Eric Schansberg ponders the lessons that we can learn from the aftermatch of Hurricane Katrina. One of Schansberg’s biggest questions in light of the government’s failure to effectively manage the disaster is this: if the government, both local and federal, failed at all levels to deal with Katrina before, during, and after it made landfall, shouldn’t we be looking for other options rather than trying to depend more on a system that obviously failed? Schansberg suggests that while the government does play a role in the welfare of the nation, private organizations, charities, and local community groups are much more capable of dealing with the emotional and physical care of those displaced in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Private charitable activity is always better. Charity is always preferred ethically because people are engaged in voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange with others. Charity is always preferred biblically because it fills the biblical mandate to love others, especially those who are the most vulnerable. Charity, if done well, is preferred practically, because it is more effective, more efficient, and can focus on the spiritual as well as the material concerns of the needy. Again, if government is ineffective, shouldn’t our response be less dependence on government and more encouragement of private activity?
Also from last week’s McLaughlin Group, Mort Zuckerman from U.S. News & World Report makes the important point that rising costs of gasoline greatly impact the poorest and most vulnerable populations.
MR. ZUCKERMAN: …It is very difficult in America to really cut back on gasoline consumption, because people go to work and go shopping in their cars. We do not have public transportation in the way that Europe does.
MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we need that for the macroeconomy and the microeconomy.
MR. ZUCKERMAN: Yes, we do need — absolutely, because it is the sole means of transportation both to jobs, to schools and to entertainment. So it is –
MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Forget the means. I’m talking about consumption, consumption, consumption.
MR. ZUCKERMAN: I’m talking consumption, yes. But the other part of it is when gasoline prices go up, if they go up by 50 cents a gallon, people use 20 gallons a week. Okay, that’s $10 a week or $500 a year. And for a couple, that’s $1,000 a year. For the poor people or the people earning relatively…It really hurts a lot. So it really disproportionately hits the poor.
So while prices go up and the market adjusts and people will make decisions based on that, some of us don’t have all options to choose from that a large amount of disposable income allows. If you struggled before when gas was $1.50 a gallon to afford what it takes to commute to your job, imagine when that cost is doubled. Certainly there are still general possibilities for off-setting some of this burden (such as carpooling or relying on what public transportation there is), but especially the short-term effects when the costs of a commodity like gasoline rise as they have, as Zuckerman says, it “disproportionately hits the poor.”
So while on the broader economic level it is best to let the market work, at the same time churches, charities, and community groups should be acutely aware of this, and attempt to address these individual situations as best they can.
If you haven’t heard of this story yet, read about what Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis did this past weekend. His expression of compassion for a dying boy, 10-year-old Montana Mazurkiewicz, transcends sports. Weis honored a promise to Montana despite the fact that he is a first-year coach in the big business of college football, in what might be the most scrutinized and storied programs in the country.
In a personal visit to the boy last week, in addition to promising to honor Montana’s wish to call the first play of the game, Weis discussed his daughter Hannah, who has global development delay, a rare disorder similar to autism. Weis had his own brush with death recently, when in 2002 while an assistant coach with the NFL’s New England Patriots, he underwent gastric bypass surgery. Complications from the surgery kept him in intensive care for 2 weeks.
Montana died last Friday, before the game could be played, but Weis honored his pledge and called a “pass right,” even though the Irish were backed up on their own goal line. Click here to view an ESPN SportsCenter segment on the story in ESPN Motion.
The Remedy, the Claremont Institute’s blog, links to an article in the Los Angeles Times by Richard M. Walden, head of Operation USA, that raises concerns about how the Red Cross spends the money it receives for specific disasters.
Walden levels some important and serious charges against the Red Cross, and may or may not be convincing depending on if you approve of the Red Cross’ fund-raising precedents and other activities. But Walden is undeniably right is when he raises the question of accountability and donor awareness. “Asking where all the privately collected money will go and how much Red Cross is billing FEMA and the affected states is a legitimate question — even if posed by the president of a small relief agency,” he writes.
