Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I had no electricity for two days. I'm lucky. Many people in New Jersey and New York still have no electricity. Without electricity, many people have no heat and no way to cook. I've heard that the Romney campaign encouraged people to donate bags of brown rice for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Brown rice? The conservatives want to shrink the federal government so that it's small enough to drown in the bathtub and keep our National Guard overseas. But they'll make it up to us by sending us bags of brown rice? Many people are homeless, and the rest can't cook with the power off, so they'll send us bags of brown rice, which takes three times as long as white rice to cook? The conservatives must really have lost their minds.
Hurricane Sandy flooding in Brooklyn. Flickr image By Inhabitat
In a little over a year, New Jersey has had three severe storms that caused extended power outages. The first was Hurricane Irene. Mercifully, that happened in the summertime, so we didn't need heat. The second was a freakishly early winter storm, which dropped heavy, wet snow on trees that still had their leaves. The third was Hurricane Sandy. These three storms can teach us some basic lessons about government, if we are willing to learn.
Even though I don't live in a flood-prone area, my neighborhood was badly hit by all three storms. Huge trees fell down and blocked our roads. Fire trucks and ambulances couldn't get where they needed to go. Public workers had to cut up the downed trees and clear the roads before the utility workers (some of whom came from Louisiana!) could even get to the lines that had been knocked down. We couldn't drive anywhere. Even walking was hazardous because of the downed power lines.
Hurricane Sandy flooded the tunnels and subways, so my neighbors who commute to New York City have to stay home. People who work here in New Jersey can't get gasoline to drive to work. Most businesses are closed because there is no power or telephone service. Even cellphone coverage is unreliable. We just have to wait for the Army Corps of Engineers to drain the tunnels, the public workers to clear the roads, and the utility workers to turn the power and phones back on. People in the flooded areas need even more help. Private charity cannot solve problems like these. Nor can local and state governments handle a catastrophe of this magnitude alone.
Since the dawn of civilization, big government has existed mainly to control the flow of water. Some of the waterworks built more than 2,000 years ago by the Roman and Chinese empires are still in service today. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 taught Americans about the need for a strong federal government to provide flood control and disaster relief. During the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other federal hydroelectric programs showed the value of federal programs to economic and social development and even to the military. The hydroelectric plants that the federal government built in the 1930s provided the electricity that was used during World War II to make aluminum for airplanes and to enrich the uranium for the Manhattan Project.
Since the 1930s, conservatives have been railing against the involvement of the federal government in economic development. The people who owned local utility companies and utility holding companies resented the fact that the federal government was providing electricity so cheaply to so many people. Other right-wingers resented the TVA's recognition of labor unions. The conservatives' hatred of the federal government became even more intense after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal for any program run or funded by federal government to discriminate against black people.
Why do rich conservatives want to shrink government and replace it with private charity? They want to shirk their responsibility to give back to the society that has given them so much. They also want to decide who gets help and who does not. Conservatives have always hated the Civil Rights Act because it requires government programs and businesses that are open to the public to treat everyone equally. In contrast, a purely private charity can withhold help from you if you are the wrong color or if you don't praise the Lord in exactly the right way.
If you allow the rich people to dismantle the federal government, prepare to bow down to them and beg when natural or manmade disaster strikes. You will have no way of holding them accountable if the help that they provide is too little, too late, or wildly inappropriate or has too many strings attached. In contrast, a government that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people can be disciplined, so that it will be there for you when you need it.