The Burning Question

One of the most disturbing things I've seen online is this report, via Think Progress, Tennessee County’s Subscription-Based Firefighters Watch As Family Home Burns Down:

[7/6/2012: links re-insterted into post — something seems to have eaten them. Here’s a direct link to the video.]

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43 Responses to The Burning Question

  1. I note also that they responded when the fire spread to the property of a neighbor who had paid the subscription fee. I expect that neighbor would have been much happier had the firefighters intervened before the fire reached his property, not after.

  2. Joe1 says:

    This is the same approach that is used in several Iowa communities. I remember it from the 50’s and 60’s, when I was in grade school and high school. My home town in Iowa had no ambulance service for a time in the early 60’s because the city council refused to pay the service provider. I remember my father, a doctor, discussing the situation with my mother. Also, Iowa law allowed the placing of liens for unpaid ambulance service against properties.

  3. vic says:

    First, I don’t at all justify what happened, and I suspect that there is likely a cause of action for the homeowner anyway, but…

    Without actually knowing, I’d suspect that this fee scheme was arrived at by the County because of two contradictory situations: 1). There was not enough budgeted money to run a proper fire department, and 2). The county was unable to raise taxes, under whatever structure was in place there, sufficiently to cover the budget shortfall. (the latter, as you know, is a recurrent problem in FL as the competing interests of government need and Homestead exemptions collide. And Tennessee, like FL, I believe is a no-income-tax state, so it likely has all the same problems FL has in revenue-raising.)

    So as a result, someone came up with the idea to get the fire department money as a separate fee outside of the County’s tax structure. This is somewhat akin to all the extra fees various service providers add on, while keeping rates stable (cable TV, phones, and airfares are good examples).

    (There’s actually a lot we don’t know that would be critical in evaluating this situation. For example, who is assessed the $75 fee – landowners, non-landowners, apartment dwellers, the poor, etc.?)

    But the obvious problem with such new fee structures, as tragically illustrated here, is that you have to have some recourse against non-payment that provides incentives to pay. i.e. turn off the phone service, turn off the cable, refuse to let you on the plane, etc. Without such incentive structures, fee demands only work for the persons willing to pay (whatever their personal reasons for doing so). Inevitably, there will be someone who says no – fortunately the result is not usually tragic, but merely inconvenient.

    Here, the government is stuck in a mire of its own making. It needs to have fire protection, but not everyone will voluntarily pay for it. (I’d be interested in knowing why the guy wouldn’t pay the fee – his actual reason). The only solutions to this problem are the age-old government solution of making an example of people who don’t conform (even if only to themselves), or changing the structure that caused it to happen. (just putting every fire out, while perhaps morally proper, isn’t a solution to the problem, it just kicks it down the road again.)

    We would agree that as a society, we believe fire protection is best handled by a centralized force in an equal way for all people in the given area, and that “making an example” of someone should not involve government allowing physical harm to persons to occur (as it likely would if fires were allowed to burn), so what’s the solution?

    To best ensure payment, the “fee” should be a tax, which like all taxes, one should be required to pay under legal penalties. The fact that the county’s tax structure likely doesn’t allow this is a legislative problem that will need to be solved by the county (or state). That this guy refused to pay the $75 just proved to be a dumb choice on his part, but as there are likely multiple causes of action in there that will cost the county more than fighting the fire would have, so the county not putting the fire out is just a dumber choice than an already dumb one. (But government actions should not all be based upon cost-assessments either)

    In the end, this isn’t a story about a guy’s house burning down, but about the rediculous and even dangerous structures created by Governments that have TOO MANY rules, not too few as you imply. This happened because some elaborate tax structure created by government bureaucrat caused a problem that some other government bureucrats thought was best solved by creating yet another epi-cycle on their Ptolemaic government structure. It is Government trying to please too many contradictory interests, while maintaining a complex structure that ignores the simple solutions and obvious problems. If anything, it is yet another illustration of why government should have nothing to do with so much that it thinks it should – it is the obvious and inevitable result of too-expansive government. The real question here is given the limited revenue, further limited by the local taz structure, what services are being provided by government that would better be privatized or eliminated entirely, so that fire fighting can be provided?

    The fiery destruction of a home is not a Libertarian result at all – which mis-assertion itself illustrates why so many misunderstand the Tea Party anger that consumes so many Americans these days.

  4. Jason says:

    Turning off the cable because of an unpaid fee is not the same as letting someone’s house burn to the ground. Sorry, it just isn’t. How can you not make a distinction between the value of a human life, with all the emotion, security, sentiment, and and self-worth a person’s house represents, and the value of watching TV?

    Privatizing fire protection? That sounds like a genius idea. How long before that system becomes a healthcare style quagmire?

  5. vic says:

    Jason, I advocated neither of those things.

