Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Disaster Funding

Attempting to solidify his "fiscal conservative" credentials, Mitt Romney wants to send responsibility for disaster relief back to the states, if not private industry. Continuing to handle disaster relief at a Federal level "jeopardizes the future for our kids" and is "immoral."

Which makes me wonder just how bad disasters have to get in this country to remind someone so out-of-touch why the Federal government started getting involved in this in the first place.

And maybe I've got the wrong definition of "fiscal conservative" in my mind, but I thought one of the bottom lines of that belief system was to make sure any tax dollars spent were done so in the most efficient and effective way possible, with a subtext of keeping the overall national economy sound. Removing disaster relief as a responsibility of the Federal government only makes sense if your definition of "fiscal conservatism" is don't spend any money, ever and you don't give a shit about localized or regional problems dragging down the whole national economy.

Here's something Romney needs to be reminded of: the states already pay for disaster relief. Private organizations already pay for disaster relief. Do you know why the Federal government also needs to be involved, Mitt? Because even with their efforts combined, the states and private organizations cannot touch the level of funding required to relieve even moderately sized disasters in terms of economic and material damage, let alone the big ones.

So let's look at the numbers from the big leagues of disasters. One low estimate places the damage figures of Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood at $81 Billion*, not including overall economic impact to the states and regions most affected or the nation at large. Keep in mind that, at the time, gasoline got up to $4 a gallon many places far, far away from the Gulf Coast.

Let's do a little common sense math. Compare that figure to the state budget of Louisiana for FY 2005 ($17.5 Billion), the state budget of Mississippi for 2005 (just under $13 Billion), and the state budget of Alabama for 2005 ($33.2 Billion).

All three of those total state budgets combined ($63.7 Billion) only make up 78% of the total low damage estimate. That means three states of the union most affected by Katrina and the levee failures would have had to spend every single tax dollar they recieved that year and it still wouldn't have covered the recovery. And that's a total figure, which means the states wouldn't be able to pay for anything else without massive deficit spending.

While private organizations contributed a tremendous effort and generous sums of money and materiel to the recovery, do you think they'd be able to come up with $17.3 BILLION?

Of course, the states could have rebuilt without Federal help, given a generation or three. But who can estimate the economic fallout to these most affected states, the larger regional impact, and to the Union at large if these areas were forced into a local or regionalized recovery that the most affected states couldn't pay for before the disaster destroyed huge swaths of their state economies?

I can only imagine that Louisiana would have had to levy higher duties on shipping interests bringing products through what was left of New Orleans to even begin making a dent in their recovery needs. The economic ripples would have affected every suburban commutuer in America who drives a car and every American whose diet depends on the Midwestern corn crop. Things that happen one place tend to affect the lives of others someplace else. A butterfly flaps its wings and all that.

Now run that same scenario against these figures. Or just look at the map (PDF).

Sure looks like a national problem needing national solutions to me. And if "conservatism" means we throw responsibility for all that back on the states, private organizations, and - make no mistake - the individual familes who fall victim to such disasters, maybe it is time to start thinking of "conservatism" as its own dirty word.

(* - NOAA estimates the damage at $133 Billion)


Dante said...

I don't find it very ideologically inconcictent for a fiscal conservative to peruse the Constitution, not see anything about disaster relief, and default to the 10th Amendment.

Do I agree? I'm still rolling around the idea in my head but I have to admit I'm pretty fond of what you present as a doomsday scenario. That disaster should impact the pocketbooks of those affected. It would put us all on the same team instead of giving so many people the notion that OUR money is being spent on THEIR problem.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

The only way it isn't inconsistent is if they refused to accept any legislation enacted by the Congress or decision made by the Supreme Court since the Constitution's adoption. I know that some folks hate the reference to the Interstate Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, but if there were any time to put those into play it would involve national response to natural and man-made disasters.

While it has problems, the Flood Control Act of 1928 specifically justified funding a national project of flood control through A) its affect on interstate commerce, B) the importance of protecting national prosperity from disasters (specifically, floods), and C) tying together states affected by disaster to states unaffected but relating to disaster.

It also accepted that local and state efforts to mitigate damage had been significant, but had not and could not be enough. All in all, it reads like a platform to justify national response to disaster in a way incompatible with the Randian philosophy we've seen promoted since 2005.

Dante said...

I was trying to think of a way to explain a point here and I think a Simpsons scene sets it up best:

Homer: See, Marge? I told you they could deep fry my shirt.
Marge: I didn't say they couldn't. I said you shouldn't.

There's a big difference between looking in the Constitution to justify your actions and just reading the Constitution to determine the role of the federal government. Your argument certainly fits into the former but not the latter. Ost conservatives would like to (in varying degrees) move towards the latter.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

I understand that, and have no problem with a conservative philosophy that looks to examine Constitutional mandates for the role of the Federal government. Hell, I wish "liberal" philosophy would do the same thing - right now they seem content to let their positions be completely defined by "conservatism." I think it is a good thing to pour over our governmental history for many reasons.

But you'll pardon me for thinking that the vast majority of individuals who play "conservative" on TV, the radio, and internet these days don't give a rat's behind about actual Constitution reasoning.

My problem arises when they so willfully ignore, misrepresent, and politicize legislative and judicial history to acheive singular partisan goals. As if one day, some power hungry folks in Washington were like, "hey, let's expand government into people's lives to clean up after hurricanes!"

Any discussion regarding the Federal government's Constitutional role in disaster relief, recovery, and managment is terribly incomplete without a faithful examination of how we went from 1789 to 2005 and beyond; why the Federal government's role was legislatively expanded and approved by judicial review. That's a discussion I think the nation would benefit from.

But that's not what we're getting from the likes of Romney.