Robert B. Reich: Texas: State of disaster

Robert Reich

Robert Reich

As extreme weather marked by tornadoes and flooding continues to sweep across Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has requested — and President Obama has granted — federal help.

I don’t begrudge Texas billions of dollars in disaster relief. After all, we’re all part of America. When some of us are in need, we all have a duty to respond.

But the flow of federal money poses a bit of awkwardness for the Lone Star State.

Just over a month ago, hundreds of Texans decided that a pending Navy SEAL/Green Beret joint training exercise was really an excuse to take over the state and impose martial law. And they claimed the Federal Emergency Management Agency was erecting prison camps, readying Wal-Mart stores as processing centers for political prisoners.

There are nut cases everywhere, but Abbott added to that particular outpouring of paranoia by ordering the Texas State Guard to monitor the military exercise. “It is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed upon,” he said. In other words, he’d protect Texans from this federal plot.

Now, Abbott wants federal money. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency is gearing up for a major role in the cleanup — including places like Bastrop, Texas, where the Bastrop State Park dam failed, and where, just five weeks ago, a U.S. Army colonel trying to explain the pending military exercise was shouted down by hundreds of self-described patriots shouting “Liar!”

Texans dislike the federal government even more than most other Americans do. According to a February poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, only 23 percent of Texans view the federal government favorably, while 57 percent view it unfavorably, including more than a third who hold a “very unfavorable” view.

Texas dislikes the federal government so much that eight of its congressional representatives, along with Sen. Ted Cruz, opposed disaster relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy — adding to the awkwardness of their lobbying for the federal relief now heading Texas’ way.

Yet even before the current floods, Texas had received more disaster relief than any other state, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. (The study covered the two-year period from 2011 to 2012.) That’s not simply because the state is so large. It’s also because Texas is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather — tornadoes on the plains, hurricanes in the Gulf, flooding across its middle and south.

Given this, you might also think Texas would take climate change especially seriously. But here again, there’s cognitive dissonance between what the state needs and how its officials act.

Among the state’s infamous climate-change deniers is Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, who dismissed last year’s report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “more political than scientific,” and the White House report on the urgency of addressing climate change as designed “to frighten Americans.”

Smith is still at it. His committee just slashed by more than 20 percent NASA’s spending on earth science, which includes climate change.

It’s of course possible that Texas’ current record rainfalls — the National Weather Service reports that the downpour in May alone was enough to put the entire state under 8 inches of water — has nothing to do with the kind of extreme weather we’re witnessing elsewhere in the nation, such as the West’s current drought, the North’s record winter snowfall and flooding elsewhere.

But you’d have to be nuts not to at least be curious about such a connection and its relationship to the carbon dioxide humans have been spewing into the atmosphere.

Consider also the consequences for the public’s health. Several deaths in Texas have been linked to the extreme weather. Many Texans have been injured by it, directly or indirectly. Poor residents are particularly in peril because they live in areas prone to flooding or in flimsy houses and trailers that can be washed or blown away.

What’s Texas’s response? Texas officials continue to turn down federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, thereby denying insurance to more than 1 million people and preventing the state from receiving an estimated $100 billion in federal cash over the next decade.

I don’t want to pick on Texas. Its officials are not alone in hating the federal government, denying climate change and refusing to insure its poor. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that all Texans are implicated. Obviously, many thoughtful and reasonable people reside there.

Yet Texans have elected people who seem not to have a clue. Indeed, Texas has done more in recent years to institutionalize irrationality than almost anywhere else in America — thereby imposing a huge burden on its citizens.

How many natural disasters will it take for the Lone Star State to wake up to the disaster of its elected officials?


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