What we are witnessing in New Orleans is nothing less than the abject failure of government at the one task it is supposed to do, deal with problems too big for private enterprise to handle. We pay taxes, we follow rules, and get things that we normally would not do for ourselves in return. It is a social contract, and in the wake of hurricane Katrina, it was a worthless piece of paper.
When you need to drive to the capital of the next state, you probably don't want to build a road to get there, not that you have the skills, time or money to do it anyway. When the invading hordes of Oceania or Eurasia or whatever we are supposed to hate this week come calling, the government defends us, because we can't do much against a tank, much less a column of them. This is the contract, we pay a little, and get the things we won't or can't do ourselves.
Now, to do this, you have to plan, prepare, and make ready for things that may or may not happen. If tomorrow we suddenly make peace with Oceania, it would probably have been wise to fortify the borders with Eurasia before we swapped sides. If there is an earthquake, it is a good idea to prepare teams of people in advance on how to deal with it. Stockpiling food, water, heavy equipment and communications gear is also a good thing, and because much of it will probably rot before it gets used, it isn't a sane thing for any individual to do.
Governments excel at this kind of thing, they can put resources into maybes and ifs, and because you and I don't, it works out. The problem surfaces when the government decides to single handedly violate the contract, and not give you what you pay for. If the government is particularly underhanded, there are hundreds of ways it can meet the letter of the social contract without meeting the spirit of it.
Here is the gamble that they take, any single problem has infinitesimally small odds of occurring in most places, so it may take decades for any contract violations to be noticed, and by that time, those to blame are long gone. Of late, our government has been erring on this side of the equation in an increasingly blatant manner, and covering it up.
The point of the planning is to do things that don't necessarily make direct or short term sense, or sometimes ever pay off at all, but when they are needed, there is no substitute. There is waste and overkill, but that is exactly the point. You could argue that having 10,000 nuclear missiles is complete nonsense, how many were actually used over the last 50 or so years? Why did we bother? Why do we have tanks, and why do we train soldiers to kill? What are the odds of someone actually threatening us?
The short answer is pretty damn small, but the consequences of us not having those tanks and nukes when Oceania comes calling is pretty high. Same for disaster relief. As I write this, there are tens of thousands of people trapped in an increasingly lawless city. Relief efforts are incompetent, underwhelming, and chaotic, if they are there at all. People know where the victims are and how to help them, but for some reason, no one is. This is what I mean by abject governmental failure.
Why did this happen? No, not trucks, palates of water, or the government not allowing relief helicopters to fly when our president went sight-seeing, that is all effects, not the root of the problem. The roots go much deeper, and are a lot more nebulous by design. Before we get into that, as of Sunday morning, a week later, let's look at what we know.
First, the storm was known about days before it happened. Unlike the devastation in Indonesia, we saw this one coming a long way away, and were more than able to tell everyone who cared to listen to get out of the area. Most did. Many could not.
The next thing was the effects of the hurricane were predicted time and time again, and if you read things like this and dozens of other scientific views of the situation, it becomes very clear that it was not an obscure problem. There was enough hard science before, and the devastation sadly showed that the warnings were dead on accurate, no one can honestly say this was not predicted. Specifically. Repeatedly.
Then there were the barriers put up to defend against this. As I was saying, the government is there to defend against things we can't reasonably do ourselves, and they used to try and do the right thing for the right reason. Some people have to make tough decisions, partly economic, partly human, partly scientific, to deal with more scenarios than you and I can contemplate. In this case, the city was designed to hold back a category there storm, anything more powerful had plans to deal with the damage afterwards.
There are the general preparedness plans, when the proverbial 'bad things' happen, people get hurt. Towns get burned, flooded, flattened or covered with locusts, and people get injured or killed also. You have to deal with each situation individually, but they tend to need many of the same things, food, water, medicine, shelter, electricity and sometimes a hand to hold. This is why stockpiles are so damn important, and why if they have to go to waste, it is probably money well spent.
In summary, you have a problem that was known in advance, a scenario that was foreseen for years if not decades, defenses in place, and mechanisms for coping at the ready. It sounds good enough on paper, but why are there people starving to death a week later in a country that anyone can drive across in 3 days? We can set up a tent city in Indonesia in 24 hours, but we can't send bottled water to a capital city in a week. What went wrong?
