Hurricane Sandy and the Myth of the Big Government-vs.-Small-Government Debate

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama speaks as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks on as they visit a shelter for Hurricane Sandy victims in Brigantine, New Jersey, on October 31th, 2012.

Despite the media declaring Obama the debate winner, this new line of rhetoric isn't really true

Quite a shock the other day to look out my window in Jersey City, and see the Hudson River rushing over what used to be the street in front of my building. For nearly three days my dog and I played Robinson Crusoe and Friday, sleepily watching from our little apartment-island while we waited for hot water, cell service, the internet, even elevators to come back on line.

When I finally got back on the internet and was able to read the news again, I saw that Hurricane Sandy, in addition to being the rare storm to live up to its televised hype, had turned into the last-minute curveball plot twist that always seems to pop up in presidential races.

Some of those twists we hear about – like the sudden appearance of records from George W. Bush's 1976 drunk driving arrest in Maine – while others, like Dick Nixon's apparent secret negotiations with the Vietnamese in 1968, or the more-likely-mythical October Surprise deal involving Reagan and the Iran hostages in 1980, remain secrets until later on.

But this massive hurricane is apparently turning into a boon for Barack Obama on a number of fronts. One, it's allowed him to be seen all over television taking charge and acting presidential, and has even allowed him to brandish bipartisan credentials through the curiously intense bromance that he has developed this week with our own New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (a Romney supporter who, somewhat mysteriously, has gone out of his way to praise the president this week).

On a deeper level, though, the hurricane has seemingly made a powerful argument on Obama's behalf about the role of government in general. The media is casting this as a stark and simple dichotomy. Romney, the rhetoric goes, is on record as having favored cuts to disaster relief agencies like FEMA ("We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids," he said in a primary debate last year), while his running mate, Paul Ryan, has been even more hostile to FEMA ("When disaster-relief decisions are not made judiciously, limited resources are diverted away from communities that are truly in need," he said just last March).

Obama, meanwhile, has reportedly embraced FEMA in the past, and is certainly doing so now, with his comments this past week seeming to argue in favor even of an increase in FEMA spending, noting the frequency of "these kinds of storms."

The storm is also purportedly casting in a kinder light Obama's general attitude toward government, until now often described as an electoral weakness. Pre-Sandy, pundits usually raked the president over the coals for openly embracing the role of government in society during a time when anti-government sentiment is at an all-time high. In the first debate, for instance, his answer to a question about his view of the role of government was considered a dud:

I also believe that government has the capacity — the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.

It's this kind of language that's allowed opponents of Obama to cast him as the "redistributionist-in-Chief": a man who openly believes that government can help provide "ladders of opportunity." That language is particularly annoying to pure free-market ideologues, who have often claimed the "ladders of opportunity" phrase for themselves, but only in the context of their being provided by the private sector.

Anyway, enter Hurricane Sandy. Suddenly, it seems that most of the mainstream press – as if speaking through one voice – has finally decided that the storm has settled the big-government-versus-small-government argument, with Obama coming out the clear winner. There were a number of online columns like the one by USA Today's Amanda Marcotte, who wrote that "Sandy Shows Why Romney's Wrong on FEMA," or by Catherine Poe at the Washington Times, who pitched in with "FEMA to the Rescue: Why Obama is Right and Romney Was Wrong."

But more than a few outlets used the storm to make an even bigger case for government in general. Up north, for instance, the Globe and Mail decreed that "Superstorm Bolsters Obama's Big-Government Argument". But the more striking piece was the uncharacteristically brazen editorial in the New York Times, titled "A Big Storm Requires Big Government," in which the Times harshly criticized George Bush's cavalier attitude toward disaster relief in the years leading up to Katrina, and argued generally for the necessity of a broadly strong government.

The Times headline was instantly mocked by both the Heritage Foundation, who called it "a shameless attempt to politicize Hurricane Sandy," and the Wall Street Journal ("A Big Storm Requires Big Bird"), which used the editorial as an opportunity to wittily attack the Grey Lady:

Some people prepare for natural disasters by stocking up on food, water and batteries. At the New York Times, they stockpile tendentious ideological arguments.

The editorialists at the Wall Street Journal have a lot of balls themselves calling out anyone else for mass-producing tendentious ideology, but that's another argument for another day. The point is that the storm has become a flash-point for a new media meme: Obama is for big government (which is suddenly a good thing), Romney is for small government (and wants to take rafts and blankets away from flood victims), and goodness gracious, aren't we lucky that we got to see such a clear, real-world demonstration of the important philosophical differences between these two candidates in the week before the election.

The only problem with this new line of rhetoric is that it isn't really true. The almost certain reality is that we'll end up with a big (and perhaps even a rapidly-expanding) government no matter who gets elected. People seem to forget that this time four years ago, George W. Bush was winding down one of the most activist, expensive, intrusive presidencies in history, an eight-year period that saw a massive expansion in the size of the federal government. Almost exactly four years ago, this is what the conservative Washington Times wrote about the outgoing president:

George W. Bush rode into Washington almost eight years ago astride the horse of smaller government. He will leave it this winter having overseen the biggest federal budget expansion since Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven decades ago.

