Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Philosophies for and against FEMA

The continued devastation from Hurricane (and later categorically downgraded) Sandy raises a number of concerns about how and where we live. Amazingly, media outlets have raised the possibility that the extreme weather we've been experiencing globally is connected to changes in our climate. There is still great hesitancy on the part of pundits and politicians (and even the people at The Weather Channel), but it's an improvement. But that's not what this post is about.

Something else has been striking to me the last few days. Jonathan Chait wrote, in New York Magazine, a piece entitled, "Why Democrats Are Right to Politicize Sandy." He began the article this way:
Disasters are inherently political, because government is political, and preventing and responding to disasters is a primary role of the state. But there is an innate tension in overtly politicizing a disaster. At the moment of greatest urgency, emotions run so hot that it’s hard to fairly assess the costs and benefits of disaster response. On the other hand, moments of normality are too cool, and it is far too easy to minimize the costs of preparing for an eventuality that is far from the horizon.
What you are going to see over the next week is an overt effort by Democrats to politicize the issue of disaster response. They’re right to do it. Conservatives are already complaining about this, but the attempt to wall disaster response off from politics in the aftermath of a disaster is an attempt to insulate Republicans from the consequences of their policies.

Regardless of one's politics, it's difficult to argue that such disasters are apolitical happenings. Built into any response to such situations is an inherently political dimension. As I'll briefly note below, these instances bright attention the the tensions and divisions that exist across the political spectrum about how we are to live as citizens in a society. It is because of this reality that praise from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who has stumped for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for President Obama is particularly noteworthy in a political realm so committed to attacking the other party. You can read more about an appreciative Christie here. A striking contrast is Michael Brown, President George W. Bush's FEMA director who is widely seen as mismanaging the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. He spoke of Obama's administration responding too quickly.

Scott Horsely of NPR adds to the growing discussion about what Sandy brings to light. Romney and Obama embody fundamentally different public philosophies about who we are as a people and what role institutions have in our society. They usually speak of their different visions for America. I guess "visions" are more digestible than speaking about one's public philosophy. Horsely writes,
For Obama, the federal government is a critical vehicle for that kind of help. Republicans put more faith in local government, and even voluntary efforts.
This tension is debated on the New York Times Opinion Page which further illuminates just how differently we view the role of government or the role of citizens self-organizing to respond to such crises. As this debate will surely continue, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that this question about the role of government isn't something new. We have long questioned how large and powerful a government to have. But as Paul Krugman asked just a few short years ago, what do we do when the private market isn't interested in think like monitoring the threat of natural disasters? And what do we do when there's not profit to be made in helping citizens, communities, and regions come back from complete devastation? It is difficult to make the case for a strong government response when a political party so unabashedly attacked government's role in keeping our society just that: a society.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wendell Berry and Necessary Wisdom

Photo by Pam Spaulding
In a powerful and passionate invitation, Wendell Berry continues to call us back into a relationship with one another and with our world that is more authentic. With too many lines fitting for critical reflection and sustained attention, Berry's 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture serves as a reminder of the dominance of a worldview that erodes another way of living and being. In one particular passage, Berry wrestles with the question about making sense of scale when issues are so large and abstract that they are simply numbers and not a felt and understood reality. He writes:
It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question: Can we--and, if we can, how can we--make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know? This obviously cannot be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought. Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all.
Berry's hope (and mine) is that we might reclaim a way of life that connects us intimately with one another. I long for the world Berry tells about from his account of his family's history in the same place. The local economy. The connected lives.

We have a share in a local farm. We walk (sometimes). But I also want to send me things I've ordered in two days time. I want to have both realities: the manifestation of community that is idealized in my mind and which may not exist and the many conveniences I enjoy today. But Berry challenges me to think more deeply about my decisions. The "cost" of our market mentality goes beyond comprehension, especially when we (finally) acknowledge the irreparable damage we've made to the earth.

Without too much of my own reflections, I would suggest and recommend you take the time to read Berry's words. They are rich and powerful. They capture an essential element of our story as Americans and as human beings. It's important to be reminded of how we've lived and how we might change. It's important to acknowledge the loss of affection in relation to profit or objective answers.

For the text of Berry's lecture, go here. For the video, follow this link.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Half time, looking back and forward

If you're like the estimated 100 million Americans who watched Sunday's Super Bowl, you presumably experienced numerous commercials (many with gratuitous demonstrations of the female body). Yet the one commercial I continue to think about came from the quintessential American--Clint Eastwood. If you didn't get to watch it, you can check it out right here.

Listen to what he says. He speaks about Americans working together, pulling together to save our economy and ourselves from despair. People are hurting and scared. Eastwood asks, "How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win?" Detroit and American auto manufacturing (and US manufacturing more broadly) was saved by the federal government. 

It was a few years ago so we've presumably forgotten all about that. It was a big deal. People called it the breaking point for American democracy (they were unaware that corporations would soon be citizens, although that didn't seem to bother those most vocal about the "bailout"). The Trouble Asset Relief Program was a big deal. It wasn't just the auto companies. But the biggest banks would much prefer for us to forget about their reception of copious amounts of money. 

Without going on about this, I want to simply call attention to the leading candidate for the Republican Party in this year's presidential election. Mitt Romney wrote an important piece that stands in sharp contrast to the words of Eastwood and the belief that many Americans now have about the role of the federal government with respect to the auto industry. Bailouts weren't and continue to be unpopular. But they served a purpose. In a time when money wasn't to be had, the government stepped up. It played an important role in helping to save and restructure an industry very important to this country. A recent Washington Post story highlights this point. 

Both Chrysler's video and the WP story point us back to Romney's op-ed in The New York Times. You can read that here. America is about more than free markets. It's about people and a way of life that is worthy of support from the government when necessary. Capitalism is very good and important. But we must acknowledge that we stand to lose a great deal when we only look at the numbers; when it's only about winners and losers in the world of competition. Behind the closures of factories are entire communities decimated and broken. People hurt and scared. And while unemployment is now down to 8.3%, we're not there yet. We need to continue to invest and improve this country. What scares me greatly right now as we look forward to the 2012 election is that we stand to shift course dramatically if Obama loses to the Republican candidate (presumably Romney). Being reminded of the differences between these two is important. Don't lose sight of how they view the world and the role of government.