Mr. Romney, meet FEMA

If there is anything other than an infinite number of tax cuts that conservatives love to advocate, it is smaller government. No problem is too great or too small for a conservative pundit to demand that it be handled by the states.

So it is with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As a part of the Department of Homeland Security, it is tasked with coordination during times of national crisis. The current crisis that FEMA oversees is Hurricane Sandy, now Tropical Storm Sandy. Sandy will go ashore around Point Pleasant in New Jersey around 5PM EST on Sunday. The big worry with the storm, which has a radius of 450 miles, is that it will meet up with two winter storms coming down from the north and east. It will create a monster storm that threatens to do significant damage to states from Virginia in the South and Maine in the North, and as far as West Virginia and Ohio in the West.

The storm has the potential to cause disruptions across a wide swathe of the country. FEMA is in a unique position to marshal the resources of the federal government and coordinate crisis management teams across an enormous territory. This enables them to move resources to where they are needed rather than use a haphazard approach in which too many resources are in one area and too few in others.

It is probably a mistake to politicize a crisis of this proportion, but I believe in speaking my mind. During the primaries, Mitt Romney was asked specifically about the role that FEMA has to play within the federal system. His answer was predictable. He wants to disband FEMA at the federal level and pass responsibility for emergencies to the states where they can deal with their own emergencies using their own resources.

Not only that, but Romney believes that the private sector should step in and take over from the state. He stated specifically that spending on disasters places the future of our children in jeopardy. The fact is that these disasters occur today, and we have to deal with them today. Imagine if we had said, well, the Nazis will deal with themselves, we cant jeopardize our children’s future with all that war debt. We would all be speaking German today. You cannot afford not to deal with disasters when they happen. Anything else shows a lack of leadership.

Paul Ryan, his erstwhile running mate, had an item in his budget that included a 41 percent cut in financing for FEMA. The committee on which Ryan served observed that President Obama had declared a record number of disasters during his tenure. Perhaps that is because there were a record number of disasters during his tenure, disasters that required prompt action. The kind of incompetence demonstrated under the Bush administration during Katrina cannot be continued in a Romney Administration.

Romney and his running mate quite plainly do not understand the mechanisms of a successful state. Romney believes that transferring power over certain functions to the state saves money. How did this man become a successful businessman using logic of this sort?

If we spend money on a particular crisis, lets say a flood, it does not matter one whit whether the money comes from the federal government or from the state – we still spend the money. It is a zero sum game. Someone gains, someone loses.

There are many reasons that national crises are handled at the national level, but from a financial perspective, it is similar to insurance. A group of people, or in this case, states, pool their financial and other resources together. Those that can, give more, those that cannot, give less. When disaster strikes in any state, the resources are available for that state to use. This is a simple proposition. There is no mischief afoot. There is absolutely no reason that the states need these resources kept to themselves.

As for handing disaster relief over to private companies, the idea is almost as ludicrous as handing military affairs over to private contractors, or mercenaries. The possibility that a situation is handled in a disastrous way just increases incrementally. Can you imagine that a crisis such as the one facing the northeast today strikes. Emergency teams from corporations would go around asking people to sign expensive contracts before they receive any aid. Those with financial resources would get aid, the rest would starve, or freeze, or drown, or something worse. Imagine a helicopter hovering over someone’s home during flooding when they are sitting on their roof waiting for rescue, and the aircraft sending a man down with a six page form to sign, asking for collateral, bank details and so forth.

It is about time that people like Romney start to realize that there are some things in a fair society better handled by central government. The states do not have the resources to handle a major disaster, and corporations even less. They cannot have equipment lying around waiting for a disaster. Even less can they coordinate those resources to get them to the affected areas quickly. That is up to the central government to do. It is something that central government does well.

It is unfair to place all the costs of catering for a disaster on the states. This would mean that every state would need its own FEMA, its own planes equipped to monitor hurricanes, radar systems, satellites, coast guard and other first response systems. There are certain duties that can be localized, but we have those in place, local police forces and fire services, first aid and hospitals. The task of coordinating disasters that do not keep themselves neatly within state borders must fall to centralized agencies like FEMA. If each state were to cater for every eventuality, duplicated effort would be enormous, and costs would rise dramatically. It is quite obvious that having such functions centrally controlled, and able to coordinate with local forces, is far more efficient than forcing each state to look after itself.

As for corporations being involved, quite aside from the massive cost to states, which would increase debt burdens and deficits, and not make them more efficient, the idea is preposterous.

I believe that central government does things better than the states. There are some functions better left to states, like local police forces and immediate emergency crews, utilities, and hospitals. Coordination is far better done at federal level to prevent duplicated effort and agencies tripping over each other.

There are many examples of centralized control working better. The Roman Empire had central control, with some functions at the provincial level. The British Empire worked extraordinarily well with central control and some functions being vested in local governors. Logistics works far better when central planning is able to control the distribution process.

Like so much in society, there are times when we need central control, times when we need state, local or city control and times when people need to take responsibility. The mix is negotiable, but we cannot place too much responsibility on the shoulders of those that cannot do things entirely for themselves.

Imagine a war in which the generals told their subordinates, just go out and do whatever you want in those areas over there, while we stop for some tea. The generals would not be generals for long. They need to coordinate, and get cooperation from their brigade and battalion commanders to win a war.

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