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I have some conservative friends and family. We see things very differently. They post things like this on their facebook walls.

Where I see an utter and terrifying threat to the core freedoms bestowed to us as Americans, not to mention a clear indication of an ever expanding police state, they see an opportunity to make fun of hippies in a meme. Hey, each to his own. They’re not especially moderate, but nor am I. We have many colorful exchanges. While we disagree on details of ideology, we generally have love and history with one another that occurred before and separate from political concerns. So we tolerate one another’s respective insanities. We raise one another’s blood pressure in equal measure. Then we get back to having semi-normal relationships.

The other day on one such conservative friend’s facebook wall, a conversation began. It started with a benign post. My pal posted that areas of New Jersey affected by hurricane Sandy would have more poll location flexibility. I asked whether he knew if the same was true in NYC. As a resident of Joisey, he didn’t know. Knowing his audience, he playfully suggested I contact my local branch of the Tea Party to find out. I joked back that I’d contact Occupy tout de suite instead. The thread then devolved. Here are a few excerpts:

My Pal: hopefully you can pull them away from destroying capitalism for 5 seconds to answer that question.

Me: And by destroying capitalism, you mean doing a better job of organizing food [and supply] deliveries to the rockaways and breezy point than FEMA *and* the Red Cross? You’re right, maybe I shouldn’t bother them.

My Pal: oh wait… so big government isn’t the answer?…

So he kinda had me there. The day after Sandy people were already posting pictures like this…

government isn’t the solution…unless it is. Or is it?

…and I was the first one to repost. But it’s not the whole picture, is it?

City & Federal Hurricane Relief Services

First, New York City infrastructure has been terrific. Really wonderful, in a lot of ways. I live in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that still feels vaguely post-apocalyptic even while the rest of the city is going back to manicures and happy hour.

The police, for starters, have been very helpful. They’ve also been a much more amicable than their usual presence. They turn on flood lights every evening to illuminate our still darkened streets. It keeps the streets safer, and folks in the powerless buildings are also able to open curtains and use some of that light indoors once the sun sets. They drive around the projects, not doing anything, not bothering anyone; just having a presence so that the good non-gang affiliated people of Red Hook Houses can feel free to roam and be safe, even amid the darkness.

City garbage collectors are present day and night. They’re clearing the streets with  bulldozers and trucks, sometimes in the middle of the night, so that come the next morning residents and volunteers can get back to the work of ripping the guts out of basements and garden apartments in order to rebuild. There’s an urgency – mold and disease can spring up quickly, and the city’s been on top of that shit, getting the waste out. At least here in Red Hook.

City Councilwoman Christine Quinn sent a representative from her office to a local business owner’s meeting. He seemed genuinely eager to help us recruit sanitation and safety experts to get local restaurants reopened as quickly as possible.

The national guard rolled up twenty trucks deep, with much fanfare, and distributed MRE’s and cases of water. It was a silly spectacle, and overkill certainly, but at least they came.

The Red Cross parked a truck on my corner and did I don’t know what from a window, but plenty of people lined up for whatever services they offered.

So okay. Go, big government!

For-Profit Companies and Hurricane Relief Services

That said, non government for-profit organizations have also been great.

AT&T has brought trucks in every day. They calibrate a giant satellite on their trucks and offer free Wifi. They set up folding chairs and tables with power strips for folks to use as charging stations.

NYC Food trucks, together with Jet Blue, offered more than ten thousand free lunches; and gave free hot beverages to Con Ed, NYPD, and NYFD workers.

Pizza Moto even schlepped its portable brick pizza oven all the way to Red Hook to serve pies to the neighborhood.

And there are dozens of restaurants and local for-profit businesses devoting part or all of their proceeds to Sandy relief.

Can’t We all Just Get Along?

The nice answer to the question of which is better – private or public sector – would be…neither! Or both. The obvious answer is that the city is doing work that the private sector can’t, and vice versa. So let’s utilize everyone, and find a nice balance betwixt.

That answer is the nicest, but I’m not sure it’s right. It’s certainly more complicated than that, isn’t it? More quotes from that thread on my pal’s facebook wall…

My friend’s FB friend #1: WalMart trucks are lined up ready with supplies. Non-Union WalMart! Woop Woop!

