On April 1, hundreds of thousands of Americans will be paying more money for flood insurance as a congressional act revising federal insurance premiums takes effect. And that is a good thing. Good in itself, because below-cost federal flood insurance has turned into a massive subsidy of development and waterfront property. Why taxpayers who can’t afford beach houses and river and lake front property should subsidize the insurance bills of those who do is one of the many mysteries of Blue Model America. And good because it points the way forward for meaningful reform in the country.
Reforming this monstrosity—the cost to taxpayers is something on the order of $24 billion in debt that FEMA cannot repay the treasury—is long overdue. The coalition—of crony capitalism-hating GOP fiscal hawks and global warming averse Democrats—demonstrates how even with today’s polarized politics, Left and Right can sometimes come together behind an idea that makes sense.
To global warming activists, rising sea levels due to glacial melt as the planet warms are one of the major costs of climate change. As part of the adjustment process, moving development away from low lying coastal areas is an important part of the response to climate change many greens want to see. By linking this concern with the anger of fiscal hawks who see the flood insurance program as a massive unearned subsidy in which some Americans are unfairly taxed to lower costs for other, often less-needy people, the flood insurance program is exactly the kind of wasteful nonsense that good policy needs to kill. Put the two groups together, and you get a constructive reform.
Liberals and conservatives need to realize that neither group is going away. America is a big and diverse country, and the sources of our ideological diversity lie deep in American history. Both Obama-loving liberals and Tea Party conservatives speak for values and ideas that go back to colonial times. The New England Puritans, while their views on sex and God don’t necessarily resonate with those of contemporary liberals, believed passionately in the need for a strong state that enforced moral mandates on the population at large. John Winthrop and Cotton Mather didn’t know the phrases “nanny state” and “political correctness” but the moral logic behind these ideas was one of the founding principles of Puritan New England. At the same time, the ornery suspicion of central authority, love of firearms and general hawkishness that one finds among many Tea Partiers today has been part of American political and moral culture since the 1600s.
Given our federal system, which ensures that the political diversity of the American people is reflected in the makeup of Congress, both liberals and conservatives in all their variety are going to remain part of the national political picture for a long time to come. For people interested in governing America and hammering out the policies that can help us make a successful transition from a society based in the late stages of the industrial revolution to one capable of handling the information revolution that is now reshaping our world, it’s a reality that the new policies and laws we need will have to reflect and incorporate more than one color in the American rainbow. Red America, Blue America, Green America and a number of other Americas are going to persist far into the future, and the leaders we need are people who can somehow weave all these different strands of thought and opinion together.
That’s why the flood insurance reform, though a small step, is heartening. Many Tea Party activists are climate skeptics; many environmentalists are often big fans of wasteful federal subsidies and expansive government programs. Yet they were able to find common ground on this idea and together they defeated the entrenched lobbies who profit from the flood insurance subsidies.
This is a climate bill that climate change skeptics can love, and it is a blow against big government that true blue liberals can support. Think tanks and policy institutes should take heed: this is one of the most important ways to make progress in the American political system. This is what a truly creative compromise looks like, and the more of these we can develop, the better.