In other Red Cross news, the group is planning to add a new symbol to the established Red Cross/Red Crescent pairing. Reuters reports, “Planned changes to Geneva Conventions governing the rules of war will allow use of the crystal – a diamond-shaped red frame on a white background – as a new protective emblem stripped of any religious or political significance.”
The final phrase is the operative one, as the intent is to make clear that the bearer of the symbol is “a neutral humanitarian player,” not one engaged in relief work because of any specifically religious convictions.
Interesting survey finding highlighted on the Heritage Foundation’s web site:
Compared with peers who expressed a great deal of confidence in the federal government, those who reported having “hardly any confidence” in the federal government were 20 percentage points more likely to volunteer for a charity.
It is the other flood: The outpouring of concern for the poor of New Orleans. According to nearly every journalist in America, our consciousness has been raised about the invisible scourge of poverty in this country, and nothing is too much to ask when addressing the plight of the disadvantaged evacuees of New Orleans. They should get every form of aid possible — except, that is, assistance that might help give them more control over their lives.
Acton Institute’s Center for Effective Compassion is offering an intensive one-day event in Ft. Myers, Fla., on Oct 28, where nonprofits and community leaders will get practical, how-to skills to help them increase the “return on investment” for charity programs. Foundation grantees, grassroots community and faith-based service providers, students and volunteers won’t want to miss this event. Read more about the event here.
Key speakers include Rev. John Nunes, pastor of Dallas-based St. Paul’s Lutheran Church; Carol McLaughlin, chief programs officer at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation; Craig Folk, a partner with the Fort Myers accounting firm Miller, Helms & Folk, and Karen Woods, executive director at Acton’s Center for Effective Compassion. The event press release is available here.
Government is the only arena in which I can readily see that incompetence and failure, often of the staggeringly ignominious variety, is “punished” with an increase of funding and influence. Many others have observed this phenomena, perhaps most pervasive in the public education system. As we all know, the problem is always a lack of funds.
But we find the same twisted logic at work following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The inadequacy of government at all levels, with most of the focus on the federal, is not leading some to the obvious criticism of the size, complexity, and bureaucracy of government. Instead, we are seeing the contrary call, to increase the size of the government. As Anne Applebaum writes in The Washington Post, a number of figures, including German chancellor Gerhard Schrr, see the problem as too little government, not too much.
Applebaum rightly takes this statist interpretation of events to task, as she writes of the pervasiveness and effectiveness of relief efforts by elements of civil society. While “it is true that the worst failures of the past two weeks have been big government failures,” she observes, “The biggest successes, by contrast, have come out of this country’s incredibly vibrant, amazingly diverse and fantastically generous civil society. Sooner or later, it will be impossible not to draw political lessons from that paradox.”
The political lesson should not be that more government is the answer, but rather a more focused and efficient government. The increase in government should be qualitative, not quantitative. It remains to be seen which will prevail: the axiomatic big government logic (perhaps manifested in an increased FEMA budget!), or common-sense conclusions about the scope and necessary limits of government power.
In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Brendon Miniter notes that many of those stranded in New Orleans after the levee breaches were literally caught in a trap set by government “assistance”:
We still only have anecdotal evidence to go on, and we can be hopeful as the death toll remains far below the thousands originally predicted. But it’s reasonable to surmise that Sen. Kennedy is correct about those who wanted to leave: Most people who could arrange for their own transportation got out of harm’s way; those who depended on the government (and public transportation) were left for days to the mercy of armed thugs at the Superdome and Convention Center. It was an extreme example of what the welfare state has done to the poor for decades: use the promise of food, shelter and other necessities to lure most of the poor to a few central points and then leave them stranded and nearly helpless.
The Katrina disaster is yet another in a long line of lessons reminding us that government-mandated charity isn’t really charitable at all. But it also provides all of us with an opportunity to apply the principles of effective compassion.