Rich Californians complaining that they aren’t getting federal disaster money from Donald the Cruel

My Facebook feed has been alive for weeks with Californians complaining that the Great Father in Washington does not love them and therefore is not showering them with federal disaster relief cash despite their worse-than-usual fire season.

(As with many complaints about Trump, emotions may be more important than facts. The Great Father actually declared a disaster in California and approved federal aid last month: “California Wildfires Burn Million Acres; Trump OKs Disaster Aid” (VOA, August 22))

Suppose that Trump had not approved federal aid for the richer-than-average state. The fire are upsetting, yes, and sometimes tragic. And of course we can all sympathize with anyone who has lost a loved one or a home. However, in light of their own cherished values, third and thirdmost of which is fighting inequality (avoiding COVID-19 and BLM being #1 and #2, of course), should Californians even ask for aid? California is a rich state with 40 million people. Why does it need to be bailed out by lower-middle-class taxpayers in Arkansas, Indiana, Maine, and Kentucky? Why not use state funds to assist those who have been affected by the fires?

The standard Righteous Californian response to this on Facebook is that he/she/ze/they believes that there is already at least some wealth redistribution from California to lower-income states. Perhaps there is, but California remains much richer than average. So if we hate inequality (and of course I hope that everyone does), this redistribution should be intensified, not reversed via emergency relief funds. Californians should be able to tax themselves, e.g., with an income surtax, a car registration tax, a higher gasoline tax, or a statewide property tax, to buy whatever they want, including disaster relief for those who have us suffered this fire season.

Another issue with taxing low-income folks in the Midwest to buy things for rich people in California is that Californians seem to change their minds regarding infrastructure. Federal taxpayers paid for a jet-capable airport in Santa Monica, for example, and Californians then decided to destroy it. Why should a worker in Iowa pay to protect some rich Californians’ infrastructure if the rich Californians may later decide that they didn’t even want that infrastructure?

Readers: How can it make sense for those who decry inequality to demand federal funds for a state that is much richer than average? (Above, the Golden Gate Bridge, whose most recent federal bailout was $30.2 million in May. Thus, low-income taxpayers in New Mexico and West Virginia get to subsidize the owners of brand-new Teslas and Mercedes SUVs as they glide across to their Marin estates.)


32 thoughts on “Rich Californians complaining that they aren’t getting federal disaster money from Donald the Cruel

  1. The difference between the federal government and state governments like California’s is that the federal government can borrow money by issuing bonds, while state governments are subject to balanced-budget laws.

    That may be fine when the economy is stable. But when an economic crisis like the current one hits, causing tax revenues to drop, in the absence of federal aid state governments will have to cut their spending to balance their budgets, aggravating the economic misery. The CARES Act included federal aid to the states, but it’s long since run out. Vox explainer.

    • Russil: States are sovereign. California can change its laws. As noted in the original post, California can impose whatever taxes it wants whenever it wants. No need for them to cut spending! California can issue bonds. California can default on those bonds if it doesn’t feel like paying them back. U.S. states have done this before:

      California can charge people to use roads within the state (“congestion pricing” and/or “budget-balancing pricing”).

    • Russil: If California can lock people into their homes and make it illegal to run schools and businesses, why can’t California impose a 25 percent immediate income tax, for example, on those who still have jobs?

  2. Nobody is managing the land – either the Federal Government or California, because of the regulations. Environmentalists will not let them do the burns. So they have bigger and bigger fires.

    “From 1999 to 2017, an average of 13,000 acres of California were subjected to controlled burns each year. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published a report arguing that California needs to burn 20 million acres of forest in order to restore forest health.”

    • I guess it makes sense. Humans are the boss of the coronavirus so we can also be the boss of the forests! But didn’t the land manage itself before humans crossed the land bridge? Or maybe you mean if 40 million humans want to live in the middle of the California forest, as they do, that they THEN need to try to manage the forest’s cycles of burn? There’s a whole book about California’s previous attempts (mostly failures):

    • I saw some comments about controlled burning the other day. One claimed that due to the lack of it, there is now five times as much fuel on the forest floor than there was a century ago. The other mentioned controlled burning by native Americans:

      To Manage Wildfire, California Looks To What Tribes Have Known All Along
      by Lauren Sommer
      August 24, 2020 9:00 AM ET

    • @CharlesEFlynn:

      Yes, that’s right. And the problem has gotten much worse in the past several decades, because the emphasis has been on spending tremendous sums of money attempting to fight the fires after they start, along with the aforementioned regulatory and environmental “red tape” associated with establishing a good plan to reintroduce it. It’s ironic – I remember learning about the Native American techniques of forest management, i.e., burning selectively (and other methods), when I was in the Boy Scouts.

