I have been trying to apply arithmetic to the problem of hurricane relief. I know, this is like translating computer code to cuneiform tablets, but bear with me — ancient learning was, after all, learning. The costs of recovering from Hurricanes Harvey (Texas), Irma (Florida) and Maria (Puerto Rico) are now estimated at about $220 billion. Congress has thus far appropriated $15 billion for the purpose, acting on September 9, the very day FEMA was expected to run out of money.
By its timely action, Congress solved seven per cent of the problem. With a burn rate of two million dollars a day, FEMA will be broke again in 75 days (from September 9). Nobody’s talking about this. At least, not in any way that makes sense. In a cheery piece claiming that FEMA can never run out of money, the explainer website HowStuffWorks says it can’t happen in the future because in the past, Congress has always bailed it out in time, just like it did with its seven-per-cent solution of September 9.
But arithmetic suggests that the correct question is not whether FEMA will run out of money, but when the US government will run out of money. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this year alone, the government will spend $693 billion more than it takes in, and the CBP expects the deficits to increase and the national debt to keep going up for 30 years into the future. The national debt has recently sailed north of $20 trillion — but could instantly be repaid in full if every US citizen wrote a check for $62,000 (and yes, that would include each of your infant children).
And no one is talking about this. Speaker of the House of Representative Paul Ryan surveyed the damage done by Hurricane Irma yesterday, called it “astounding,” but on the subject of paying for recovery became vague to the point of invisibility: “I’m sure that we’re going to do another, what we call supplemental, sometime in October once we have a full assessment of what is needed.” The last thing you will see is his smile.
There is some talk of doing something or other about FEMA’s National Flood Insurance program, otherwise known as socialized flood insurance. When privately owned insurance companies discovered many year ago that it was suicidal to insure the seaside and riverside houses that Americans love best, they stopped. That hurt homebuilders and developers, who of course demanded that the free market solve the problem with a government handout. But the government flood insurance has proven to be as suicidal, financially speaking, as the private insurance was, and the program was, before this year’s trifecta of Category Fives, $20 billion in debt. An amount that arithmetic (dark pagan art that it is) suggests can never be repaid.
And now? There’s talk of rejiggering the rates, redrawing the threat maps, maybe doing something. But there is no talk about the fact that Congress fixed the National Flood Insurance program four years ago. I am not making this up. They rationalized the cost of premiums, started phasing out the subsidies, and vowed to return flood insurance to private enterprise. Private enterprise, of course, erupted with rage, and the whole program vanished with hardly a trace in about 60 days. Now, there is only silence.
But the antiquated laws of arithmetic seem to be holding. Our debt, like the seawater all around us, continues to rise no matter how strenuously we ignore it. The implications of that debt, and our ignorance, are spreading like dry rot through the structures of the industrial age. As my ex-wife said to me one day: “You know, we really have to talk.”