Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

How noble, at first sight.  Mitt Romney was said to have stopped campaigning as hurricane Sandy joined up with two other storm fronts to take a swat of the Northeastern quadrant of the U.S.  Actually, he’d launched into a celebration of private charity designed to make himself look noble.  He set himself to collecting canned goods for the needy. 

Canned Goods, Please

How quaint!  There he is, hundreds of miles away, and he wants people to shower him with cans of baked beans or stewed tomatoes or syrupy peaches.  How many millions of cans would he need to feed the millions who are temporarily homeless?  (And without cookstoves, I might add.) How’s he going to transport so many tons of canned goods?  How will he distribute them?  How will he decide who’s most needful—and where, considering that more than 20 states and the District of Columbia have had their lights doused, their trees toppled and much, much worse.  Homes gone for good. Businesses destroyed.

Think of it! Fourteen feet of storm surge in New York City.  A couple of feet of unseasonal snow in Appalachia.  Obliterated towns in coastal New Jersey. Dozens of flooded cities. Commerce-disrupting waves on Lake Michigan. And so on. 

The Haiti Example

Romney’s self-serving pleas remind me of the chaos that characterized private (and U.N.) efforts to help Haiti after the horrible earthquake a few years ago. Largely uncoordinated, despite efforts to overcome this problem.  Unconnected to any logical plans for rebuilding.  Unaudited to see that contributions were effectively used.  And, considering the misery that continues in a Haiti still strewn with earthquake rubble, mostly a waste of world resources.  Yes, a lot of people were kept alive.  They got food.  They got medical care. But the country is still a wreck—and why? Because there was and is nothing like honest, effective governance in Haiti.  No one’s looking after the whole.  It’s every man or woman or child for him- or herself, meaning high level theft and low level scrounging.  It’s private sector paradise with no paperwork-happy bureaucrats to get in the way, the natural consequence of starving the Beast (or permitting runaway corruption).

Charitable outsiders felt very noble because they sent dollars (and used clothes) to Haiti, which reminds me again of Mitt Romney calling for cans of succotash.  However, there nothing wrong with donating canned goods and homemade cookies to raise money for the senior trip to Washington. That’s a perfectly sustainable American tradition.  

A Political Ploy

Actually Romney hadn’t stopped campaigning.  He was using the disaster to promote his ideologically-based contention that spontaneous human generosity (a wonderful thing, up to a point) can cope effectively with natural disasters, including those that bring suffering to tens of thousands or even millions of people simultaneously.  Before Sandy’s immanence, he’d regularly derided the value of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration).  In the past few days, as is his wont when campaigning, he’s been a little less strident. 

Here's what the record tells us, though. Mitt Romney has often recommended (1) dismantling the federal apparatus and turning emergency management over to the several states and, at times, (2) he’s even suggested that dealing with disasters might be privatized.  That would mean relying on insurance companies and/or charity. 

The Benevolent Insurance Company Delusion

Imagine, drawing on previous sad experience, how the relevant private disaster insurance policies would be written.  With clauses and subclauses and subsubclauses using big or obscure words or even simple words with a highly specialized meaning such that no ordinary purchaser can understand them.  This is (and always has been) the realm of lawyers and accountants whose purpose is to minimize exposure. We saw how this operates during the Katrina debacle a few years ago.  People, certain they’d been paying premiums for flood insurance, contacted their insurance companies.  They needed to repair or rebuilt their homes or businesses.  Too bad.  They discovered that water driven by wind doesn’t cause water damage.  It causes wind damage, for which they weren’t insured.  And so on, with other such subtleties.  In short, they were out of luck.  Fortunately, there were Federal programs that aided many desperate homeowners and business people, so not all was lost.

