I took this picture of the house around the corner from me on Tuesday morning. It's been an eventful week around here. Many of my neighbors still have no power and no heat. We lost our ability to communicate with the outside world (cable, phone, and internet went down and cell phone service was spotty at best). Kids were home from school for the whole week. We have had to wait in line for gas. As bad as things were, though, they could have been much worse. Neighbors have helped each other, taking in other families, offering a place to sleep or to do the laundry or charge electronic devices. My synagogue has had people camping out on its floors. My daughter's school has been serving hot meals.
And the money has been flowing in. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, $37.5 million has already been raised for storm relief. The Red Cross and other nonprofits have by all accounts been doing a fine job helping storm victims. But this week should remind us that the private sector cannot do everything. Some neighborhoods in New York are seeing looting and residents are huddled behind their doors hoping that intruders will not try to get in. Driving through New Jersey this afternoon, I saw a police presence at every gas station I passed. What stops things from descending into chaos when the lights go out and many apartments are deserted and people are fighting over a couple of gallons of gas? The government.
Local governments can try to do other things too like provide hot meals or shelter or places to do laundry. But it is in keeping the peace that government is truly fulfilling its duty of protecting the most vulnerable. When we talk about our priorities as a country -- as we prepare to cast our votes this week -- it is important to remember that there are trade-offs. That for ever tax dollar we spend on something that the private sector can do (and does well) we are not spending it on something that we need government for. We are not hiring more police officers. We are closing firehouses. We are not spending it on infrastructure, like fixing bridges, roads and tunnels. The total bill for the devastation from Hurricane Sandy has yet to be calculated, but now more than ever public funds must be spent wisely and on the things that only public entities can provide.