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The Guardian/UK

Disasters in the Making

California's wildfire preparedness reflects how America's political system privileges the needs and interests of the rich over those of the poor.

Matthew Yglesias

Horrible as the disaster currently unfolding as southern California may be, and as striking the parallel images of huddled masses of refugees finding shelter in a huge stadium, the wildfires have surprisingly little in common with Hurricane Katrina in terms of the efficacy of the disaster response. To some, this merely seems to confirm their initial worst suspicions about the roots of the hurricane fiasco: that George Bush, as Kanye West put it at the time, doesn't care about black people.After all, San Diego County, the main locus of the wildfire disaster, is predominantly white, somewhat below average in its poverty rate, and inhabited by more than its fair share of rich people. New Orleans, by contrast, despite its handful of picturesque neighborhoods, was mostly black and suffered from a sky-high 28% poverty rate.

The Washington Post editorial page, always happy to leap to the defense of powers that be, has been quick to shut such talk down, dismissing it as simplistic. Their alternative explanation, however, that "Californians have something that Louisianans, in particular those in New Orleans, didn't have when they needed it most: leadership, in this case from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the San Diego mayor on down." In other words: New Orleans suffered from bad state and local elected officials, whereas San Diego had good ones. Given that San Diego has a Republican mayor and a Republican governor, whereas New Orleans had a Democratic mayor and a Democratic governor, this particular line seems curiously well-designed to serve as a post facto rehabilitation of the GOP's reputation after Katrina did so much to damage - deservedly - the conservative brand.

In reality, it's vague talk of "leadership" as making the difference that's simplistic. Leadership counts, of course, but when disaster strikes it tends to be too late for leaders to have the biggest possible impact. The real difference, as UCLA public policy professor Amy Zegart points out comes in terms of prevention and preparedness. State, local and federal officials in California had spent time and money over the years - dating back to before any current officeholders took their current jobs - devising smart strategies for disaster response, whereas for years all levels of the government had failed to adequately prepare for massive hurricane-related flooding in New Orleans.

This reflects, in part, a difference in the nature of the disasters, but it also illustrates an important truth about our politics - the system is much more attentive to the needs and interests of prosperous people than to the needs of the poor. Programmes such as Medicare, Medicaid and social security, which constitute a majority of the government's spending, have an important redistributive component and ensure that a strong government is in the interests of downscale Americans. But more banal public services up and down the line are provided with more competence, generosity, interest and attention to the needs of richer people.

Because the American system is highly decentralized, poor towns and cities have worse libraries, worse schools, worse police departments and worse of just about every public service under the sun than do rich ones. Similarly, poor states generally have fewer services and weaker infrastructure than do rich ones. This even though it's the poorer places that need the services more. And even within jurisdictions, the services tend to flow to where the political clout is, and that, in turn, is usually where the money is. It's striking to walk through Washington or indeed almost any American city and note that the quality of the sidewalks on a given block has a clear correlation with its socioeconomic status. Republicans are willing to go to the mat to protect private insurance companies from the threat of S-Chip expansion, but many Democrats can't work up the gumption to change a tax loophole that leaves billionaire hedge fund managers paying a lower rate than you or I.

Disaster preparedness is no different. New Orleans was a poor city, and it's no coincidence that the richer people lived on the higher land less vulnerable to flooding. San Diego, a more prosperous area, benefits not from favorable treatment after disaster strikes, but before the worst comes to pass - during the planning and preparedness phases of disaster response - leading to the disparate outcomes you can see on television, disparities that are not so much caused by the deeper inequities in American life as are reflective of them.

Matthew Yglesias is staff writer at the American Prospect and author of an eponymous blog. His writing has also appeared in Foreign Policy, Slate and the New York Times Magazine.

© 2007 The Guardian

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