"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Federalizing Everything

It's just a coincidence, I'm sure, but every major event that happens in the United States seems to be read as showing that we need more intervention from the federal government.

The Katrina disaster is an excellent case in point. As soon as it happened and people in the region had to put up with the consequences of having chosen to live in an area long known to be vulnerable to just such a catastrophe, the complaints rang through the press regarding the alleged slowness of the federal government in responding. Relatively little attention was paid to the disgracefully slow and inept response by the governments of New Orleans and Louisiana, and likewise to the fact that the federal government stepped in as soon as was legally permitted.

No, the federal government was responsible for everything, including the weather and the choice of people to live in places sure to be inundated at some point or other. And of course the blustering, handwring, and investigations followed. The White House report on the federal response to Katrina, released today, predictably calls for more federal control over such matters. As the New York Times reports:

The federal government, the report said, failed to sufficiently appreciate that there are certain types of disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, where local and state governments will be so overwhelmed that they will largely be unable to help themselves.

Perhaps, but in this case the state and local governments were not competent and overwhelmed; they were overwhelmed because they were grotesquely inept, disorganized, and unprepared. The way for that to be handled is for the voters to replace their inept leaders with competent ones. If they refuse to do that, that's their choice, and they should have to accept the consequences.

The federal report proceeds from this faulty premise to the expected conclusion. The Times continues:

The Department of Defense, as was proposed by President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, would play a more active role in major disasters, the report suggests, perhaps leading the federal response to help accelerate search and rescue, evacuation and the delivery of supplies.

The report does not detail exactly when such a takeover might be appropriate, or how it would happen, suggesting only that the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense study the matter and come up with a plan. But it does offer examples of the types of incidents that would merit such a step, including perhaps a nuclear attack or "multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks causing a breakdown in civil society."

The latter certainly merit a central role for the federal government, as they would come under that government's responsibility for protecting us from foreign threats. When it comes to natural disasters, however, it is decidedly unclear when the federal government would have to be the main responder and when states and local governments should. What makes a disaster "federal"?—we should have to ask. But we will not do that, you can be sure, because the answer is that what really makes a disaster federal is the reaction of the media.

What will most certainly happen, then, is that the federal government will become the default option for management of the response to any significant disasters, natural or otherwise, occurring within the U.S. borders. That, of course, will require a huge, permanent bureaucracy to be established at the Department of Homeland Security, a bureaucracy that will inevitably become much bigger and vastly more expensive over time, as is the norm for federal departments and programs.

13 comments:

James Elliott said...

I am reminded of a Henry Rollins joke:

"It's like when you see all those people down in the Mississippi delta after El Nino came through. They're all standing there, 'Why? Why, God, did you take my house away?'

"'Because you built it on a %@$@^&@ floodplain, you idiot!'"

Tlaloc said...

I have no problem with blaming the locals for the things they did wrong.

But...

There is a ton of things the Feds messed up too. And those concern me a LOT more. Why? Because I don't live in Louisiana. But I do live in the US. SO while the incompetence of the mayor of NO is something I certainly advocate changing it makes no difference to me. The incompetence of Bush's White House on the other hand poses a direct threat to me.

Tlaloc said...

Surely you don't think emergency management should be left to the states? It's not at all hard to posit a situation in which a state is overwhelmed entirely by a catastrophy. In such a case you want the other 49 to just sit by twiddling their thumbs?

What is the point of having a federal govenrment if you don't even expect them to manage enormous disasters?

Look Oregon has a huge subduction earthquake roughly every five hundred years. Guess when the next one is expected? Any time now. Of course nothing here is built earthquake proof because unlike Cali we don't have lots of small quakes, we get one huge one.

When I went to the Uof O the Geology department was in this old kind of wierd building (may still be) The building is supported on on four pillars (one at each corner) and one of them is hollowed out to have a stariwell. It's the Onyx building if anybody here is familiar with it. I took a few geology classes and the prevailing sentiment among the professors was that when the big one hits they are going to be the first to die because the building is completely inadequate for surviving an earthquake.

My point then is this: when it hits it is going to be bad. A lot of the dams here are expected to collapse. There's going to be a lot of collapsed buildings. There's going to be a lot of fires and I really hope it doesn't happen during the summer when wildfires might cause a lot of destruction.

Now I expect and hope that the state is working on the issue but let's be realistic: they are going to be overwhelmed. Not only because of the scale but because they are also going to be subject to the damage. Whatever plans they have are going to have to survive the earthquake first before they can be used to help anyone else.

Why for God's sake wouldn't you want there to be outside support and help from Washington!?

Seriosuly if that were the case what reason would Oregon have to stay in the Union? We'd get basically nothing in return.

James Elliott said...

There are two flaws with your argument, Mr. Karnick:

Most glaring is that one of the largest single federal agencies is devoted specifically to this type of situation: the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). FEMA dwarfs, in size, scope of duties, and mandate, almost every other agency. Until the creation of the Department of Homeland Security it was an independent entity, so large were its duties. When the federal government creates a giant bureaucracy and response system to cover such eventualities, and it does so quite well (such as during Hurricane Andrew) in past years, and then suddenly manages to not only drop the ball fail in its assigned task quite spectacularly, that merits questions, investigation, and criticism. Especially when it fails its first major test after having been folded into a brand-new, larger bureaucracy enacted by the sitting president.

