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September 03, 2005


I have watched events in the USA in horror, disgust, anger and most of all, in sorrow...

Forget the politician's speeches, the staged media-focused teary eyes, the empty words and emptier promises, the excuses and lies...

I think it now time for every one of us, The People, young and old, rich and poor, near and far to start acting like heroes, because it seems to me that what this planet needs right now is a whole lot of good old heroism

To me, this isn't so much a story of interconnectedness as of massive over-centralization, of which the confinement of the Mississippi to one, main channel is merely the most emblematic example. The reorganization of FEMA under Homeland Security, and the inability of state and federal government to communicate effectively, seem to have delayed the response considerably. Imagine how things might have been different with neighborhood-by-neighboorhood evacuation strategies and the local authority to quickly requisition supplies and emergency aid, with federal reimbursement to follow.

Thanks, Julia. I wonder if this looks even worse from across the pond.

Dave, yeah. Maybe I used the wrong words because I think what I was trying to get at is how we've ceded all the "responsibility" for just about everything to more and more centralized authority, thus allowing ourselves to live lives which are really very unconnected from our neighbors and in which we are unconnected from our local communities. When that authority screws up - which it will as things get more and more complex - people start going nuts because their entire world view has just taken a massive hit - "I thought they were taking care of me!" Living in a way that supports everything from a local food supply to local emergency planning with local authority would be a trend in the opposite direction. We see some of that here in New England, on the level of food and other local commerce. But I've seen how people have changed over my lifetime to become both much more passive about civic responsibility and involvement, as well as much more quick to blame "the authorities" the minute they're unhappy about something, let alone in real trouble.

Yeah, it really bothers me to read reports about New England towns giving up their town meetings in favor of hired managers. The excuse people always give is that they're too busy. Too distracted, preoccupied and isolated from one another might be a better way of putting it. That's the problem with democracy - it's *work.*

The "best" comment I've read so far was from a Republican Senator who said he'd give the federal government an "F" for what they've done so far. And I thought, isn't that very same Senator, as member of the majority in the Senate, a member of the government?

In any case, I'm reading a book about the voting problems in the US right now ("Steal This Vote" by Andrew Gumbel - highly recommended because it's very detailed and way beyond the usual "partisan" stuff), and in the book Andrew Gumbel writes that many of the problems with voting in the US are not caused by people who want to rig the vote (even though there are lots of those), but the overwhelming majority of problems stems from incompetence and an attitude of "I don't care" from those people who are in charge of supervising the voting. And I thnk that's exactly the kind of problem that has lead to that desaster in New Orleans. It's not that people don't care - even though there are lots who don't - it's the fact that they're incompetent or they just don't want to deal with it. You could see that on President Bush's face all day. He simply didn't know what to do (after he had asked his daddy for help again), and he was plainly bored.

All that talk about "we'll be alright" is just a manifestation of this kind of attitude, this unwilingness to deal with problems. In the end, government is not the problem - as you can see in Europe where governments entertain a huge state apapratus that snaps into action when places are flooded - but it's this massive neglect on all scales. It's unbelievable. And of course, it's the poorest of the poor who pay the price.

Hey, Joerg, good to see you here. I can always count on you to chime in on the political posts; you're such an astute observer of American politics and culture. Gumbel's book sounds pretty interesting. Here we have an elected group of citizens who are in charge of the polls, and they do an excellent job - how long that will be the case I don't know but so far that part of the system seems to work well in New England. And in my town we still have town meeting, but the budget is voted on by Australian ballot - meaning you don't have to have been in attendance to cast your vote. There was a big fight over that when it was instituted. We have an elected board of select-men and -women with a paid, professional town manager and staff instead of local officials; town hall is now a bigger and bigger bureaucracy.

Interestingly, the push for change was led by the so-called "flatlanders" - immigrants from Connecticut, Massachussets, New Jersey who see town meetings as romantic and quaint but don't really want to be bothered. They are the same people who have pushed for centralized schools, a big centralized town library, a fancy recycling center -- and for closing the village elementary schools, the small village libraries, the dump - all of which has now happened. Except for mini-marts, all the retail has moved out. The villages which once were integral communities are now bedrooms for commuters who don't know each other and don't walk anywhere, and the children are all bussed to a central school. It has changed life here forever. We fought it, but there is too much pressure in the other direction.

Some of this is good: there is less cronyism and old-boy stuff in the local government than before, and growth has brought with it the need for serious planning. But the more you have a "professional" local government, the more removed the citizenry becomes, both by choice and because the government really doesn't want anybody telling it what to do. So I've seen this process happen over the past 20 years and can tell you first-hand that kids growing up here will have no idea what it means to be an involved citizen. Government is one more thing that is bought, provided, and there for you to consume.

Beth, I'm very European as far as government is concerned. I am outright shocked how willing people in the US are to blame the government for everything. Sure, there are things it needs to be blamed for - like the response to the desaster in New Orleans. Even in the Third world, they react more quickly.

But I definitely refrain from seeing government as the problem. Government only becomes the problem if you do away with accountability, if you cut short funding for important projects, and if you think you have to run governments like businesses.

Of course, when you're dealing with local governments problems are unavoidable: If you have non-professional government you'll have to fight with incompetence. The moment you make it professional, you're dealing with cronyism. But ultimately, you have to ask what the government is supposed to do and what - in return if you will - you're willing to accept as setbacks.

