When Hurricanes Strike, Forget Politics

Every day, those of us in the Midwest read stories about awful conditions in Staten Island and other parts of New York and New Jersey — people without power, without gas, without food, without help, and without hope, a week after Sandy the Superstorm made landfall — and we shudder.

The media is eager to label politicians as winners or losers in all of this.  They ask:  Did President Obama do a great job in the first 24 hours, or has he fallen down on the job recently, when he left the East Coast for the campaign trail?  Was New York City Mayor Bloomberg crazy to even consider holding the New York City Marathon under these circumstances?  And will FEMA ever perform flawlessly when a hurricane scores a near-direct hit on a major city?

It’s ludicrous to try to identify political winners and losers when disaster strikes; it just cheapens the colossal human tragedy to view it solely from a political perspective.  The conditions left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are unimaginable to those of us who are accustomed to modern life — a group that includes all of the wretched souls in New York and New Jersey who have had their lives turned upside down.  Imagine living in a small apartment in one of the affected communities, having to deal with overflowing toilet bowls, spoiled food in the refrigerator, rotting trash at the curbside, no food or water, unheated rooms in near-freezing temperatures, and fears of armed looters when darkness falls.  The victims of Hurricane Sandy can’t understand why, a week later, they aren’t being helped to get their lives back to normal, and I expect they find it infuriating that the media has passed judgment on which politician performed well and which didn’t, and then moved on to another story.

If there is a lesson about this, it is that natural disasters are, in fact, disasters — incidents that have catastrophic consequences that can’t be easily reversed or repaired.   Mayors, Governors, and Presidents do the best they can, but often the scale of the disaster makes appalling human suffering unavoidable.  We should just accept that fact, let the governmental bodies do their job under difficult circumstances, try to help however we can, and not be quite so quick to judge.

Like Federal, Like State

We tend to talk a lot about the federal debt — and for good reason! — but there are reasons for concern on the state level, too.

A recent report on the amount of debt at the level is very sobering.  The report looked at regular debt, the 2013 fiscal year budget gap, outstanding unemployment trust fund loans, unfunded benefit liabilities, and unfunded pension liabilities, and showed that for all of the proud words of the governors who spoke at the Republican and Democratic conventions, many states are drowning in debt.  California is in the worst shape, with a stunning $617 billion in debt, followed by New York ($300 billion), Texas ($287 billion), Illinois ($271 billion) and New Jersey ($258 billion).  Ohio, unfortunately, stands sixth with $239 billion in debt.  The state in the best shape is Vermont, with only $5.8 billion in debt — less than 1/100th of the amount owed by California.

In all, states are laboring under a crushing $4 trillion in debt.  It’s just another reminder that the flood of red ink is found across our country — and that it’s high time we start doing something about it.

California On The Brink

California is teetering on the precipice.  Yesterday Governor Jerry Brown said the state is facing a $16 billion budget deficit.  He proposed some spending cuts to make up the shortfall and asked voters to vote to raise taxes, “temporarily.”

If I were a California voter, I’d be a bit skeptical of Brown’s budget figures.  He forecast a $9.2 billion deficit in January; only four months later that amount has nearly doubled.  His budget also assumes economic growth, a sharp increase in new home construction, and $1.5 billion from Facebook’s initial public offering.  The Governor’s budget also counts on the use of one-time funds, and assumes that he will be able to convince state employee unions to accept a reduced workweek and that he will be able to convince the Democrats in the California state legislature to cut spending on social services.  Notably, Governor Brown also refuses to cut spending on a high-speed rail program.

In short, it’s the by-now-familiar scenario where voters are asked to approve “temporary” increases to the sales tax and income tax on the promise of cuts that never quite materialize.  Brown’s budget contemplates spending $91.4 billion.  Can’t California assign priorities and just cut those programs at the bottom of that priority list?  Rather than relying on phony promises of reduced workweeks and percentage cuts, or overly optimistic growth forecasts, how about making tough decisions and ending programs altogether?  How about firing employees, rather than negotiating to trim their workweek?  How about cutting the dreamy high-speed rail program in the face of budget realities?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece contrasting how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dealt the deficit he inherited with Brown’s approach.  Christie ended a high-speed rail program as an unaffordable luxury.  Christie vetoed tax increases as economically suicidal.  Christie was able to close New Jersey’s budget deficit without raising taxes.  Why can’t California make similarly tough decisions?

The Tanning Test

When should people intervene to stop the potentially destructive behavior of another?  A New Jersey situation raises that delicate question — on two levels.

