I’m sitting here in the bright sunshine in Pompeii. At any minute, the Earth could shake, and my city would look no better, and possibly worse, than New York. It might happen this week, this year, this decade or long after I’m gone. You just can’t know. But this much we do know: If and when it occurs, California will need the help of people from the rest of this country to dig out.
Just as New York and New Jersey do now.
Just as Midwesterners would, and have, in the face of tornados and blizzards and ice storms.
Just as New Orleans did after Katrina and Mississippi did after the Deep Water Horizon spill.
I don’t recall any of the governors or mayors in any of those cases saying they didn’t want help from the federal government (that is, from those of us who live elsewhere), that they could do it on their own.
That is, of course, what Mitt Romney was saying back in the Republican primary debates.
Asked about FEMA running out of money, and whether this should be an occasion to hand responsibility back to the states, he said: “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.”
“Including disaster relief?” CNN’s John King asked, just to be sure.
“We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids.”
Does he really think helping New York and New Jersey is immoral?
Of course that’s not what he’s saying now. Now, he’s talking about FEMA playing a key role, while ducking questions from reporters who want to pin him down on why he said just the opposite when everyone in the country had electricity.
The answer is obvious. Romney has been running against government. Asked almost any question — as he was about FEMA — and his answer will be that states and localities can do it better, and the private sector can do it even better.
Sometimes that’s true. Often it’s not.
No state can afford to handle a once-in-a-lifetime calamity by itself. FEMA always works with states and localities. But it provides resources and expertise that no state can afford to keep on the shelf just in case. New York doesn’t have its own Corps of Engineers. New Jersey residents will need federal aid to rebuild. We are, in times of crisis, “one country” — words everyone says. That’s what they mean.
And yes, there are some things only government can or will do. I’ve never heard anyone on a turbulent flight complain that the FAA is too strict about airplane safety. When there’s an outbreak of E. coli, you never hear anyone complain that there’s too much food inspection at the border, or that the standards for food safety are too high. When a loved one gets sick, you never hear anyone complaining that the government spends too much money on medical research and should leave it to the private sector.
The private sector doesn’t care very much about rare diseases. You need government for that. And if someone you know contracts one, I promise you won’t say, “Leave it to the private sector.”
There’s an election on Tuesday. It’s a choice not only between two different men, but also between two different visions. Visions aren’t something that change because of bad weather.
Either Romney is just a hopeless political flip-flopper, or he really does believe that leaving things to the states, or better yet to the private sector, is “absolutely” the “right thing to do” whenever you can.
That, in my book, is a vision you can afford to share only if you live somewhere where there are no hurricanes or earthquakes or snow and ice storms or tornados; no turbulent flights; no outbreaks of E. coli; no rare diseases to worry about. And if you do live in such a place, let the rest of us know so we can start packing.
But whatever you believe, don’t forget to vote. It’s a privilege and a responsibility.