To start out, one of the biggest culprits is privatization. No, I am not bitching about the time honored tradition of nepotism and political cronyism, even if it becoming more flagrant and widespread by the day, but just the simple idea behind it. It is reason number one.
The point of privatization is the beloved free enterprise, something I am a wholehearted supporter and practitioner of, but is not the right tool for this job. For the same reason that communism will never work on anything but a small scale outpost, here and there, complete capitalism won't work either. The reason for this is human nature.
We people don't like to plan very far out, and there are enough parables from the time of Aesop on to drive the point home. We can see things coming with ease, but stand there like a deer in the headlights as they mow us down. Ask any smoker if he or she knows that it will probably kill him, and how many won't look you in the eye and say they know? How many people plan properly for retirement? How many public companies look to the current quarter's numbers to placate shareholders at the cost of long term viability? You can save money by outsourcing you phone support, a cost center, to a low quality supplier, but will people buy your product next time if they have a bad experience?
That in a nutshell is why we need governments who will occasionally waste money in our name. They play the odds that no rational person on their own would, and we all benefit as a group. If you throw that to the whims of the free market, for the same reason that they won't plan out more than a year, they won't do what it takes to protect you.
When the government privatizes the disaster planning, abatement and relief efforts, it puts your life in the hands of the lowest bidder. If the goal of privatization is to save money, that is an easily achievable goal. Imagine that there are three companies bidding to plan and build a levee for the government. One has a low cost bid that should be adequate, one has a much more expensive and sounder plan, the last has a super-ultra levee that costs more than twice the lowest bid, and will take longer to build.
The low bid obviously wins because cost is the name of the game. If your house is sitting in the shadow of that levee, which one would you want built? Would you agree that the community sitting downstream would be well advised to pay an extra $100 a year in taxes over the next 20 years for the super-ultra levee?
Now, imagine if the low bid levee costs $10 million to build, and the expensive one costs $50. The odds of the cheap one being breached are once in 50 years, not a bad number if I do say so myself. Now imagine that the odds of the bigger one are one in 500 years. To take a charitable number for Katrina, there was about $100 billion in damage, or at least that is the number floating around now, something that probably does not take national economic impact into account.
So a cheap levee costs about $200,000 a year and prevents 10,000 times its cost in damage. The big levee costs $1 million a year and prevents that same cost over a much longer period. The payback of the bigger levee is immeasurably better, but under privatization, it will never be built. This is the system being co-opted for the profit of a few at the expense of many, exactly what it is not supposed to do, much less be used for.
The second failure is what was built, not how the bidding was done, and I don't consider it a real problem. The city was designed with certain protections, and they were inadequate. People took a guess at what the problems might be, what the solutions were, and the cost. In hindsight, they were wrong, but without detailed knowledge of the planning process, you can't say it was the wrong decision at the time.
The reason for this is you have to draw the line somewhere, and say that up to point A we prevent a problem, at point B we deal with the consequences, and at C, well we can't do anything. The problem is that for New Orleans, A was set and worked well for what it was designed to do. When it came to B, the next step was glaringly absent. That is failure two.
The help just did not come, and when it finally came, it was at a pace that most glaciers would criticize as abnormally slow, and was inadequate and disorganized. The problem here is mainly command and control. I have no idea why FEMA was grossly unprepared and seemingly more interested in interviews than rescues, but there were a lot of people congratulating each other in Washington, DC while people were dying in pools of their own feces.
Senators, presidents and just about everyone not involved directly were proclaiming their untiring devotion to fixing the problem, after dinner of course, while cops were being shot in the street, and rats dining on the corpses of innocent victims. This is the abject failure of government. There were supplies, but they were not being used or distributed.
To point a finger at someone, the head of FEMA, and possibly the former head if warranted, should be brought up on charges for this. If they were appointed for political reasons without the background to do the job, the person who put them there should be similarly brought up. The government has responsibilities, and when those are not met, the people responsible should not get a raise and a cushy private sector job, they should get a jail cell.
The government is starting to institute reforms like this for public companies, but there is no chance they will subject themselves to similar levels of scrutiny. Both sides have far too many skeletons in the closet to even intone that they might be interested in such things, responsibility is for the other people. Meanwhile the bodies of their victims line a lawless abandoned and burning city.
