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I’m from the federal family and I’m here to help you

Posted By Russ Roberts On September 1, 2011 @ 1:17 pm In Politics,Prices,Uncategorized | Comments Disabled

The Palm Beach Post reports [1] on a rhetorical move by the Obama administration:

Don’t think of it as the federal government but as your “federal family.”

In a Category 4 torrent of official communications during the approach and aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has repeatedly used the phrase “federal family” when describing the Obama administration’s response to the storm.

The Obama administration didn’t invent the phrase but has taken it to new heights.

“Under the direction of President Obama and Secretary Janet Napolitano, the entire federal family is leaning forward to support our state, tribal and territorial partners along the East Coast,” a FEMA news release declared Friday as Irene churned toward landfall.

The G-word — “government” — has been nearly banished, with FEMA instead referring to federal, state and local “partners” as well as “offices” and “personnel.”

Later on in the article, there is some empirical support for the claim that the Obama administration is using the phrase more frequently:

A Google search shows the phrase appearing 10 times on FEMA’s website during the Bush years. Since Obama took office, “federal family” has turned up 118 times on fema.gov, including 50 Irene-related references.

Among them: statements that the Obama administration “is committed to bringing all of the resources of the federal family to bear” for storm assistance and that “the entire federal family continues to lean forward to support the states in their ongoing response efforts.”

Lean forward? I guess that’s the opposite of sitting back. I guess it’s supposed to show initiative and focus. Not working for me.

As I tried to describe in The Price of Everything [2], families generally don’t use prices to allocate resources because they don’t need to. Families have good information about the desires and constraints facing the members of the family and the families have the incentive to use that information wisely. So when there aren’t enough cookies to go around, I don’t auction them off to the highest bidder. I might give each of the kids an equal fraction of the cookies. Or I might know that one of the kids went to a party and had some sweets. I try to get the cookies into the hands of the kids that will enjoy them the most. I have the information and the incentive to make that happen because I care about my kids. And I face the consequences if I do a bad job as a parent.

The federal “family” is not a family. It’s a faux family. A sham family. The government has neither the information nor the incentives to allocate goods wisely in the face of a shortage or a catastrophe. It should do less leaning forward and more sitting back.

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[1] Palm Beach Post reports: http://www.palmbeachpost.com/storm/femas-use-of-term-federal-family-for-government-1808751.html

[2] The Price of Everything: http://www.amazon.com/Price-Everything-Parable-Possibility-Prosperity/dp/0691143358/invisiblehear-20

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