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On FEMA, Inequality and the Need for Better Government | The Nation

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Michelle Dean

Culture and the arts in America, sliced and diced.

On FEMA, Inequality and the Need for Better Government

I interrupt my regularly scheduled cultural blogging to offer this: I, for one, am not at all shocked to hear Republicans saying extraordinarily moronic things about disaster management even as the ravages of Sandy are still upon us here in New York. The early favorite for gold, I think, is Congressman Steve King, of Iowa, with his statement, in an Iowa debate, that he wants a clear inventory of what disaster money will be spent on, because Katrina victims “spent it on Gucci bags and massage parlors and everything you can think of—in addition to what was necessary.” Where he got that spectacular impression from, no one is quite saying. Did some reporter somewhere mark a $20 and follow it down the Gucci-black-market rabbit hole? Every second that ticks by whatever ill-sourced, ideologically motivated piece of “journalism” that fact may have come from—if it came from one at all—gets shoved down into Google’s seventh hell, where I am happy for it to remain.

Contextualize that remark into Mitt Romney’s well-circulated avowal that FEMA should be consigned to oblivion and it gets no better. It doesn’t matter that Romney has now flip-flopped. And it doesn’t matter if, as in all matters Romneyan, the original position was probably just a part of his “conservative phase,” as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum dryly put it on Monday. One doubts, in any event, that his attitude is really as cavalier as his smiles and false equivocations belie, though it would be good for him to give some hint of the contrary that doesn’t involve the vaguest sort of charity work, collecting cans of food as though New York were America’s Christmas Family. The problem is a lot deeper than that, because the idea that people are out there making a mint off of federal relief every time one of these little storms roll in has long been a deep concern for the right.

It has not, for example, garnered a ton of press outside of Louisiana, but since 2011, FEMA has been trying to recoup funds it “overpaid” to Katrina victims in its housing allotments. The debt-collection process, which has been hindered by confusion and bad record-keeping, was supposed to recoup $385 million, chump change for a government whose annual deficit is in the trillions, by nickel-and-diming people for amounts averaging about $4,622. There are some universes—and I suspect they may be the universes of many people in Congress—where just under $5,000 is an attainable sum to get together quickly. I’m going to suggest to you that people who lived through Katrina, and took those grants, are not living there.

If only we could get them to pay as much attention to the “disaster capitalists” badly in need of auditing.

That might sound like a complaint about Obama but as with so many complaints about Obama, it’s really a complaint about the limits of what he can do with this Congress. This is my Canadian talking, but I really think that American politicians have a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of “fiscal conservatism.” In their beautifully illogical conception of the term, it means “never spending any money, ever ever ever, except when and where we want to spend it.” The left and the center do their part in reinforcing this. The New York Times, in their popular op-ed from Monday, declared that “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” They meant a government that has a disaster management agency, which, sure. But I don’t know that what America needs is a bigger government staffed by more of these people who rifle through disaster victims’ pockets looking for change or a stowaway Birkin bag. Employ more debt-collectors, after all, and you’ll get a bigger government too.

You’d think the choice between Romney and Obama would make this clear enough, but to reiterate: the problem in America right now is not so much that we need just any old government. We need a new way of thinking about government. Right before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Tony Judt, the great historian of Europe, published an essay The New York Review of Books about the status of social democracy in the West. The fear of government, he said, was linked to issues of trust, in that Americans don’t feel that for each other. You might think it childish to predicate everything on trust, but in the end it is the only real reason to have a government at all, to suggest that there is a collective interest somewhere.

“Live together, die alone,” as those castaways on Lost used to say. And the rhetoric of togetherness is popular, but manipulable, in times of trouble. Everyone backpedals their way into that game by claiming that the help of “neighbors” will be enough. The funny thing is that actions like the FEMA recoupments just prove that, yes indeed, if you are poor, you can’t trust the federal government. If they give you money, they may someday show up at the door, wanting it back. Even in the developing context of Sandy, the fact is that there are neighbors who consider themselves in a whole other world. As David Rohde puts it at The Atlantic, “There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.” Most of those are the cashiers and bodega owners and takeout deliverymen who are the ones who will certainly need a FEMA grant to fix a smashed car window or replace a bicycle or even just pay a medical bill. It’s a sad thing that they live in a country that is going to scrutinize their receipts.

For more on the Mitt Romney’s stated anti-FEMA stance, read Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s latest.

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