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Praise Freedom and Pass the Buck

July 01, 1994|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Get this: I've been denied earthquake assistance on the grounds that it would interfere with freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

No kidding. The government told me so. Here's exactly what the May 21, 1994, letter from the Small Business Administration says:

"The applicant's main activity is not eligible for assistance under the economic injury disaster loan program. Concerns engaged in the creation, origination, expression, dissemination, preparation or distribution of ideas, values, thoughts, opinions, or similar intellectual property, are not eligible for Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) assistance. Such assistance is barred by federal regulation in order to avoid government interference, or the appearance of interference, with the constitutionally protected freedom of speech and press."

*

A nice guy I spoke to at the SBA in Sacramento explained it more succinctly: "It's strange, but because you traffic in ideas, we can't help you."

I've often heard that governments are threatened by ideas. Taxation without representation was a potent one. So is freedom. I had two reactions to the SBA decision: I found it flattering that the U.S. government would describe my kind of hack journalism "trafficking in ideas." And I wondered--just what ideas I had been trafficking in? Hmmm. . . . Well, if there is a vague idealistic purpose to my writing, it has something to do with exposing absurdity, encouraging kindness and making snide remarks about Madonna.

That was it! Had Madonna dumped the NBA for someone at the SBA? Nah. The name alone would repel her. I thought some more. Yes, well, the government would have a great fear of someone bent on exposing absurdity.

The nice guy in Sacramento, however, assured me that the SBA decision was nothing personal--just part of the Byzantine minutia of constitutional interpretation, more of the stuff that helps this great, free country remain great and free. What it comes down to, really, is that the government has recognized me as one-man media organization. In other words, if Uncle Sam helps me out, he's meddling with the free media (and, by implication, free speech).

So, in the interest of free speech, I don't get any free bucks.

*

Understand, please, that this is no shock. I expected nothing, given my already peculiar post-quake dealings. (Brace yourself, Uncle Sam, I'm about to expose absurdity!) Here's what happened. My Sherman Oaks apartment building was well fractured by the Little Big One. All occupants except me and an elderly neighbor deserted within a week. I wanted to move, too, in those first few days but couldn't afford it.

"Go to FEMA," one of my neighbors told me. "They're paying my moving expenses!"

Wow. That sounded pretty good. She qualified for a grant, she said, because a Federal Emergency Management Agency inspector deemed her apartment uninhabitable. This was encouraging--her cubicle was hardly more cracked than mine. Still, I figured that a whole hell of a lot of people needed relocation money worse than I did. I had no stove or hot water for weeks, and a ceiling as scarred as Frankenstein's forehead, but I'd get by. Let the extremely needy get the immediate money. Besides, President Clinton's noble words of post-quake comfort echoed in my head, something about don't cheat the federal government. So inspiring.

Eventually, I phoned FEMA to ask for a grant (a grand or two) to cover the period (about one month) when I was unable to work because of displacement and cleanup. My first FEMA conversation, which could have been written by Joseph Heller, went about like this:

"You have to apply for a small business loan."

"But I'm not a small business. I'm a free-lance writer. And I never borrow money."

"I know, but if you want a grant, you have to apply for an SBA loan."

"But I don't want an SBA loan. I'm not a small business."

"I know. But you'll get turned down for an SBA loan, then you qualify for a grant!"

"Why is that?"

"That's just how it works."

You can't argue with statements like that, so I applied for an SBA loan. At roughly the same time, a FEMA inspector came to my sorry hovel, glanced around for about three minutes and determined that it was one spiffy place to live. Weeks passed. I phoned FEMA again, but FEMA told me to call the SBA. When I phoned the SBA, I had to explain my situation to three or four more people. A few days later, the SBA asked in a letter for my monthly profit-loss statements, and liability information for employees. I phoned the SBA again.

"I can't fill out these forms because I'm not a small business," I said. "My only employees are my hands and investigatory senses."

"If you're not a small business, then why did you apply for an SBA loan?"

"Because FEMA told me to."

After much clucking with supervisors, I was finally advised to voluntarily withdraw my SBA application.

"That way," the SBA person said, "you can qualify for a grant."

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