Giving without actually giving

The following astonishing remark seems to sum up a lot of the mendacity, or (generously) profound cluelessness, of the current administration:

[Bush] also promised to reimburse states for the costs associated with taking in people forced out of their homes by the hurricane, telling state leaders, “You should not be penalized for showing compassion.”

What can this possibly mean? Does Bush think charity entails some endless round of reimbursements so that when A gives B something, after the dust clears, A still has it? If that’s true, what’s to admire? Is the idea that people in, say, Minnesota will pay Texans for being useful–but then who protects the Minnesotans from being “penalized”?

Where does he think federal tax money comes from…some group completely different from state taxpayers, perhaps in a galaxy far away and long ago? Or is this just something else we can take from our grandchildren by borrowing? When your dad’s rich friends have always assured you a soft landing, perhaps you get the idea that a country probably has rich friends like that out there somewhere…where’s that list of Coalition of the Willing phone numbers!

Does he understand that all those houses, businesses, and power lines were really destroyed in the storm, just like the dead and the fuel and the ammunition and the humvees in Iraq? …that we’ve been irreversibly made poorer by the event, and that the American people deserve to know this? …that replacing it means we will give up a lot of stuff we could otherwise have had? The cost can be shared, and should, by spreading it across the whole population instead of just the locals, but that doesn’t mean it can be made to disappear in some endless chain of reimbursements and re-reimbursements. Bush’s refusal to ask for a tax increase for the war, or to directly ask people to volunteer for military service, is perfectly consistent with this kind of careless, irresponsible promise.

Churchill promised “blood, sweat and tears”, but he didn’t have Karl Rove to straighten him out. Mr. President, you’re no Churchill. Sacrifice for a good cause and showing compassion (as distinct from bleating about how much of it you feel) is precisely, exactly, accepting a “penalty”: doing without something you would otherwise have–your time, your money, your spare room. Leadership entails telling the truth, not serving up lies and eyewash. And the people who really are making sacrifices to be compassionate deserve not to be slimed by implying they expect it not to cost them anything.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.