A FEW MORE THOUGHTS ABOUT KATRINA.
First, on the matter of leadership. Lance Mannion's excellent rant (It's not political; it's moral), takes dead aim at the "cover-your-ass" mentality of people who try to shield the incompetent from criticism during times of crisis by saying "now is not the time to play politics." The flip side of the coin comes from Fred Wilson. No Bushie is Fred, but he refrains from criticizing the administration despite his anger because he doesn't know enough about the disaster relief process to say whether or not there has been a failure of leadership. It's a sober, reasoned response, but it is misconceived.
More than any other kind of event, a crisis of the type brought on by Hurricane Katrina it a primary and illustrative test of presidential leadership. In an interstate natural disaster the President is the only person in America with the requisite legal authority to respond. He is the only person with direct control over the requisite resources and government departments--FEMA, the departments of defense and transportation, etc. As commander in chief he is the only person in a position to cut across agencies and through red tape demanding response here, freeing up resources there. These moments are the ones that show us what kind of leadership qualities the President possesses, not those moments when the President flies back into Washington in the middle of the night to fire the latest canon shot in a culture war by signing a bill. That's the difference between leadership and photo op, a difference that Karl Rove has tried to obscure for the past five years.
In times of crises one never gets a sense that George Bush is in a situation war room, fully abreast of every fact, riding herd over departmental underlings to make sure resources are rushed into service. In fact, the picture that emerged from Katrina is one of a lazy, hands-off president--briefly flying over the disaster scene on his way back from a month-long vacation while people drowned below him, taking charge of the situation only five days later after being shamed into action by TV news reporters. Congratulating "Brownie" (FEMA director Mike Brown) on a job well done while ad hoc rescue workers pinned ID notes to dead bodies that were left to the rats. It's like something out of Dickens--not just the squalor, but the arrogant indifference.
It's easy for me to criticize George Bush as a lazy, inept, ideologue who cares about and understands only the needs and interests of white, Christian, rich, financial professionals from the South (his is a government by Tom Hicks, for Tom Hicks, and of Tom Hicks). I have hated the guy since he was elected and I think his presidency should be declared a national disaster. But even I was surprised at just how brutally inept was Bush's leadership in this crisis.
Worse, no natural disaster scenario was better understood or modeled than the impact of a destructive hurricane on New Orleans. In a five part series in 2002 the New Orleans Times-Picayune described exactly what could be expected with stunning accuracy it turns out--200,000 refugees, minimal safety, thousands trapped in their homes, little food or fresh water for several days.
Why was FEMA unprepared to respond to such a well-understood scenario? To hear Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff tell it, FEMA's plans only envisioned a little water slopping over the levees, not the levees actually breaking. If that's true a bunch of heads ought to roll. Common sense, never mind hydrology, suggests a levee break was hardly unimaginable. If it's not true, then its just more CYA bullshit.
And worse, if this is how FEMA responds to one of the best-modeled disasters in human history, what the hell is it going to do in a more chaotic scenario--a dirty bomb or chemical attack?
Second, the issue of race has been raised, unavoidably as the nation has seen that the trapped victims of New Orleans are mostly African American. But it does not appear that race was determinative in their fate. New Orleans is a majority African American city. It's government is a majority African American government. But if race wasn't determinative in their victimization, poverty was. Sure, many of the folks left behind chose not to evacuate despite a mandatory order from the mayor. But many more merely had no means of leaving. For anyone who never worked a minimum wage job, who never had bank account balances routinely fall into the single digits between paychecks, its hard to image the kind of bare-subsistence, hand-to-mouth life lived by millions of Americans. But I heard one woman on TV, successfully evacuated to a hotel in Houston, saying it was going to be the last night she was going to be able to say there because her cash was gone and she only had $8 in savings. People living in poverty in America live in a different nation from the upper class and the new super rich class.
I'm not sure who was responsible for drawing up New Orleans' evacuation scenarios, but I heard one reporter say that the evacuation planning assumed that everyone leaving would have their own means of transportation. That's a shocking assumption, particularly in a city where 23% of the population was living below the poverty line (compared to a nationwide average of 13%). That means almost a quarter of the population of the city was poor, unlikely to have private means of transportation out of the city, unlikely to have money to afford a place to stay. As much as anything evacuation planning should have focused on getting the poor and infirm out via railroad to high ground shelters.
Poverty is the dirty secret of American life that neo-cons have been sweeping under the rug for 25 years, since they recoiled from Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty with conspicuous determination. Ronald Reagan famously said in his 1988 State of the Union address, "My friends, some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won." It was quintessential neo-conservatism: clever, icy, callous, demeaning, imperial. The words of a modern-day Marie Antoinette saying "let them eat cake."
After 25 years of neo-con proselytizing, social Darwinism has become one of the most cherished notions in this country. The meritorious become financially successful and survive. Those who don't become rich fail because they deserve to fail. The state owes nothing to the poor. The botched evacuation of New Orleans is a case study in the implications of this ideology. Those with money enough get into the lifeboats. The scum in steerage class sink with the ship.
During the "Bush recovery" of the last few years the economy has resumed growing, albeit at a slow rate. But the growth has come almost exclusively in the form of increased corporate profits. Of course increased corporate profitability is a good thing. But it's only half a recovery when corporate profits go up but wage growth, job growth, and consumer purchasing power stagnate or worse. Conservatives love to summon Calvin Coolidge's quote, "The business of America is business," with smug certainty. But the business of the federal government is NOT business. The business of the federal government is to form a more perfect union between the states, to establish justice and domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, and to promote the general welfare. That's the GENERAL welfare, not the welfare of large equity holders. The business of the federal government is to make sure that the whole apparatus of American life provides the greatest set of opportunities to the greatest number of people. Leaving the poor to drown in New Orleans is a woeful sell-out of our ideals.
UPDATE: I never thought I'd type these words but David Brooks has an exceptionally smart and insightful column in the New York Times this morning about all this stuff.
Writes Brooks: "The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. Leaders spun while looters rampaged. Partisans squabbled while the nation was ashamed. The first rule of the social fabric--that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable--was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield."
Brooks wiggles his way out of blaming the conservative movement for the neglect of the poor and the breakdown of confidence in government institutions. That's predictable but a shame. Because the whole neo-con response to the Great Society is predicated on the idea that the Great Society was about protecting the interests of the weakest where neo-con social policy is all about protecting the interests of the strongest (corporations, wealthy tax payers, majority populations).
But Brooks rightful sizes up the impact of Katrina on our governance:
Katrina means that the political culture, already sour and bloody-minded in many quarters, will shift. There will be a reaction. There will be more impatience for something new. This is going to be some sort of big bang as people respond to the cumulative blows of bad events and try to fundamentally change the way things are....the political culture is about to undergo some big change.