Saw Branch

Disaster Relief in Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy – is it government that is too big or a society that is big enough?


By Mitch Gurney

Nov 1, 2012

Revised: 11/8/2012

Crisis can have a way of bringing us back on center.

As the billions of dollars in property damage and human toll from Superstorm Sandy continues to mount so does the need for FEMA disaster relief. In several news interviews, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie praised President Obama as “outstanding” for expediting relief efforts and that he “deserves great credit.”

“I spoke to the president three times yesterday,” he explained. “He called me for the last time at midnight last night asking what he could do. I said, if you can expedite designating New Jersey as a major disaster area that that would help us to get federal money and resources in here as quickly as possible to help clean up the damage here.”

It’s during times like this that as a nation we can join together to help those in need. Doing so speaks of the higher consciousness that a society is capable of manifesting and that we, rightfully so, speak proudly of whenever we do. A society helping those in need is not a demonstration of a government that is too big but of a society big enough to step beyond the self-interest of the individuals that make up that society. The hero’s in a society are not only those who perform individual acts of heroism when disaster strikes but also the hundreds who give of their time to help or the thousands that donate to the Red Cross or other charity organizations and the millions of citizens out of harm’s way that observe portions of their tax dollars invested to help those less fortunate.

The contrast in philosophy between the Obama Administration’s handling of the Sandy disaster verses the Bush Administration’s handling of Katrina could not be starker. Perhaps the least qualified person on the planet to pass judgment, Former FEMA Director Michael Brown criticized Obama for acting to quickly to Sandy. Brown, famously called Brownie by President Bush, botched the handling of Katrina so badly that he resigned less than two weeks after Katrina hit. (See ‘Lessons from Another Hurricane’ by Russ Baker)

While watching Governor Christie I recalled an article I read recently Our Hidden Government Benefits which seems most appropriate especially now during an polarizing election season as conservative’s clamor for more cuts and smaller government with fewer services.

Our Hidden Government Benefits opens with:

Over a year ago ABC News and Washington Post polls found that 56 percent of Americans said they wanted smaller government and fewer services.

After reading the article it seems that perhaps we shouldn’t be so obtuse; most of us are most likely benefactors from a host of government policies, some that are invisible, more than we might realize. Although far from invisible, as Governor Christie acknowledged, FEMA and other similar government resources can be a great asset following a disaster.

Aside from national disaster relief and on a more invisible and personal level, as an individual are you a student using a Federal Pell Grant to continue your education, or claim tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes and business expenses, or if an Oil company claim a variety of energy subsidies provided by the Fed, or as a small business with less than 50 employees claim a tax cut made available via the Small Business Tax Cut Act?

Our Hidden Government Benefits written by Suzanne Mettler and published in the New York Times in September 2011 revealed the following:

  • In a 2008 poll asking Americans whether they had ever used a government social program, 57% said they had not.
  • In truth, 94% of those who denied using programs had benefited from at least one.  The average respondent had used four.
  • Self-identified “extremely liberal” respondents were more likely to acknowledge using a government program than self-identified “extremely conservative” respondents who used the same number of programs.
  • Some government programs are fairly visible; some  are hidden because they’re channeled through the tax code and subsidies to private organizations.
  • Hidden benefits leave people with the false impression that their economic security is due only to their own efforts.
  • This hidden or “submerged” state obscures the role of government and exaggerates that of the market.
  • If those who assume government has never helped them can see how it has, it might help defuse our polarized political climate and reinvigorate informed citizenship.

Suzanne Mettler is the author of The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy. While searching for her book I found a review that illustrates what she refers to as the “submerged state”:

You might [remember receiving] a letter from the federal government about a decade ago: “We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides for long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes. You will be receiving a check.” And then there was the check itself, which was typically for $600. Alas, the letter and the check were almost a scam, since many taxpayers wound up paying the money back to the IRS the following year. And the checks to “all Americans” were only a tiny fraction of the $2.3 trillion cost of Bush’s tax cuts, most of which benefited the very wealthy. But thanks in part to the publicity campaign; the Bush tax cuts were generally popular, at least for the first few years.

Contrast this with the Obama tax cut in 2009. Here there was no letter and no check. This cut primarily took the form of a tax credit, delivered seamlessly and efficiently through reduced payroll tax withholding. While a far better way to deliver economic stimulus—recipients were more likely to spend it—the result was that a majority of people never even knew about the money they were receiving. Only 12 percent of voters, in one poll, knew their taxes had gone down.

The Obama tax cut is a classic example of what Suzanne Mettler calls “the submerged state,” policies invisible to citizens. Countless federal benefits are delivered so unobtrusively, through the tax system or through public-private partnerships, that their beneficiaries hardly know government played any role.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to take at face value that Americans dislike government or that government can’t do anything right. True, it, like us, isn’t perfect. Governments are gifted with the same deficiencies possessed by the humans that create it.

Mitch Gurney

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