The story involves a mother, Patricia Krentcil, who was arrested and charged with second-degree child endangerment.  Police claim that she took her fair-skinned, red-haired five-year-old daughter to a tanning parlor, exposed her to a tanning bed, and gave the girl a sunburn as a result.  Krentcil denies the charge and says the child got the sunburn playing outside on a warm day.  She says she brings her daughter with her to the tanning parlor, but the girl waits nearby while only Krentcil gets into the tanning bed.  She suspects that a teacher overheard her five-year-old say that she went to the tanning parlor and reached the wrong conclusion.

In my view, it’s hard to justify the state arresting and charging a mother with child endangerment under such circumstances, which apparently involves just one incident, no pattern of behavior, and a condition — a child’s sunburn — that has an entirely plausible, innocent explanation.

But look at the picture of Ms. Krentcil.  She admits to excessive tanning, and judging from the grotesque, leathery appearance of her skin, perhaps she even has an addiction to it.  How can the tanning parlor, to say nothing of her husband and her family, continue to allow her to expose herself to UV rays under such circumstances?  Shouldn’t tanning parlor attendants, like bartenders, have an obligation to cut people off when they’ve had enough?

Businesses often complain about “unnecessary” government regulations, but businesses can be as responsible for regulatory overload as overzealous bureaucrats.  If New Jersey tanning parlors are fine with taking money from misguided folks and then allowing them to tan, tan, tan until they look like an old shoe at the back of the closet, the tanning parlors shouldn’t be heard to complain when the state decides it needs to step in.

Assigning Priorities, And Saying No To Jersey Shore

Today provided another reason why I wish New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would throw his hat in the ring for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Christie vetoed a $420,000 tax credit that the New Jersey Economic Development Authority was going to give to the MTV show Jersey Shore.  Christie’s veto message says, “[i]n this difficult fiscal climate, New Jersey taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize projects such as Jersey Shore” and adds, “as Chief Executive I am duty-bound to ensure that taxpayers are not footing a $420,000 bill for a project which does nothing more than perpetuate misconceptions about the State and its citizens.”

New Jersey, like other states, has been grappling with serious budget concerns that have required Christie and state legislators to make some tough decisions and decide where to put scarce government resources.  Giving tax breaks to a hit TV program — especially one that makes your state seem like a repository for perma-tanned, muscle-bound idiots — has to be at the bottom of the priority list, as Christie recognized and explained in clear, unmistakable language.

I like those qualities.  That’s why I’d like to learn more about Christie and hear his take on how to tackle the federal budget deficit.

Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight

Hurricane Irene has come and gone.  The storm hit the Carolinas, then weakened by the time it moved north to New Jersey and New York.  Still, it likely produced billions of dollars in damage, due to flooding and high winds, left millions of people without power, and is being blamed for more than a dozen deaths.

With cities along the East Coast still wet from Irene’s rain and storm surge, the post mortems have begun.  The main topic for debate seems to be whether politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie overreacted when they ordered evacuations, closed roads and transit systems, and issued blunt warnings about the potential harm to people who tried to ride out the storm.

Because the storm was not as devastating as some feared it might be, it’s easy to second-guess the decision-makers.  In my view, however, it’s better to err on the side of caution under such circumstances.  No major hurricane had targeted New York and New Jersey for decades.  Storms are, by definition, unpredictable.  And no one wanted to see a repeat of those memorable post-Katrina images of people huddled on rooftops or wading through hip-deep water.  I think the mayors and government along the east coast made the right decisions.

Can’t we just be happy that we avoided the catastrophic consequences that would have occurred if a major hurricane had hit our east coast population centers head on and at full force?

“Waste, Fraud, And Abuse” And The New Jersey Turnpike

Come election time we hear politicians say they plan to balance governmental budgets by getting rid of waste, fraud, and abuse.  That comment always seems like a dodge to allow the candidate to avoid talking about tough budget choices — and then you run across a story like this.

It turns out that a recent audit of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority identified $43 million in wasteful payments for employee perks and bonuses.  The payments included $30 million in unjustified bonuses to management and employees without regard to performance, an employee bowling league, employee bonuses for working on their birthdays, and free E-Z pass transponders, and cash out payments for unused sick days and vacation days.  One employee with a base salary of $73,469 earned $321,985 when all payouts and bonuses were included.  All of this happened as tolls were being increased.

These kinds of stories are maddening.  They confirm our belief that some of our hard-earned tax dollars are being wasted, but they also indicate that agency administrators and legislators are abysmal failures in exercising appropriate oversight.  That result shouldn’t be surprising.  Digging into the actual uses to which tax dollars are being put is hard work, and most of our legislators aren’t nose-to-the-grindstone types who have any interest in getting into the details.  Perhaps it is time to change that?