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Conservative Think Tanker Proposes Tax Cuts to Pay for West Disaster

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Gov. Rick Perry visits with first responders in West, TX.

“For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong.”
—H.L. Mencken

Maybe they’re still drunk from celebrating Milton Friedman’s birthday, because one of the deep thinkers at the Texas Public Policy Foundation has published a good old-fashioned, he-must-be-high howler over at Texas Monthly this week. The premise of the piece by TPPF’s John Daniel Davidson, “Helping Hands Off,” is that Texas conservatives should be thrilled that the Obama administration denied the state’s request for a major disaster declaration in West, where an April fire and explosion at a fertilizer facility killed 15 and injured an estimated 300 or more people. Just this morning, however, the feds reversed course and announced that they would approve the request and pony up the full requested amount.

If that were all, we could let it lie. However, Davidson goes much, much further. Basically, his argument is that government is bad, the federal government is really bad and disaster recovery efforts should be largely left to the locals or the magic of tax cuts (yes, really… more on that later).

The article is problematic, at best, on about nine different levels. First, Davidson doesn’t bother to explore whether the long and growing list of oversight and regulatory failures might have contributed to the disaster. You’d think a free-market think tank obsessed with bloodless cost-benefits analyses would explore whether *avoiding* the destruction of hundreds of homes, schools, apartment buildings and businesses might be cheaper than paying for the clean-up.

Notably, Davidson doesn’t cite a figure for the number of injuries—an estimated 300 or more—perhaps to avoid the niggling problem that the state of Texas, unlike that bastion of overzealous governance known as Oklahoma, doesn’t have a system to count its dead or injured. Like anyone with eyes in their head or a heart in their chest, Davidson praises the first responders who lost their lives in the West disaster and the outpouring of support from citizens. But unlike even Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, Davidson believes that government disaster aid displaces local, volunteer recovery efforts. (This formula is strikingly similar to TPPF’s notion that the problem with the American health care system is that government insurance programs “crowd out” the free market.)

But the West explosion has also launched another sort of debate, about the role of government in the lives of its citizens.

In the wake of such a disaster, whom should we turn to for help? In the immediate aftermath, West became a town of volunteers. Neighbors and local churches provided shelter, cleared debris, and donated food, clothing, and counseling. Townspeople took a fierce pride in caring for their own. “These are our neighbors. They are coming to help,” Waco police sergeant William Patrick Swanton told reporters. “You will find that in Texas. You will find that across the United States. We put everything aside when it comes to these types of situations.”

Quoting a government employee, a cop, to make your point that the “townspeople” (“townspeople,” really?—they are not extras in a Tennessee Williams play) don’t need no stinkin’ help from the government: awesome.

Shaming the president might get the conservative base fired up, but it’s the wrong way to think about our relationship to Washington—as if the people of West should rely on the feds to make things right. They shouldn’t—and they aren’t.

Does it matter at all that the West mayor was steaming mad at the Obama administration for not ponying up the full amount requested by the state? He didn’t see it as a “handout”—no one does when they’ve lost everything.

Three days after the explosion, nearly one thousand volunteers had been registered, three warehouses were processing donated goods, and the Red Cross was asking people to hold off on donations because it was inundated. First Baptist Church in West has spent the spring and summer knocking down damaged homes with borrowed construction equipment and volunteer labor, using hundreds of thousands in donated funds to pay for fuel and debris removal. (And let’s not forget that the firefighters killed in the explosion were themselves volunteers.)

Well, of course. That’s what communities do in a disaster. They rally together to a common purpose. The fact that it’s so common and yet so extraordinary is a testament to our resiliency and it is strangely in these moments of suffering that our hope for humanity is restored. Beneath those clichéd “hero” stories that Anderson Cooper is fond of lies something profound: Amazement that any one of us, given the horrible opportunity, could rise to the occasion.

So, of course we turn to each other, first, almost certainly to our families and our neighbors. But does that somehow exclude government, that larger political community?

The question is what happens when the cameras go home and a community is left with the long and tedious task of rebuilding schools, public infrastructure, homes and roads over the course of months or years? The long-term disaster recovery component is often the most difficult and costly and requires the kind of coordination and focus offered by government. A church disbursing “hundreds of thousands in donated funds” (dollars?), while noble and necessary, is not going to cut it. Remember the outpouring of donations following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti? How’s that country, with its lack of government and collections of NGOs, doing three years later?

Long-term disaster recovery is a tricky business and Texas has done a poor job in equitably and efficiently flowing federal funds to the victims of natural disasters. It took six years, after Hurricane Rita in 2005, to get some people back in their homes. A similar story has played out in the five years since Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008.

But Davidson’s task here is not to think through these thorny questions but to fit his agenda to the particulars of West.

The response of this community underscores a fundamental truth about democracy: civil society contracts in proportion to the growth of government. And where there is less of the latter, there is more of the former.

Here’s where that logic leads… A solution to pay for disasters.

And maybe Perry should make good on his commitment to pass $1.8 billion in tax cuts so Texans and Texas businesses have more to spare when disasters strike and their neighbors are in need.

Where to even start with this? Tax cuts as disaster relief? Is this some sort-of sick joke? Did Arthur Laffer take up trepanning and find another napkin to scribble on? Davidson’s theory of human nature is that people have an infinite capacity for helping each other voluntarily but will refuse to open up their checkbooks if not afforded tax relief through their businesses.

And here’s the real rub: the Legislature *did* pass more than $1 billion in tax cuts, $630 million of which came in the form of cuts to the state’s business franchise tax. Perry signed that budget into law in June. So I guess TPPF’s corporate donors are writing some big checks to the West recovery fund, right?

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • SoberMoney

    “Conservative think tank” has become an oxymoron.

    You can’t call an organization a think tank if their ideas are stupid.