Mark Steyn, in a bit of delayed reaction to the news that the Obama inauguration has been declared an “emergency,” (the hazards of writing a regularly scheduled column rather than a blog, I suppose) decries “our permanent state of routine emergency.”
The Cato Institute’s James Bovard was struck by the plight of Vernon, Conn., a town ravaged in the winter of 1995-96 by, er, slightly more snow than they’d expected. So FEMA sent them a check for $40,023. Vernon had 30,000 people, and its town snow-removal costs that winter were $258,000. “That’s just $8.60 per person,” Bovard pointed out, “less than a 12-year-old charges to shovel out a driveway after a good snowfall.”
So why did they need “federal emergency” aid? Because the town had only budgeted $104,516, and so claimed to be “overwhelmed” by the additional costs. They could have asked the good burghers of Vernon to chip in an extra five bucks apiece. But why bother when FEMA’s so eager to give you a warm bath in the federal love nectar? The town government wised up pretty quickly. The next winter, they set the snow-removal budget at just $69,383.
So a “federal emergency” is no longer a nuclear strike on Cleveland or even a Category Three hurricane, but now a snowfall in New England and an inaugural ball at the Mayflower Hotel. As Mister Incredible shrewdly observes to his kid in “The Incredibles,” when everybody’s special, nobody is. Likewise, when everything’s an emergency, nothing is: We live in a permanent state of routine emergency.
The metastasization of FEMA teaches several lessons — the first and most obvious being that any new government program, agency or entitlement will always outgrow whatever narrow purpose it was created for.
But, of course, you knew that.
Photo by Flickr user Ben+Sam used under Creative Commons license.