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Obion County Fire Tragedy Symbolizes Tea-Party-Republican Vision of Government

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This week, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann reported the story of the Cranick family's house fire. When the family's Obion County, Tennessee house caught fire on the night of October 5th, the fire department from the nearby town failed to respond since the Cranick's had forgotten to pay a $75 fee. Firefighters finally responded to a call by Cranick's neighbor, who had paid his fee. They sprayed the property line to protect the home of the neighbor and watched at the Cranick's home burned to the ground.

The firefighters had been ordered not to intervene to save the Cranick's house -- even though they were already at the scene -- because, apparently, it would have encouraged others not to pay the $75.

The Obion County fire incident is symbolic of the moral and economic bankruptcy of the Tea-Party-Republican vision of government and the economy. And it poses the stark choice facing American voters in the Mid-Term elections.

The Tea-Party-Republicans -- including the Republican Congressional leadership - talk incessantly about how government services should be slashed. They believe that society should maximize the extent to which each individual is responsible to fend for themselves. They claim that is more "efficient". The Obion County fire illustrates clearly why that assertion is simply wrong.

Competitive markets are extremely efficient at encouraging innovation, increasing productivity and distributing goods and services in many arenas. But there are other arenas where history and experience have demonstrated that it is both more efficient and more humane to provide goods and services through government -- which, as Congressman Barney Frank likes to say, is the name we give to the things we have chosen to do together.

The core difference in values between the right wing and progressives is whether we create a society where we're all in this together, or all in this alone.

Mainstream Americans understand that there are a number of areas where it makes much more economic and moral sense to guarantee goods and services to everyone in the society and ask our citizens to finance them by paying their fair share of taxes rather than paying for them "ala carte".

We came to the conclusion decades ago that government should provide every child with an education, and our public schools have provided the foundation of American economic prosperity.

We use government to provide infrastructure necessary to support our economy -- roads, bridges, harbors, airports, sewer and water systems, and street lights.

We provide common parks and recreation facilities that are open to public use.

Government provides for our common defense and our domestic security. We don't require each person to hire a private army or security firm to defend his or her home. That would be stupid, wasteful and lead to anarchy.

Government is particularly efficient when it comes to providing social insurance -- like Social Security and Medicare. The overhead for these programs is tiny compared with other insurance programs (including private health insurance plans) run by the private sector. They have covered everyone reliably and effectively for generations. That's why they have virtually unanimous public support.

At long last, with the health care reform bill, America joined the company of every other industrial nation, in understanding that it is more efficient and more humane for government to assure that everyone in society has access to health care. Of course one of the signals that prompted this change was the sheer fact that private market health insurance caused our health care cost to skyrocket to 50% more per person than any other nation -- with worse outcomes. Almost certainly, the Affordable Care Act is just the first step in reform, since a public option will certainly be needed to ultimately bring our spending in line with other nations. But it was a critical first step.

Of course, most everywhere in America, we provide fire protection through the government. We all pay -- through our taxes -- to assure that if the time ever comes when we need to call 911 because of a fire, no one will have to check to see if we have paid a fee, a clerical error on payment records will not cost us our homes, and firefighters will not stand by and watch our homes and lives go up in smoke. And of course we also support common protection because fire doesn't necessarily stop at the property line -- just ask Ms O'Leary of the legendary Chicago Fire.

The Obion county story demonstrates what happens when we forget that government - financed by common taxes -- is the most efficient provider of so many goods and services.

It makes no economic sense to allow what is likely a multi-hundred thousand dollar home to be consumed by flames because a failure to pay a $75 fee. Now, either the insurance company or the Cranick's will have to build a brand new home in its place. Their former home was wasted because of the absurdity of the system that had been set up to protect it.

That same absurdity is implicit in so many of the other Republican economic positions. Its ultimate expression is the Republican desire to repeal health care reform and return us to an out of control system run by private health insurance companies that has cost us 50% more than any other country. That system is wasting trillions of dollars that come out of the pockets of middle class Americans -- just to allow private insurance companies and their top executives to make obscene amounts of money.

And with fire protection and health care, the moral consequences are also clear. Bad enough that someone's home was allowed to be destroyed because of the failure to pay a $75 fee. Would the firefighters have been allowed to intervene if the family pets were inside the house -- what about a child?

The Republicans want to return us to a health care system that allowed for-profit health insurance companies to brazenly make those same choices everyday. They made life and death decisions that determined whether people were treated or not -- and often whether they lived or not -- using their own bottom line as their only real guide. They wouldn't cover you because you have a "pre-existing condition". They would cut you off when you got sick. They hired armies of bureaucrats who do nothing but deny claims. Some of the worst of these abuses are now history because of health insurance reform. If the Republicans have their way, those new protections will be repealed.

But let's be clear. The people behind the "drown government in the bath tub" politics are not the kind of folks who run around in three corner hats and George Washington wigs. The Tea Party rank and file is not the principal engine of anti-government fervor. The money for the ads and the buses and the radio shows are provided by big corporations -- by people like Rupert Murdoch of Fox and David and Charles Koch.

The Koch brothers own virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate whose annual revenues exceed a hundred billion dollars and is the second largest privately owed company in the country.

The Koch's combined fortune of thirty five billion dollars is exceeded only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

They may be libertarian true believers. But the Kochs would also benefit mightily by making government small and toothless. They would benefit more than most anyone from lowering tax rates for the wealthy. They have a massive stake in lowering the standards for environmental regulation since their oil companies and other holdings have made them one of the top ten air polluters in the United States.

The same goes for the many funders of these ultra-right causes. The money comes from very wealthy families and massive corporations. For them the right wing ideology is nothing more than a vindication for their own wealth -- and a justification for their own economic self interest. And the fact is that their economic self interests conflict with those of the vast majority of their fellow citizens.

Progressives cannot be cowed by the anti-government propaganda that spews forth from these giant economic interests even when it's dressed up in the clothing of the small number of ordinary Americans who have become Tea Party activists.

In fact the Cranicks of Obion County Tennessee are truly emblematic of the victims of the Koch brother's vision of America. The Cranicks are victims, as are the eight million Americans who lost their jobs because of the greed and recklessness of the big Wall Street banks -- because of the traders and CEO's that ride around in corporate jets and demand that smaller and smaller quantities of their billions be taxed to pay for our common welfare.

The choice we face on November 2nd is between the interests of the Cranicks and the interests of the Kochs.

Hopefully the fire in Obion County, Tennessee will provide the light necessary to illuminate the true consequences of the Tea Party Republican agenda. And it may help provide the spark that is needed to help mobilize millions of Americans to vote November 2nd and reject that agenda at the polls.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.