If there’s one simple truth that evades time or nationality or geography, it is this: humanity is so much better at dealing with problems after the fact than at avoiding them to begin with. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan are horrific events to be sure, created not by our own doing but by the endless procession of natural geological forces. Our hearts and thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected, both directly and indirectly. East-central Wisconsin is literally a half-a-world away, but the images that we have all seen make the suffering seem so close. There is literally nothing that could have been done to prevent this geological event from unfolding as it has – it is simply the nature of things.
The ongoing human response to this event, however, is another matter entirely. Consider for a moment the sacrifices being made by the workers who are still tending to the crippled nuclear plants that are facing a potentially catastrophic end. While tens of thousands of local residents have been evacuated to safety, these men and women are literally sacrificing themselves for the greater good, working around the clock to stabilize the damaged reactors while being bombarded by what may well be lethal doses of radiation. The ultimate sacrifice from these heroes amounts to saving their countrymen from a catastrophe of their own creation. There is no economic model that can fully compensate these brave few for their time, for their future suffering or for their near-certain demise. They seek no market-based reward; rather, they serve selflessly to benefit society as a whole.
As our government leaders begin the process of whittling away at our staggering national and state debts, they are deciding which elements of our society are critical and which are not. At a time when it may be politically popular to slash and burn our budgets, it is important to recognize that cutting costs is a whole lot different than eliminating value. Consider the economic and human value that exists to society to ensure that our nuclear regulatory agency is fully staffed and that any short-term cost to ensure public safety (even if it raises the price for electricity) is a good value. Consider the value added by those that we pay to care for our elderly, our sick and infirmed without whose service we would be forced to be direct caregivers ourselves. Consider the economic and human value that our transportation workers give us, offering us the infrastructure to quickly move desperately needed resources in an emergency.
In times of need, it is the caregivers of our society that pick us up when we need it most. It is our well-trained first responders, it is our teachers who nurture and care for (and yes, love) our children even when the stresses of daily life make it difficult for us to be at our best, and it is our natural resource workers who protect our God-given gifts often from ourselves. At a time when even the minor stresses of daily life can be overwhelming, our caregivers exist to make our lives just a bit better.
While the devastation in Japan is horrific, the strong building codes and preparedness drills and early warning systems funded by their government have certainly saved an incalculable number of lives. But they have also invested heavily in the legion of caregivers who are there to serve their society during their time of greatest need. No mega-bank will be there to bury their dead. No mortgage company will be there to bind their wounds. No hedge fund manager will be there to dry their tears or comfort their cries. It will be the individual caregivers of Japan who forgo financial gain during this and all other times of need, and it should serve as a model for the fiscal choices we will soon make as an American society.
What does it say about our own society when we choose to allow America’s 13 largest hedge fund managers (who each had more than $1 billion in profits in 2010) to pay a lower tax rate than our firefighters and teachers and nurses and doctors and civil servants? What does it say about our society when we cut the funding necessary to detect tsunami and provide early warning to our own coastal residents? What does it say about our society when we spend more time and energy taking away benefits from caregivers than we do in finding resources to offer those same benefits to all citizens?
What will our budget record be? What federal and state budget choices will we make to prepare for times of greatest need? Will our budget choices fracture us further or will we recognize important savings and value and community through shared sacrifice? During our future time of need, will we have the social structures in place to help us stand up when need them most or will they be dismantled in the name of austerity?
Who will care for the caregivers?