Monday, September 19, 2005

So, what really happened in Gretna, Louisiana, when the local authorities decided to close off their end of the bridge out of New Orleans, stranding desperate Katrina survivors inside the wounded city? Well, blogs do no original reporting, so we can't have this interview with the mayor. Briefly, he was overwhelmed, and still is, but consistently thinks of New Orleans as somebody else's problem: "The wrath of God struck New Orleans, and it spared us. We were hurt, but we did not see the wrath of God." (This comes via a comment thread over at the Nielsen Haydens' place, on a post which points out that God has been known to advocate a somewhat different attitude).

However, one of the first things His Honor mentions is that "It took five days for FEMA to get to us". So, if somebody else had acted more promptly, things might have been different.

And so goes the refrain, even from inside FEMA itself, where Mike Brown is trying to explain his performance by saying that the state wasn't giving him specific requests. Of course, when the mayor did, here's what happened:

The crowd in the Superdome, the city's shelter of last resort, was already larger than expected. But Mr. Brown said he was relieved to see that the mayor had a detailed list of priorities, starting with help to evacuate the Superdome.

Mr. Brown passed the list on to the state emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, but when he returned that evening he was surprised to find that nothing had been done.

"I am just screaming at my F.C.O., 'Where are the helicopters?' " he recalled. " 'Where is the National Guard? Where is all the stuff that the mayor wanted?' "

His job was just to pass a list around from one local authority to another, and then they would take care of it. He doesn't seem to think it was his job, as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to actually, like, manage the emergency. Somebody else's problem.

The result, an ongoing fuckup so colossal that, quoth Maureen Dowd, Dubya has had to "literally promise the moon" to contain the damage. Of course, she's wrong about the "literally" part. It was a Democratic president who literally promised the moon, back in 1961. And his government delivered.

Conservatives and libertarians alike seem to think that there's something special about government employees, as opposed to employees of any other organization, which makes them uniquely inept. Economist Brad DeLong doesn't buy that, and if you'll read down in the comments in that blog entry, neither do I. The conservatives' argument --- that government employees don't directly feel market discipline, applies to corporate middle managers as much as anyone in the government.

But one thing's for sure. If you put government in the hands of people who believe it must be inefficient --- people like the Republicans --- then it will be. And if you want to shrink the government, well, the only president of recent years to achieve that, at least as a fraction of GDP, was a Democrat...


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