Now consider the 1000 mile long storm front that was (and still is, up North) Sandy. How can anyone sort the water from the wind damage in any reasonable human way?  There were normal tides.  There were high tides exacerbated by a full moon.  There was a storm surge driven by the wind.  There were high winds that blew down trees whose roots were loosened by water. So what percentage of damage was caused by wind and what by water—and how about the people who had absolutely no reason to believe that they could be flooded out at such an address in New York City or Hobokan?  Does anyone think that insurance companies who have written any kind of coverage anywhere in the areas hit by Sandy will go out of their way to maximize payments out of sympathy for the victims of the storm?  Of course not.  They can’t afford to.  Disasters are money losers and they need to minimize their losses.  Too bad.   The insurance business is isn’t primarily in the business of helping people.  It’s in the business of making money.     

In short, societies can’t count on the private sector alone to rebuild after a disaster. That’s where FEMA comes in.  FEMA allows us to  support one another when we need it most.   Let me underline this by generalizing.  One of the most important functions of government is to give citizens a vehicle for providing assistance in a dignified way, not as charity, but as a right.  

Yes, the private sector has a role, a big role, in rebuilding, once
government has given a damaged locale a jump start, to get the engine
going again.  Once houses get liveable.  Once shops and schools can
reopen.    Once people are able to go back to work wherever they work.   It's
mighty hard to be entrepreneurial when you are living in a school

The Charity Delusion

Nor, as we have seen all around the world, can private charity alone cope with huge disasters.  Not only is there the inevitable problem of coordination, frequently there are significant issues having to do with outsized administrative costs—big executive salaries, exorbitant fund-raising expenditures, luxury-level overhead and so on.  Charity doesn’t necessarily come cheap.  But that’s not the worst. What happens during periods of donor fatigue?  Is there to be no response to an earthquake, a flood, a mile-wide tornado when people decide they’ve given enough to charities?

And how about religius charities with a mission to do good works?  Often they are run by genuinely pious people who live simply and preach only by example, but other charities are committed to actively taking advantage of those who depend on them for sustenence and shelter: they aim to convert the needy when their defenses are down and clients who feel a natural sense of gratitude may feel compelled to act accordingly. They are manoeuvered into making vows it would be awkward to renounce when they are on their feet again.  Yes, there may be some true, honest, sincere conversions.  But preying on the abject is the all too pervasive model for religious forms of charity.

The Decentralization Delusion

So much for the adequacy of non-governmental institutions when it comes
to major disasters.   Romney’s notion of  radical decentralization is
equally unequal to the task of responding adequately to a monster like
Sandy. Let’s imagine that FEMA is long gone.  Instead we have 50 SEMAs,
one for each state—and they’re not federally-funded
because—horrors!—with money comes control. 

So each SEMA, in Romney's world, would have a different level of funding, its own legal underpinning, a unique benefit array, a self-contained institutional structure and so on.   Even though a disaster like Sandy is a single massive storm system devastating many states simultaneously, victims under the SEMA system would have very different experiences.  Poor states, obviously,  would be able to do less for their people than rich states would be able to do, and the differences would be dramatically apparent on different sides of a river, for instance.  On one side people would be rescued promptly by helicopters or scores of boats; on the other side they’d squat on rooftops for hours or days.  (Remember: relief has been decentralized.  There will be no U.S. Corps of Engineers to mitigate flooding; no U.S. military assistance in the way of equipment or specialized personnel.) 

Now imagine that things have got so bad that SEMA officials have decided to swallow their pride and seek assistance or coordination from a neighboring state.  Most likely, their communications systems would be incompatible (remember 9/11?). It would take forever to work things out.  Meanwhile, the wind would continue to blow and the water would continue to rise.  And so on. But tough.  State X refused to appropriate the funds needed for a well-equipped, well-organized SEMA (or lacked the tax base to do so).  State Xians will just have to suffer the consequences.

In short, radical decentralization would lead to chaos and worse: radical inequality in the face of national disaster.  However, the Romney people might manage to send a few cans of baked beans along.  And some old clothes.