In the case of this desaster in New Orleans, it's kind of very obvious that if you have had a way more organized government with higher taxes and a highly trained and organized force of rescue personnel maybe thousands of people could still be alive. There's no need to argue about that. But it costs money, and ultimately, the question is: Is it more important that people get their tax breaks but live under dangerous circumstances or is it more important to have higher taxes but provide more security. I think we don't have to argue about this any longer. Cutting all that funding for the levees in New Orleans was a desaster and the price, in actual dollars and in terms of the sheer number of people who died a miserable death, is hard to estimate.

But the point is that you can't run a government like a corporation. That just doesn't work. So what you describe about the flatlanders is just sheer madness. Government, to work properly, HAS TO BE somewhat ineffective. You can't measure government with the same rulers that you use for businesses. For example, why should public transportation generate a profit? The idea is nt to make money but to get people to where they have to go. Likewise for utilities, schools etc. So yes, there is some waste involved but you get returns, and while it's easy to measure the waste (in actual money) the returns can't be easily measured. But they can be described: Better infrastructure, better schools and thus higher levels of education for everybody, etc.

But in the end it al lcomes down to deciding what you want. Europeans and Americans tend to go for different solutions, and if I am to judge the results I still think Europeans are much better of. They pay more, and they get more. And it's not even that Americans don't pay a lot - instead of paying taxes, they have to pay for things out of their pockets. Their roads are crap so they have to spend more money on car maintencance. Publich schools are a desaster so people have to spend insane amounts on private schools. Healthcare is a mess so getting good treatment is insanely expensive. And this list goes on and on.

Beth, the view from the UK (and I watch both the BBC and CNN) is of tens of thousands of (mostly) African American people sitting in 100 degree heat with no food, no water, no sanitation, no health care for 5 days, people sitting on roofs waiting to be rescued, babies dying, old people shocked and confused, people begging for help...
and a rapid descent into rape and murder as society crumbles while your President talks of the price of gasoline which, if I do my sums right, is still less than half the price we pay over here in Europe
we shake our heads and say "is THIS the REALLY a SuperPower, Self-appointed defender of the Free World, The Modern-Day Crusader?"

yesterday I cheered when I saw someone called General Honore turn up, someone talking sense and taking action, it was like seeing the cavalry come over the hill in an old fashionned Western...
What happened in New Orleans scares me, we are all one natural disaster away from a total breakdown in civilisation, we all live under an ever-thinning veneer of 'humanity'
But the view from the UK? If you are a poor black American your life counts for nothing
God Bless America???

I don't think it's a failure of over-centralization as much as a combination of over-centralization and a belief that any government is too much government. The US is a deeply ambivalent country in this respect - clearly there is a great push to centralize, and all of the deregulation in dozens of industries has done nothing as much as it has spurred on a vast centralization - of agriculture in the guise of agro-business, in telecoms with the Telecom Reform Act, and in many other areas of the private sector.

But that's only matched by the suspicion in the American political dialogue of government action - and this applies to both Republicans and Democrats in the recent context. This has led to strangely ambivalent acts on the part of government recently - and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security is exhibit #1. The public demands that the government do something, and so they create a huge new department - but are so suspicious of government that it hasn't actually been permitted or helped to pursue its mandate.

My hope in all of this is that once the immediate danger has passed it will spur on a profound discussion about the place of government in US society, because no matter how right wing one is, every serious thread of liberal political thought (liberal in the classical sense, not in the sense of left-wing) has been clear that there IS an appropriate role for government action, and clearly public safety is one of those roles. A role that was left shockingly unattended in this sad case.

Thanks Michael - I'm really glad to have your perspective here! On the question of Homeland Security, I think it HAS been able to pursue its so-called mandate, but much of that has happened in secret. Also, large sums of money have been funneled through HS to hungry government agencies and researchers doing very loosely-related work, but whether the results will have anything to do with security is open to question. Maybe you know something I don't though - what did you really mean by that particular part of your comment?

I mean that although HS has clearly been doing *something* with the money, it's clear that it has little to do with security or "the homeland" really. Keep in mind all of the scary airport security lapse stories and the fact that cargo is widely reported to still be shockingly under-scanned, and the fact that the ports are reportedly still wide open. Doing all of those things together IS a big job, and it's to be expected that it will take a while.

But then consider Katrina. As I wrote in the comments on another site:

"This [Katrina] is indistinguishable from (for instance) one of the so-called 'dirty bomb' threats that everyone's been working so hard to scare us about in the last few years. In what way would that scenario, whether we had advance notice or not, be different from this one?

A whole city would be asked to evacuate, something devastating would happen, and then a massive effort would have to occur to both rescue people and get things to a reasonable point that stabilizing or whatever could occur.

Add to it that there's a Department of Homeland Security that has spent billions whose main job is presumably JUST to make contingency plans for this sort of thing. And to make those plans operational when needed. They've had about 4 years to do their job... and this is the result.

No planning, no clear or effective communications either inside or outside the organizations involved in the work, let alone with the public. No supplies ready to go, the major private sector partners apparently have never been informed of their role, let along trained. A relief effort that's clearly a case of too little too late, and offensive public remarks from the most senior leadership in the US."

So for HS there are a few categories of job. 1. Everyday police/fire type security - making sure that if bad people do bad things they can be caught. 2. Cargo security - making sure bad things can't get to the US by plane, train, boat, automobile, etc. 3. Threat assessement - making sure if bad people elsewhere are trying to figure out a bad plan that the information can be used and distributed in the US. 4. Contingency and emergency planning - making sure that if something bad DOES happen, then the US can help its citizens and others legally within its borders (and get business back up and running, of course).

I wouldn't mind if none of the first three were *complete*. They're hard to do! But if they aren't close to being complete AND they clearly haven't made one inch of progress on number 4, then if anything we're all further behind now than we were in 2001.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.