in Civilization

When The Levee Breaks

“Disasters,” Jonathan Chait writes, “are inherently political, because government is political, and preventing and responding to disasters is a primary role of the state.” Rachel Maddow echoed Chait for the last few nights while discussing “the new normal” of a changing climate, the sorry state of American infrastructure, and Mitt Romney’s views on federal disaster response.

That latter point requires more examination than it has gotten. Until Wednesday, the Republican nominee’s rhetoric on federal disaster management pandered to the fringe right wing world of Ron Paul. It is no exaggeration to describe this point of view as antediluvian, for 20th Century “big government” liberalism was actually born in response to a flood.

The Great Depression figures large in historical discussion of the American liberal state, but two years before the stock market crashed the Mississippi River was already changing America in the direction of the New Deal. In a 2006 essay at Slate, David Greenberg described how a laissez-faire president fought against federal intervention:

In 1927, the White House was occupied by a president who, like George W. Bush, had little use for activist government (at least at home): Calvin Coolidge. “If the federal government were to go out of existence,” he said, “the common run of people would not detect the difference.” Those services people needed, he thought, the states could best provide.

[…] Unremitting newspaper coverage of the suffering wrought by the flood increased the pressure. But Congress had adjourned, and Coolidge declined to convene a special session to pass an emergency appropriation. Only in late 1927, when Illinois’ Frank Reid, the Republican chair of the House Flood Control Committee, held public hearings was Coolidge’s hand forced. In his December 1927 State of the Union message—they were often done in December back then—he endorsed federal flood-control measures. But he insisted that local governments and property owners bear most of the costs. Coolidge’s plan also called for spending hundreds of millions dollars less than the Senate and the House bills. Deadlock ensued. Will Rogers remarked that Coolidge was going to further postpone relief legislation in “the hope that those needing relief will perhaps have conveniently died in the meantime.” (Emphasis mine)

“Local control” in 1927 meant that everyone maintained their own levees with no standards or oversight, and that desperate people sometimes dynamited one another’s levees to relieve the pressure on their own side. To resolve this chaos, the United States Congress put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of regulating the infrastructure and controlling the flow of the Mississippi River. Federal relief spending also had a Keynesian effect, beginning a trend that became the New Deal.

Republicans today consider that story a tragic error. During the most recent Congress, Eric Cantor and John Boehner tried to reverse the formula that has worked ever since the 1940s by carving out budget cuts to accommodate disaster relief rather than simply charging the national credit card. In the Republican universe, debt is a greater enemy than rushing waters.

That party’s standard bearer is no better: Mitt Romney’s disaster preparedness and response record as governor reads like  Calvin Coolidge, and he cannot even say the words “climate change,” much less address the issue coherently. In a Romney administration, there is little hope of federal spending to shore up America’s cities for a stormier world, and when the storms hit we are all on our own. He does not agree the waters are rising, he cannot imagine the levees breaking, and when they do his first priority will be a photo op.

To be sure, a reelected Obama will face tremendous challenges. He will not become the standard-bearer of climate revolution that environmentalists yearn to elect. But climate evolution is at least possible in his second term, whereas it is a nonstarter in Romney’s first. And I know who I want in charge when the levee breaks.

Image via Karoli

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