|09-10-2005, 10:35 PM||#1|
Ring of Famer
Join Date: Jan 2004
The shaming of America
The shaming of America
Sep 8th 2005
From The Economist print edition
Hurricane Katrina has exposed both personal and structural weaknesses in America's government
Even America's many enemies around the world tend to accord it respect. It might be arrogant, overbearing and insensitive—but, by God, it can get things done.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the world's view of America has changed. The disaster has exposed some shocking truths about the place: the bitterness of its sharp racial divide, the abandonment of the dispossessed, the weakness of critical infrastructure. But the most astonishing and most shaming revelation has been of its government's failure to bring succour to its people at their time of greatest need.
The finger-pointing is already under way, with the federal government blaming local government and local government blaming the feds. But if America is to avoid future catastrophes it needs to do more than bicker. It needs to learn the right lessons from this fortnight's debacle.
Blame for the shame
Natural disasters on this scale inevitably bring chaos and suffering. Katrina wreaked havoc over an area the size of Britain. And even the best-laid hurricane plans cannot deal with the quirks of human nature. People who live in areas prone to hurricanes tend to become blasé about storm warnings. This insouciance is native to New Orleans, where a lethal local cocktail is called The Hurricane. But none of that excuses government's failure.
Local government must shoulder some of the blame. The authorities in Louisiana have a reputation for confusion, inefficiency and worse. Different authorities are responsible for different levees, for example, and several close associates of the former mayor were recently indicted for corruption. Local incompetence exacerbated the disaster: in Orleans Parish, for instance, where 60,000 households do not own a car, hundreds of city buses which might have shipped out stranded people were left to be swamped by the rising waters.
Still, Washington is mostly at fault. The responsibility for mobilising the response to a disaster lies squarely with the federal government. And the responsibility for galvanising the federal government lies squarely with the president.
The administration's initial response recalled Donald Rumsfeld's reaction to the anarchy in Iraq: stuff happens. George Bush was listless and confused. Dick Cheney, the vice-president, remained on holiday in Wyoming. Condoleezza Rice, the highest ranking black in the country, saw a Broadway show, “Spamalot”, while New Orleans's poor looked out at the floodwaters. Mr Bush then added disingenuity to leaden-footedness, declaring that nobody had anticipated the breaching of the levees—even though people have been worrying about the possibility for years and an official report published in 2001 warned of impending disaster.
Mr Bush's personal weakness is shaming; but the structural failures in government that Katrina has revealed are perhaps more worrying. After September 11th Mr Bush poured billions into creating the Department of Homeland Security, but the department has flunked its first big test. It is a bureaucratic monstrosity that includes organisations as different as the Coast Guard and the immigration authorities and spends most of its energies in perpetual reorganisation. The department's focus on fighting terrorism has also distracted attention from coping with natural disasters, reducing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from a cabinet-level agency into a neglected stepchild. The best illustration of this is its boss: Michael Brown spent nine years at the Arabian Horse Association, before finally being eased out and joining FEMA as general counsel, brought in by its previous head, his college room-mate.
The second structural problem is Washington's addiction to pork-barrel spending. The anti-war left is keen to blame the Iraq war for depleting government's resources. The real problem, however, is not a lack of resources—Mr Bush has increased discretionary spending faster than any president since Lyndon Johnson—but the way they are allocated. The funding for New Orleans's levees, which has fallen by nearly half over the past four years, started dropping in 2001—before the Iraq war, but after Bob Livingston, a Louisiana congressman and erstwhile chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, left politics under a cloud. The recent transport bill contains some $24 billion-worth of pure pork—including $231m for a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. Although this sort of thing is endemic in Washington, it has got far worse since the Republicans took over both the White House and Congress.
Out of the depths
The polls suggest that the majority of people don't hold Mr Bush personally responsible for the bungling. Things are slowly improving on the ground. The federal government is pouring resources into the region, and ordinary Americans are opening their wallets to charities and their homes to refugees. But if Mr Bush is to rise to this occasion he needs to do more than take charge. He needs to make sure that America is better prepared for future calamities. This means rejigging his second-term agenda: downplaying favourite issues like Social Security reform and fixing the flaws in America's government that Katrina has exposed.
The most urgent task is to address the mess that is the Department of Homeland Security. He should upgrade FEMA and re-examine the wisdom of bundling disaster relief with terrorism prevention. He needs to confront the corrupt legislative culture in Washington: the job of the president is to look to the national interest rather than to reward his friends. If he managed to persuade Congress to regurgitate the pork in the transport bill, that would go a long way towards paying for rebuilding the levees. And he needs to start wielding his red pencil and exercising his right to veto bad legislation.
If Mr Bush addresses America's failings with the same vigour that he addressed Islamic terrorism in the wake of September 11th, he has a chance of reinvigorating his presidency and restoring respect in his country; if he doesn't, he will go the way of his father, limping wounded into retirement.
Copyright © 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.
|09-11-2005, 11:46 AM||#3|
Join Date: Dec 2003
Location: The Styxx, D.C.
Homeland security is an agency for fat cats with extensive military training. They only look for GS12s and up.
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