Fires continue to burn in California as the air quality declines to dangerous levels. Hurricanes and floods this fall left a path of destruction as communities from one side of this country to the other struggled to put themselves back together. While nature continues to clobber the average American, this nation’s concentration of wealth now resembles the era of America’s robber barons. The natural workings of free market capitalism are leaving middle class workers worse off today than they were yesterday. I believe that capitalism is the best way to run an economy and the free market system is superior to any government-run economy. But that market must be regulated and people need to be taxed enough to pay for community resources like water, transit, health care, schools, disaster response and post-disaster recovery. People need to feel that life tomorrow will be better than today, and that their children will live better than they do. That part of the American dream is evaporating.
The anti-government ideology of the United State has deep roots as Joseph Ellis points out in his excellent new book, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us. Ellis traces the anti-government ideology to Thomas Jefferson and his allies, many of them southern plantation owners like him, seeking the freedom to continue owning slaves and hoping to limit the power and reach of the federal government. Those advocating stronger government institutions, like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, had a deeper understanding of the growing complexity of modern economic life and the need for government intervention to maintain stability and permit the continued “pursuit of happiness.” The debate continues into the 21st century and as Ellis indicates, the purposeful ambiguity of our constitution seemed to deliberately ensure that this debate never ended. The goal is a balance between individual freedom and the public or community interest. A civil and reasoned discussion of this issue is critical if we are to protect both individual freedom and community well-being.
That debate is crucial as we face advances in technology that can invade our privacy, monitor our communications, and even influence our behavior and elections. The debate is central to American democracy and is badly served by ideologically tainted media from Fox News to MSNBC; from the Drudge Report to the Huffington Post. The media has become an echo chamber that reinforces biases and hardens ideology. The philosophy of “survival of the fittest” seems cruel and inappropriate to the victims of forest fires and floods. But that is essentially America’s national policy in the absence of a systematic response to the growing number of disasters exacerbated by climate change. The victims of the California fires are sleeping in cars in the parking lots of big-box stores. Some will eventually rebuild if they have adequate insurance, but many have been wiped out and will need to somehow start over. Where is the national debate about our responsibility to those victims? The debate is settled by nondecision making in the form of nonresponse.
In a more populated and complex world more and more people will find themselves in the pathway of human induced destruction or the sometime damaging forces of nature. What do we, as a nation, owe our neighbors whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by these destructive forces? An anti-government ideologue’s response might be, “we owe them nothing, they should have saved up for a rainy day.” Or an anti-government advocate might donate to charity and respond that private charities should respond. In our more complex and interconnected world, I find this response inadequate and potentially destabilizing and dangerous. The rich may continue to get richer, but there are only so many tropical islands they can hide on if the average American family lives an insecure and uncertain life. We have a responsibility to each other and our community. My hope is that Americans understand the importance of a sense of security and building everyone’s confidence that they will not be on their own when disaster strikes. But whatever my hope is, the issue of reconstruction aid should be at the heart of our national agenda. Sadly, it is not.
It would also be helpful if our government institutions could do a better job of preventing avoidable disasters. I am no forest expert, but it is clear that more controlled burning is needed to prevent mega-fires. I am no climate scientist either, but it is clear that our warmer planet is making hurricanes and forest fires worse than ever. We know what we need to do to decarbonize our economy and reduce human induced climate change. Public policy is needed to incentivize and speed the transition to a renewable resource-based economy. The market may eventually do this on its own as renewable energy becomes cheaper and as reliable as fossil fuels, but “eventually” is not quick enough to serve the public interest.
Government must also develop a national and subsidized program of disaster recovery insurance. This is a recurring theme of mine, and one I revive after every disaster. While insurance could be designed to incentivize reconstruction in “safer” environments, I’m not sure there are any. Today’s safe haven might well be tomorrow’s disaster zone. That is the very point I am making. In a more complex world, everyone is vulnerable to disaster. Since the fundamental, irreducible function of government is to provide security against harm, we need a set of public policies that mitigate, adapt and respond to disaster. And we need insurance that pays the costs of post-disaster reconstruction.
Disaster recovery insurance should be based on an income-based surcharge on our federal income taxes. It should be deposited into a lock-box trust fund that is paid out according to transparent rules. The tax should rise and fall according to draw down. Unlike social security taxes which are fixed, the tax should automatically be raised if the trust fund balance falls to low. If by some miracle it becomes too large, the tax should be lowered.
In this era of blue-state, red-state political division, I have no expectation that this proposal is even remotely politically feasible. The extreme anti-government era that came to power with Ronald Reagan in January 1981 will need to end before a new federal tax can even reach the political agenda. In the near term, we will see more suffering and dislocation. What is particularly cruel about post disaster recovery is the psychological impact on those families that once had comfortable and secure homes, suddenly made insecure and homeless. In the case of the California fires, the rising death toll adds to the misery and sadness. The recovery from this sort of trauma can take a very long time and for some can result in a version of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a more complex world, tied together by trade, technology and travel we need an active, competent and agile government to mediate the forces that buffet individuals and families. The anti-government ideology that America lives under is a trap that we need to somehow escape from. As Ellis notes in his new book, the nation was formed in the midst of this debate. The Articles of Confederation created a weak government structure that had to be replaced by a more powerful structure authorized by the American constitution. But that constitution divided sovereignty between the states and central government and created a system of checks and balances that sought to limit the power of government. That structure struggles to address modern problems, but the central American problem is not the structure, but the still dominant anti-government ideology. That ideology makes it difficult to adapt to the complex forces of a global, brain-based economy.