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Sandy’s closing argument

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There’s something powerful yet perplexing in our response to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

The universal impulse is empathy for those who’ve been hurt through no fault of their own and a determination to mobilize collectively via government to ease the pain and fix the damage. Yes, of course, there are utility contractors, religious groups and nonprofits like the Red Cross doing essential work – every hand is needed on deck — but we rightly expect government to lead when it comes to coping with calamity.

The perplexing thing is this: Why is our moral instinct so different when it comes to natural disasters like Sandy as opposed to slow-motion man-made disasters, such as the fate of millions of poor children languishing in failing schools? Why do some bad things that are outside people’s control elicit empathy and a thirst for urgent response – and other bad things outside people’s control persist for decades in the face of de facto indifference?

We can pretend otherwise, but indifference is ultimately what we’ve shown poor children in the United States. These kids come into the world with disadvantages beyond their control. As a society we then make matters worse by leaving them poorly fed and largely untutored before they reach school age and then by assigning most of them to the least qualified teachers and shabbiest school facilities in the country.

The impact on their lives – not to mention the loss to the economy, when so much human potential is left untapped – vastly exceeds any damage Sandy will do. Our indifference helps explain why upward mobility is now greater in most of Europe than in the United States.

Yet we don’t see wall-to-wall coverage. We don’t see Ali Velshi reporting for hours from urban classrooms whose kids are knee-deep in despair just as surely as if they were treading water in Atlantic City. We don’t see Erin Burnett tracking the tide of neglect that’s lapping at these students’ feet just as Sandy swelled the waters Burnett patrolled in lower Manhattan.

I know, I know, there’s no galvanizing event to focus media attention (and thus our own). And we’re less sure of how to improve the odds for these children than we are about how to save, say, a subway.

Still, I’ve always felt that a deeper appreciation of the role that luck plays in life could form the basis of a consensus for bolder measures to get serious about equal opportunity, economic security and a minimally decent life in America. For the truth is it’s not just poor kids nowadays who are buffeted by forces outside their control. When it comes to the fate of the middle class in an era of globalization and rapid technological change, the waters are rising all around us.

Sensitivity to this role of luck in life is not just a liberal impulse, by the way. No less a conservative thinker than Judge Richard Posner offered a striking articulation of this sentiment on his blog two weeks ago.

“I think that ultimately everything is attributable to luck, good or bad,” Posner wrote. “Not just the obvious things, like IQ, genes that predispose to health or sickliness, the historical era and the country in which one is born, the wealth of one’s parents ...one’s height and looks and temperament ...but also the characteristics that cause a person to make critical decisions that may turn out well or badly, characteristics that really are derivative from some of the previously noted ‘luck’ characteristics. ...Talent is luck but so is the propensity for working hard ... or not working hard.”

Polls have long shown that Europeans tend to believe one’s destiny is shaped by forces outside one’s control, while Americans see themselves mostly as masters of their own fate. I’ve long argued that American sentiment will start to look more like Europe’s as global competition and technological advance leave millions of unlucky U.S. workers at the mercy of economic monsoons.

If I’m right, this evolving sense of vulnerability – of being subject to loss through no fault of one’s own – will at some point bring demands for a stronger government response. We’re not there yet. But the volatile swings we’ve seen in recent elections are a symptom that voters know things aren’t working and new ideas are needed. Another symptom is eroding support for free trade even higher up the income scale.

Taking luck and its implications for public policy seriously is precisely why Obamacare is so important (as was Romneycare, on a smaller scale, before it). Americans through government are finally asserting that if you’re unlucky enough to lose your job or to be cursed with disease, you won’t go broke if you get seriously ill. It’s the health security equivalent of first responders pulling people to safety from the squall.

If we apply the moral instinct Sandy evokes more imaginatively, in other words, we can build a society that leaves all of us more secure in the face of the gales we’re in for in a global economy. What we need are leaders who can make these linkages compelling – who show us that a decent society can ease the burdens of bad luck even as it champions and rewards hard work, individual initiative and entrepreneurship.

Listen closely through the wind and rain and you’ll hear it. Think of it as Sandy’s closing argument.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center.” His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.

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