The other problem with FEMA is communications, or lack thereof. As the bloggers still left in the city are showing with painful clarity, there is chaos. The relief planners made a set of assumptions based on technology and availability of resources. Cell phones work pretty damn well in most situations, and when they don't, plan B is high tech radios. Batteries last for a day or more, enough time for just about anyone to drive half way across the country to help out and bring relief. Plenty of time, right?
Well, as we can now say with perfect accuracy, no. And to make matters worse, when one step up the planning chain fails to materialize, you get a situation where nothing can be done, it is worse than having no one to help, you have the helpers contributing to the problem. Tech is fine to a point, then it falls over completely.
Part of the problem is the tech was most likely oversold. Time and time again, private enterprise will promise anything, and hope they are long gone before anyone notices where they cut corners. In the computer industry, almost any CxO will tell you how they were promised the moon with a new piece of hardware, software or services, and only a year or two and countless dollars into the project did they realize it wasn't going to work.
If you find this out in a year, you can roll back the old way, possibly call a lawyer for vengeance, and generally make things right. If you are sitting in a dark stadium surround by the dead and dying, and have no one to call, there is precious little you can do. Retribution may punish those responsible, but it won't bring back dead babies.
That is the difference between the governmental way and the private system, and the difference between life and money. Money is something that capitalism is really good at, and the free market is really good at optimizing for it, but the government by and large sucks at this. They are pretty good at preserving life, sometimes above and beyond rational reasons to do so, something private enterprise is very bad at.
Now, if it is your life that is hanging in the balance, which would you want backing you? This is one of the reasons that the military specs things out in ways that make people scratch their heads and question the sanity of anyone involved. When you have a wounded soldier in the back of your shot up Hummer, overbuilding suddenly makes a lot of sense, and you are probably very glad that it didn't stop long after a normal car would have expired.
On a micro level, the policies that lead to people coming home alive are wasteful, stupid and economically insane. Free enterprise would never entertain this as an option, much less seriously consider it. Governments make it a priority. Currency is a fungible asset, for the most part, if someone cheats you, you go to court, get your money back, and move on. Life is not as fungible. If you die, and they rectify the problem that caused your death, you are still quite dead.
Governments are tasked with this, equipped to deal with it, and are expected to do so even if the cost outweighs the benefits, because you can't undo a dead body. Now, with the rampant privatization of FEMA, if you do a little searching, you will see a few choice quotes on the subject from the last few appointees, they took the agency from what it should be doing to what it should not be doing. They undoubtedly saved money doing so, but several orders of magnitude less than the cost of Katrina clean up. Is this money well spent?
While I have no evidence, I would be shocked if politically connected people did not make a lot of money from this change. It was, is, and always will be the wrong way to handle this type of problem. It is the wrong tool for the job, but it does save money short term. Tell that to the people in the convention center who watched their mothers die beside them.
So, again, why did this happen? Why the rush to privatize? Philosophy and priorities to start with, and to a lesser extent, culture. The current administration, and his immediate predecessors, see the capitalist system as the only way to deal with any problem. For the rest of this paper, I will assume no wrongdoing on their parts, no kickbacks or nepotism, just an honest opinion and philosophical difference with the way things used to be done.
First came the diversion of resources. We are at war, statements of 'mission accomplished' not withstanding, and it is a very expensive and draining war, with no end in sight. The war is being fought by two main groups, the regular military and the National Guard. The former should be doing the fighting, the latter is doing more than they should.
A large percentage of the National Guard, an organization tasked with dealing with situations like Katrina, is overseas. More importantly, their equipment, designated to be used in disasters like the current one, is with them. The soldiers that remain are ill equipped to handle problems, much less ones across areas the size of England. Add in that their ranks are depleted and there is a fairly large disincentive for new recruits to join, and you have a painfully thin line of defense.
Funds have gone with the equipment, there is little political will to plan for an eventuality that may not happen for decades while your voter's children are getting shot at. Again, the newspapers are filled with fund diversions and reappropriations, usually for the Iraq war, but other reasons pop up now and again. This is a failure of government to protect it's citizens.
Then come a more troubling and vastly more nebulous problem. The current administration seems to have an absolute and unshakable belief that the free market will solve all problems. I agree, and with some limits, share that opinion. Where I draw the line is where government should step in and do the things that do not make direct economic sense.
