Sometimes, the government comes in handy


Americans have a love/hate relationship with government, condemning those wasteful and corrupt government bureaucrats in the abstract while praising many public services in the concrete like the fire department, schools or parks.

You might be a rugged individualist, but if you were trapped in your home during the recent floods, you might have appreciated being rescued by the National Guard.

Many computer geeks are libertarians but, as The Economist recently pointed out, “the armed forces pioneered the Internet, GPS positioning and voice-activated ‘virtual assistants’. … Scientists in publicly funded universities and labs developed the touch screen and the HTML language. … Google’s search algorithm was financed by a grant from the National Science Foundation.”

We are going to end up loving big government, argues sociologist Christian Parenti, because it’s the “only institution that actually has the capacity to deal with multibillion-dollar natural disasters on an increasingly routine basis. Private security firms won’t help your flooded or tornado-struck town. Private insurance companies are systematically withdrawing coverage from vulnerable coastal areas. Voluntary community groups, churches, anarchist affinity groups — each may prove helpful in limited ways, but for better or worse, only government has the capital and capacity to deal with the catastrophic implications of climate change.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been attacked by right-wingers as a sinister monster of repression and is always facing budget cuts. Parenti notes: “The agency’s work is structured around what it calls ‘the disaster life cycle’ — the process through which emergency managers prepare for, respond to and help others recover from and reduce the risk of disasters. More concretely, FEMA’s services include training, planning, coordinating and funding state and local disaster managers and first responders; grant-making to local governments, institutions and individuals; and direct emergency assistance that ranges from psychological counseling and medical aid to emergency unemployment benefits. FEMA also subsidizes long-term rebuilding and planning efforts by communities affected by disasters. In other words, it actually represents an excellent use of your tax dollars to provide services aimed at restoring local economic health and so the tax base.”

Unfortunately, there is no overall national planning for disasters.

In April, the Center for American Progress (CAP) issued a report saying that Congress spent at least $136 billion on disaster relief between 2011 and 2013. It is somewhat shocking that nobody in the government knew the full amount.

The authors, Daniel J. Weiss and Jackie Weidman, had to examine all the appropriations bills and disaster-relief supplementals that Congress had passed between fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2013 to make an estimate.

“If we don’t even know how much natural disasters are costing us,” Weiss said, “then Congress is going to keep under-budgeting for disaster relief and recovery. And lawmakers will end up doing deficit spending to pay for it” — typically through emergency “supplemental” bills that are passed apart from the regular budget process.

The CAP report recommends:

• Annual and complete accounting of funds spent on every disaster-relief and recovery program in the previous fiscal year. Many federal agencies are involved.

• Help for communities to develop and implement plans to become more resilient to future floods, storms, droughts, heat waves and wildfires.

• This would be paid for by levying a very small tax on some or all fossil-fuel production, pollution or use, to reflect some of the external costs of their production and combustion, such as damages from more extreme weather or premature deaths from additional smog.

• Slash the carbon pollution responsible for climate change.

FEMA will lose more than $1 billion in federal funding due to sequester cuts. But the government shutdown is presenting even more problems.

About 100 FEMA workers dealing with the Colorado floods were furloughed. Gov. Hickenlooper had to authorize state funds to keep paying Colorado’s National Guard members during the shutdown.

Federal programs for repairs of damaged infrastructure and flooded farmland in Colorado have also stopped running at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

This is outrageous. It is bad enough that austerity is the implicit agenda of both parties. But the nihilism of the tea partiers threatens crashing the economy. We can’t play games with our future.

Respond: [email protected] This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


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