One thing political leaders are good at is declaring wars and emergencies. Starting with Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty in the 1960s, presidents have declared war on several domestic policy challenges including crime, drugs and terror, to name a few. Notably, none of the wars has been won and all continue in some form or another.
The close cousin of the policy war is the declaration of an emergency. More than 75 national emergencies are on the books, including at least one dating back to the Jimmy Carter administration in the 1970s. Emergencies may come and go but emergency declarations remain.
The latest trend is declarations of emergency over the problem of homelessness in America’s cities. San Diego County declared such an emergency last fall, with Los Angeles County following suit. The new mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, made such an emergency declaration her first official act as did the new governor of Oregon recently.
What does emergency government accomplish? Primarily these emergencies draw attention and resources to a problem. But they also allow the government to ignore checks and balances as well as deliberation in order to move more quickly. As Oregon Governor Tina Kotek put it, “It’s about changing how we do business.” In the end, it’s part of the larger movement for government to “do something” about a problem, even when we are not quite sure what to do.
We would “go back” to Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal to find the origin of emergency action for domestic policies. When he came to office during the Great Depression, he started with a national emergency banking regulation and proceeded to grow executive power, saying the American people wanted “action and action now.” Admitting he wasn’t sure exactly what to do, he called for “bold, persistent experimentation.” He signed more executive orders than any president and formed new agencies that he could control. His New Deal policies could have been described by Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, when he said you never let a good crisis go to waste, it’s an opportunity to do things you could not ordinarily do. Of course, none of this growth in executive power was rolled back and, instead, FDR created the large federal bureaucracy that persists today.
We could also go back to Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. He wanted to do something about poverty but relatively little was known at the time about poverty policy, so he declared a war on it, increasing federal spending and regulations. As Ronald Reagan later put it, we declared war on poverty but poverty won.
So now, not knowing exactly what to do about homelessness, the new approach is to declare it an emergency. This way, mayors and governors can spend more money while ignoring normal checks and balances and deliberation. Unfortunately, homelessness, like poverty, is a complex problem and no one is certain how to tackle it. It is a complicated mix of housing costs, unemployment, poverty, crime, drugs, and mental health to name a few. Declaring an emergency implies that we know what to do and it’s time to get on with doing it. But we don’t really know what works best. It is a time for experimentation and deliberation, not wars and emergencies.
As economist Lee Ohanian has pointed out, creating centralized housing policies, rather than allowing local markets and governments to work, has not been successful. We predict that years from now, we will still have homelessness amid a plethora of homeless emergencies, government spending and the suspension of study, debate, and deliberation. That’s been the unfortunate pattern of government by war and emergency.