What the public gets

One possible reason why the aftermath of Katrina has been so dreadful is provided by the piece by Jamie I quoted earlier. There’s something weirdly soviet about all this. We’re seeing this immensely powerful country which has somehow stopped working. Perhaps we should take this image literally: perhaps the reason why it looks as if the US Government is broken is that the US Government, or at least its capacity to act promptly and effectively, is broken.

Or rather, the government’s effectiveness has been broken. This article from 2004 throws some light on the weirdly sclerotic approach which the Federal Emergency Management Agency has displayed during the crisis. Over the last few years, FEMA has been systematically exposed to the logic of the capitalist market. Firstly, the agency has been told that everything it does could be done just as well by external contractors and consultancies; the result has been cost-cutting and corner-cutting, running to stand still and general demoralisation. Secondly, FEMA’s own services have been marketised – thrown open to competitive bidding from potential ‘clients’. The predictable result has been that FEMA’s attention goes disproportionately to richer areas, rather than to those most at risk (such as Louisiana). Thirdly, preventative and ‘mitigating’ action – protecting people from natural disasters in advance rather than clearing up afterwards – has been downgraded, despite having been one of FEMA’s great strengths. There is, after all, no market logic to this type of action: there’s no demand-pull if the disaster has yet to happen. (Come to that, if it hasn’t happened yet it may not happen at all, and then how would you cost-justify your ‘mitigation’?) Read on:

In June [2004], Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran who heads the agency’s government employee union, wrote members of Congress to warn of the agency’s decay. “Over the past three-and-one-half years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation’s emergency management capability is being eroded,” he wrote. “Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors.”

From its first months in office, the Bush administration made it clear that emergency programs, like much of the federal government, were in for a major reorientation. … The White House quickly launched a government-wide effort to privatize public services, including key elements of disaster management. Bush’s first budget director, Mitch Daniels, spelled out the philosophy in remarks at an April 2001 conference: “The general idea–that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided–seems self-evident to me,” he said.

As a result, says a disaster program administrator who insists on anonymity, “We have to compete for our jobs–we have to prove that we can do it cheaper than a contractor.” And when it comes to handling disasters, the FEMA employee stresses, cheaper is not necessarily better, and the new outsourcing requirements sometimes slow the agency’s operations.William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warns that the rise of a “consultant culture” has not served emergency programs well. “It’s part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities,” he says. “Pretty soon governments can’t do things because they’ve given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don’t necessarily maintain those capabilities.”

In recent congressional testimony, a NEMA representative noted that “in a purely competitive grant program, lower income communities, those most often at risk to natural disaster, will not effectively compete with more prosperous cities…. The prevention of repetitive damages caused by disasters would go largely unprepared in less-affluent and smaller communities.”

And indeed, some in-need areas have been inexplicably left out of the program. “In a sense, Louisiana is the flood plain of the nation,” noted a 2002 FEMA report. “Louisiana waterways drain two-thirds of the continental United States. Precipitation in New York, the Dakotas, even Idaho and the Province of Alberta, finds its way to Louisiana’s coastline.” As a result, flooding is a constant threat, and the state has an estimated 18,000 buildings that have been repeatedly damaged by flood waters–the highest number of any state. And yet, this summer FEMA denied Louisiana communities’ pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. In Jefferson Parish, part of the New Orleans metropolitan area, flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue is baffled by the development. “You would think we would get maximum consideration” for the funds, he says. “This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it.”

Within FEMA, the shift away from mitigation programs is so pronounced that many long-time specialists in the field have quit. “The priority is no longer on prevention,” says the FEMA administrator. “Mitigation, honestly, is the orphaned stepchild. People are leaving it in droves.” In fact, disaster professionals are leaving many parts of FEMA in droves, compromising the agency’s ability to do its job. “Since last year, so many people have left who had developed most of our basic programs,” Mann says. “A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. Everyone who was able to retire has left, and then a lot of people have moved to other agencies.”

A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. In the name of not doing anything the free market could do – and not doing anything the free market wouldn’t do, because anything the market wouldn’t do can’t be worth doing – the government has, in effect, broken itself. It’s divested itself of so many responsibilities that, when disaster strikes, the capabilities which it needed to maintain in order to meet those responsibilities just aren’t there any more. Paul Krugman‘s peroration is horribly persuasive:

The reason the military wasn’t rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn’t get adequate armor. At a fundamental level, I’d argue, our current leaders just aren’t serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don’t like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures.