    Though, to be fair, there ARE privatized fire services and at least in some cases, they are cheaper to operate with comparable services than public fire services.

    My argument was that this is a government problem, not a lack of government problem.

    One might also note that the rural community in question actually had NO fire service until the opt-in service was created to provide some protection for them. So should municiple tax-apyers in the community that is providing fire service to their rural neighbors who opt-in, also be responsible for paying for service for those who don’t? What if there are two rural fires, outside opposite sides of the city, and only enough fire fighters to combat one? Should the city fire service choose one over the other, or split itself on moral grounds and perhaps provide substandard service to both (perhaps costing two houses)? It’s not as simple a question as one might knee-jerk think.

    In the end, the social necessity to provide fire protection needs to be paid for. The fact that a rural community was left with no fire protection is a failure of government, the fact that an opt-in program was created, rather than fixing the problem, is just another failure of government. This is a story about failure of government, not lack of government.

  6. Chuck says:

    And what happens if a fireman is injured or loses their life when fighting a fire for someone who has not paid?
    Will the medical plan pay for their treatment?
    Will the insurance company pay for the lose of life if they die of the injuries caused by fighting the fire?

    I can see that they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

    Can a city make the fee, $75 if paid in advance, $5000 if they respond to an unpaid address?
    That’s the solution. Make the risk so much greater than the reward of not paying.

  7. Patrick (G) says:

    Michael,
    from the PDF report cited by Think Progress, it sounds as if the County’s municipal fire departments have a long-standing problem with the county’s rural population (~43% of Co. Pop.) free-riding off of municipal taxpayers; Not just refusing to subscribe for fire protection services, but refusing to pay for services rendered when they do call upon the municipal Fire Departments:

    According to survey information, over 75% of all municipal fire department

  8. James Madison says:

    Well now that the example has been made, I am sure people will be paying their fire subscriptions.

    “How can you not make a distinction between the value of a human life, with all the emotion, security, sentiment, and and self-worth a person’s house represents, and the value of watching TV?”

    No, the real distinction is “between the value of a human life,” those of the fire fighters, and things which can be replaced – a house. I see no reason to risk ones life for the property of a person shirking their responsibilities on to others. No $75 fee, no health/life insurance for the firemen, no money for safety equipment. A just result as far as I am concerned.

    I am guessing the real tragedy here is with the local government. I’ll bet they overspent on less valuable services – job training, summer camps, new library/town hall/ball field etc. and short changed the fire department assuming that people would pay for the basic services. The local town will use this incident to raise taxes, shift money to their favorite pet projects and repeat.

  9. michael says:

    Unless Tennessee is a duty-to-rescue state, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there is in fact no cause of action.

    And, yes, this is a libertarian result even on the scenario Vic describes, because communities find themselves in these pickles only because of rules that stop the imposition of taxes for necessary public services. Libertarians don’t in the main believe in taxes even for fire fighters. Tea Partiers, who are somewhat less coherent in their views from what I can make out of them, don’t believe in taxes they have to pay, or benefits for those whom they can categorize as “the other”. That too is consistent with this result.

    This didn’t happen because of “some elaborate tax structure created by government bureaucrat caused a problem that some other government bureucrats [sic] thought was best solved by creating yet another epi-cycle on their Ptolemaic government structure”. It happened either because (1) the community is unincorporated and the county failed to take up the slack (the house is outside the city limits, I think); and/or (2) voters or their representatives decided they didn’t want to have taxes for basic services.

    This is a government failure, or a popular failure to employ government for what it is needed for. As far as I can tell — facts are somewhat thin on the ground — theories about “overspend” on other things lack factual foundation.

  10. James Madison says:

    “Voters or their representatives decided they didn’t want to have taxes for basic services. ” And this voter, received what he bargained for. Michael are you becoming a libertarian?

    “It happened either because (1) the community is unincorporated and the county failed to take up the slack (the house is outside the city limits, I think)” ….. isn’t this the same as “theories about “overspend” on other things.” Take up the slack means pay money, if they spent it on other things, they are not spending it on basic services – like fire protection.

  11. vic says:

    Michael said: “communities find themselves in these pickles only because of rules that stop the imposition of taxes for necessary public services. Libertarians don’t in the main believe in taxes even for fire fighters. Tea Partiers, who are somewhat less coherent in their views from what I can make out of them, don’t believe in taxes they have to pay, or benefits for those whom they can categorize as “the other”.”