      They don’t talk about burning much these days for reasons that are amply described in the articles I’ve already linked to. And of course, the Boy Scouts of America has been officially branded an Enemy of the State in modern American life.

      If one wanted to be cynical about it, they could say that environmentalists and Governor Newsom in California don’t want to see the fires brought under control this way. They want people to feel as though global warming has caused everything, when in fact it’s just really poor forest management and their own regulations that created all these conditions.

    • NPR likes the “American Indians knew it all and we forgot” angle a lot, for their own political reasons, and that’s fine. But they don’t mention (and don’t care to mention) the fact that in order to do controlled burns in the forests of California you need to produce a 5000-page environmental impact assessment and fight the Sierra Club and lose. That’s why nobody is doing it. As I noted with their story about Americans trapped in Peru, NPR picks their narratives, they emphasize the parts they like and leave out the rest. That’s why they’re the preferred news source for American college professors – they tell them what they want to hear.

  3. Rich Californian paid a lot of income taxes and other federal taxes. Unless you are arguing that 100% of that money should go to other states, shouldn’t they get some of that money back? Even if you want to take 90% of their tax money for redistribution, they should still get back 10%.

    • a fan: (Thanks for the kind words) A lot of federal programs benefit people nationwide, at least in theory. The the post office (great for rich people who receive a lot of mail!), military, Social Security, Medicare, etc. The latter three are hugely expensive. So California, just by having 40 million in population, will get a lot of federal money back. (Even if we don’t count the fact that federal money spent in other states may end up in California’s pocket, e.g., Medicaid and Medicare spending on pills that goes to a California-based pharma company or SSDI that is used to pay for a Netflix subscription.)

  4. Everyone claims to hate the big fires. The big fires keep getting bigger and more deadly and costly. They know how to prevent the big fires. They will not implement the measures to do that. Ergo, they actually want the fires.

    Even ProPublica knows it’s all just a big insane game:

    “So what’s it like? “It’s just … well … it’s horrible. Horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years. I suffer from Cassandra syndrome,” Ingalsbee said. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”

    • Sorry, Alex, I don’t agree. Sure part of it is forest ‘management’, but ignoring the impacts of climate change, well, that’s not very smart. Complex issues (including Phil’s favorite topic, SARS-CoV-2!) don’t usually get solved with simpleton solutions like ‘forest management’. Have you looked around at countries/areas besides the US? Siberia? The Amazon. It’s NOT just California

    • If you read the article, it’s not about ignoring climate change at all. I invite you to read it, because I agree with it.

    • @PaulB: This is a completely, 100% man-made crisis and it is getting worse. And it’s not a simpleton solution. The people doing the science and fighting the fires on the ground in California are almost all in agreement and have been, literally, for decades. This is a politically-driven inferno from one end to the other. That’s the simpleton part.

    • Alex: I tend to agree with Paul, as noted above and as shown in

      The human track record in this area is poor!

      Forest management? The U.S. National Park Service can’t even provide clean and functional public restrooms in Acadia National Park (I have been there a few times during this coronaplague, which, of course, we will defeat via superior hygiene). This is an enterprise that is part of a federal government with a $5 trillion/year budget and they can’t get the basics of toilet, sink, faucet, soap, paper towels right? In the midst of epic scale unemployment they can’t find anyone to clean the restroom. That’s fine, but now we are going to rely on the same Department of Interior to figure out where and how much to clear/burn?

    • @Philg:

      I think the article argues pretty powerfully that they’re putting the money in the wrong places, doing emergency measures after the fires have started. You can’t make nature do what you want, but you can mitigate the worst impacts:

      “More quantitatively — and related — fire suppression in California is big business, with impressive year-over-year growth. Before 1999, Cal Fire never spent more than $100 million a year. In 2007-08, it spent $524 million. In 2017-18, $773 million. Could this be Cal Fire’s first $1 billion season? Too early to tell, but don’t count it out. On top of all the state money, federal disaster funds flow down from “the big bank in the sky,” said Ingalsbee. Studies have shown that over a quarter of U.S. Forest Service fire suppression spending goes to aviation — planes and helicopters used to put out fire.”

      So they’re spending all this money, a lot of it on aviation, but they’re not taking the prevention measures. Control of nature is a big question, and ultimately it’s impossible, but they’re not doing the things they know will prevent the enormous fires. Instead they’re pumping money into putting them out after they’re already out of control.

