This morning, I read a very misinformed and misleading editorial from the New York Times titled ‘A Big Storm Requires Big Government,’ The column begins thus:
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.
Before I read this column, I’m glad that I had spent hours watching coverage of Hurricane Sandy as it rushed ashore and shot straight over my home. I watched as the governors of NY, NJ, DE, and PA stood at podiums, as did many of their county and city officials, and presented an aura of command and leadership as they recited the logistical numbers regarding first responders, the locations of shelters (along with detailed contingency plans), and further warnings and advisories regarding anticipated weather conditions, road closures, and power disruptions. I saw these men on TV discussing mandatory evacuations and thought about all the hard lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina regarding the importance of readiness by local and state authorities. I saw each of these men do this without FEMA.
I also watched an interview with astronauts aboard the International Space Station (Commander Sunita Williams’ hair flailed around her like a peacock in all its gravity-free glory) and thought about the aging satellite fleet that will have gaps in its ability to monitor these storms starting in 2017 due to gross neglect.
Which leads to several themes:
- The difference between monetary support and logistical action.
- The belief that the federal government does everything better and with better foresight.
- The hypocrisy of the NY Times piece itself.
It’s ironic that the liberal media spent three days blasting Romney for allegedly “politicizing” the unfolding Benghazi attacks, an inherently political event, but had no issue rushing to “politicize” Hurricane Sandy as it unfolded, using a disaster that has already killed more than the “man-caused disaster” in Libya, to take a pot shot at a strawman version of Romney’s federalist arguments.
It’s also an exercise in contextual hypocrisy. Liberals who didn’t want to connect Obama’s “You didn’t build that” statement to its previous sentence are engaging in reductionist argument over the flow of Romney’s comments in the heat of a debate.
The following excerpts are from the NY Times editorial, and they capture the spirit of the editorial’s misrepresentation and basic dishonesty:
Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it.
Romney wants to eliminate “disaster coordination” because it’s a vital function of “big government”? The Times does a couple of things here. First, they add “big” in front of government, as if Republicans argue that disaster coordination, i.e. national security, isn’t a legitimate function of government. The modifier “big” is subtle mischief, and this formulation is often used by liberals. Since “big government” encapsulates every last aspect of human existence, for Republicans to argue against “big government,” they must necessarily be arguing against the inherent goodness of anything that big government does, questioning the rightness of the thing itself rather than the rightness of whether “big government” should be the one to do that thing. It’s a logically absurd argument and a deliberate muddling of terms.
The Times then attacks federalism and the private sector.
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.
Here the Times mashes together several larger points that Romney attempted to make about the overreaching and inefficient nature of “big government”, and assigned these points to a specific and legitimate function of government, misrepresenting the argument that Romney was making. As for his argument about the private sector handling things, the passing of Sandy will leave hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance claims behind. The insurance company, in the private sector, will more efficiently handle this process than FEMA (or any other government agency), which issued $2,000 cash cards to Katrina refugees from New Orleans, which were used at strip clubs and for breast enhancements. (For more on these FEMA inefficiencies, see Kevin Williamson over at NRO.) So contra the statement above, yes, profit-making companies tend to do a better job, and it is immoral to subsume the aspects of disaster relief they can handle.
Finally, the NY Times conflates bureaucratic labels with definitions of importance and efficiency.
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.
Here we see the liberal conceit of the infallibility of the federal government. FEMA plays a useful support role, and may help with some coordination, but the bulk of tactical and strategic logistical coordination, from deploying first responders to stocking shelters, is very localized. These leaders understand better than a remote bureaucrat in DC which roads are more prone to flooding, where to locate shelters, and where rescue teams would best be deployed.
Having said this, it is true that all this work requires funding on a scale that may require federal support. That’s where FEMA comes in. It can also help fill in gaps in coverage at states’ requests. However, the federal government even under Obama is not a wise or efficient entity. We need to look no further than Libya and the attack in Benghazi, where warnings were issued for another type of storm. Communication was weak, and assets still weren’t properly deployed even after the storm broke.
People should note the response to Hurricane Sandy and how prepared the northeastern states were. This has nothing to do with FEMA and everything to do with the quality of leadership on display in these states. When comparing Sandy to Katrina, compare Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. That’s where the difference lay.