’ resources for disaster relief. An August Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report notes that the Romney/Ryan budget would shift substantial costs to states and localities, on top of deep cuts to cut state and local services.

FEMA-RyanStates and local areas hit by natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and tornadoes often seek help from the federal government. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, at a governor’s request, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helps people affected by the disaster get food, water, and shelter, and can help with search-and-rescue missions and providing electric power. FEMA also helps states and local governments repair or replace public facilities and infrastructure, which often is not insured. This form of discretionary federal aid would be subject to cuts under the Ryan budget. If it were scaled back substantially, states and localities would need to bear a larger share of the costs of disaster response and recovery, or attempt to make do with less during difficult times.

Federal discretionary funds also help states, cities, and other local governments hire police officers. Big cuts in funds to hire police officers would shift more of the cost of hiring these officers to state and local budgets.

According to the CBPP report, the Romney/Ryan budget would cut this type of federal discretionary funding three times deeper than sequestration scheduled to begin in January, bringing funding far state and local service far below historic levels.

These cuts would ladle out more pain to states that are already hurting due to conservative opposition to and obstruction of numerous bills to create or protect jobs — including measures to keep police officers and fire fighters on the job, and bring back those who’ve been laid-off due to conservative “So be it” economics leading to the loss of thousands of state and local government service jobs.

The effect would be virtually the same as going “back to how they were over 100 years ago,” or at least make things more “like 1940 1950 1960.”

Public workers were on the front line during hurricane Irene aiding residents and keeping their communities safe during the storm — some even lost their lives doing so. Governors, even Republican governors, praised the federal government’s response. All in all, the federal governmetn worked pretty well. (So did state governments.)

The Irene government would seem to have its benefits. Before the storm struck, 18 FEMA teams deployed from Florida to Maine, repositioning as the emphasis moved to New England. Food, water, generators and tarps were in place along the storm’s path. In Vermont, when the storm forced evacuation of the state emergency operations center, the workers relocated to a FEMA facility. In North Carolina, FEMA provided in-the-dark local authorities with generator power. And everywhere, FEMA, given new authority by Congress after Katrina, didn’t have to wait for states to request help.

“We have to go fast; we have to base it upon the potential impacts,” Fugate said Monday, describing the Irene response. “That’s why we look at these forecasts we get from the hurricane center, and we make the decisions based upon what the potential impacts could be. If you wait till you know how bad it is, it becomes harder to change the outcome.”

That’s one model. The other model is to have a weak federal government, without the funds to forecast storms or to launch a robust emergency response in time to do any good. You might call that the Tea Party model.

In the tea party model, there are no public sector and no public workers who will rescue people regardless of their ability to pay.Those aren’t “real jobs” anyway, as far as Republicans are concerned.

It doesn’t matter that you go to a workplace, perform a task or service, and earn a paycheck for that performing task or service. It’s possible you still don’t have a “real job.” Just like not all Americans are “real Americans,” not all jobs are “real jobs.” That’s what Republicans mean when they say “government doesn’t create jobs.”

Boehner’s off-the-cuff remarks. reminded me of a long debate that I once had with a libertarian conservative, who insisted that the government couldn’t create jobs. As it went on, our discourse revealed that his arguments were based on the assumption that jobs created by government can’t really be jobs, because government jobs — and jobs created or subsidized by government — are not “real jobs,” and “real jobs” are only created in the private sector. If it’s not done for profit, it’s not a “real job,” and probably doesn’t need doing and shouldn’t be done in the first place.

In their model, there’s no FEMA, because Republicans in congress defunded it through neglect, and we’ve “come to our senses” and gone backwards in time to 1900, when the Hurricane of 1900 killed somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people, compared to Irene’s meager body-count of 40.

With no FEMA and no National Weather Service to warn about disasters — and a lot less charity, which is not recession-proof — here’s what conservative model of disaster relief might look like.

Some states may have their own services, but there’s just a much of a chance that many won’t. So, how much of a warning you get — if any — will depend on (a) if you could afford to pay for the service or (b) if you live in a state that has its own agencies that do what federal agencies use to, then you might be in luck. But if you don’t, and don’t know anyone who subscribed to an early warning service who is willing to share that information with you (parasite that you are), you may be out of luck.