    Wow – quite the sweeping statement. You are about 2 seconds from “Libertarians and Tea Partiers think the sick should just die!” Whatever the Libertarian view of taxes (and I don’t agree you are correct there), Libertarians DON’T believe that there should be no fighting of fires! C’mon… The worst you might say of them is that they believe that such services should be privatized, which is apparently often quite successful when it’s done. I don’t know what the actual merit of that idea is. As for your statement that Tea Partiers don’t believe in paying taxes for benefits others might receive (the slightly more coherent version of your statement), you are again mistaken. Most TP’ers are fine with paying taxes, with the understanding that taxes rationally go toward providing useful government functions, not pork and not propping up those who are unWILLing to help themselves in any way. In other words, taxes are not a jobs program for people who would like to have a Government job. Both Libertarians and TP-ers are generally for smaller government that doesn’t feel the need to tilt every aspect of human life with its giant thumbs.

    How tax revenue is spent is always a choice. While TN is a no-income tax state (I presume it still is), OBVIOUSLY, TN collects some revenue from its citizens. Likely a combination of property, sales and fees for various things. The fact that no fire service was provided by government to that part of the county can ONLY mean that what revenue the county received from the state coffers was spent on other things deemed by someone to be more important. That someone would be someone in government, as it is government people who determine how to spend tax revenues – not taxpayers, Libertarian or otherwise.

    What usually happens in these cases is that various programs deemed worthy of government by its functionaries are also deemed “too important to fail” (usually just a code phrase for heavily lobbied by self-interested parties) and government then sacrifices certain high profile programs (such as fire and police) because when it inevitably goes bad, it’s easier to justify raising taxes to fund these programs without ever having to address whether after school ballet for teens ever should have had a higher priority than fire service in the first place. Governments LOVE to short change Police and Fire Fighters because they know the results will be spectacular, and they know that most people will not catch on to the ruse.

    The money was there – it’s always there – they just chose to spend it on other things. Hardly evidence of Libertarianism.

    I think it’s most likely that TN, having satisfied its perceived social program obligations and local pork, simply “ran out” of its limited money and sacrificed fire service as a result (knowing that the eventual outcry would come). They likely have a tax system, like FL’s that makes it very difficult to raise taxes. Now fire provides a convenient way to justify raising taxes or fees to keep this from happening again (something most people will agree with), AND keep after school ballet for teens. This way the argument is the more easily justified fighting fires, not proving tutus to teens.

    Classic big governmental manipulative functioning, and about as non-Libertarian as you can get. I’m not sure how many times you need to see this happen before you realize it’s going on. Apparently at least once more.

  12. vic says:

    And there are no “rules that stop the imposition of taxes for necessary public services” in any community. Even the most extremist-conservative-Libertarian ones. Every community in America has some tax revenue, and tax revenues are not earmarked toward particular things when collected. It’s the budgets that screw things up. If a community “runs out of money” for Police and Fire, then that’s a budget priorities problem – they’ve spent the money elsewhere. Nothing more or less.

  13. rick says:

    taxes sometimes are necesarry, unfortunately!

  14. john says:

    great post, i hate taxes!

  15. kim says:

    no more taxes!

  16. AZ says:

    Privatize fire fighting? Ask Arizonans how the privatization of their prison system has turned out. Businessmen don’t always have the answers.

  17. michael says:

    Actually, there are rules that stop taxes that I think of as necessary all over the nation (although I have no idea what the situation might be in Northeastern Tennessee). The classic example is California’s Proposition 13. Prop 13 has a lot to do with the current California budget crisis. But I have no reason to believe (or not believe) that such rules applied in Obion County, TN.

    This community (or its representatives) chose to have lower taxes and lower services — apparently very low services — in part, I suspect, because it is a very rural, not very densely populated, area with lowish average incomes and in part for ideological reasons (all the relevant elected officials are Republicans). I doubt (although I do not know) that the choice to forgo higher taxes/better services came about because someone, anyone, chose to waste large sums of tax monies on things other than fire prevention; it is possible that there are taxpayer financed Taj Mahals in Obion County, TN, but the secret has been kept from me. It seem more likely that it was a choice. My point is that by and large when it comes to fire departments and other critical social services — my list would include schools, police, courts, prisons, health care to name only a few — in my opinion this is a wrong choice, a foolish choice.

    The libertarian answer is, pretty consistently, that it is a right choice not to have the state take on these tasks and that it is a wrong choice to use the coercive power of the state to require tax monies be paid (they often say ‘extorted’) to support these activities. The libertarian point is not “that fires should not be put out” but rather that the state should not have a role in doing it, instead almost all social services (including fire fighting) should be by subscription; and those who don’t pay (or can’t afford to pay) for a private fire service take the risk and deserve what they get. That was basically the Mayor’s view in the segment in the video, and it is that view I find to be gravely in error.

    Whether the libertarian view is the tea party view, or even if there something as coherent as a single ‘tea party view’, I cannot say with great confidence. But it’s fairly clear that the tea party is broadly anti-tax and anti-government spending on pretty much everything other than armed forces (and, often, the particular government job or benefit enjoyed by the proponent). I don’t agree at all with that view; no one loves taxes, but taxes are, as I’ve said often here, the price of civilization.