Bush, it is true, consistently expanded the size of the federal bureaucracies almost across the board during his eight years in office, greatly increasing the size of government just in terms of sheer numbers and volume of spending, but that wasn't all he did.

People forget that he also took a major qualitative step forward in expanding the role of government, when in 2008 his Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, teamed up with then-Fed official and Paulson's future counterpart in the Obama administration, Tim Geithner, to design a series of financial bailouts and state-aided mergers. The bailout program that began under Bush cost trillions of dollars and left the state hopelessly and irrevocably involved in the insurance, banking and auto industries, among other things.

But within a few years, that was forgotten. Forget about the myth that the Republican Party is sincerely interested in reducing the size of government: the real myth is that the American people are in favor of reducing the size of government. And that myth was alive and well again by the summer of 2010, in the runup to midterm elections. Back then, Slate columnist Anne Applebaum described the national self-deception this way:

Americans on both the left and the right have, for the last decade, consistently voted for high-spending members of Congress and consistently supported ever-higher levels of government intervention and regulation at all levels of public life. As a result, the federal government expanded under George W. Bush's administration at a rate that was, at least until President Barack Obama came along, totally unprecedented in U.S. history.  

In the abstract, most Americans want a smaller and less intrusive government. In reality, what Americans really want is a government that spends less money on other people.

Hurricane Sandy is a perfect, microcosmic example of America's attitude toward government. We have millions of people who, most of the year, are ready to bash anyone who accepts government aid as a parasitic welfare queen, but the instant the water level rises a few feet too high in their own neighborhoods, those same folks transform into little Roosevelts, full of plaudits for the benefits of a strong state.

The truth is, nobody, be he rich or poor, wants his government services cut. Drive up and down route 128 outside Boston, you'll see a lot of affluent white people waving Romney signs, complaining about entitlement spending. But about four thousand percent of those same people working along the high-tech ring there are totally dependent on the Pentagon contracts that keep doors open at companies like Raytheon and General Dynamics.

Here in the tri-state area, and especially in the lower Manhattan region I'm staring at out my window right now, you'll get much of the same – lots of whining now about deficit spending and the parasitical 47%, but also conspicuous silence a few years ago, when in one fell swoop, taxpayers had to spend about twice the amount of the annual federal budget just to save bonus seasons on Wall Street for the few thousand of our local assholes who nearly blew up the world economy.

And a lot of those same parasite-bashing, Randian pure-market ideologues were in full pucker mode for all of this past summer, while they waited in frank desperation for the Fed to announce a third Quantitative Easing program – in which the Fed will henceforth inject $85 billion of raw, uncut welfare into the financial services industry's bloodstream every month.

Programs like QE are always defended as being necessary to stimulate the economy in general, and who knows, maybe they are – but it's conspicuous that a crowd of people who normally hate "government spending" are suddenly overflowing with praise for the Fed's wisdom and logical explanations for why this massive pseudo-state intervention is necessary.

The point is, we will end up with a big government no matter who wins next week's election, because neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama is supported by a coalition that has any interest in tightening its own belt. The only reason we're having this phony big-versus-small argument is because of yet another longstanding media deception, i.e. that the only people who actually receive government aid are the poor and the elderly and other such traditional "welfare"-seekers. Thus a politician who is in favor of cutting services to that particular crowd, like Mitt Romney, is inevitably described as favoring "small government," no matter what his spending plans are for everybody else.

But everyone lives off the government teat to some degree – even (one might even say especially) the very rich who have been the core supporters of both the Bush presidency and Romney's campaign. Many are industrial leaders who would revolt tomorrow if their giant free R&D program known as the federal military budget were to be scaled back even a few percentage points. Mitt's buddies on Wall Street would cry without their bailouts and dozens of lucrative little-known subsidies (like the preposterous ability of certain banks to act as middlemen in transactions when the government lends money to itself).

And if it's not outright bailouts or guarantees keeping the rich rich, it's selective regulation and carefully-carved-out protections from competition – like the bans on drug re-importation or pharmaceutical price negotiation for Medicare that are keeping the drug companies far richer than they would be, in the pure free-market paradise their CEOs probably espouse at dinner parties.

The evolution of this whole antigovernment movement has been fascinating to watch. People who grew up in public schools, run straight to the embassy the instant they get a runny nose overseas, stuff burgers down their throats without worrying about E. Coli and sleep happily in planes they know have been inspected by the FAA (I regularly risked my life in Aeroflot liners for a decade and know the difference), can with straight faces make the argument that having to pay any taxes at all is tyranny. It's almost as if people feel the need to announce that they don't need any help with anything, ever – not even keeping bridges safe or drinking water clean.

It's this weird national paranoia about being seen as needy, or labeled a parasite who needs government aid, that leads to lunacies like the idea that having a strong disaster-relief agency qualifies as a "big government" concept, when in fact it's just sensible. If everyone could just admit that government is a fact of life, we could probably do a much better job of fixing it and managing its costs. Instead, we have to play this silly game where millions of us pretend we're above it all, that we don't walk on regularly-cleaned streets or fly in protected skies. It shouldn't take a once-in-a-generation hurricane for Americans to admit they need the government occasionally, but that's apparently where we are.

Best of Rolling Stone

Around the Web

Add a Comment