Insight. Antics.

The Upside Of Big Brother.

In Government, Nature on October 31, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Sandy swept up the East Coast with reckless abandon. A hybrid hurricane-blizzard superstorm, she gives new meaning to the term crazy spinster. Who could possibly help us get back to our feet after such a destructive force of nature? Turns out it’s actually Big Brother.

Most of the time, we think of Big Brother as an overreaching, freedom-squeezing, privacy-seizing government, à la 1984. That’s the know-it-all older brother, the bullying one. And we should be concerned about him. (For instance, he got into warrantless wiretapping.)

It turns out there’s this other side to him though, one we see again and again in times like these, when a natural disaster threatens huge swaths of the population. That’s the rescuing, resource-sharing, crisis-managing Big Brother. The brother you could talk to about stuff, whose know-how and eagerness to help was a lifesaver, who figured out a way to solve problems when you couldn’t. (I have one, and he’s been both at points, but much more often the latter.)

Unless you’re a person of interest in a plot to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank, that’s the Big Brother you’re more likely to encounter in your lifetime.

And we need that one. Desperately. Otherwise, we won’t be ready for or able to recover after the increasingly common roadblocks from nature and God, forces that Paul Ryan has so dutifully touted this campaign season, albeit for different reasons.

Humans don’t control most things, but we’re learning the ones we can influence. Does smoking cause lung cancer? Basically, yes. Do fossil fuels affect climate changes that can lead to worse storms like this one? Very probably.

We know we do better when we plan for these contingencies. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is a federal agency that has been around in some form for many decades, and the National Hurricane Center falls under it. Without them, we would not have known to brace ourselves strongly for impact, and the toll this storm took would have been even more grave. Further, without replacing their aging satellites, we may have a gap in information on major storms soon.

Similarly, on the back-end, we have seen what happens when FEMA is not well-funded or well-run. The hardest-hit victims have a much tougher route to recovery and means to rebuild.

FEMA and NOAA are considered non-military discretionary spending. After a catastrophe like this, it’s hard to call them discretionary.

It’s easy and tempting to bash the idea, but when water floods Hoboken and the East Village and massive fires break out in suburbs, you need Big Brother, you need Big Government to look out for you.

Big Bro, with its scale and collective resources, does do things that states can’t do, or can’t do nearly as well. New York and New Jersey aren’t each going to open their own NOAA. FEMA enables coordinated approaches across state lines. States face acute budget woes year-to-year and are at various levels of preparedness for myriad threats.

Instead of pushing disaster management to the states, a central conduit is essential. Even Chris Christie seemed to agree with that sentiment Wednesday. Maybe all this explains why Mitt Romney is tiptoeing back from a response he gave at a GOP primary debate last year with regard to the Joplin, MO tornados:

“Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

Talk about a disaster: what company could (profitably) go in and save victims in rafts and helicopters, for the right reasons, and who would listen to them? There are some services that everyone wants or needs that are simply not moneymakers.

We need to reduce our debt and balance the budget again, but Republicans want to cut in such a brazen way it would risk more lives in a storm like Sandy. They seem philosophically against a federal government performing those essential services that only a federal government can plausibly provide.

Further, disasters have struck all over the place recently, with storms up and down the East Coast and in the Gulf, overflowed rivers in Iowa, and earthquakes or fires out West, that there is basically nowhere left for residents to say, “That stuff doesn’t happen here. It happens to other people.” Everyone needs a Big Bro sometimes.

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