By Bob MacNeal
Bob MacNeal, St. Paul, is a software developer, co-owner of a small business and a blogger.
The United States has become a nation where politicians pat themselves on the back and bank political capital for shepherding their flock through natural catastrophes that might have been avoided. It is time we consider the potential for better government leadership to avert and mitigate natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy.
Following a natural disaster, the script of political opportunism calls for solemnly walking amongst the victimized population, hugging a grieving victim or two and then reassuring local officials that bureaucratic red tape will not be tolerated.
Two days after Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed touched by the personal losses suffered by the storm victims in the coastal town of Brigantine. I do not doubt the two men were awed by the force of hurricane winds, nor do I doubt they were moved by the destructive havoc of an unprecedented tidal surge. Yet one couldn't help consider the political calculus.
A president and a governor, from opposing political parties, were dramatically deposited into our latest natural disaster via the Marine One helicopter. Victims and solemn flock alike applauded the bipartisan unification the federal and state shepherds-in-chief.
Is it cynical to measure the political calculus? Many recall how Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York during the 9/11 crisis, parlayed an undistinguished mayoral stint (1994-2001) into a viable, if unsuccessful, campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
If Superstorm Sandy has demonstrated anything, it is that the era of small government is over. The small government movement was a worthy experiment, but it has failed by every measure. It taught us it is possible to wring out incremental but unsustainable efficiencies that resulted in antiquated roads, dilapidated bridges, and public school class sizes of 35-plus students. Yes, it is possible to go small, but at what price?
For 30 years politicians hailed the small government mantra, spawned during the Reagan Revolution. What have we got to show for it?
The only measurable "smallness" realized from the small government experiment is the part of government that is supposed to serve the common good. During the storm, extreme weather combined with 30 years of infrastructure neglect paralyzed the state of New Jersey and the nation's most venerable city. Which of our cities will be next?
We have sorely neglected our nation's infrastructure, like the electrical grid we rely upon to support day-to-day necessities like heat, light and hot water. Is there any excuse for above-ground power lines?
We have witnessed the appalling denial of the settled science of climate change. Perhaps we have reached the point where we can no longer deny the impact of weather extremes. Such extremes are now the norm. We routinely experience the range of extremes, from severe drought to flooding from "100-year storms" that come every year.
We have also buried our heads in the sand in building major metropolitan areas like San Francisco on top of, or close to, areas prone to earthquakes.
Natural disasters might be impossible to avert, but mitigation of impact is possible if we are smarter about where we build and how we build. We must examine our antiquated power grid, water supplies, substandard ground and air transportation systems, and reliability of cell-phone coverage. We must examine our tenuous reliance on a narrow band of climate-changing energy sources like oil and coal. Crumbling infrastructure threatens homeland security more than isolated acts of terrorism.
Perhaps we should consider the potential and possibilities of bigger and better government. One need only recall the benevolent aspects of government that have historically served the people:
The Compassionate part that provides a temporary safety net and disaster relief for citizens.
The Common Good part that provides world-class public facilities for citizens.
The Kick-Starter part that paves the essential infrastructure for people to start new businesses.
I witnessed Sandy firsthand while visiting my 82-year old mother as she hunkered down in her New Jersey home. For me, the most indelible scene in Sandy's aftermath was a line of people on foot, waiting to fill plastic jugs with rationed gasoline so they could refuel their power generators for heat and light.
We can do better. We must do better.