Wednesday, April 30, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Disaster aid and politics

There is nothing like a vast natural disaster such as the one that struck our neighbors to the north Sunday to demonstrate the common generosity of people, the impulse that says we are all God’s creatures and your undeserved suffering is my obligation, too.

We saw it at Mayflower and Vilonia where hundreds of families seemed to lose everything—their homes, their possessions, some their loved ones and many their livelihoods—in a few horrifying seconds of a killer tornado, just as we see it each time that calamity strikes, whether from the wildfires of the western plains, the hurricanes that ravage coastal cities, the tsunamis of the southern seas or the great earthquakes along the planet’s seismic faults.

Within minutes of the reporting on the devastation at Vilonia and Mayflower, hundreds rushed to help in whatever way they could from many miles around, even if they were only in the way of the relief workers, while others—big businesses and individuals—offered food, clothing or some other form of help that might make people’s losses and sudden hopelessness more bearable.

And, yes, that unspeakable player, Government. There were the first responders of local government, searching for survivors, comforting loved ones and providing safety and security, and Gov. Beebe and the agents of the state promising the state’s help, limited though it can be, to put things back to normal for the stricken communities in the shortest time possible. Beebe rushed an emergency request to President Obama, who issued the declaration immediately. There was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from Washington setting up to start dealing with all the individual crises—funerals, homelessness, joblessness, infrastructure, business collapse—in the way that the federal government is known for helping, most controversially: with money.

The day after the storm, the whole Washington delegation—five Republicans and the lone Democrat, Sen. Mark Pryor—issued a joint statement announcing there would be relief from the government, which charitably none of them noted was headed by the largely despised Barack Obama. All six had signed a letter supporting Gov. Beebe’s request for a disaster declaration for Faulkner County, which would open the tap for all sorts of aid, to individuals, businesses and local governments to help them rebuild their homes, businesses and jobs and help them pay for such things as funerals and emergency lodging.

Then the inevitable happened. The Arkansas Times blog observed that Rep. Tom Cotton, our west Arkansas congressman, had voted consistently against disaster relief like that which will be coming to Mayflower and Vilonia, but he joined the statement taking some credit for getting the federal money flowing to help with recovery.

There were howls, from Cotton’s staff and Senate campaign, that it was wrong to introduce politics into the tragedy. It was irreverent to introduce politics when everyone should be mourning.

On the contrary, it is precisely when politics should rear its head—at the moment and in the circumstances where people see what political philosophy and votes really mean, how they affect each of us and our community of friends and relatives. If politics is more than a parlor game, people need to see what it means to their lives. Contrary to the commonly expressed belief, it nearly always makes a difference who you vote for and who gets elected. It is times like this when that truth becomes self-evident.

Tom Cotton holds a distinct political philosophy—libertarian is the common name for it—and he is passionate and far more steadfast in advancing it than nearly all the rest of his conservative party. It is the belief that the government’s role, even in a democratic system, is very limited and that government wanders too far when it taxes and spends in an effort to correct the imperfections and failures of the social and economic order. Instead, people must be left alone, or with the help of friends and private institutions like churches and the free market, to deal with the vicissitudes of life. It is not the government’s role.

So Cotton voted against disaster relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy and then supplemental relief for the same victims—the only one of the Arkansas delegation to do so—and he voted against replenishing the FEMA fund from which Arkansans will now get emergency help. So is it wrong for Cotton to ask FEMA to authorize money for Arkansas disasters, as he has now done three times, when he votes against providing the money?

It depends on how you look at it. He can say that the country cannot afford to spend large sums on help for disaster victims, but if it is going to do it, he wants Arkansans to get its share.

This is a small problem for Cotton because while large numbers of Arkansans, perhaps most of them, think the government is too big and spends money profligately on poor people, when it comes down to programs that help them and their families people think the spending is wise. Tom Cotton is not a fan of social insurance—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food assistance to people with low incomes and the like—and he has voted his conscience on all of them, namely for budget plans that would turn Medicare into a voucher system that would shift an ever-greater share of medical costs to the elderly, and similar shifts for Social Security and other health- and nutrition-insurance programs. 

The opposite philosophy is that a democratically elected government is the instrument of the people, and it should do what a majority of the people want it to do. One of those happens to be taking care of unfortunate people who are victimized by natural cataclysms. The government is the agent for all our individual compassion because each of us cannot do what we would like to do to help. We express our compassion and generosity through the people we elect and the laws they pass.

Cotton has a different and equally legitimate idea about government. It is perfectly timely for everyone to reflect about that choice at a moment of sorrow.
—Ernie Dumas