Nota bene: What a relief

In case you went to bed last night thinking we were getting a government shutdown, the good news is that the government is open. The even better news is to be found inside the spending deal which just got signed: $90 billion in fresh disaster-relief funds, mostly for Puerto Rico but also for post-hurricane aid in Florida, Texas, and the Virgin Islands as well as post-wildfire aid in California.

This $90 billion comes on top of $36.5 billion in disaster relief which was passed in October, which itself came on top of $15 billion in disaster relief in September. That’s $141.5 billion already, and it’s entirely probable that even more money is going to be found, eventually, for things like repairing Puerto Rico’s power grid.

What’s more, a large chunk of that money has already been spent: FEMA has an entirely sensible policy, when disaster strikes, of spending money quickly, before politicians have fully funded it. After all, the E in FEMA stands for “emergency”, and no one’s idea of ideal emergency response is to first wait for a spending bill to pass Congress.

The new government money is being spent in a wide range of different ways, from Medicaid replenishment to aid for Florida citrus growers. But a large chunk of it has ended up going to exactly the same charities that individuals have donated millions of dollars to, including the American Red Cross and chef Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen.

Not all of the federal disbursements have been efficiently allocated, of course. But then again, not all of the private disbursements have been efficiently allocated, either. My point is just to compare orders of magnitude: over $140 billion in federal funds, compared to a total of well under $1 billion in private donations. (Hurricane Harvey precipitated about $0.35 billion in private donations, and Harvey was by far the biggest disaster of 2017 in terms of private money raised.)

What’s more, federal money has staying power: the government is still spending money on Hurricane Katrina relief, more than a decade after the devastation of New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast.

I’ve seen with my own eyes how much good private organizations can do, on the ground, once disaster strikes – especially when they’re providing organized labor. If you can help out with sending church groups to muck out flooded buildings in south-eastern Texas, or helping Occupy Sandy provide aid to the Rockaways, that’s a noble and worthy form of citizenship. But it’s never even close to being comprehensive: if you want to reach everyone in need, you have to be the government. And for big-money items like rebuilding infrastructure, only the government and a handful of insurance companies are even in the game.

If you want to make the world a significantly better place, you need to be able to scale your interventions somehow. That’s always been my problem with private disaster relief donations: They don't really scale, and the only way to get anywhere near the amount of money needed is to go to Congress. It might not be efficient, but it’s vastly more effective.