Saturday, September 3, 2011

Who Should Help?

We are aware of natural disasters around the world.  Television brings the flood waters into our kitchens. When  the earth quakes in the United States, we are on the scene within hours, often seeing real-time video from cell phone cameras.  People are rescued from rising water.  The National Guard is on scene.

Until late in the 20th Century, the hard times brought by wind, rain and fire were endured locally without a TV reporter asking how it feels to lose your home.  The chain of responsibility ran first through the private sector and then to local and state government.  In the great Mississippi flood of 1927 President Coolidge was hesitant to make a federal commitment even when 30 feet of water covered land from Illinois to  the Gulf of Mexico.  One million were homeless.  (Read a great book about this flood by John Barry, "The Rising Tide".  Try, also "The Johnstown Flood", David McCullough's account of the 1889 flood in Pennsylvania.)

Today we have an elaborate hierarchy of  response.  First, emergency.  Second, restore public services.These are clearly the functions of government and are one of the reasons we are willing to pay taxes.   And then, after lives are saved and the immediate danger has passed the more complex challenge of compensation and restoration.  It's not clear whose responsibility it is to hold our citizens harmless against the hazards of the weather.  Some are helped and some are not.  Some built in a flood plain, or out on the beach against the better judgment of others.  Some buy insurance.  Some do not.  Some rebuild in the same place and are flooded out again.  I am not sure who should help and even less sure who should pay.

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