I came across some more dramatic headlines about the current drought over the weekend. Apparently, the current drought has prompted the largest ever disaster declaration by the USDA. Immediately this made me think of a drought far back in U.S. history and a different method of handling it. The year was 1887 and Grover Cleveland was president. There was a drought in west Texas that had resulted in crop losses. Congress wanted to appropriate a small amount of funds to buy seeds for the farmers in the area so they could replant crops. President Cleveland vetoed the bill. Here is part of his response:
…And yet I feel obliged to withhold my approval of the plan as proposed by this bill, to indulge a benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds for that purpose.
I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.
The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.
My how times have changed. President Cleveland believed that the government should stay out of the charity business. He believed that it would weaken us in the future, that we would become too dependent upon the government to solve all of our problems. I can certainly see some of that coming true in the present day. It seems disaster declarations, from the smallest flood to the most brief tornado touchdowns, are a dime a dozen. About the only weather disaster I can remember in recent years that did not receive a disaster declaration is the Merrill tornado. The reason was that almost all the houses that were destroyed were covered by insurance. That is the way it should have turned out. That is the purpose of insurance. Unfortunately in many areas of the country people are inadequately insured or unprepared to handle disasters on their own, within their own community or county. Why are people not more prepared for disasters? Why don’t all the farmers suffering from the drought this year carry crop insurance? Why don’t more people have money and/or food stored up to help them through tough times? Is it because President Cleveland was correct? Has the “sturdiness of our national character” been weakened? Economists call the situation “moral hazard”. Well-meaning legislation often has negative long-term side-effects. It is sold on easily described short-term benefits but the negative consequences can remain unseen for years into the future. Maybe it is just an evolution of the representative form of government. Have voters gradually decided through the years that the government is the solution to every problem? If so, what happens when the government experiences trouble (financial or otherwise)? What happens when hundreds of millions of people are dependent upon a system that breaks? Seems like a set-up for trouble. What do you think?
I can remember 2 other extreme droughts in Wisconsin during my life, but I cannot remember s much talk about “natural disaster” and calls for government help (but then again, I was younger, and one’s memory fades). The first extreme drought was in Wisconsin in 1976. It is the year with the record lowest precipitation in Wausau (about 12 inches below normal). On our farm, many of the crops were almost a complete loss. We were able to harvest hay and some oats, but the corn was very poor. I can remember using old milk cans to water our sweet corn. We didn’t have irrigation to save the field corn, but we did pour water out of the milk cans down the couple rows of sweet corn we had planted. My parents knew that the most important thing to save was the food that we would need for the family. The cows would get by on less than high quality food the following winter.
The other more widespread drought across the nation was in 1988. Once again, we survived even though crop yields were way down. As I mentioned last week, the average yield per acre of corn in 1988 was only 85 bushels. This year, even with the drought, the national average yield is expected to be 146 bushels per acre. Even if this number is still too high, it is still way above what we had in 1988. I am sure we will get by again this year, albeit with higher food prices, but we won’t get through the heat and drought without a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and calls for more and more government aid. I can’t imagine the outcry if we had more than one year of drought. It is something we should plan for because multi-year and even severe multi-decade droughts were much more common in the U.S. prior to the twentieth century. With a bigger population to support in the present day, water and food could become more scarce than what we are used to. Are you prepared?
Have a good Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.