Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How bad would block-granting FEMA really be?

Krugman mocks the idea of Romney's, but it sounds pretty good to me.

There would be a couple changes to a traditional block grant I'd make: I'd make the ramped up funding federal still of course. The whole point of it being federal in the first place is subsidization of disaster areas, after all. So let FEMA operate on a state level and then make resources available when it makes sense. I'd also make sure whatever tracking or monitoring work FEMA does (I don't know how much it does - maybe this is all NOAA) stays federal. That seems pointless to do at the state level.

Otherwise, states and localities prepare for disaster anyway and they know their states best. Let them run their own little FEMAs. Give them cash infusions when disasters are declared. Have an MOU set up between different state FEMAs so that Texans in the agency are expected to go help (and report to) New Jerseyans. But let the New Jerseyans do disaster relief in New Jersey.

What is wrong with this? Why is Krugman mocking this?


  1. If you believe in the value of local knowledge...then why stop at the state/city level? Why not just give taxpayers the freedom to choose whether they give their taxes to FEMA or to public education? Not only does tax choice incorporate partial knowledge...but it also incorporates opportunity costs.

    Here's a reminder why you don't support tax choice..."But I don't think I have nearly enough information to allocate my taxes properly across all these functions even the ones that I find perfectly legitimate (which to be honest is most of them)." - Daniel Kuehn's Critique of Pragmatarianism

    If government planners can know the optimal level of funding for a government organization...then why can't they know the optimal level of funding for any organization? If government planners can know the optimal level of funding for disaster relief then why can't they know the optimal level of funding for books, cell phones, laptops, cars and homes?

    It's not a matter of you having enough information to allocate your money across books, cell phones, laptops, cars and's a matter of you wanting the most bang for your buck. THAT's what motivates you to gather the necessary information. Then, when you're satisfied with the amount/quality of information you've gathered, that's when you have to make a choice. If you spend the money on X then you have to sacrifice Y. The taxes that you spend on disaster relief cannot also be spent on public education. Which is a bigger priority for you? This is the opportunity cost concept.

    The opportunity cost concept and the partial knowledge concept help us understand that government planners cannot possibly know the optimal level of funding for any organization.

    "It must be remembered, besides, that even if a government were superior in intelligence and knowledge to any single individual in the nation, it must be inferior to all the individuals of the nation taken together. It can neither possess in itself, nor enlist in its service, more than a portion of the acquirements and capacities which the country contains, applicable to any given purpose." - J.S. Mill

  2. Why is Krugman mocking the idea of "letting New Jerseyans do disaster relief in New Jersey"? Ask him, but I can think of two reasons.

    Number one, since the days of the railroads Americans have always done major disaster relief across state lines. Trained personnel are spread out, and willing to travel.

    Number two, when left to their own devices, states tend to do things half-heartedly, perhaps because they want to keep taxes down, perhaps because of cronyism, I don't know. In the end, the Feds step in, anyway. Katrina showed what happens when the Feds drop the ball. Romney's idea is basically about paring down FEMA, which would make it less effective, with no guarantee that the states would do as well. What if poor ole Mississippi had to take care of its Gulf coast on its own?

  3. Uh... forget about natural disasters for the moment and concentate on what counts -- i.e. the risks of Enemy Invasion. You likely have an Army National Guard system within your sttae, perhaps also an Air Force National Guard.

    We spend about 600 billion dollars per year on the US military, and I assume the National Guard in your state is funded at equivalent levels, so that's -- on average -- 12 billion per state. Paid for by your state taxes! Okay, that probably isn't true, but we're looking for an ideal situation here, right?

    And in a really ideal situation, which should appeal to economists across the nation, we'd just eliminate the whole Department of Defense and transfer all its people and material and R&D programs to the indivdual states. So your state taxes might go up, but your federal taxes would go down, and it'd be a wash, right? I mean, you'd be equally well defended. "Defense" is just some damned commodity, after all.

    State-based FEMA schemes work as well as Federal schemes for protecting against natural disasters. State based army and air force forces work as well at defending us from enemey agression!

    Am I missing something?

  4. Krugman is a Jacobin at heart? It is against his inclination to trust "the little platoon[s]?"

    mike shupp,

    That be breaking the whole course of American history, which has significantly been about breaking the ties that bind people to the states in favor of a broader national identity. Of course that sort of thing can be reversed; see Scotland's relationship with the United Kingdom of late.

  5. Anonymous -

    Well yes, but Republicans are very strong on supporting States Rights!

    In principle, anyhow. What makes this suggestion ironic is that the presumption that 50 state-level FEMA-like agencies would be truly comparable to a national FEMA, as would be "proven" by breaking up US armed forces into state-based National Guard units which could fulfill all the tasks of our existing Army, Navy, and Air Force.

    And of course only a raving lunatic would believe any such thing. Think of the FUN the Federal government would have trying to persuade 50 state governors that they had to cooperate to invade Iraq for example, because it was of overriding national interest. Does anyone think Army Nat Guard units from all 50 states would appear on the battlefield?

    Ironically, from some viewpoints, breaking up the US armed forces in this fashion might be a very good thing, leading to a better more peaceful world. I don't think this would be a selling point to most Romney supporters.

  6. Daniel, again you enter into another silly season.

    1. There is no evidence that federalism works. None. Name one service anywhere performed by any state or local government, without federal assistance, direct or indirect, where the state or local government does a better job than a comparable federal program.

    2. I live in eastern Missouri. Our most foreseeable risk is another earth quake on the New Madrid scale that will likely actually occur in S. Ill.

    It is anticipated that all our bridges across the Miss will be gone. Sans the federal gov't, there were would be two chances (zero and none) of the bridges being rebuilt due to game theory. Missouri has for years extorted Ill on bridges and such a situation would elevate the problem many times.


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