Friday, June 27, 2008

Retro-Journal: Catastrophe and Jazz in Late 2005

The second half of 2005 was a very different time from today — it started out for me with a trip to New Hampshire to see college pals Laura Braunstein, Christine Caldwell Ames, and Scott Nybakken, and Laura and Christine’s husbands. Hey, wait, that’s exactly the same as today. In fact, I should head to the train in about two hours and won’t be back until late Sunday, so don’t be alarmed if I don’t blog until Monday (and apparently, I’m not the only one visiting New Hampshire today: Obama and Hillary are making a big joint appearance there, too — perhaps giving me one last, unexpected chance to wear my beloved anti-Hillary “Re-Defeat Communism in 2008″ t-shirt).

One Brown alum whose current activities are tied to late 2005 in a more significant way than my own is Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal (to whom I vaguely recall being a sort of writing tutor — Writing Fellows, they called us, assigning us to certain classes whether they wanted us or not but in an often-helpful fashion). Now talked about as a possible McCain running mate, he is, I suppose, a living embodiment of what the near-delusional critic of capitalism Naomi Klein would call free-market “shock therapy” — responding to disasters with market-based reforms (or as she would prefer to call such policy changes, the infliction of free-market torture on a weakened victim).

It doesn’t seem to occur to Klein that perhaps one reason that some places seem to suffer such high body counts in disasters — witness Burma, most recently — is because they have too much government, which not only makes disaster responses less efficient but makes it less likely the inhabitants will have been free to accumulate the kind of wealth that makes it easier for people to escape disasters without simply relying on a centralized response.

As the aforementioned Nybakken has said, we all knew for decades that New Orleans was run by inept and corrupt Democrats and that the place was economically backward and culturally old-fashioned in good ways and bad — “and we all thought it was kind of cute.” Quaint can have a terrible price — as does entrusting our fates to federal bureaucracies like FEMA, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, though the performance of such bureaucracies may vary slightly over time, occasionally achieving technology-based new efficiency, for instance, but generally suffering the same long-term decline into dysfunction of any government bureaucracy, by definition shielded from the ever-growing efficiency of private, competitive markets.

But no matter: the preferred narrative (one the people of Louisiana don’t seem to fully believe, since they went on to make Republican Jindal governor in their post-Katrina housecleaning efforts) in the media became one in which a heartless Republican president let a thousand people die — for a while, based on nothing more than an offhand comment by the New Orleans mayor that was trumpeted far more than the comment’s later correction (as is routinely the case in the news), they even thought he’d callously let 10,000 people die.

No matter that the state had claimed they had the situation under control and that there were procedures in place for determining whether and when the feds could step in without being asked (as Bush had been criticized for doing too hastily after a prior hurricane). Bush vs. black people became the refrain, and I even found myself having dinner with some displaced New Orleans residents who, like some interviewees treated sympathetically in a post-Katrina documentary by Spike Lee, half-suspected evil Republicans and real estate developers of dynamiting levees. Disastrous events, like 9/11 four years earlier, breed ridiculous conspiracy theories, and one is at least initially hesitant to criticize their saddened and confused purveyors too harshly.

The levee-reinforcement plan — the same one in place under Bill Clinton — had always been a decades-long project that would not have been completed in time to avert the Katrina disaster if, say, Al Gore had been in the White House. It was always a gamble — a fairly rational one, though as with many gambles, it didn’t work out — that no storm of that magnitude was likely to occur before the levee overhaul was completed years hence. Of course, there are probably plenty of people who think if Al Gore were president, he’d have exerted such direct and fine-tuned control over the weather by now that storms like Katrina wouldn’t happen. This borders on madness or a return to belief in pagan storm gods, but it’s also roughly what’s spun as scientific consensus in the media these days, so I’d better save that side debate for another time (specifically, November under my current schedule).

But mark my words: the saner, calmer members of our society are ill-prepared for the extent to which eco-doom narratives are going to blend with mystical apocalypse predictions over the next four years as 2012 approaches, given that some mystics have long believed that to be the time of the end of the world — and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is expiring that year, which not everyone will see as a coincidence the way sane folk like you and I do. Here’s something that really isn’t a coincidence: the cretins who brought us the climate change disaster fantasy The Day After Tomorrow — laughed at by scientists but praised by Al Gore — are already at work on a movie, filled with more disasters than you can shake a stick at, called 2012, and I’m sure the eco-mystics would already be talking more frequently about climate change as evidence of the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl’s wrath were Quetzalcoatl not so much harder to spell and pronounce than Gaia.


