WHAT KATRINA CAN TEACH US
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 12, 2005 -- Even as we study the Hurricane Katrina debacle, there are lessons that go unheeded. Mismanagement of government agencies is a serious problem which the media and the elected leadership have failed to address. It is a curiously bipartisan problem with sometimes lethal consequences.
At the more mundane level, numerous issues are coming to the fore, some adequately and some outrageously. Among the latter, the politicization of the death toll is surely the ugliest.
In terms of management inadequacies, FEMA is the current sacrificial lamb, but it is just one agency among hundreds.
As founder of Washington Monthly, Charles Peters has pointed out for almost four decades, there is a big difference between what is supposed to happen in government agencies and what actually happens. Congress directs, but it is up to the bureaucrats to execute. The message that Peters has been sending is that agencies would perform a lot better if only we demanded high performance from them and gave them careful scrutiny.
The sad fact is that we haven't. FEMA's performance this month may be an extreme case (although other agencies could be equally bad - we don't actually know) - but the crime is that our institutions have failed to find out or to demand better.
This is certainly a failure by the Congress, but as Peters has shown, the mainstream media have been culpable. For the most part, our newspapers have failed to put a spotlight on bad management in the public sector. They have failed to make the case in print and they have failed to put Congress on the hot seat for ignoring its Constitutionally mandated supervisory role. Newspapers occasionally run an expose of some local scandal, but the long-term observation of billion dollar agencies has not been carried out with appropriate thoroughness or regularity.
You can find some examples of the Charles Peters message in a May, 2004 American Reporter column: http://www.american-reporter.com/2,718/471.html
It is truly unfortunate that this element of the debate has been so lacking in the national discourse.
Since the hurricane, the debate between the right and the left has concentrated on the "blame game," to use the administration's own term. At the beginning, the Bush administration was defensive. Things became almost laughable, with the Press Secretary acting as if he were too busy personally supervising the delivery of food and water to answer a few questions. Right wing radio hosts adopted the same line for a few days. In essence, the strategy was to criticize the administration's critics for criticizing.
When this strategy self-destructed, the argument morphed. Lately, the right wingers have been playing the blame game themselves, making local and state authorities their targets.
The left was largely content to point at the embarrassing details and try to make the president the patsy.
There is plenty of blame, as the latest presidential poll numbers indicate, but we ought sometime to consider the larger issues. This is where competing philosophies of government collide head-on with each other and with the Peters doctrine.
What could turn out to be the Democratic position was defined nicely by Rosa Brooks, writing in the Los Angeles Times: "Here's message No. 1 for the Democrats: Having a government comes in handy sometimes." She continues:
In 2001, the first FEMA director in the Bush administration, Joe Allbaugh, told Congress that much disaster relief should be undertaken by "faith-based organizations" rather than the government. In keeping with this theme, Bush has now declared Sept. 16 a "Day of Prayer" for the hurricane victims.
The Republican side of the argument is a little harder to explain (and I would be the first to admit that I am the wrong person to argue the Republican case). Still, there is no secret to the fact that Republicans have stated their preference for smaller, cheaper government, for the private sector over the public sector and for local government over national government. Clearly, their management of FEMA has involved moving a little bit down the axis that separates the Democratic and Republican philosophies.
Republicans have put themselves into a bit of a bind with regard to the New Orleans mess. In a delicious twist, they have found it expedient to reverse their traditional argument in favor of local government, instead pointing the finger at the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana.
At a more fundamental level, the perception that Republicans are hostile to government itself has inflamed criticism of the way they have administered FEMA.
This is pretty much the state of our national discourse at the moment, and it clearly misses one big point.
Neither the Brooks paradigm quoted above nor the Republican philosophy say anything about the quality of management. The argument that bureaucracies have to be run according to proper management principles doesn't depend on the size of the agency. There are badly run mom and pop groceries and there are well run multinational corporations, and vice-versa.
It is possible to imagine a smaller, more efficient FEMA that is capable of responding in a crisis and it is possible to imagine a larger FEMA that functions well. It depends on having competent people in charge, adequate funding, and a decent managerial structure.
What is unacceptable is any argument claiming that management by untrained political hacks is going to work when the stakes are high. It is only now, as the city gets drained and the dead are collected that this truism is being given proper recognition.
It is the responsibility of the President to administer the Executive Branch and it is the responsibility of the Congress to carry out oversight on government agencies. It is hard to imagine an acceptable philosophy of government in which these responsibilities are to be taken lightly.
It is this entire part of the debate that has been lacking. Other than some ritualistic incantations about the incompetence of the Bush White House, the issue is being ignored. Simple non-ideological, nonpartisan competence in management should be one of the central items of debate, but such has not been the case so far. The issue is nonpartisan for one simple reason: neither party has shown much interest in the topic for decades.
It is unfortunate that Charles Peters' message has been so badly ignored by our political establishment. His message might have been more influential had the rest of the media taken up the cause. We can recognize how the congress would be resistant - after all, patronage is part of the political equation - but the complacency of the mass media is harder to accept.
At the more mundane level, the back-and-forth between the Bush administration's attackers and defenders continues. For a week, newspapers have been full of letters to the editor that convey the opposing party lines. It is remarkable how many conservatives now know how to spell the name of the governor of Louisiana and how many liberals are now familiar with the managerial lineup at FEMA.
One disturbing trend began to become apparent in this, the beginning of the third post-hurricane week. The opposing sides are beginning to make political capitol over the body count.
The other afternoon, I listened to conservative talk show host Ken Gallacher on KFI radio (AM 640, Los Angeles). After a predictable diatribe about the local and state responses in the New Orleans aftermath, he began to discuss the death toll. He pounded on the fact that we have not observed nearly as many dead as have been predicted. Instead of 10,000 or so, the number is in the low hundreds, at most. The implication seems to be that the federal response was not nearly so inadequate as we have been led to believe. After all, the fatality rate is lower than predicted.
This is on a par with arguing that it is okay to drive drunk as long as you don't run over anybody. It's a ridiculous position for any conservative to take. Negligence is negligence, and willful negligence is wrong.
On the other side is the always excellent blogger Lindsay Beyerstein (see http://majikthise.typepad.com). Beyerstein has been reporting from the disaster zone and posts "Fema spinning death total." She points out that the official death total we have been given may be far below the actual number of dead, and offers explanations provided by forensic experts for why that would be so. "
I'm furious that the mainstream media are being so credulous about FEMA's transparent expectation management," Beyerstein said. "They won't let reporters observe body recovery missions. The media haven't been allowed into the makeshift morgues since they started receiving remains. FEMA ordered 25,000 body bags for a reason."
The subtext is that the government has an interest in keeping the public misinformed about how bad the disaster really is. Even though it is distasteful, this is an acceptable form of speculative reporting within the tenets of responsible journalism.
Beyerstein continues by providing a link to another blog (jameswolcott.com) in which the author explains why a body count above 3000 (ie: approximately the number of casualties from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks) would be extremely damaging to the Bush administration.
The column makes sense at some overly-cerebral level, but the idea that anyone might root for higher casualty figures because it would be damaging to Bush's credibility is immoral and ugly. I hope that the political opposition doesn't fall into this trap.