Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Disaster relief and the American welfare state

Sandy Levinson

First tornadoes, now floods of historic proportions. It would surely not be surprising if President Obama not only visits Mississippi and Louisiana, just as he earlier visited Alabama, but also signs further “disaster relief” and “state of emergency” proclamations. These will serve, among other things, to transfer resources from the national government to the localities and individuals who have suffered losses.

No doubt, most Americans will approve. This is, after all, what members of a community do when their neighbors are in need. But there is nothing self-evident about the legitimacy of disaster relief. There were real debates in the late 1700s about the propriety of the national government helping out Savannah, Georgia, or Alexandria, Virginia, after being ravaged by terrible fires. What, after all, was the "general welfare" interest involved? Let Georgians and Virginians take care their own, and leave the national government out of it, said many Jeffersonians. Ron Paul, currently running for the Republican nomination for President on a de-facto libertarian platform, is very much in this tradition. He has recurrently voted against disaster relief. "Is bailing out people that chose to live on the coastline a proper function of the federal government?" he has asked. Why do people in Arizona have to be robbed in order to support the people on the coast?"

Indeed, Paul is very much in the spirit of an earlier Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, who in 1887 vetoed an act to help “drought-stricken counties of Texas.” Cleveland readily conceded that “there has existed a condition calling for relief.” However, the fact that Congress wished “to indulge a benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds” did not justify his signing the bill. He could, he said, “find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.” The Constitution does speak of spending for the “general welfare,” but Cleveland harrumphed that what was taking place in Texas counted only as “individual suffering” the relief of which would contribute nothing to the “general welfare” properly understood. “A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of [national] power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people.

Cleveland has long since been forgotten, and properly so, by his Democratic successors.. More to the point, most Democrats have a capacious notion of “disaster” than can include, for example, millions of Americans out of work because of structural changes in the economy for which they bear no conceivable responsibility. Republicans, on the other hand, sound more and more like Cleveland, even if most of them may still be willing to support relief for those “lucky enough” to be the victims of raging rivers or tempestuous tornadoes. But generally the modern Repubilcan Party, when confronted with the vulnerable in our society, has adopted Gerald Ford's unforgettable message--yes, I know he never said it in these exact words--to New York: "Drop dead." In Texas, for example, any semblance of a “welfare” state is being destroyed by Republicans whose expectations of “rugged independence” appear to extend to both children and the elderly who might need medical care. Education is being wrecked on the altar of “no new taxes.” Governor Perry even flirted with secessionist arguments during his campaign for re-election and otherwise has expressed only contempt for the national government.

However, guess what. Our paragon of rugged independence was more than happy to beg for federal aid to fight fires in West Texas. President Obama did not find the Texas fires worthy of federal disaster relief, noting that the national government has already ponied up considerable funds to help Texans fight various natural disasters. On can only wonder why Perry and other Republican governors--as they lead a vicious assault on the welfare state--feel any sense of "entitlement" to help from the national government. After all, many of these natural disasters, as Ron Paul suggests, are eminently predictable? (Who would imagine tornadoes in Alabama, flooding along the Mississippi, or hurricanes in Florida or Louisiana?) Why haven’t these states been buying insurance against such eventualities instead of depending on the national government to step in and help? Shouldn’t they find Grover Cleveland, and his stunning lack of anything that could be described as a “bleeding heart,” an inspiration?

Unfortunately, President Obama, ever the gentleman, is much too tactful to explain to Republican recipients of “disaster relief” that they are no more “deserving” than are other victims of privation in our country. I am personally glad that federal funds are being sent to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama to help them out in their moment of trauma. But, then, I’m a bleeding-heart liberal who doesn’t find Grover Cleveland a model President and am glad to pay taxes at least some of which go to aid those who are less fortunate than I am. I only wish that those seeking and benefitting from such handouts will think twice the next time that their governors and representatives in Washington rail against the welfare state and call on citizens simply to tighten their belts and take responsibility for their own futures, whatever the consequences. But I won't hold my breath.


I suppose Rick Perry is happy enough to ask for federal disaster aid for the same reason you and Obama are happy enough to pay taxes at the Bush tax rates even though you are perfectly free to pay more, and have criticized these rates for years. Just because you would support a different policy doesn't mean you are required to unilaterally adopt that policy for yourself. Thus, Obama paid 453K in federal taxes on income of 1.7 million, for an effective rate of 26%. If he was being consistent like you apparently expect Texas to be, he should have paid 39.6% pr $673,000. And yet he didn't. And while I haven't seen your tax returns, I have a funny feeling you paid as little in taxes as legally required despite blogging repeatedly about how scandalously low our tax rates are for the rich. Funny how that works.

Governor Perry never opposed FEMA nor does FEMA providing disaster assistance violate the law or spirit of federalism. Even if Perry opposed spending tax money on FEMA, it is not hypocritical for the Texas governor to seek the FEMA benefits for which Texas paid over Perry's objections.

When a Democratic administration which prides itself in shoveling out government money to the states by the hundreds of billions of dollars shifts course and denies comparatively tiny FEMA requests from three rather popular GOP governors in TX, VA and NJ (two of them potential 2012 challengers), it raises eyebrows.

Of course, this is probably just right wing paranoia. After all, an Administration which perpetrated the "Cornhusker kickback" and the "Louisiana purchase" to enact health insurance legislation and then excuses its union allies and a series of ritzy clubs and restaurants in the Dem House minority leader's district from the law's strictures can surely be trusted to objectively hand out FEMA money.

Perhaps Gov. Perry doesn't oppose FEMA. The question is why not, since it's patently a redistributive program that violates the principle of "rugged independence" and "let the losses fall where they may."

After all, Ron Paul has the intellectual integrity to oppose disaster relief. Is Mr. DePalma a "faint-hearted libertarian" after all, more than happy to take the taxes of hard-working New Yorkers and others when Colorado comes calling?

Is it not time to explain to the people in this country that believe that government is the problem that when they ask for federal relief that it comes from the government and the tax payers. Does it not lead to deeper and deeper deficits? Does it not cry out that to belong to a society you need to support it.....via taxes. I'm sure that many of the senators who this week refused to vote for tax changes to oil companies now want federal aid for their states. Now is the time to shout from the roof tops that without a federal government we can not and will exist.
hal lewis

Hal said...Is it not time to explain to the people in this country that believe that government is the problem that when they ask for federal relief that it comes from the government and the tax payers.

Finding problems with the federal government is a target rich environment. FEMA is one of the few things the government does right - so long as it is not used as a political tool.

The choice is not between anarchy and bloated oppressive progressivism. It is possible to recognize that government only does a few things well and to concentrate on those.

Our yodeler observes:

"FEMA is one of the few things the government does right - so long as it is not used as a political tool."

Yet our yodeler does not follow up with FEMA following Katrina, of course during the Bush/Cheney Administration. Did Bush/Cheney use FEMA as a political tool? Did FEMA do right following Katrina?

Disaster relief is not welfare. Bleeding heart liberals are usually for bleeding other people's wallets, but you're just plain wrong here.

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I was just discussing this with my Cardiologist Plano TX the other day and he moved to Texas after Hurricane Katrina decimated his home in New Orleans. And as we all know, FEMA failed there and no one has taken the initiative to truly revamp it as it needs to be. Not a lot of people understand how disaster relief works until disaster strikes them. By then, it's too late.

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