Is government the problem or the solution? This has been a long-running debate in US politics.
However, watching natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey should open our eyes to the important duties of public offices.
Many right-wingers are fond of citing President Reagan about government being the problem, not the solution. Naturally, they ignore the specific context and contradictions of the line.
Later Presidents have attempted to defend government. At the same time, they have acknowledged the limitations of the public sector.
Unfortunately, the Republican-Trump coalition is hell-bent on shrinking government, except in the military-security complex. This can have a major impact on society’s smooth functioning.
Governments have three important tasks in dealing with natural disasters: prevention, rescue, and repair.
What would life be like without the National Weather Service (NWS)? The NWS provides data, forecasts, and warnings on a regular basis. This enables us to get ready for, and respond to, weather.
Apart from the NWS, other public sector agencies at the local, state, and federal level are also important in the prevention role.
Without public school and university education, fewer people would be willing to work at the lower pay offered by public agencies. These bureaucrats collect, evaluate, and disseminate valuable data for weather warnings.
Trump’s war on science could result in the shuttering of many of these offices and stymie the hiring of talented scientists. In his short-sighted businessman’s view, a few bucks will be saved now and to hell with the future.
When natural disasters are on the Harvey and Katrina scale, governments need to step in.
Local police, firemen, and emergency medical personnel risk their lives to rescue people affected by natural disasters. But as the state and federal governments squeeze their budgets to offer tax cuts to the wealthy, local services shrink. Disasters can then overwhelm the local authorities.
During and immediately after a natural disaster, states can mobilize the National Guard. These soldiers rescue lives and protecting property from looters. Of course, it is the government that pays for the Guard.
However, the Guard is also a significant source of manpower for the US armed forces, especially in overseas deployment. One 2014 estimate saw the Guard contributing more than a third to the total numbers of US armed forces.
With an aggressive Trump, more Guardsmen may go overseas. That could mean less National Guard people to deal with local events.
Government and Repair
Areas hit by natural disasters like Harvey will need large-scale repair efforts. Only the government can do what is necessary.
Already, the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) has said it is ready to spend years dealing with Harvey’s after-effects.
FEMA is the key office in dealing with post-disaster recovery. It went from a dismal performance during Katrina under Bush to a superior operation during Sandy under Obama.
Hopefully, even ardent Texas Republicans should be grateful for government agencies helping with the Harvey response. Or else they could move to Sierra Leone or South Asia, where there is less government help to deal with natural disasters.