When it rains it pours, unless it’s Texas. These days the Lone Star state is dealing with H2O in such brobdingnagian portions they’re figuring out ways to contain five barrels of water in a ten gallon hat. Never mind the impossibility of that Tardis-like volume-to-space ratio. It’s Texas. If it means helping a neighbor in need, they’ll get it done.
Yet while the good people of the Gulf Coast deal with disaster of Hurricane Harvey with a lot of laudable can-do grit and community comity, there’s a forecast of a political storm front blowing in, bringing sturm, drang, and the possibility of a category four casuistry cyclone. Yes it’s kind of depressing that politics has to stick its nose into all the come-together spirit many have displayed in a very difficult week. Big scale natural disasters, though, inevitably raise a holler for help from the gummint. And some of those now doing the hollering are increasing the chances political precipitation to better than 90 percent.
Actually, make it a 100 percent. There’s no doubt and virtually no disagreement that the federal government needs to get in there and help with the recovery efforts. The feds spent $60 billion-plus on relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy in 2013. Patching things up after Harvey’s devastation is likely to put at least as much of a dent in Uncle Sam’s wallet, but this is one of those big spending bills likely to have bipartisan support. Most people will not begrudge the federal government spending their hard earned tax dollars on rebuilding lives and communities walloped by a Revelations-level meteorological malevolency. You’d have to be a pretty unfeeling bastard to think otherwise.
Or the Texas Republican congressional delegation. A surprisingly large number of this crew (about 30) actually voted against the major relief package for Hurricane Sandy (the Disaster Appropriations Relief Act of 2013), including the state’s two current senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. There were two basic justifications given for this opposition. First, it’s a lot of money and maybe the federal government should figure out somewhere else to whack out a few tens of billions in the name of prudent book balancing. Second, there was a lot of bean counting ballyhooing that the Sandy relief bill was so packed with pork that adding a slice of lettuce and a tomato damn near made it a BLT. Cruz, especially, did a lot of puffing and pontificating about this latter point.
There are two big objections to these objections. To take the latter point first, the bill was not by any stretch of the imagination the bag of pork rinds and bacon bits Cruz made it out to be (he claimed two-thirds of it was not related to Sandy). The Congressional Research Service looked into this matter in some detail and found the bill was almost entirely focused on addressing the needs created by Sandy (read the report for yourself here). More generally, while certain conservatives were scuffing their cowboy boots and indulging in some lengthy green-shading and grand standing, victims of Hurricane Sandy were left swinging in the wind waiting for their government to help. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—a fellow conservative Republican—had a well-documented hissy over Congress’ reluctance to unchain its checkbook. For once, Christie deserved some sympathy.
As Cruz is finding out, principled objections to federal government over-spending and over-reach get overcome pretty damn quickly when the ruinous climatic calamity is slamming into your own state. I seriously doubt Sens. Cruz and Cornyn will respond to any fiduciary nitpicking over a Texas relief package with a principled conservative, “sure, let’s take an extra month or two and make sure we’re not spending a cent more than we need to.” Well, they won’t if their constituents have any say in the matter.
This is the problem with drinking the hard line, government-is-always-bad Kool Aid the Cruz’s and Cornyn’s flood politics with. Just as there no atheists in foxholes, hard core don’t-tread-on-me states’ rights types get pretty scarce on the ground when it’s fifteen feet under water. Some situations call for massive acts of collective action and the institution most capable of providing it is the government. When such situations occur, the old Reagan joke that the most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” just isn’t funny. It’s not the free market that gets people out of a disaster zone.
The government responds to a calamity like Harvey by throwing resources at the problems of disaster victims—everything from local government first responders, to state troopers, to the feds with the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers. After the storm subsides, the federal gummint will be there in the form of the Federal Housing Administration, the Small Business Administration, special programs set up by the Internal Revenue Service to help with tax relief, the Department of Labor to help with income and job assistance, and a bunch of other programs and agencies mandated to help out (BTW if you’re in a Harvey-affected area and need of information on any of this, look here).
Here’s how a free market responds to something like Harvey: it figures out a way to make money off disaster victims. This is widely condemned as price gouging—and it’s happening right now in Texas. But what is currently jacking up the prices of a case of bottle water to $99, and will no doubt have sheet rock going for similar inflated prices within two months, is the exact same free market mechanism people like Cruz and Cornyn say the federal government should never interfere with. The market is simply allocating resources by obeying the law of supply and demand. Limited supply plus high demand equals gas going for, if some reports are accurate, twenty bucks a gallon. It’s unfair, it’s unjust and it’s taking advantage of people who can ill afford the hit. Well, yeah. That’s sort of how Wall Street works, too.
The point is not that markets are always bad and government is always good, or vice versa. That sort of either-or thinking is (a) dumb, and (b) sooner or later makes hypocrites of people on both sides of the divide. One of the few good things to come from Harvey is seeing people like Sen. Cruz recognize, however grudgingly, that the federal government isn’t simply the instrument of some freedom-killing Satan he routinely makes it out to be. Properly organized and funded, it’s also a pretty good mechanism to help out tons of people in very real need. Hopefully both Texas senators will remember this the next time a disaster hits a state that is not their own.
DONATE AND HELP: Dealing with something like Harvey is a collective effort, and I don’t just mean the folks on the ground and the rest of us acting collectively through government. A lot of good organizations are pitching in. You can find a list of reputable (i.e. no scams) groups helping out Harvey victims here. Please consider donating.