    Letting a home burn down while you watch and don’t help is not my idea of civilization. It is pretty much my idea of barbarism.

  18. Michael is right to refocus the question away from the $75 fee and onto the lack of county-wide fire services. Here’s a way of sharpening that point: Would matters be different (if at all) if the fire department had a flat policy of never responding to calls from outside of South Fulton, under any circumstances?

  19. vic says:

    Well first, you might consider that not every Libertarian or TP-er thinks the way you assume they do, nor even like other’s of their ilk. Just as not every Democrat thinks government being involved to the extent it will be in health care is a good idea. Don’t confuse stated positions of figureheads with the positions of individuals within either movement/party.

    I would largely agree with your basic list of services that should always be provided with high priority.

    The question here, of course, is why they were not. It may be purely ideological, as you surmise, or it may simply be that the people in that community have their priorities set differently than you and I. The fact is that it’s been this way for a while, this is not the first time it has happened, yet it remains the same. Clearly, this is more of an issue with those of us outside of that community, than in it. Why is it some how more civilized to be taxed for fire service, rather than pay a separate fee? We had a relatively civilized society here long before we had organized fire departments, and long before fire departments became the unbiased, unpolitical, universal helpers that they are now. Read about the old fire gangs in NYC one day. Nobody is being excluded from fire protection. It’s just not “free.” (and I am about 100% certain that if there was human life at risk in this fire, the fire fighters would have rescued. This is a property issue.)

    As this community does have revenue, it can ONLY be that they have given a lower priority to fire services than something else. This is a local government problem, pure and simple. Either the people of that area have exactly the government position on fire service that they want, or they have some sort of rogue government that needs to be removed from power by those same people. If there is a problem, it is theirs, not ours. And if one disagrees with the government position, you can make the other choice for $75. It’s only “barbaric” if the powerless are forced to suffer the will of the powerful, which is not the case here.

    What boggles my mind is: Why not just pay $75 for the fire service?

  20. Vic says:

    Cal’s Prop 13 is not all this different from FL’s Homestead Act (or whatever it’s called) capping property tax increases.

    But that’s not a rule that determines where taxes are allocated, just how they are collected. In FL, just as in CA, once collected the revenue must be allocated according to the budget. If something is shortchanged, it is NOT because of the collection process, but the allocation process. Ironically, CA is currently the poster child for bad tax revenue allocations, and hardly the state that makes any point positive for your position.

  21. James Madison says:

    “Letting a home burn down while you watch and don’t help is not my idea of civilization. It is pretty much my idea of barbarism.” What about the converse, what if a volunteer fire fighter was seriously injured because the department could not afford proper safety gear, and the department had not paid it’s insurance premiums so the poor volunteer fire fighter is left with a lifetime disability and the bills therefore. We would be having a pity party about the poor fireman, and saying something should be done to prevent it from happening.

    This former homeowner made two choices to not pay for fire protection, once at the polls (assuming this is really a choice), and again when he personally did not pay for his fire subscription. Who should bear the risk of loss in this context: The homeowner who declined coverage twice, the firefighter who has not been compensated for this risk, or the taxpayers- who have ostensibly elected to not pay for this? The cost has to go somewhere and I submit that the homeowner is most responsible for his loss.

    The fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans/Libertarians/Tea-partiers seems to be that Democrats presume that government will allocate tax dollars wisely whereas Republicans/Libertarians/Tea-partiers believe government will waste them. I am a Republican, therefore my basic presumptions are different than yours, that is why I believe that idiotic spending decisions have a lot more to do with the California budget crisis than Prop 13. Similarly I believe that Tennessee, or a political subdivision thereof had the funds to pay for fire protection here, but instead spent the money elsewhere.

  22. Just me says:

    The elephant in the room in the “republicans believe in small government” debate is always the military. I know this is a thread about a specific event in Tennessee involving local government, but it never ceases to amaze me the fervor with which people on the right claim to be for limited government but then are the first to decry any cuts to the military budget – the single biggest piece of our budget pie, and arguably the most dangerous part of any government.

  23. Mike says:

    Vic, I’m afraid you misapprehend some of the problem with Proposition 13 in California. Whether it was intended to or not, Prop 13 did have severe effects on allocation. Whereas local government and education had been locally financed through property taxes, they now must be financed through state government revenues. This created the allocation problem. Instead of being self-financed, education now competes with other state services in the general fund. California now has a situation were the public wants a certain level of services, but is state is unable to raise taxes enough to pay for them. Government has become less accountable, because there is no longer a meaningful way to vote for both higher taxes and more services. The only thing voters can do is choose between competing allocations: education or state fire services; health care for children of low income families or infrastructure maintenance. I will admit that I have no idea whether there is an analogous problem in Tennessee, but it is fundamentally misguided to think that limiting the ability to increase tax revenue does not create allocation problems. You are drawing a false dichotomy. This might not be the wrong allocation given the available funds – it is entirely possible that the social benefit of a well funded police force or school system is greater than a guaranteed fire service. In that case, the problem would clearly not be allocation, but rather insufficient revenue.

