Tom Papworth: Will Sandy sink Romney?
In the late 1950s, a journalist asked incumbent British prime minister Harold Macmillan what he considered was most likely to blow his government off course. Macmillan reply has gone down in history: “Events, dear boy, events.”
So as Hurricane Sandy blew in from the Atlantic to blow Mitt Romney’s election chances out to sea, Macmillan’s aphorism must have seemed painfully appropriate. For several weeks now, Romney has been leading in all the polls, but the final week of campaigning may very well be dominated by Sandy – both its physical effects and how it shapes the political narrative. And as another prime minister, Harold Wilson, observed, “A week is a long time in politics.”
Hurricane Sandy plays straight into the hands of the Obama campaign. Firstly, disasters give any incumbent an advantage: as one TV channel observed yesterday, “For now Governor Romney will just need to step aside and let the president get on with his job.” The challenger will of course try to be seen to care, and will make statements about what he would do, but for now the spotlight is on the man who can do.
Secondly, Sandy plays to Obama’s strengths. He has a masterful way of pursing his lips and looking slightly bowed, staring at the ground in front of his feet, or into the middle distance, as if in prayer, conveying the message that he is deeply worried about everything. By pure chance, there may be a flag in the background. (Really! I am not kidding).
That is not to say that there are not risks for Obama. If he makes a hash of it – if the federal response is bungled – it could disastrously backfire. But that seems unlikely. You may rest assured that FEMA will have every resource made available to it; no expense will be spared. And that’s the third reason why Obama can trump Romney. Because emergency responses – and elections – are the quintessence of how doling out public money helps get politicians (re-)elected.
The work two writers is worth considering here. The first is the French economist and politicians Claude Frédéric Bastiat, who observed that the difference between a good and a bad analysis of a policy is that “the one takes account [only] of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee”. In terms of Hurricane Sandy, what will be seen by journalists, commentators and voters will be how much help is given to the victims of this natural disaster; what will not be seen are the costs (both actual and opportunity) in taxing away earned income, crowding out the private sector, creating moral hazard that dissuades people from insuring themselves or designing property that is more resistant to disaster effects, etc.
The second writer is the American economist and social scientist Mancur Olson, whose seminal work ‘The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups’ demonstrated that small, concentrated groups find it easier to mobilise, and so to demand political favour, than large, dispersed groups. Thus, for example, it is easier in the UK for civil servants, or farmers, to mobilise to demand higher wages or compensation in the event of a bad harvest, than it is for taxpayers to mobilise in opposition. Crucially, the logic applies even when the group does not actually mobilise: the benefits enjoyed by a small, concentrated group are felt more keenly than the costs felt by the large, dispersed group. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, those effected will feel a huge wave of gratitude to the beneficent president, while the population as a whole will barely notice the additional cost of this particular effort – even though, like boiling the frog, each new demand on the taxpayer adds up to a crushing cost.
In truth, calling the presidential election is probably a bit premature. It is axiomatic that the current race is the closest for a very long time (though Obama tends to lead where it matters – in swing states with big electoral college votes). But the arrival of Hurricane Sandy highlights real problems with democratic systems where short-term issues can overtake campaigns that should be about the long-term, where incumbents have an built-in advantage, where being seen to care matters more than the impact one has, and where doling out favours to select groups of key voters pays off, even though the overall cost to society is greater than any benefits.
But hey! It’s election time. “Four more years; four more years…”
Tom Papworth is a research associate of CentreForum