Highways between small cities, airports and the previously mentioned nuclear missiles are not something that any citizen or company would probably build. Electricity to rural areas is another good example, same with phones to people living in rural North Dakota. Give me a business case for running a power line 20 miles to a single customer. Government mandates that it be done, at substantial cost to the entire user base, flying in the face of free markets.
The up side to all this is that if you go somewhere, or want to build a factory, you can be fairly confident that you will have power, water and a phone if you desire. Free markets would not lay the groundwork for this to happen, and we most likely would not be nearly as efficient an economic machine as we are now. Strangely, the very thing that unbridled capitalism will not do ends up benefiting its practitioners disproportionately.
When you apply the same thinking to disaster planning and relief, you end up with body bags and grieving people. What is the economic benefit for a company to save the dying in New Orleans? They can't pay, if they had money, they probably would have been able to heed the evacuation call. Saving the people, caring for them, providing shelter, and long term rebuilding is a large cost, and that cost has absolutely zero benefit to any capitalistic entity not getting paid to do it.
If you base your disaster planning on saving of money rather than the saving of lives, you end up with the potential for a New Orleans. What are the odds? Fairly low. What is the savings? Fairly high. What is the cost for abject failure? Barely calculable, and a double digit percentage of the countries GDP.
Now, the current administration is all for privatization and calculated savings. This is a perfectly valid philosophy on running a government, and one with potentially large paybacks. The problem is that the price of failure is absurdly high, if you don't play your cards perfectly right, the whole process will unravel.
That is what we are seeing today. The government was tasked with planning long term, and doing the right thing for the right reason, not for the most savings. The people of the country elected the current set of leaders knowing that they would carry out this plan. The people spoke, the leaders acted, and there are thousands of dead.
Can you blame the President? In a word, absolutely. The government was tasked with protecting citizens, and providing for them when the protections fail. Neither was done, in a spectacular fashion. The decisions that lead up to the disaster and tragedy were informed choices, flood control money was diverted to Iraq, contracts were handed out where it was done in house before. Wetlands were built on in places that would have lowered the storm surge for New Orleans, and other economic choices were made.
In a few weeks, there will be a body count for those choices. The current spin and finger pointing has already begun, even before the dying has stopped. Politicians are congratulating each other for jobs well done, and going back to their fishbowls to memorize pithy sound bites for the next interview. Tens of thousands have lost everything, have no options, and are afraid.
As is par for the course, the government promised quick action. It did not come. As of this writing, it still has not come. I personally find it impossible to imagine how I could have driven down the Mississippi river, from near its beginning a mere six blocks from my house, to the far southern reaches and back twice or more in this time. Our government can't get buses to the area less than a quarter of that distance.
This is abject failure on a planning, funding, operational and human level, and there is no recourse. The dead will stay that way, destroyed buildings will still be rubble, and the spirit of the survivors is just as dead. And still there seems to be no one pointing the finger at where it should be pointed, the philosophy of cost savings.
The buck stops at the desk of the president, he made he decisions to move financial resources around long before this happened. He made the decision to appoint the heads of agencies that flat out failed miserably. It was his vision that was instituted by his appointees, and it has been shown to be wrong. It is now time for him to stand up and take the blame like a man.
While the rescue efforts are underway, this is not a time for pats on the back, it is a time for change. The failed new way must go, the old ways must make at least a partial return. Those who championed the mechanisms to cope with this disaster should stand up and reap what they sowed, and their successors should take the lessons learned to heart. If they are allowed to ride this out on a tornado of spin, obfuscation and blame, things will only get worse.
Sadly, the current system is far too entrenched, and both sides have far to much to gain from the status quo. The current political system is based around money and lies, who can spend the money, and who can lie the most without getting caught. They tend to go hand in hand, from the right's calling everyone and their brother unpatriotic commies to the left's race-baiting. They both push the truth past credibility into slightly plausible deniability, and the money rolls in.
That money is what it takes to get people elected, and then reelected. There are vast machines in place to get the money and slide it to the most effective places, minus a large cut. When was the last time you saw Karl Rove or James Carville in a smoke belching car with rust spots? I think their taste is more 7-series BMW or something with a driver.