    As for the failure to pay the fee, humans are really bad at making rational risk calculations. We overestimate the likelihood of catastrophic disasters, and underestimate the likelihood of mundane accidents, especially the likelihood of them occurring to us. This is why people don’t carry enough insurance and fail to wear seatbelts. This is an argument in favor of taxes to pay for fire services, but is not as paternalistic as it first appears. State provision of fire services is not about preventing the house of the free rider from burning down, it is about protecting the houses of all of his neighbors. We might as well ask the neighbor whose house was damaged why he didn’t pay the fees for everyone in the neighborhood.

  24. Melinda says:

    I think James question is the one I find most relevant. I live in an unincorporated place in rural Alaska and we have no fire service. I mean *nobody* has fire service, and there’s no service for hire. The firefighter-for-hire model not only pushes up costs and increases the cost burden for those willing to pay (fires spread – there’s probably an epidemiological model that applies here, I suspect), but it also means that it creates disincentives for creating a more equitable model, and further disadvantages people who are already disadvantaged.

    It’s a weird quirk of the American character that outrage over freeloaders seems to carry more weight with us than concern for those who don’t have much.

  25. Vic says:

    “it is fundamentally misguided to think that limiting the ability to increase tax revenue does not create allocation problems. You are drawing a false dichotomy.”

    When did I say that? However taxes are levied, government then allocates money according to how it determines to do so. The methed of levy, while it might lead to higher or lower collections, or cause the allocator to change its prior method for allocation, has nothing to do with how funds are specifically allocated. If putting a property tax cap in place causes revenue to go down, then it is the responsibility of the allocator to ensure that the adjusted revenues are best spent. If the allocator fails to do so, and some program that formerly relied upon revenues from a now-limited source gets short-changed under the old system, then it’s a problem of government allocation, not taxes.

    I may be wrong, but my understanding is that funding education mostly by property taxes was declared unconstitutional in CA before Prop 13 was even passed. taxes in CA are allocated, just like they everywhere, according to political decisions that may, or may not, have anything to do with anyone’s objective list of valuable recipients. If education lacks proper funding in CA, it is because it has been shorted in its allocation of revenue, not because of anyone’s tax rate.

    As for the military comment… There are plenty of conservatives who believe that military spending is too high and that the United States should not be funding and positioning its military to be the world’s police force. Other conservatives believe in a strong, well-funded military, but believe that the current military system is inherently inefficient and that 100 20M low tech airplanes is a much better thing that 1 2B high tech airplane, which is little more than someone’s pet project. Still other conservatives think that having the most impressive and technologically capable military serves as deterrent. Others think that our military is still fighting WWII tactically and little more than a sea change is needed. There are numerous other views, but I’m not going to go on forever. The point is, to say all conservatives ANYTHING about the military is just an uninformed generalization.

    The basic principle that provides both tax cuts and spending cuts, while improving the quality of the government programs overall unfortunately is at odds with the basic lifeblood of being a politician. Being a politician is all about power. Not over you and me, but the power of fortifying oneself against being voted out of office. The power to keep drinking on the public’s dime. No matter the ideals of the politician voted in, at some point, they change into politicians in the power sense (it even happened to Wellstone!) And the decisions made, while perhaps benefitting you coincidentally, are meant to satisfy the need to remain in power: To pay off constituents who will vote for the politition, or to provide examples that can be used to sway constituents to vote for the politition. Benefits are just gravy, being a politician is the real goal.

    The goal of small government advocates is not to eliminate government entirely, or even necessarily to restrict it in any obvious amount. It’s simply to eliminate the system of corruption that is the modern politician’s lifeblood. This means simplfying and streamlining government to the point where it can do what it needs to do without spending money like a drunken sailor.

    Getting back to the Fire Service in rural TN, the problem in play is NOT lack of revenue, but the obvious fact that in order to satisfy the need to get elected and stay there, politicians created the system in place, allocating revenue to best satisfy those who can keep them in power. It won’t change until keeping their jobs is better served by doing the opposite. If the voters in that place want change, they will get it, one way or the other. The fact that it is how it is simply means they are fine with it, or just don’t care enough to change it. Hence, it’s their problem, not ours. It’s not even their problem really, since paying a mere $75 can “fix” not having fire protection. Anyone who can afford property, can afford $75 to protect it. If one refuses to pay that, well…

    Personally, I think I’d prefer to pay a known $75 for a necessary government service like that than to have some underterminable amount yanked out of my pocket through other means.