The second is that it is a question of resources and resource-sharing. When a disaster overwhelms a municipality, a governor declares a state of emergency and sends in the national guard. Other cities and counties from across the state that are not dealing with the disaster send aid in the forms of trained personnel, volunteers, and materiel. When a state’s disaster response system is overwhelmed - whether through sheer scale of the destruction, incompetence, or both (as is the case with New Orleans and its environs) - why shouldn’t the federal government respond with the aid it is capable of giving in supplies and trained responders? Other states send aid, but there is a massive infrastructure, at least part of which is supposed to be devoted to national defense, across state boundaries. Isn’t the toll of a natural disaster a threat to the nation? To do otherwise, to shrug off a disaster as, “Oh well, you chose to live there and didn’t devote the proper resources,” is callous and uncaring of human suffering and ignores potential dangers to the nation as a whole.

Federal governments - nations - are formed to pool and share resources, to minimize the effects of catastrophe (drought, famine, disasters both natural and man-made) upon fellow citizens, even if they’re in California and you’re in Rhode Island. I do not begrudge my federal tax dollars to the citizens of New Orleans, despite their incompetent leadership. I do so with the knowledge that I, living in the Bay Area and having lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake, may need theirs once again.

On a related note: There are very few places suitable for human habitation that are not unstable in geological and/or meteorological terms. New Orleans was in a delta. You might as well ask why San Francisco and San Jose sit atop fault lines, why New York is on an island, and why people live in tornado country. Because those very meteorological and geologic dangers are what makes them valuable economic places: they give us fertile soil, minerals, and good ports and so on.

Karnick said...

My problem is that if the federal government was so inept and incapable of dealing with hurricane Katrina, what sense does it make to heap MORE responsibility on its shoulders? It blows my mind that some people seem to think that because EVERYONE involved in Katrina relief (except of course for private organizations) was completely inept, that we should add their responsibilities to the federal government who've shown they are incapable of dealing with it.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

With the exception of equating Andrew with Katrina (more-or-less) I agree with what you have to say James.

However, ST does not appear to be arguing *against* federal involvement (as hyperbolically inferred by Tlaloc). I think his point is about the *expansion* of a federal program because of a single data point.

If you want to equate Andrew w/ Katrina, then you'd have to at least partially agree that the expanding beauracracy under Bush's Homeland Security has not made things better.

Thus, the sensible "solution" is not MORE beauracray but LESS.

Tlaloc said...

"My problem is that if the federal government was so inept and incapable of dealing with hurricane Katrina, what sense does it make to heap MORE responsibility on its shoulders?"

It wasn't inept and incompetent because of a fundamental problem with federalism though. Rather it was because the agencies have been packed with campaign supporters who had no clue what their job was.

Tlaloc said...

"However, ST does not appear to be arguing *against* federal involvement (as hyperbolically inferred by Tlaloc)."

*shrug*

when I read this:

"What will most certainly happen, then, is that the federal government will become the default option for management of the response to any significant disasters, natural or otherwise, occurring within the U.S. borders."

I certainly get the impression that he's calling this a bad thing. I guess you read it differently.

My point then is that the Feds should be "the default option for management of the response to any significant disasters". Clear?

S. T. Karnick said...

CLA, you are correct when you say, "However, ST does not appear to be arguing *against* federal involvement (as hyperbolically inferred by Tlaloc). I think his point is about the *expansion* of a federal program because of a single data point." That is correct and answers all the quibbles quite succinctly. For a person to quote me as observing that "the federal government will become the default option for management of the response to any significant disasters" in my post and leave out the crucial conclusion that follows in the next sentence is either careless or disingenuous or both. The key fact I'm bringing out is: "That, of course, will require a huge, permanent bureaucracy to be established at the Department of Homeland Security, a bureaucracy that will inevitably become much bigger and vastly more expensive over time, as is the norm for federal departments and programs."

Anyone who likes that prospect is free to stand up and say so. Personally, I find it repugnant. Chacon a son gout.

Tlaloc said...

I'm sorry, Karnick, I don't see how including the next sentence would have changed things in the slightest.

Look you created a simple conditional statement:

IF we are to have the fed organize responses to significant disasters
THEN we must increase the Bureaucracy.

From the tone of your post it is clear that you very much dislike the THEN part. It follows pretty reasonably that you are therefor willing to discard the IF.

Maybe you were saying the THEN was a necessary evil and I missed it, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Or maybe we could argue that the THEN doesn't really follow from the IF but it was your statement and I'm willing to accept it for the sake of the argument.

Regardless I still see no way to construe that paragraph that doesn't inevitably lead to the conclusion that you do not want the feds as "the default option for management of the response to any significant disasters".

S. T. Karnick said...

That's right; I don't.

Tlaloc said...

Ah I think I see where we may be diverging then.

You are saying you don't mind federal involvement but you don't want them to be the ones coordinating it?

Ed Darrell said...

Some observations that appear not to have been considered adequately:

1. FEMA was one of the best-run, efficient federal agencies up to the current Bush administration. Failures of FEMA can squarely be laid on George Bush's lap, and past successes show that federal involvement can be lifesaving, and appropriate.

2. The states were overwhelmed? Don't forget that Alabama and Mississippi also got hit, with similar results to New Orleans -- even where Republicans hold office. A few weeks later Texas was hit, and with Republicans holding every state-wide elected office, the same problems arose EXCEPT at the city levels. Houston, most notably, and other cities rose to the occasion. Federal screw-ups have diminished the overall effectiveness since then.

3. State response? Traditionally we've used the National Guard for that stuff. Our National Guard units are out of the country because of poor planning for an invasion of another country. With our out-of-country National Guard units are most of the helicopters and big trucks used in past disaster relief and rescue efforts. Our nation stands more vulnerable to natural disasters because President Bush has made it so.

But, Mr. Elliott, FEMA is a shrimp among federal agencies. It does great work with a small budget, and a small staff.