So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can’t-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job.

Which brings us back to Jamie’s strange ‘Soviet’ parallel. The last years of the Soviet system saw a command economy undermined from within by a pervasive disillusionment with the system: if you were a factory manager, not only was there no point trying to reach your targets, after a certain point there was no point even bothering to doctor the figures to make it look as if you had. Everyone knew – above you in the chain of command as well as below – that the system wasn’t working, if it ever had. Worse, everyone knew that the system they had in the West – where supply and demand information was exposed through the price mechanism – worked better. In that situation, there was no point keeping the system working, or even feeding the system the lies it needed to pretend it was still working. And so the system ground to a halt and fell apart. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to replace it, initially; the years after the collapse were dark (note the change in the death rate between 1992 and 1993, in particular).

Mutatis mutandis – and yes, that’s a lot of mutandis – something comparable seems to be happening in the USA; there, ironically, the ideology which is corroding the machinery of government is promulgated by the government itself. For the Bushites, it seems, the function of government is firstly to maintain a favourable environment for business, and secondly to step out of the way and let business do its thing. When this worldview is superimposed on the prudential, interventionist, humanitarian public-service ethic of an agency like FEMA, the result is confusion and bureaucratic paralysis at best. At worst… It’s worth remembering that FEMA is now functionally subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, founded after September 11; this may help explain why FEMA’s interventions in New Orleans placed such an emphasis on securing the perimeter of the city and ensuring that nobody, as a general policy, moved. The triumph of the Homeland Security worldview: natural disasters as a public order problem.

One last point. Louisiana, we now know (thanks to China at Lenin’s Tomb) was one of the areas where the ‘free market’ reforms of FEMA took effect: in 2004, a private consultancy called IEM was paid half a million tax dollars to develop a ‘Catastrophic Hurricane Disaster Plan‘. It’s not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. According to one source (cited by China), hurricane-oriented workshops in July and December 2004 produced “a series of functional plans that may be implemented immediately”; moreover, “resource shortfalls were identified early, saving valuable time in the event an actual response is warranted.” However, a January 2005 report from the National Emergency Management Association (PDF) notes, “Participants from this exercise are waiting for a private contractor to finish the after-action report and plans from this exercise”. Perhaps IEM’s ‘functional plans’ weren’t quite finished after all.

I said I had a theory – well, two theories, but this is long enough already; I’ll keep the other one for the next post. Here’s a theory. That NEMA report was dated 21st January 2005. You’d think that IEM would have got its ‘functional plans’ ready to go some time in the next seven months, but maybe not. Perhaps the reason why the local and national response to Katrina looked so shambolic was, quite simply, that the people in charge didn’t know what to do. Oh, sure, they’d had policies and procedures in place for this kind of thing, but those were the old procedures. Under the new procedures… well, funny thing, they’d had a presentation about the new procedures and it all looked pretty good, and then an email had gone round saying the new procedures were about to be issued, but that was a while ago and they should really have had them by now…

Ridiculous, of course – that couldn’t happen. Not in America.

Update: Shelley of Burningbird has some relevant reflections and pointers here. In particular, Shelley links to some searching questions about the preparation for and the response to Katrina, and to this extraordinary piece by Dave Rogers. Dave tells some sea stories, does some serious thinking about the meanings of faith, honour and leadership, and comes to conclusions similar to some of the things I’ve said in this post, but with less pussyfooting. Finally, Dave in turn links to this bizarre piece by Daniel Henninger; all I’ve got to say about that is that if I’m right, Henninger is precisely, diametrically, dead wrong. (And, I suppose, vice versa, if you insist.)



  1. Jarndyce
    Posted 8 September 2005 at 07:57 | Permalink | Reply

    Brilliantly persuasive as ever, Phil. I think there’s an issue that Jamie highlighted here, too. Government in the US just doesn’t know what it should be doing anymore, and neither do US voters have that idea clear in their head, or the knowledge to follow the trails of semi-privatised contracts (ditto UK on that last one). “Privatisation” of something like disaster management can never work in the same way as, say, privatising an airline. There are no proper competitors, no reasonable way a decision market can function.

    On the flip side, though, where proper decision markets can function, it’s probably best for govt. to get out the way…?

  2. dearieme
    Posted 8 September 2005 at 16:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Sounds like the entirely familiar progress of Managerialism.

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