…Then they squeezed in some Chris Christie fat jokes, which I find so distasteful and besides the point. Then they continued…

Friend #1: solving Americas problems, one Conservative at a time! Woop Woop!

Friend #2: ..just wait Proctor and Gamble will be there soon…just as after Katrinia…with Semi’s full of washers and [dryers]…to do peoples laundry…for FREE…because they understand that the good will they promote in times of need comes back to them twice fold in times of plenty… TIDE

So at first I read these, and that second post there kind of caught me. Like…okay, so great. Get these folks some clean, dry clothes. DO that. They NEED that. Know that your generosity will be rewarded later. That feels almost karmic and okay.

…but then, it’s not exactly okay, is it. Because we should not confuse a tax-deductible marketing campaign with an act of benevolence.

The folks who think up the Proctor & Gamble/Tide/Walmart service campaigns probably feel really great about themselves. It’s probably a very warm and fuzzy logistical headache that leaves the coordinators floating on their do-goodness for weeks, yeah?  But in the background, like all other marketing campaigns, there are accountants hard at work measuring the exact ROI they expect from this. Even as the volunteers help one another fold those fluffy towels, the victims remain a metric in someone’s spreadsheet. They remain a monetary projection. A potential unit of profit margin. That shit is ugly, yo.

It’s so easy…SO EASY…to let that fact go. I want to let it go. In fact, I’m judging my own self for being so goddamned cynical. Why I can’t I just let those poor Sandy victims with wet dirty clothes become clean! and dry! Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad someone is offering these services. I’m glad that the private sector is able to motivate and get shit together and show up. What I’m not glad about is that people confuse the efficacy of the private sector with a solution for the public sector’s flaws, and take it a step further to use these acts as reasoning for why the public sector should be usurped.

Where Does So Called Big Government Begin and End? Does “Aid” Count as Charity? And a Bunch of Other Questions.

A series of points come to me, and I’m having a hard time making the details gel, so I thought I’d lay them out here because this blog post isn’t nearly long enough (oy vey!):

  • My old friend – the one with all the super right, corporate cheerleading, conservative friends – posits that firemen do not count as big government, because they operate town to town; but teachers, in his framework, are part of big government. By his argument, though I’m sure he’d reject this notion: firemen = good! Teachers = bad. FEMA definitely = bad, because it’s super big government. If there’s an argument that puts teachers and FEMA in the same category of uselessness, I’m not sure I can get down with any part of that argument.
  • This article details how Cuomo, governor of the state of New York, rang up the CEO of Walmart to ask for help. He also dialed Pepsi. These two organizations were of course eager to help, and shortly had dozens of trucks heading over the Whitestone Bridge packed to the gills with supplies. Walmart pledged a $1.5mm donation, and will get a tax write off of I guess the same amount. I don’t really know the details of how these things work, exactly. That seems fair enough. More, I’m concerned to think about the other back-scratching that was agreed upon before those trucks were loaded. Walmart tried to edge its way into Brooklyn recently, into yet another community that didn’t want it. Brooklyn has more power to exclude Walmart than many other small towns, and so Brooklyn won. No Walmart. Now I wonder how long it’ll be before Brooklyn loses the next battle for a Walmart free borough.
  • Possibly most to the forefront of my unease is this: So many good folks are heading to places like Costco and Sam’s Club and Walmart to cheaply buy many of the supplies they’re sending for relief. Many of these supplies were toxically manufactured in China or some other industrializing country, and will be toxically disposed of in India or some other pre industrial country, causing the same runoff issues, and the same carbon emission issues, that caused this superstorm in the first place. Cyclical as a motherfucker.

Generally speaking, we need to stop supporting the big box, mega corporate philosophy. This is the crux of it all for me, right here. Glorifying anything about them is antithetical to a better world.

What’s the Answer? Private or Public Sector?

I dunno. I have no tidy answer to the question I posed. I’m hoping the conversation will evolve both here and on Facebook once I post a link. My leanings tip me to the slight left of center on this one, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to any of my readers. A nice balance between the two, and a sharing of responsibility in times of hardship. That all sounds great in the short term, sure.


Occupy Sandy uses Walmart.com and Amazon.com to create registries for Sandy relief.

NY Times OpEd: A Big Storm Requires a Big Government