Tuesday, January 03, 2006

No federal pork for the rain weary

The extensive rains in California bring the issue of government-provided disaster relief to the forefront again. To the best of my knowledge at the time of this post, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in seven counties, but no federal disaster relief has been allocated.

Which may be somewhat good news-- if government-provided disaster relief is going to be a fact of life, better it be provided at as local a level as possible. Federally provided disaster relief is akin to a federally provided economy. Back when Katrina hit, story after story of inefficient and ineffective federal relief efforts came across the wires. My (least?) favorite is the report on the distribution of ice. The private sector, meanwhile, did an amazing job at providing relief to sufferers of Katrina, most notably through the efforts of the Red Cross and Wal-Mart.

West Virginia
’s Russell Sobel has done a good amount of research into the economics of FEMA. Before Katrina, Sobel and Thomas Garrett took a look at the politics of disasters; the link to the original paper (PDF) is here. States of political importance to the president get more disasters declared. Federal disaster expenditure is higher in states with congressmen on FEMA oversight committees. Election years also saw a bump in disasters being declared. All in all, they predict that nearly half of all disaster spending is politically motivated.

The way I see it, being hit by a natural disaster is usually about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As it turns out, getting federal relief is about being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the right place at the right time. Having the Russian River sweep away your home in 2006 probably won’t get you any federal pork; withstanding a two-foot snowstorm in Ohio during an election year will yield some bacon.

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