Romney and Disaster Relief

by Benjamin Studebaker

In the wake of the recent hurricane, new attention is being paid to this clip from the primary debates in which Romney condemns federal funding for disaster relief:

While the hurricane has drawn attention to this quip, its intellectual value, positively or negatively, is independent of this particular situation and deserves to be judged on its own merits, and that is precisely what today’s post is all about–the merits of the notion that the federal government should do less.

Now, it’s difficult to tell precisely what Romney thinks the federal government should be doing from this clip because he provides two claims that do not exactly mesh with one another:

Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction, and if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.


We should take everything we’re doing at the federal level and say what are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do? And those are the things we should stop doing.

Now, when you just listen to the clip, it sounds like both lines are making the same argument, but they’re not–the first claim is very extreme and asserts that it is always right to privatise any given thing provided that you can get away with. This claim is obviously invalid. You could privatise the military for instance (to some extent we even do–remember the Iraqi defence contractors?), but what we’ve found is that when you do that that not only are you entrusting the nation’s security and defence to people who are not in a military sense responsible to the political leadership, but it also is less cost-effective to do so. Imagine if we privatised the military or even so much as turned the military over to the states, so that you would have fifty different military organisations with their own duplicate bureaucracies and leaderships all of whom would have to somehow coordinate with one another to defend the country. In any case, the notion that any occasion to take something from the federal government and give it to the states or privatise it is “the right direction” is certainly fallacious. Even if you are broadly anti-federalist, that proposition should not work for you, unless you do not care about the national security of the country.

So let’s throw that line out, because it doesn’t go anywhere. This leaves us with the second, much more muted claim, that the federal government should only do the things that it has to do, and nothing else.

This argument begs the question–what does the federal government have to do? Where does one draw the line? Romney offers no answer to either of these questions in theory. The only question he seems to answer is one of who should decide where the line should be drawn–himself and his future administration. This leaves those of us evaluating Romney to try to guess where he would draw that line and then attempt to estimate whether or not we agree with what we imagine Romney might believe. Romney has left us with insufficient data to deduce any broad principles for what elements of the federal government are necessary and what elements are not. Perhaps Romney believes almost all of the federal government’s functions are necessary; perhaps he believes that none of them are. We don’t know. The only thing we do know is that Mitt Romney does not believe that disaster relief is a necessary function. In all other areas and respects, Mitt Romney has left us in ignorance of his view. We do not know what the guiding principle is–which, as many have noticed, is the problem that tends to arise with Romney.

So let’s look at the one case in which Romney does give a position–disaster relief. Let’s give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume that Romney does believe in disaster relief, but merely wants that relief to be provided by state governments instead of the federal government. Romney seems to believe that it is not necessary for the federal government to contribute aid in order to achieve disaster relief. If Romney is correct that federal aid was not needed, then his case that he is a good judge of whether or not the federal government needs to be involved is bolstered; if he is incorrect, Romney is revealed to be incompetent for the job for which he is implicitly asking–judging whether or not the federal government needs to perform its various tasks.

How can we evaluate whether or not the federal government is necessary for disaster relief? Let’s take Katrina as a case study. Here’s our methodology:

  1. We find out how much aid money the federal government contributed in disaster relief for Katrina
  2. We look at the annual budgets of the states impacted and estimate whether or not they could have covered the cost on their own.
  3. If yes, Romney is a good judge of whether or not the federal government is needed, if not, Romney is incompetent and unworthy of high office.

Well, fortunately these numbers are not too difficult to find. The US government contributed at least $62 billion in aid, which would be $73 billion adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, primarily to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. So let’s look at the current budgets of these three states and see if it is reasonable to suppose that, among the three of them, they could come up with $60-75 billion. Alabama’s total public expenditure out of the income it raises in revenue this year is $5.5 billion, Mississippi’s is around $5 billion, and Louisiana’s is $8 billion. Each of these states spends more than this amount, but much of that expenditure comes from federal grants, not state revenue. In order for disaster relief to be a state programme as Romney suggests, the federal government cannot touch it or finance it in any way.

What this suggests is that the three worst effected states could pay for their disaster relief in three or four years if they completely eliminated all other spending–they got rid of their schools, their hospitals, their police forces, their infrastructure funding, everything. That does not sound like something feasible–it certainly does not sound like something Romney would like to see happen, or the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama, for that matter. And so, following our methodology:

  1. The federal government spent $73 billion in inflation-adjusted money on reconstructing the gulf after Katrina
  2. The three states primarily impacted could not raise that money without doing themselves an unsustainable, large amount of damage
  3. Romney is a poor judge of whether or not the federal government is needed; he is incompetent and unworthy of high office.

But let’s be serious here–Romney was the governor of a state. Romney knows that Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana could never have afforded those expenses. So why did Romney suggest that they should have born those unsustainable costs? Because that is what the people wanted to hear. The people he was in front of wanted to hear that no one needs the federal government, they wanted to hear about all the rights states have and how government should be small and local. Romney wants votes, so Romney gives the people what they want to hear. It is not Romney’s fault that the people want to hear comforting delusions that have no basis in fact. Romney has been trained by the democratic system to give the people what they want, no matter how silly it is. He and all politicians like him are the product of our political culture, of the way voters behave. In democracy, you get a government that meets the aptitude and demands of the average voter, who has no interest in taking statecraft seriously and willingly eats up completely false information and theoretically bankrupt ideas. Satisfied?