When the government should be here to help

Damage from Hurricane Maria

According to Ronald Reagan, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” As with so many other aspects of his presidency, he said his lines well, and the Hollywood polish made a lot of his audience suspend disbelief. Arms manufacturers did not regard helpful tax dollars as scary, and wealthy Republicans were pleased to be aided by transferring away the burden of those taxes, but such was the state of right-wing fantasy in the 1980s.

As Hurricane Florence comes ashore at the Carolina coast, it is worth reminding ourselves why government action — action that is competent and is aimed at benefitting the population as a whole — is essential to maintain a modern society.

The disaster of last year’s hurricanes are instructive. Texas and Florida received immediate aid, while Puerto Rico got paper towels and the piece of Trumpsplaining that islands are in the middle of bodies of water. It would be easy to see this as a consequence of the fact that the two states’ electoral votes went Republican in 2016, while Puerto Ricans do not get a say in the general election, but it is not clear that Trump was even aware that the territory is a part of the United States until the waves of outrage poured that information into his Twitter timeline.

Is there a relationship of cause and effect in the differences in deaths after Harvey, Irma, and Maria? Harvey’s total was seventy, and Irma resulted in 129 killed. By contrast, the number of people who died due to Hurricane Maria is almost 3,000. At least, that is the total for people who understand that reality is not conditioned on political approval.

Maria is thus the ultimate cause of a death toll similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to put the situation into perspective. The same can be said for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Hawai’i was a territory, not a state, at the time. And whites were in the minority and always have been in the islands.

It is easy to say that people should move themselves away from low-lying areas, in the case of hurricanes. Or from fault lines. Or fracking wells. Or, presumably, places that terrorists might take an interest in. For people who live in gated communities, not in my backyard is assumed when it is not actively pursued through campaign donations and similar. For others, the costs of moving and the difficulties in finding work, child care, and health care make what is smugly treated as the responsible choice out of reach.

This would be the stark reality of a libertarian society if it were not for the fact that when the wealthy and powerful — but I repeat myself — get into distress, they are not treated the same way. When financial institutions faced the consequences of their bad actions, taxpayer funds were made available to bail them out — on the belief that they would bring down the economy with them if they were allowed to collapse. I am reminded of the Mother Jones quote about having enough ambition to steal a railroad instead of being satisfied with a pair of shoes if a person wants to succeed in a life of crime.

What everything comes down to is the question of how we believe society ought to be organized. The answer is settled too often with regard to how the powerful will benefit. What is left to decide is how things will be structured for the rest of us.

When Republican politicians tell the country that personal responsibility is a cardinal virtue, that keeping one’s legs together, refraining from accepting a doctor’s prescription for an opioid, working hard for bosses who make hundreds of times an average worker’s salary, and voting for Republicans is the way to the fantasy of greatness.

As long as enough voters fall for this, we will have a government that is helpful to the people who are in the least need and who have demonstrated the least willingness to pass along the help. Ordinary Americans who enable this situation by their votes do so in the hope, however unlikely, that they will be admitted into the club someday, and once having arrived, they will not want to pay any more in taxes than current members do. But the door in is mostly an illusion, and opening up gaps in the wall that is built not across the southern border but around zones of privilege requires first a change in the politicians we accept as our leaders and then relentless demands that they work for all of us.

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