    Why is everyone acting like this is Farenheit 451 or something?

  26. michael says:

    Why is everyone acting like this is Farenheit 451 or something?

    Here’s why:

    The fact that it is how it is simply means they are fine with it, or just don’t care enough to change it. Hence, it’s their problem, not ours. It’s not even their problem really, since paying a mere $75 can “fix” not having fire protection. Anyone who can afford property, can afford $75 to protect it. If one refuses to pay that, well…

    That encapsulates all three problems: (1) “They” (the local powers that be) may be fine with this, but it’s a policy which is, and was known to be, harmful and fixable; (2) it’s our problem too, both in microcosm and as a trope; (3) It’s not obvious that all property owners necessarily have the $75 to hand in this economy; in any case, a rule that penalizes those who fail to pay by letting their house burn down while the people able to put it out just watch is far too Draconian.

  27. Patrick (G) says:

    I fault the homeowner for negligence (he set this fire),
    I fault the county’s policymakers for dereliction (A county-wide Fire department was mandated in 1987),
    I fault the county’s voters for putting up with their policymakers.

    I find no fault with the Fire Department for not responding to a fire outside of their jurisdiction for someone who has actively chosen to not pay for fire protection.

    The folks who opt-in for fire-protection are sharing the burden of supporting a Fire Department service. The folks who could afford to -but chose not to- participate who still expect to avail themselves to those Services are parasites. ( folks who would participate, but lack the means might technically also be parasites but they’re not intentionally making themselves a burden to society)

    If the county’s policymakers run the county so as to minimize their personal tax burden rather than maximizing their social utility, then they’re parasites as well.

  28. James Madison says:

    “in any case, a rule that penalizes those who fail to pay by letting their house burn down while the people able to put it out just watch is far too Draconian.”

    Then why would any rational person pay the fee? If you don’t have to pay it, and there is no penalty for not paying it, why pay it? Altruisim only goes so far. The same thing goes for health care and the other items on your list. If a billionaire goes to a hospital with a tumor and refuses to hand over a health insurance card, or a credit card, should he still be operated upon? If not then where do you draw the line?

  29. michael says:

    The right answer is to make this a government service and tax people, ideally progressively (or proportionally to property value, or maybe square footage), for it. That solves the collection action problem optimally. Every other solution is flawed in some way. But allowing property to be destroyed in this manner is both cruel and wasteful.

    By the way, if someone goes to any hospital that participates in Medicare and has no money, they do have a duty to care for him. See the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). If he has money but doesn’t pay on the spot — or is, say, unconscious and without ID — they send the bill later. If he doesn’t pay, they send it to collection and ultimately sue him. They shouldn’t — and don’t — throw him out on the street to die. That is where I draw the line. I am very comfortable with that.

    As I said above, the least bad solution on the facts of this fire is to charge the non-subscriber a penalty rate for firefighting services, much more than the $75 fee, but not to let the house burn down.

    Letting the house burn down in full view of tools that can save it is sick. People who think this was the right thing to do in this case in the service of terrorizing others to pay their fire fee are, in the very kindest view, in the blinding and fevered grip of an ideological disorder.

  30. It’s unbelievable that they can stand there to watch.. And for 75$. I’m glad I live in a country where something like this would never happen.

  31. csrster says:

    I believe that a little historical research would show that the simple solution is for the fire department to hire a handful of experienced arsonists to go around and burn down the houses of people who don’t pay their fire subscription. Problem solved.

  32. vic says:

    “The right answer is to make this a government service and tax people”

    But that’s effectively what they did, allbeit by a separate bill (big deal). There is effectively a $75 tax that provides fire services. A fee paid to government is a tax paid to government, it just has a different name because it is different in form and method – but it’s a tax. Unfortunately, the fire “tax” lacked the teeth necessary to enforce its collection. That some people don’t pay it is a local Government problem.

    I’m not saying that they should have let the guy’s house burn down, I’m just saying this is a government problem that indicates a problem in the local government that needs to be addressed properly. The fact that this has been going on for some time (we just didn’t care to notice until now) doesn’t change the fact that this is a local issue that doesn’t involve us in any way.

    “That encapsulates all three problems: (1) “They” (the local powers that be) may be fine with this, but it’s a policy which is, and was known to be, harmful and fixable; (2) it’s our problem too, both in microcosm and as a trope; (3) It’s not obvious that all property owners necessarily have the $75 to hand in this economy; in any case, a rule that penalizes those who fail to pay by letting their house burn down while the people able to put it out just watch is far too Draconian.”

    1). So why is it OUR job to make them fix it? Obviously they know it’s how things are there. So let them either fix it themselves if they care enough, or leave it be if that’s what they prefer. It’s their business as this situation violates no Constitutional principle, or apparently statute.

