A comedian’s take on Hurricane Sandy

Nato Green gives it a shot for The Rumpus:

Disasters are live-action infomercials for big government. A crisis will flex and strain the muscles and tendons of big government until government’s nipples bleed under their racing tank-top: the taut glutes of regulation, the shredded abs of infrastructure investment, the rippling quads of highly-trained and well-paid unionized workers with real safety standards.

At one extreme you have the ripped, disciplined, and prepared Michael Phelps of government springing into action. At the other extreme you have the malnourished, drug-addled, and skittish government wholly unable to prepare or respond to a disaster. Think Haiti after the earthquake.

There are plutocrats who in their pillow talk believe that if you are poor enough to be hurt by a storm, then that is the natural consequence of your foolish choice to be poor. If natural disasters create the occasional Malthusian spike in immiseration and death, then it will be good for dividends. At best, human suffering that doesn’t affect me is not my problem. The stalwarts of the 1% would gladly replace FEMA with the Federal Country Club Maintenance Administration.

Right now the merit of big, burly, over-reaching, centralized, government contrasts sharply with the exuberant villainization of all things public by both parties. Both parties love austerity while loathing debt, spending, regulation, public workers, and taxes. Both candidates wring their hands about the debt and compete over who is most on the free enterprise system’s nuts. The difference between Obama and Romney is in degree.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman urges us to consider the case of FEMA:

Like Mr. Clinton, President Obama restored FEMA’s professionalism, effectiveness, and reputation. But would Mitt Romney destroy the agency again? Yes, he would. As everyone now knows — despite the Romney campaign’s efforts to Etch A Sketch the issue away — during the primary Mr. Romney used language almost identical to Mr. Allbaugh’s, declaring that disaster relief should be turned back to the states and to the private sector.

The best line on this, I have to admit, comes from Stephen Colbert: “Who better to respond to what’s going on inside its own borders than the state whose infrastructure has just been swept out to sea?”

Look, Republicans love to quote Ronald Reagan’s old joke that the most dangerous words you can hear are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Of course they’ll do their best, whenever they’re in power, to destroy an agency whose job is to say exactly that. And yes, it’s hypocritical that the right-wing news media are now attacking Mr. Obama for, they say, not helping enough people.

Back to the politics. Some Republicans have already started using Sandy as an excuse for a possible Romney defeat. It’s a weak argument: state-level polls have been signaling a clear and perhaps widening Obama advantage for weeks. But as I said, to the extent that the storm helps Mr. Obama, it’s well deserved.

The fact is that if Mr. Romney had been president these past four years the federal response to disasters of all kinds would have been far weaker than it was. There would have been no auto bailout, because Mr. Romney opposed the federal financing that was crucial to the rescue. And FEMA would have remained mired in Bush-era incompetence.

So this storm probably won’t swing the election — but if it does, it will do so for very good reasons.

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It needed to be said

The New York Times went there last night:

Most Americans have never heard of the National Response Coordination Center, but they’re lucky it exists on days of lethal winds and flood tides. The center is the war room of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where officials gather to decide where rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.

Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr. Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further.

“Absolutely,” he said. “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.” Mr. Romney not only believes that states acting independently can handle the response to a vast East Coast storm better than Washington, but that profit-making companies can do an even better job. He said it was “immoral” for the federal government to do all these things if it means increasing the debt.

It’s an absurd notion, but it’s fully in line with decades of Republican resistance to federal emergency planning. FEMA, created by President Jimmy Carter, was elevated to cabinet rank in the Bill Clinton administration, but was then demoted by President George W. Bush, who neglected it, subsumed it into the Department of Homeland Security, and placed it in the control of political hacks. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina was just waiting to happen.

The agency was put back in working order by President Obama, but ideology still blinds Republicans to its value. Many don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions, which this week includes living on the East Coast.

The Washington Post went more in-depth to compare the two presidential candidates’ differing views on FEMA:

“Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

But this is exactly how the system currently works: Local and state officials respond to disasters and make requests of the federal government for additional supplies or money only when needed. Reforms enacted since Hurricane Katrina permit governors to make requests in advance to ensure that federal officials are on the ground to assist with initial damage assessments and more quickly report back to Washington for help.

For example, Obama has signed at least nine federal emergency disaster declarations in the past 24 hours at the request of state governors, directing FEMA to deploy more resources in anticipation of significant recovery efforts. He canceled campaign stops for Monday and Tuesday to return to the White House to oversee the federal government’s evolving storm response…

Jim Mullen, director of the Washington State Emergency Management Division and president of the National Emergency Management Association, said Obama’s legacy at FEMA has been restoring “strong professional emergency managers who can attract other emergency management professionals and support the ones already there and make certain that on this, at least, we should all be willing to put everything else aside and do what’s necessary for our country.”

Mitt Romney’s FEMA moment

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqXk5XxHKx8]

Mitt Romney’s comments in a June 2011 primary debate are gaining increasing traction as Hurricane Sandy (whipping in a frenzy right now just 15 feet away outside my window) approaches landfall in southern New Jersey. What he said:

JON KING: “FEMA’s about to run out of money, and there’s some people who say, ‘Do it on a case-by-case basis,’ and some people who say, ‘You know, maybe we’re learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role.’ How do you deal with something like that?”

MITT ROMNEY: “Absolutely. 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 ourselves the opposite question, what should we keep? We should take all of what we’re doing at the federal level and say, ‘What are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do?’ And those things we’ve got to stop doing.”

Over at the New Republic, Alec MacGillis parses the implications:

But I would wager that there was something else behind Romney’s answer: his embrace of glib federalism, specifically as a solution to his great Obamacare conundrum. Remember, just a few weeks prior to that debate, Romney had given a big speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan that was intended to resolve what at the time seemed like his greatest obstacle to the Republican nomination, his having signed the Massachusetts universal health care law that was the model for the Affordable Care Act. In that speech, Romney made clear that he would wrangle his way around this not by disowning the Massachusetts law, but by simply declaring that it should be up to states, not the federal government, to decide how to cover their uninsured: “Our plan was a state solution to a state problem. And [President Obama’s] is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a one size fits all plan across the nation.”

As my colleague Jonathan Cohn and others noted at the time, there were all sorts of problems with this distinction, including the fact that Massachusetts would not have been able to carry out its universal program without considerable help from the federal government. But the biggest flaw with the “let the states address the problem” approach is, quite simply, that many states don’t really see their uninsured as a problem. The political leadership in much of the country, especially but not only in the South, has again and again opted against expanding health coverage, notably by refusing to raise income eligibility thresholds for Medicaid coverage (in Texas, Virginia and many other states, an adult earning as little as $10,000 per year is considered too well-off to qualify.) This, as Jonathan wrote in a major piece last month, is a big reason why we do social legislation such as Medicare and Social Security and the Affordable Care Act on a nationwide basis: to assure a basic level of security even for people in states where there would otherwise be very little effort made to fill the gap.

Romney of course knows this—it’s why he was, at various points before health care became a toxic issue, suggesting the law he signed as a model for a nationwide solution. And he surely knows why we have a national FEMA, and why leaving disaster relief to the states would mean a patchwork quilt that might be fine for wealthy, well-governed states such as Massachusetts but deeply inadequate in poor, disaster-prone states such as Louisiana or Mississippi (not to mention that all states are fundamentally ill-suited for disaster relief because they, unlike the feds, must balance their budgets every year and so cannot borrow big-time to pay for a disastrous patch.) But to make himself fit for the Republican Party in 2012, Romney figured he’d cast his Massachusetts moderation in the guise of federalism. And, let’s face it, it’s brought him very far.