Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria

September 5, 2018

I’m glad Gov. Cuomo has been talking about what happened to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. It should never have dropped out of public discussion both for the sake of the residents of Puerto Rico and for the rest of us.

Katrina undid George Bush when many in New Orleans and the surrounding area got no help. The public was disgusted when Bush praised the head of FEMA for “doing a heck of a job” four days after the hurricane struck. After Hurricane Maria hit, the whole island of Puerto Rico was without power. Half were still powerless half a year later, jerry-rigging connections or using generators for life-saving equipment. At least 11,000 US citizens were still powerless in June, with power authorities still figuring out who was without. But it didn’t bother Trump. The storm hit Puerto Rico on September 20. In early October, Trump announced he’d already done enough.

Dealing with weather disasters takes advance planning. Reacting after the damage is done is too late for many of the injured and displaced. A member of the Albany Law Board who worked on disaster planning for the Red Cross described the process to me. One has to anticipate needs, delivery routes, and get things to staging areas from which they can be delivered before the storm hits, together with the vehicles needed to bring supplies to the affected people. That’s complex and difficult but it can be done because we have considerable advance warning of where major weather events will strike. Not rocket science, it’s a well-worn path of jobs that need to be done.

Puerto Rico is not unmapped far away frontier territory. It’s an island, which should have suggested advance planning for sea-worthy ships and protected areas on the island. Its miles of unpaved mountain roads should have suggested the need for helicopters, like those New York supplied when the Feds didn’t. FEMA was busy with other disasters but that too was predictable. It didn’t raise the alarm and ask for help until well after the storm passed by. Only then was the U.S. Army, itself skilled in disaster relief abroad, permitted to go into Puerto Rico.

Some politicians like to charge that the damage was Puerto Rico’s own fault, the result of graft, corruption and mismanagement. That’s a misdirected ascription of collective guilt. Most Puerto Ricans are related to those ills only as victims. And the beneficiaries were the same people and institutions that we like to hold harmless, the wealthiest people and corporations. The electrical grid was unable to resist storm damage because the corporate leadership left it that way. But we prefer to blame an island and an ethnic or racial group. It would be such bad form to notice who actually caused and who was victimized by the problems in Puerto Rico.

Worse, it hasn’t been allowed to use federal money to fix anything in the cleanup, only to rebuild not one jot better than before, ready to collapse again in the next storm.

All this reflects incompetence and lack of concern about the welfare of Americans. We are all diminished by humanitarian disasters. And disasters are contagious. As John Donne so eloquently put it, “never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee,” for all of us.

My classmate, Judge José Cabranes, wrote in the Washington Post that Puerto Ricans would be leaving the island and coming to the mainland. They have, and as citizens, they may, and should, vote where they settle.

— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 4, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, preempted broadcast on the 4th. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.

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Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.


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