    • From Stanford:

      “Just about everyone the researchers interviewed described a risk-averse culture in the shadow of liability laws that place financial and legal responsibility for any prescribed burn that escapes on the burners. Private landowners explained how fears of bankruptcy swayed them to avoid burning on their property. Federal agency employees pointed to an absence of praise or rewards for doing prescribed burns, but punishment for any fires that escape. Federal and state employees claimed that negative public opinion – fear of fires escaping into developed areas and smoke damaging health – remains a challenge.

      Limited finances, complex regulations and a lack of qualified burners also get in the way. For example, wildfire suppression has historically diverted funding from wildfire prevention, many state fire crews are seasonal employees hired during the worst wildfire months rather than the months when conditions are best for prescribed burn and burners who receive federal or state funds must undergo potentially expensive and time-consuming environmental reviews.”

      I think they need to change their approach.

  5. Would be interesting for someone to take a look at exactly what it means that one state supposedly subsidizes another. Just who is doing the supposed subsidizing & who is receiving? Federal corporate taxes on companies that happen to be domiciled or do business in some state? It it is corporate tax then it is the shareholders, right? Individual income tax? In the wealthy states like NY hardly anyone pays taxes anyway, a handful of people subsidize the rest. And just where do the supposed subsidies go? To military bases that happen to be located in some state? To federal offices that happen to be located in some state? And what about the fact that the poorer states disproportionately serve in the military & protect the rest of us, sometimes at the cost of their lives? Is that monetized?

    • Jack: I think the calculations, done and published by coastal elites, are grossly inaccurate. When Medicaid pays for a pill in Appalachia, that is supposedly federal spending in Ohio or West Virginia, but in fact nearly all the money goes a pharma company in a coastal elite state. Money that people get from the federal government also eventually ends up in the hands of New York and California-based banks, insurance, and credit card companies.

      The federal government and government-directed stuff such as health insurance are close to 50 percent of the U.S. economy. If the coastal elite states aren’t getting their proportional share of this gravy, why are they so persistently rich?

  6. @Alex,

    Thanks for the additional links, and for the comment about the current state of the Boy Scouts of America.

    • @CharlesEFlynn,

      You’re welcome. The situation with wildfires in CA reminds me a little of all the warnings and all the data and all the understanding that people had regarding the danger posed to New Orleans, well prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

      “The fact that New Orleans has not already sunk is a matter of luck. If slightly different paths had been followed by Hurricanes Camille, which struck in August 1969, Andrew in August 1992 or George in September 1998, today we might need scuba gear to tour the French Quarter.”

      Popular Mechanics new that New Orleans was sinking back in 2001, when they published the following article (on September 11 !!). Now, PM is not a respected scientific journal. American college professors don’t read that magazine (it’s a Hearst publication) and of course, Americans had other things on their minds on 9/11/2001. But as a footnote to history, it’s a startling reminder that everything that happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was well understood in advance. And basically nobody did anything.

      A lot of Boy Scouts used to read Popular Mechanics, but it’s far too lowbrow and (used to be) nakedly pro-Capitalist and pro-American for someone like Al Gore, who invented the Internet.

  7. @Alex,

    My family physician used to keep Popular Mechanics in his waiting room. I looked forward to reading it, much like I looked forward to reading Mad Magazine at the barber shop when I was a child.

    Here is a new BBC video (2 min. 27 sec.) about the effects of the air pollution that results from these fires:

    US wildfires: What are the health risks of smoke pollution?

    • Yes indeed. America has been reduced to a bunch of cowering sheeple with preexisting conditions trying to survive their predictable, man-made disasters whilst waiting for the “big bank in the sky” to pour money onto them after the disasters happen, so they can repeat them.

      And we want to AMPLIFY this stuff. It’s going to get worse.

    • So when will States to the east and north of California are going to sue California for the health and economical damage that those wildfires are causing them that originated from California?

    • @George A,

      If I recall correctly, some states tried to sue over mercury in smokestack emissions, and did not gain from their efforts.

  8. Update: They’re going to flee, at least in Oregon, presumably to states where the forest management is better? But they’ll not question the policy decisions that created the conditions. All global warming, no impact from the terrible decisions of the past half century.

    “The fires, smoke, and heat are no longer a fluke, but our future. The time has come for us to flee.”

    • She wants to move to Minneapolis because of the vibrant literary community:

      “My husband and I plan on moving to the Minneapolis area this spring. We chose this flat, cold, landlocked city because my sister and her family live there, it has a vibrant literary community, it’s affordable, and, most importantly, it’s unlikely to suffer a 20-year mega-drought and consequent wildfires.”

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