With the fallout and inevitable reconstruction following Katrina, we are assured of two things, politicians of all stripes will go out of their way to shed crocodile tears about the tragedy from their ivory towers, and then will congratulate each other on the wonderful, tireless job their side did. People are still dying.
The down sides will be spun in such a believable way that the very victims of this tragedy will most likely question how they did wrong. Less than a week after Katrina, the headlines are already talking about how the White House is blaming the local authorities, and as soon as there is time for the people on the ground to catch their breath, you know they will spit it right back. It has already begun, and the politicians are already pulling blankets from the injured to cover their own asses.
The other thing is that money is going to be thrown at this problem, or at least promised to be thrown at the problem in droves. There are going to be a lot of people making a lot of money from this, and if the past is any indication, the victims will get a pittance in the short term, and then be forgotten when the latest political shiny thing is dangled in front of the politicos.
What do I mean? Lets take a tragedy local to me with a lot of parallels, the shooting at Red Lake. You had an extremely impoverished group of people who were devastated by a tragedy. It made national, probably international news. Politicians flocked in for a photo op, donations were promised, rebuilding funds and help for the needy was said to be imminent. All would be made right.
Now, a year later, almost all of the promised funds vanished in one bureaucratic pit or another, and the people who need the funding got almost nothing. They have no voice of their own unless the spotlight is on them, and when it goes off, the promises made are shown to be worth exactly the hot air they were made with.
Anyone who thinks New Orleans will be any different is borderline delusional. Promises of rebuilding will be made, large contracts to politically connected individuals will be handed out. Smaller contracts to less connected individuals will be handed out, but suddenly defunded when no one is looking. It is the way the game is played, and the people who need help the most have the least reasons for politicians to help them. They don't vote, they don't pay taxes, and they are somewhat unpalatable to middle America.
People building new casinos on the waterfront tend to pay more taxes, contribute a lot to the reelection campaigns, and look pretty in a suit. These are the people that need help, right? If you don't, they might give their kickbacks to another campaign. Meanwhile, the poor keep dying, neglected.
So, what can be done? First, do place blame, but back it up. No rhetoric, not spin, just facts. Was FEMA charged with helping these people? Yes/No. Did they? Yes/No. Keep it going. When you find those who did wrong, or sent dump trucks of money to their friends, put them in jail. The friends who took said money and did not deliver the services they should have, put them in jail also. The politicians who appointed the failures, ditto.
Next up, realize that this is an abject, total and catastrophic failure, but it is a systemic one. There is not any single rule that needs to be changed, not a single piece of red tape that got in the way, it s the inherent design of an overly privatized system. No, little communist anarchy fans should not rejoice, I am not calling for a workers paradise, far from it, but I recognize that there are things that we need to have done that capitalism is simply not the answer for. If asked, I don't think there are many people out there who would take an army over a 33% tax cut, on an individual basis.
The system as it stands is badly broken, and the people who are tasked with fixing it have incentive to keep the status quo. No, more blatant than that, they need the system as it stands to keep them in power, even if they are not getting rich from it directly.
Lastly, there must be the political will to keep the investigations going even once the spotlight is off. Anyone in the current government knows that there is danger only as long as people are looking. Once they are not, you make a deal that says you promise not to do it again, and go out and do it again. These are the people that first must be hunted down, and then a culture of punishing the guilty must be created and maintained. The fact that your daddy wrote a lot of zeroes at a fundraiser should no longer be a prerequisite to a chushy job and a get out of jail free ticket.
So, there are steps that must be taken in the wake of the Katrina tragedy, and the immediate steps are only window dressing, even if they are desperately needed and will save lives. Unless we look at the systemic problems, and fix them, they will be repeated again and again. We have a governmental culture that rewards money over common sense and common good, and that is exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do.
There has to be a realization that the government should and does play by different rules than the corner convenience store, and it is not a bad thing. It is meant to fill in the gaps where the very system we revere can not, does not and will not meet our needs. If those changes are not made, we will see repeats of Katrina, not just on natural disasters, but on things like retirement, health care, and people's rights.
This abject governmental failure was foreseen, forewarned, and planned for. It still happened for blatantly obvious reasons, mostly due to the people running government and their need to keep the system intact. It is up to the people to demand that it will never happen again, start demanding, you know what to ask for.
Copyright 2005 The Inquirer