Think of it as Titanic-style disaster aid: First  class customers first.

Those who have their own transportation, and subscribe to warning services will be able to get themselves out of harm’s way. Those who have neither would be denounced as deserving heir fate — as were those left behind in Katrina’s, even as the waters rose around them — for the moral failure of  not having the means to get themselves out of harm’s way.

There is the possibility that private firms might find it profitable to provide evacuation services, possibly the same ones that provide the early warning subscription services.In fact, this could be a lucrative new market for the insurance industry. Buy one policy to repair the damage after disaster, and by an extra policy to get you away from the disaster.

Membership cards could guarantee holders seats on buses that would take them out of harms way. There may even be an opportunity for different levels of subscription there. A platinum membership could get you a private car and driver to deliver you to a reserved hotel suite, far from the ravages of the storm, flood, hurricane or other disaster. A gold membership might get you a seat on a shuttle van and room (not a suit) in a cheaper hotel. A silver membership could get you a seat on bus, and an even cheaper hotel room. And a bronze membership could get you a ticket on a crowded bus that drops you just beyond disaster’s reach, leaving you to your own devices from there.

The price for platinum and gold memberships could also include the tolls for the private roads that would provide a more direct and less crowded route to safety than the what’s left of the old, unmaintained, formerly public roads. That is, the ones profitable enough to privatize, because they’re in or lead to poorer areas where few paying customers live.

Failing that, there could be a private market for shelters were you can ride out the storm in relative comfort. Family or group rates could make it more affordable. Package deals could even include entertainment and meals, while those customers who aren’t gold members could pay for available tickets.

For the rest, who can afford none of this, some states may provide shelters and transportation to them, while others might provide shelters but no transportation, etc. Some, of course, will provide nothing at all, perhaps using the same justification heard during Katrina: if people lack them means to save themselves, it serves them right, and they don’t deserve saving. Their plight instead should serve as a teachable moment for young people. The lesson: Don’t be poor.

It’s the difference between “You’re On Your Own” vs “We’re In This Together.”

Protecting the rights of individuals has always been a core American value. Yet in recent years the emphasis on individualism has been pushed to the point where, like the diners in hell, we’re starving. This political and social philosophy is hurting our nation, endangering our future and that of our children, and, paradoxically, making it harder for individuals to get a fair shot at the American dream.

This extreme individualism dominates the way we talk about the most important aspects of our economic lives, those that reside in the intersection of our living standards, our government, and the future opportunities for ourselves and our children. The message, sometimes implicit but often explicit, is, You’re on your own. Its acronym, YOYO, provides a useful shorthand to summarize this destructive approach to governing.

…We need an alternative vision, one that applauds individual freedom but emphasizes that such freedom is best realized with a more collaborative approach to meeting the challenges we face. The message is simple: We’re in this together. Here, the acronym is WITT.

Though this alternative agenda uses the scope and breadth of the federal government to achieve its ends, this book is not a call for more government in the sense of devoting a larger share of our economy to government spending. In fact, there is surprisingly little relationship between the ideological agenda of those in charge and the share of the economy devoted to the federal government. To the contrary, some of the biggest spenders of federal funds have been purveyors of hyper-individualism (with G. W. Bush at the top of the list). But, regardless of what you feel the government’s role should be in the economy and society, an objective look at the magnitude of the challenges we face shows we must restore the balance between individual and collective action. We simply cannot effectively address globalization, health care, pensions, economic insecurity, and fiscal train wrecks by cutting taxes, turning things over to the market, and telling our citizens they’re on their own, like the gold prospectors of the 1800s, to strike it rich or bust.

Now, imagine dealing with disaster like Hurricane Sandy — which might impact up to 50 million people, up and down the eastern seaboard — under the “You’re On Your Own” model. Imagine the body count.

Mitt Romney, like Ron Paul and the Heritage Foundation, want to cut disaster relief in the name reducing the deficit to safeguard our children’s future. Yet, they’d sacrifice that future by leaving millions of them on their own in the face of disaster.

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