    And just saying it should be fixed, even if true, is meaningless. How are you, or any of us, going to fix it? We don’t live there. We don’t vote there. Are you saying there needs to be yet another Federal law requiring local states to do something (never minding the facial unconstitutionality of that, which the feds just figure a way around each time anyway)?

    This is THEIR problem, and we can be aghast if we like – and it’s an interesting topic to debate here – but it’s not our problem to fix. I know it’s hard for you to believe sometimes, but not everyone needs the meddling of smart people to figure out how to live their lives.

    2). This just makes no sense as a sentence, and I’m not sure you know what “trope” means – at least I can’t figure out what you mean with this sentence with it in it. We are not in their microcosm. Sorry if I’m not following your train of thought on this.

    3). Of course these people have $75 to hand over. They are property owners for Pete’s sake! If they don’t have $75 for the fire tax, then they are also not going to have money for their mortgage and property taxes, not to mention maintenance on the property. And if they don’t have that (which, obviously, they do), they won’t have the property long anyway. They have the $75, I can absolutely assure you of that. And if for some reason someone is so poor they can’t afford their $75 fire tax, then can very likely properly deal with that situation as well. And I can also assure you that the 43% who chose not to pay $75 for their fire protection have cable, internet, cell phones, computers, and homes over 1500 sqft – all lesser priorities than keeping you self and family safe. This is just a silly argument.

    “Letting the house burn down in full view of tools that can save it is sick. People who think this was the right thing to do in this case in the service of terrorizing others to pay their fire fee are, in the very kindest view, in the blinding and fevered grip of an ideological disorder.”

    The people who caused this to happen are the locals – individuals and politicians. Nobody else. It’s a system they have created and are living with. This sort of thing happens all the time with government, it’s just not always as dramaticly photogenic as a fire. Open your eyes.

  33. Patrick (G) says:

    Michael,
    I agree with what the solution should be, but…

    Your medical analogy would only make sense if there was an equivalent law for fire protection services and legal recourse for non-payment. But as I pointed out already, there isn’t, not in that county.

    For all you know, the water in the fire trucks may have been spent putting out the subscriber’s field fire, which was their primary obligation, or the house may have been too far gone to save after they were done with the field fire. Or the fire fighters might have wanted to keep some reserve in case the fire threatened to encroach once more on the subscriber’s property.

  34. michael says:

    To address just the two posts above.

    1. I reject the idea that we have no concern for or interest in the lives of our fellow citizens just because they are not near neighbors. I suppose there is some complex function in which our optimal level of concern may increase with proximity, but it also increases with the severity of the harm.

    2. The locals didn’t do this entirely to themselves. They live in a nation with a certain political discourse, and a certain mass media, which frames parameters as to what is acceptable behavior and discourse. We have failed as a polity to frame this sort of behavior — and the discourse which enables and reinforces it — as out of bounds. (In the socially acceptable sense; this isn’t a legal issue.) Failed badly.

    3. Thus my airy use of “trope”: a trope is a word or expression used in a figurative sense. I see this event as figurative — symbolic — of the deeper failures we currently struggle with all around the US: an unwillingness to recognize that complex modern life requires a significant commitment to government as a solution to collective action problems, public goods, information asymmetries, other drastic power asymmetries, issues of fundamental fairness (including a social safety net), and so on. This is not easy, and government being a human system does not usually perform optimally. Nevertheless it is essential. These principles are not seen as widely self-evident but rather as contested; in many quarters they are actively devalued. And that leads to firefighters watching a home burn down.

    4. The suggestion that the issue here had something to do with the firefighters’ water supply is not founded in any fact I have seen on the public record. Rather the contrary: had the firefighters simply put out the fire when they arrived, it would never have spread to the neighbor who had paid his fee.

    5. I have no idea why the homeowner didn’t pay his fee. Negligence is the most obvious possible answer. But in these times of unemployment and foreclosure, in the absence of information it is also conceivable that money is very very tight. $75 is more than ten hours work at the federal minimum wage, before taxes and withholding. (TN has no state minimum wage.) That is potentially significant for many. Recall that this is a low-income area by national standards.

  35. James Madison says:

    “The right answer is to make this a government service and tax people, ideally progressively (or proportionally to property value, or maybe square footage), for it. That solves the collection action problem optimally. Every other solution is flawed in some way. But allowing property to be destroyed in this manner is both cruel and wasteful.”

    This solution does not account for wasteful government spending decisions, nor does it account for the collection cost of the $75.00. We do not live in a Utopian society, people do not do things, just because the law says we have to. Even if a law says you must do it, people will ignore it leaving them in the exact same situation as now. Collecting money is expensive, I do it for a living. By letting his house burn down, the County has at zero cost to the taxpayer, convinced everyone to pay their $75 fire subscription.

