Five boroughs in New York City and towns in New Jersey continue to struggle with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy—storm damage, power outages, and of course the clean-up. The damage is unprecedented, and the images are startling.
Once again, a major natural disaster—like Hurricane Katrina—questions the role of the federal government and its polo shirt, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Should disaster response fall on the shoulders of FEMA, the states, or private individuals? At its core, the question is about money and, more importantly, where the heart of giving lies.
The late economist Milton Friedman made it simple and said money is spent four ways. First, Friedman said you could spend your money on yourself. You’ll save as much as possible and get the most for your dollar. It’s like buying a certified pre-owned car.
Second, you could spend your money on someone else. You’ll still save as much as possible but will care less about the quality. For example, you buy a blanket for someone living on the street. If it’s warm and does the job, you’re not worried about the thread count. It helps a person in need to get by until they’re on their feet. In the Christmas context, it’s the horrendous, corded sweater for a distant relative. It was on sale, and you’re just sure (more so, desperate) it’s the right size.
As for Friedman’s first two ways to spend money, they both involve a person. That person, having a heart, recognizes a need and uses his money to meet it. The interests are aligned; the person who made the money spends the money.
Third, Friedman said you could spend someone else’s money on yourself. You’ll get the best money can buy, but you won’t fret over how much it costs. It’s the tasty nectar of the expense account. That business lunch will be exquisite and the check in the triple digits.
And finally, you could spend someone else’s money on someone else. You’ll neither worry about the quality or the amount spent. It’s a terribly inefficient combination. Worse, it’s the federal government’s daily M.O. It takes our money and spends it on others.
Perfect example: FEMA trailers. They’re low quality, high-priced relief wagons used to house those rendered homeless by Sandy and other major disasters. Prime targets for those who assail government waste, the trailers were a major issue during Katrina’s aftermath and FEMA’s ineffective response.
Money aside, the heart of giving lies in individuals, not the federal government. Ignore the illusive pile of “compassion” liberals try to sell in times of need. It’s shallow, fleeting, and still leaves you stranded. Following Sandy, a Wall Street Journal editorial commented about the federal government’s role:
Citizens in the Northeast aren’t turning on their TVs, if they have electricity, to hear Mr. Obama opine about subway flooding. They’re tuning in to hear Governor Chris Christie talk about the damage to the Jersey shore, Mayor Mike Bloomberg tell them when bus service might resume in New York City, and Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy say when the state’s highways might reopen.
Ultimately, disasters that cause severe, local impact call for efficient, localized responses. More than that, they call for individuals to bind together, identify specific needs, and help each other. Sure, FEMA can drop-off countless trailers, chainsaws, and other resources.
But lacking a combined brain—much less a heart—the expansive agency will mess up. After Sandy, some neighborhoods in the Northeast received aid while others didn’t. The neighborhoods that didn’t would have made national news under a Republican president (e.g., under George W. Bush, circa 2005). At least Kanye West can’t call President Obama a racist.
In early England and America, churches and other groups—by majority—took responsibility for social services like relief for the poor, downtrodden, and sick. Whether it was taken or given up, that role is now—by majority—in the hands of a heartless federal government.
And because it spends money that others earn, its response with respect to Hurricane Sandy is inherently flawed. It can neither identify needs appropriately, nor meet them effectively. That’s the outcome when government takes the heart out of giving and taxes its people to do so.
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