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.