    “By the way, if someone goes to any hospital that participates in Medicare and has no money, they do have a duty to care for him. See the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). If he has money but doesn’t pay on the spot — or is, say, unconscious and without ID — they send the bill later. If he doesn’t pay, they send it to collection and ultimately sue him. They shouldn’t — and don’t — throw him out on the street to die. That is where I draw the line. I am very comfortable with that.”

    I said “BILLIONAIRE” not poor person. Why can’t democrats confront the cold reality that sometimes people just refuse to pay. So I’ll posit the question again “If a BILLIONAIRE (with an unequivocal ability to pay) goes to a hospital with a tumor and refuses to hand over a health insurance card, or a credit card, (to Pay) should he still be operated upon?” Does the resident at Jackson making $25k/yr. have an obligation to provide free services to a BILLIONAIRE, who refuses to pay? *

  36. John says:

    “By letting his house burn down, the County has at zero cost to the taxpayer, convinced everyone to pay their $75 fire subscription.”

    That is about as cold hearted as it gets. Is there anything that trumps taxation issues in the minds of conservatives?

    By the way, yes, the hospital will have to operate on your billionaire. They will then sue him, win, and collect the judgment through any one of a variety of methods. What is so shocking about that? Whether he pays up front or he is forced to pay in the end, at least the human being is still alive.

  37. Timmy2000 says:

    “Are you saying there needs to be yet another Federal law requiring local states to do something (never minding the facial unconstitutionality of that, which the feds just figure a way around each time anyway).”

    Putting aside the question of what a “local state” is, don’t we realize that there are plenty of perfectly constitutional federal laws requiring states to do or refrain from doing something? Child labor laws anyone?

    Oh, and littering your argument with words and phrases like “absolutely,” “of course,” and “obviously” doesn’t really serve to convince anyone but yourself. But I’m probably wrong because you will no doubt assure me that you are correct.

  38. Patrick (G) says:

    Rather the contrary: had the firefighters simply put out the fire when they arrived, it would never have spread to the neighbor who had paid his fee.

    That seems backwards to the facts as I read them.
    My understanding is that the Firefighters came out for the neighbor who was a subscriber whose field was on fire, not for the non-subscribing homeowner who managed to set his house -and his neighbor’s field- on fire. If the neighbor had not subscribed to the fire protection service, the firemen would never have had a reason to respond to that particular fire and watch the house burn down.

    I find it curious that you engage in hypotheticals to rationalize the homeowner’s failure to pay for an essential service but you refuse to consider hypothetical rationales for why the firefighters chose not to engage the fire at the non-subscriber’s house when their primary responsibility was to control the fire on the subscriber’s/neighbor’s property.

    That said, I do agree with your points about the larger social failure, just not with your characterization of the firefighters as moral monsters.

  39. “1. I reject the idea that we have no concern for or interest in the lives of our fellow citizens just because they are not near neighbors. I suppose there is some complex function in which our optimal level of concern may increase with proximity, but it also increases with the severity of the harm.”

    I’m fine with having a concern for, and interest in, the lives of our fellow citizens. it’s the step where this interest/concern is seen as an excuse to take away our fellow citizens’ choices where you lose me. Freedom means the freedom to do things other people think are stupid or self destructive, or it pretty much means nothing.

  40. vic says:

    Well, regardless how one might think the situation SHOULD have been handled, what happened was that Government had a discretionary right to determine who got fire protection and who did not. While it is true that the first choice was made by the guy who wouldn’t pony up the $75, government could still have put out the fire when it found it and settled it all later. Government chose not to act.

    Not having looked into TN law even one bit on this, my gut reaction is that there should be some cause(s) of action available to the homeowner. But as Michael suggests, maybe not.

    However, what this illustrates, yet again, for those who don’t seem to catch on whenever it happens is: This is exactly why you don’t want government being given insurance-like powers which inevitably lead to making choices as to how it’s insurance-like protection should be applied. This is yet another varient of the government “death panel,” which is so often denied by the big-government lovers solely because of its silly name, rather than actual non-existance.

    The things that government does should always be such that they are without regard to the individual’s immediate status. Murder should be punished because it is wrong, not because your uncle was murdered. Fires should be put out because they destroy property and endanger lives and other property, not because the protection-racket money was paid. If that can’t be done, then maybe it’s something government needs to stay out of. When government creates a system in which IT gets to decide inequitably when to dispence its own largess, these stories happen. when government is given the resposibility to stem an unlimitable tide with finite revenues, these stories happen.

    But these same government types should run health care, right? (it’ll be different then.)

  41. michael says:

    Government should solve collective action problems. Modern health care is one of them. This is not about “dispensing largess” it is about using institutions in familiar ways to solve social problems.

  42. vic says:

    There is not enough money in the world to satisfy all the desire for government in some citizen’s idealization of government.

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