editor’s opinion ❘ By BOBBY HALTON
We all grew up hearing this conceivably 500-year-old version of “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” The saying has to do with fairness, equal distribution of opportunity, and level playing fields. It also has to do with power and its use and misuse. There are all kinds of power—physical power, financial power, political power, spiritual power, personal power, organizational power (surely there are more, but you get the idea). The common thread in power is that the mere possession of it means someone else doesn’t possess it.
A very famous line from President Abraham Lincoln summed it up: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Having power can bring someone tremendous joy or sorrow, discredit or praise, lasting distinction or eternal shame. Names like Marcus Aurelius and his nephew, Nero, and George Washington and one of his favorite generals, Benedict Arnold, all show us the yin and yang of power. All the good people who had power always made sure its use was going to affect their lives as much if not more than those of others. In our world, we would call it leading from the front.
As America was trying to figure out how to handle the annexation of Texas, Senator Daniel Webster was asked if he thought allowing some of the political executives the power to make the needed appointments was a good idea, as they were good people with good intentions. Webster thought not. He said, “Good motives may always be assumed, as bad motives may always be imputed. Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of power; but they cannot justify it …. Human beings, we may be assured, will generally exercise power when they can get it; and they will exercise it most undoubtedly, in popular governments, under pretenses of public safety or high public interest. It may be very possible that good intentions do really sometimes exist when constitutional restraints are disregarded.”
Webster understood power; he was clear that we can conjure up and sincerely hold all kinds of albeit very good reasons to yield power. He continued, “Their notion of the public interest is apt to be quite closely connected with their own exercise of authority. They may not, indeed, always understand their own motives. The love of power may sink too deep in their own hearts even for their own scrutiny and may pass with themselves for mere patriotism and benevolence.”
Webster, as scholars have pointed out, understood that often the use of power itself was in and of itself a sign of malevolence, that the very desire to force others to do what you want them to do—irrespective of what they want—is unjust.
Recently, a group of very well-meaning very good folks and self-described leaders attending the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program, acknowledging their considerable influence, which is a form of power, decided to reach out to more folks of influence and power and ask that they help create new laws and requirements that would affect two very specific groups of people: low-income, first-time home buyers and veterans. The requirement was specifically that all Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)-secured loans for new single-family residential construction be restricted to homes with sprinklers.
The motive, which is sincere and honest, was stated, “Our Request is based on the multiple benefits related to improving the health and safety of emergency responders and the community.” Identified were firefighter exposure to possible cancer from toxins emanating from combustion, reduction of life hazard to occupants, and limiting high-risk fire suppression operations.
The logic is connected to FHA and VA conditions that require radon, lead, and asbestos removal and testing in existing home purchases. The logic also connected the loans to taxes: “The loan guarantees in question are funded by taxpayers.” The call to action was, “We are calling on the leadership of the nation’s fire and emergency services to step forward to reduce the risk to emergency response personnel and their families, ensure that our communities are safe from fire and that the resources dedicated to ensuring community health and safety are judiciously and safely applied.”
Residential sprinklers are an excellent motive for the preservation of life. We fully support and want every home in America to be sprinklered. We desperately want safer home and work environments for all Americans, firefighters for us foremost. But how we serve and how we yield our power and influence matter.
The EFO class is to be commended for its initiative. The issue is not the value of sprinklers—that is not a question. The issue is much more complex: One issue is that the folks affected are first struggling to qualify, in many cases. For a clear example, look up recent Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Single Family Housing Policy Handbook 4000.1 Mortgagee Letter (ML) 2019-05, which eliminates the 10-year protection plan requirements because of its disqualifying effects. Further, those veterans accessing “taxpayer money” earned it, and they pay it all back with interest.
Perhaps we should try to be an example. Perhaps the class could propose to those they contacted that legislation be crafted that all taxpayer-funded EFO programs require candidates to reside in homes with residential sprinklers. Perhaps it could be proposed that all current and former EFO designations be contingent on the condition of residential sprinklers and maybe all EFO certificates be contingent on proof of efforts by the candidates in their communities to promote residential sprinklers. Perhaps because it is taxpayer money used to attend the EFO Program, it should be like a loan paid back over time by the attendees. We should consider the goose and the gander.
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