By James Kwak
Now is as good a time as any to remind people of who provides all those detailed projections of where Hurricane Sandy is going to hit and how strong it’s going to be: the federal government. No matter how you get your weather news—local TV or radio, The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, whatever—hurricane forecast information originally comes from the National Hurricane Center, which is part of the National Weather Service. The raw data come in part from the Hurricane Hunters, the pilots who fly planes into hurricanes, who are part of the Air Force Reserve and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The computer models that predict where hurricanes are going to strike are developed by the NHC.
In August 2011, Simon and I were on vacation with our families in Southern Florida as Hurricane Irene was approaching the East Coast. Simon had the idea of using government weather services as the example to lead off chapter 4 of White House Burning, “What Does the Federal Government Do?” I like this example because almost everyone agrees that the federal government should be engaged in disaster prevention, disaster relief, and even weather forecasting. In 2005, Rick Santorum proposed a bill that would have prevented the National Weather Service from providing weather forecasts to the public—but he insisted that the NWS should gather weather data and provide it to private companies so that they could make money off of it. (AccuWeather is based in Pennsylvania, Satorum’s state, by the way.)
There’s a strong case to be made that hurricane research is one area where a small amount of taxpayer spending has had huge public benefits. That argument is made by Jeff Masters of Weather Underground. I was going to put it into White House Burning, but I didn’t think one of his sources said what he wanted it to say. Still, as I discussed in a previous post, it is highly likely that more accurate forecasts have saved tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary evacuations for each large hurricane.
What do Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan think about taxpayer-funded hurricane research? We don’t know what Mitt Romney thinks because we don’t know what he thinks about anything (wait . . . this month he’s a moderate, so he’s probably for it . . . but isn’t he in favor of private sector innovation, so maybe he’s against it . . . how does his head not explode?). But we know what Paul Ryan thinks about it because the House tried to cut Hurricane Hunter funding by 40 percent in 2011. Let’s see what he has to say about that on the campaign trail.
The bigger issue is that Romney-Ryan calls to cut government spending run into the problem that most government spending is on things that most people like, such as disaster forecasting and prevention. This is why they can’t say in particular what programs they would cut, just like they can’t say what tax deductions they would eliminate, because that would be obviously stupid or unpopular. Instead, when they open their mouths to talk about government spending, they want more of it, like Mitt Romney saying we need an even bigger navy. (By contrast, Robert Gates, a Republican defense secretary, thought that eleven aircraft carrier groups were more than enough in a world where no other country had more than one—and that’s already stretching the definition of aircraft carrier group.)
Romney-Ryan is all about lower tax rates, more spending on things they like, and nothing (tax increases or spending cuts) that would actually make anyone worse off. What’s wrong with this picture?