Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fidley Watch: Saving for a Rainy Day

In late July, President Obama and congressional leaders reached agreement on a legislative package that would extend the federal debt ceiling. At press time, the US debt clock (www.usdebtclock.org) showed a deficit of $1.415 trillion, or a debt per taxpayer of $130,802, up from $94,011 on the same day in 2008.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 the federal deficit was around $400 million. The response to Katrina stretched the federal budget pretty thin, and the country was involved in ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time. Six years later, the US still has the Iraq and Afghan wars, and is also involved in military operations in Libya. Things are also pretty rocky in Egypt and Syria, and our military spending has risen from $450 billion to more than $700 billion.

As I write this column, category 3 Hurricane Irene, bringing winds as high as 115 mph with even higher gusts, is bearing down on the US East Coast. Irene directly threatens ports from Wilmington, North Carolina to the Canadian border, including the ports of Virginia and New York/New Jersey. The Navy has ordered three-dozen ships to leave Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia ahead of the hurricane, including submarines and the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the governors of Virginia and New Jersey have declared states of emergency.

In 1821, a 13-foot storm surge flooded lower Manhattan. A similar surge today would cause millions of dollars in damage to the city’s low-lying financial district, port, power grid and subways. New York City police have deployed more than 80 boats around the city as well as several helicopters to prepare for emergencies, and city hospitals have tested their emergency generators.

Our nation’s capitol is higher in elevation, and will likely avoid the brunt of Irene and the attending storm surge, but recently suffered a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. The quake caused damage to the Washington National Cathedral and the Washington Monument and came as quite a surprise to East Coast residents who rarely experience earthquakes. A smaller quake off the coast of Virginia in 2010 highlighted the possibility of an earthquake-triggered submarine landslide, which could trigger a tsunami similar to the wave that hit Japan in March.

The port of New Orleans was closed for two weeks after Katrina, and three months later was running at about half capacity. A similar catastrophe affecting the ports in Virginia and New York/New Jersey would be disastrous for the East Coast. The US is a big country, and in the past we have been able to absorb and overcome earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, as well as “man-caused disasters” which is the current administration’s euphemism for the terrorist attacks of 10 years ago this month. But we’re stretched pretty thin, and our credit isn’t as good as it once was. A natural or man-caused disaster now would be much more expensive to overcome, based solely on our ability to borrow.

With luck, Hurricane Irene will blow harmlessly back out to sea, the earth (on all three coasts) will remain relatively motionless and the deal hammered out by Congress and the President will work to bring the US fiscal house back into order. While we don’t hold much sway over the weather and the tectonic plates, we are each represented in Congress, and regardless of political ideology, I think we can all agree that it’s time for the US to get its fiscal house in order. Your congressman goes back to work this month – send him a note asking him to put a little back in the bank for emergencies.

Chris Philips, Managing Editor