Disasters and Big Government – political philosophy

This topic keeps growing, so I will add articles that bring out additional dimensions.

As a continuation of the topics I write about yesterday, I want to share an editorial in NYT today: A Big Storm Requires Big Government. Here is the concluding paragraph:

Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency? Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages. After Mr. Romney’s 2011 remarks recirculated on Monday, his nervous campaign announced that he does not want to abolish FEMA, though he still believes states should be in charge of emergency management. Those in Hurricane Sandy’s path are fortunate that, for now, that ideology has not replaced sound policy.

Another take on the topic of the disaster policies of Romney and Obama, from the Wash. Post on October 28. This one includes quotes from nationally known researchers, such as Kathleen Tierney.

One more perspective, from NBC News.

Rebuttals to the NY Times editorial:

(1) The Heritage Foundation’s response to the NYT article. Matt Mayer commented on October 30 as noted here.

(2) The Wall St. Journal’s article was titled: A Big Storm Requires Big Bird? Necessary government doesn’t justify         extravagant government.

(3) A neutral commentary from the Christian Science Monitor.


An example of bad consequences for failure to use federal money for flood mitigation. Romney is now taking the heat for a 2004 decision in Massachusetts.

The view that politicizing a disaster is normal, is the theme of this article in NY magazine, October 30.

3 thoughts on “Disasters and Big Government – political philosophy

  1. There are at least two evident flaws in the editorials cited here. One is the presumption by the Times that the size of a government operation is an index of its effectiveness. Another is the implication that the alternative to a dominant federal role is each state acting independently.

    The fact is that local and state governments inevitably have key roles in disaster preparedness and response. Private sector and general citizen collaboration also is essential. And rather than acting autonomously, state and local governments long have collaborated via EMACs and similar arrangements to support each other in emergency planning and management.

    For contending with universal or very large scale threats and hazards, a federal role also is inevitable. The central challenge in all cases is to orchestrate the actions of many players — big and small, public and private — in the most cost-effective manner. Efficiency, agility, and adaptability are the desirable objectives, not just brute size or expenditures.

    Gov. Romney’s earlier campaign rhetoric was too simplistic in suggesting that, regarding FEMA and the federal disaster role, smaller is always better and that delegation to states is always preferable or even feasible. But it is equally simplistic to suggest that a bigger, more centralized federal role is always better.

    A good guideline for thinking about a productive strategy for managing disasters is in what Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said about his widely praised leadership of the response to Hurricane Katrina:

    “If I had come in as the principal federal official and insisted on absolute unity of command…I felt it would actually have impeded some good work that had been started. So I elected to go for unity of effort instead….”

    As for resources, while many (not all) states are “financially strapped”, the federal government — with a $14 trillion debt growing by a trillion dollars a year — certainly is. The soaring costs of entitlements and health care threaten to cannibalize the entire “discretionary” portion of the federal budget. That includes not merely disaster planning but the SEC, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Justice Dept. and FBI, the IRS, national parks, census and other government bureaus responsible for gathering the statistical information that is utterly crucial to the functioning of both public and private institutions, and many other useful government functions.

    The “fiscal cliff” itself is a looming disaster for which the nation yet seems woefully unprepared.

  2. While I agree that we need FEMA (assuming it remains a properly functioning federal agency), I also believe that consideration of the proper role of the states is long overdue. I’m afraid Sandy may have much to teach us about this. In particular, should FEMA’s role during recovery be very different than it is now?

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