Government Fiddles While California Burns

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As I type in my writer's garret in Huntington Beach, outside my window ash falls like snow and the sky is tinged an orange-yellow. It's a little hard to breathe and I cough now and then.

It's not as bad as the previous three days. But the evidence still is in the air, not just on the TV news, of the fires that have burned out large areas of Southern California.

Fires strike our area every few years, the last major fires being in 2003. The best way to prevent the fires and to fight them would be for the government to get out of the way and turn the responsibility over to private insurance companies.

Unfortunately, that isn't going to happen soon. So we're left with the usual government incompetence, beginning with our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although a popular international bodybuilder and action star, in California people gradually are realizing he doesn't know what he's doing.

He hasn't balanced a budget in four years, despite prosperity bringing record new revenues. We've suffered electricity blackouts. And Arnold is obsessed with imposing a socialized medicine scheme similar to the one in his native Austria — a place he used to say he escaped to enjoy the promise of American capitalism.

Quickly bored with his job, Arnold has traipsed around the world advancing his global-warming ideology. In June, he posed in London with "Phony" Tony Blair, then in his last days as prime minister.

Last January, in his state-of-the-state address, Arnold insisted that California was a "nation-state." I wish it were so! If California seceded, I wouldn't have to pay massive taxes to Bush's centralized, war-obsessed regime in Washington. And goodbye IRS, FBI, CIA, De-Ed, Heimat Security, etc.

But it isn't so. Pretending California is a "nation-state" stokes Arnold's ego and is yet another diversion from the hard work of actually serving the people who elected him, twice.

Arnold has had plenty of time to make sure the state he misgoverns didn't burn down. The Los Angeles Times reported:

A special panel appointed by Schwarzenegger recommended in 2004 that California buy 150 more fire trucks for emergencies. So far only 19 have been ordered. They are scheduled to arrive in time for next year’s fire season.

The state has not replaced its Vietnam-era helicopters, although the Blue Ribbon Fire Commission had warned that many were nearing the end of their operational lives and that the availability of replacements “is diminishing and will soon be exhausted.”

That means some of those helicopters are older than their pilots.

Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather insisted:

It is an absolute fact, had we had more air resources we would have been able to control this fire.

Yes. But it also should be pointed out that one reason Prather doesn't have enough resources — air or otherwise — is that Orange County firemen make, on average, $175,000 a year in pay and benefits. And his Fire Authority is housed in a $50 million Taj Mahal headquarters in Irvine, near the fires.

There's no question that firemen are bravely fighting the fires. But there would be a lot more of them, and they would have better equipment, if their pay and HQ weren't so extravagant.

Another problem is that, as during and after Hurricane Katrina, a lot of National Guardsmen are stuck in Bush's quagmire in Iraq. Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democratic presidential candidate, pointed out that the National Guard's misdeployment has hurt not only California, but Kansas after a recent tornado. He said:

You saw it in Kansas not long ago. You've seen it in other jurisdictions here, where because we've got men and women in Iraq in the National Guard, we don't have them back in these states doing the kind of jobs they can do when these tragedies occur.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a GOP presidential candidate, retorted that only 10 percent of California's National Guard is deployed to Iraq. But that 10 percent could be the critical amount needed to help quell the fires and deter looters.

Another big aspect is National Guard equipment. Just after Hurricane Katrina, the Christian Science Monitor reported on Sept. 27, 2005:

Though the head of the National Guard says he had more than enough troops, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum acknowledges that trucks, bulldozers, and communications equipment “all were in short supply for Katrina.” He met the needs of the recovery by shifting resources among states, but the strain hints at a broader concern about the military’s mechanical workhorses — both here and abroad.

Much of the Guard’s equipment is in Iraq, and the war there has battered the helicopters and Humvees of every service, wearing them out five times faster than normal, by some estimates. The Pentagon says it will take at least two years to return the force to full strength after the war.

In the meantime, though, the Guard is left to do its homeland mission with what is left over. It has long been at the bottom of the military food chain, receiving fewer Army hand-me-downs than it needs because it has typically been a reserve — the last to fight. Yet now, with the Guard being used as a front-line force in Iraq, and with President Bush pushing for a larger military role in disaster relief at home, the Guard’s lack of materiel is a primary matter of American security.

We won't know until a few weeks from now if the same thing is happening to California's Guard. But I suspect that it is. Indeed, we're now two years deeper into the big muddy of Iraq, so equipment shortages for the California Guard may be even worse.

Of course, neither Arnold nor his recalled predecessor, Gray Davis, resisted having the Guard removed from its real mission — protecting Californians — and sent to fight in an undeclared, unconstitutional, and unjust war on the other side of the globe. They should have resisted Bush and forced a constitutional crisis over deploying the Guard. Arnold still could force the issue by calling the Guard home.

For that matter, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House Speaker from San Francisco, could force the issue by advancing legislation to give state governors and legislators veto power over sending Guard troops outside the state in which they originate.

It's the same old story of empire: while the legions are off expanding the imperium, the homeland crashes and burns from neglect and confiscatory taxation, the populace kept bemused by bread and circuses then, welfare and FauxNews today.

As Arnold, Bush, Pelosi, and the others remain occupied with their political and personal obsessions, Americans will continue to suffer from government incompetence in the wake of hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires.

Trying to reform government today is like telling Nero, as Rome burned, that he needed new strings for his fiddle.

Reform the empire? No, abolish it.

October 27, 2007