Last I knew, there have been no deaths during this month’s Iowa flooding (some fairly shocking video of which can be found on the New York Times website, my boss Dr. Elizabeth Whelan notes, her daughter Christine being an Iowa resident). Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has argued that FEMA seems to have learned some things from its New Orleans mistakes, making the narrative about Bush’s purported callousness being the cause of the Katrina deaths seem even more ridiculous. But I think James underestimates the paranoia of that sort of Bush critic. They’ll probably simply say he chose to have FEMA do a better job in Iowa because there are a lot of white people there.

I hope it’s clear I’m not callously indifferent to the fate of New Orleans either — indeed, I’m very worried that its recovery is being slowed radically relative to other areas on the Gulf Coast precisely by the fact that (market-friendly new governor notwithstanding) New Orleans has been a disproportionate recipient of federal money, planning, and regulatory interference since 2005. Not that New Orleans is the only place where, in stark contrast to the Naomi Klein narrative, government saw an opportunity to seize even greater power in the wake of the Katrina disaster, in some cases by declaring flooded land held privately for generations to now be “wetlands” suddenly subject to very onerous environmental regulation (read: seizure by the Army Corps of Engineers), as one resident who led a protest against such efforts related to me just last weekend at that Winning Ideas Weekend I attended.

Far from being callously indifferent, I had felt a bit of a bond to New Orleans since traveling there eight years prior to Katrina, doing research on its musical traditions with the aid of the Phillips Foundation — and I wrote about that after Katrina for National, for, and for Spiked-Online.

You’ll find very little in the way of politics in those pieces, so even if you’ve heard all the politicking you can take on the subject of New Orleans, please read the articles.

And on another less-partisan note, let me add that though I nearly always expect government to do a worse job than the market would with the same resources, I do not think it follows that government is always completely ineducable. Indeed, my friend Jenny Foreit, yet another Brown alum and no right-winger, now works for libertarian-leaning Philip K. Howard’s Common Good project (his book The Death of Common Sense was one of the first Book Selections I picked on this blog), trying to find smarter ways to handle law and legislation but without just being shrill anarchists about it like yours truly: Here’s a sample of the dialogue they’ve begun, involving New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and others, on how to improve government, a subject left and right alike are increasingly interested in — and a subject that the Republican Congress perhaps should have taken a greater interest in before the brutal electoral smackdown they received in 2006 — but for that year, we must await my next two Retro-Journal entries, and in the meantime I have a train to catch.


dave said...

And there you have common ground with the left. Cite examples of free market forces supporting disaster relief and government regulation inhibiting it, and you will find allies.

Years ago, I remember Fox News hosts attacking the Red Cross for collecting voluntary donations for disaster relief situations (such as Katrina turned out to be). So I’m not sure where the right stands on voluntarily helping others. But the left supports it. Take the government out of the equation, and you’ll find allies.

Dylan said...

Why would the right have a problem with the Red Cross collecting donations? I mean, I tend to think most of the blathering heads on Fox News are jerk-offs, but I’ve never heard any conservative or libertarian ever express a problem with voluntary giving. It’s often their argument against government social programs — that private charity is the way to go.

Regardless, I again agree … there are plenty of people on the left who don’t harbor some deep-rooted ideological commitment to government. They just see social problems and think something has to be done. I think that something could be achieved in many cases by more freedom, choice and competition, and I also think that the government’s actions throughout history have often exacerbated — or even created — a lot of these problems. These are debatable points, and they ought to be debated among people who share the same goals.

But before that can happen, I think a lot of leftists have to shake not a deep-rooted commitment to government (most of my liberal friends don’t have any real affection for the state — they simply see it as inevitable and think the Democrats are the lesser of two evils), but a deep-rooted suspicion of free markets and those who espouse them. They have to realize that small government advocates and supporters of individual freedom, property rights, competition, etc don’t hold these views simply because they’re greedy, uncaring people (I’m sure some are, but there are those kinds of people all over the political spectrum), but because they think these things help make a better world. They also are often confused by the concept of a “free-market” — one friend of mine couldn’t understand my objection to the use of eminent domain for the benefit of private business. “What’s the problem, Dylan? You’re all for private business, aren’t you?”

It might sound simplistic — and I realize that there are also many leftists who do understand this stuff –but I’ve ecountered this enough to know I’m not completely off the mark. It’s also based on experience, because I had a hard time shaking a lot of those views of conservatives/libertarians myself as I moved away from the leftism of my college days. And the media that has inundated a lot of my generation all their lives hasn’t helped in this regard either. Hollywood and television are notoriously left-leaning, and their characters often reflect that. So many bad guys from movies and TV shows are evil, rich capitalist businessmen.

Anyway, I’ve probably flogged this idea to death by now, but I’m not as cynical as Todd about the possibilities of libertarians and leftists coming together on at least some issues.