Trust in People or the Government? - Rolling Stone
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Trust in People or the Government?

I like a good debate so here goes day two of NA Daily vs. The Paul Patrol:

[Day one started here]

Reader Walker Pfost writes:

Mr. Dickinson…. The question to which we are all dying to hear an answer (and I hope I am not speaking out of turn when I refer to the Patrol as) is: what evidence or sources can you cite that indicate that the failure of FEMA in New Orleans had anything to do with private organizations and individuals?

I could cite the many examples already given (on the popular post) of how these private organizations were on hand WAY before the federally-sponsored FEMA…

As for me, I believe in people. Ordinary people. I believe that ordinary people help other ordinary people. I believe that charities and philanthropies and churches and people are good, and will do good, and will not let the children starve, or the drowning anguish, or the homeless go naked. I believe this about ordinary, regular Joes who work long hours and drink beer and are worried about their teenage daughters. They do good things. For all of its virtues [and it does have some], the government is no replacement for the goodness of these people.

I’m right there with you in believing in the greatness and magnanimity of the American people. When I’ve run in to trouble on cross-country travels, it’s been average joes — not the highway patrol or any one else from the government — who’ve helped me out of a jam. America rocks.

But believing in people isn’t inconsistent with believing in government, and in particular in government’s role as a protector of last resort. There are things ordinary people aren’t equipped to do. Like model Class 5 hurricane damage. And pluck people off of their rooftops with helicopters. And reinforce levees. And implement evacuation plans. And rebuild a city flattened by weather of mass destruction.

It’s true that many individuals and some companies were better prepared to offer relief than our socalled first responders at FEMA. But why was that the case?

That’s where the dark metastasis of anti-government ideology that I’ve been talking about came into play. Under Republican leadership, FEMA was downgraded in the federal pecking order, staffed with cronies, and had its budget slashed.

In short: A formerly robust arm of the government with real power to save lives was degraded and gangrene-ized by small government ideologues. The government’s failures during Katrina, to my mind, are not an argument for smaller, more limited government, they’re the horrific side effect of such arguments implemented as policy.

Here’s the argument marshaled very succinctly at the time of the disaster by recently retired Massachusetts congressman Marty Meehan:

The reality is that this country is woefully unprepared to respond to a major disaster in this country because FEMA has been systematically dismantled over the past five years by incompetent leaders, anti-government ideology, budget cuts, and bureaucratic red tape.

FEMA’s current problems essentially began with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which demoted FEMA from cabinet-level status and reduced it to one of 22 organizations under the umbrella of the Secretary of Homeland Security. Next, its mission was reprioritized and its budget cut, taking the emphasis off of responding to natural disasters while the upper ranks of management were filled by patronage hires, five out of eight having had no emergency preparedness experience. At the same time, FEMA’s professional staff was becoming increasingly demoralized. By this week, nine out of ten regional director positions were vacant as were three out of five disaster response director positions. This brain drain left an agency without the proper leadership, resources, or influence in government to cope with a major catastrophe.

Responsibility, however, does not rest solely with the Bush Administration. This Congress has been a willing co-conspirator in the degradation of FEMA’s capabilities.

Since 2001, many federal disaster mitigation programs have fallen to budgetary pressures. FEMA’s Project Impact, a model mitigation program, has been canceled outright. Federal funding of post-disaster mitigation efforts designed to protect people and property from the next disaster has been cut in half, and now communities across the country must compete for pre-disaster mitigation dollars.

In 2003, Congress approved a White House proposal to cut FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program in half. Previously, the federal government was committed to invest 15 percent of the recovery costs of a disaster in mitigating future problems. Under the Bush formula, only 7.5 percent are given. Experts say that such post-disaster mitigation efforts are the best way to minimize future losses.

In 2004 alone, Congress cut FEMA’s budget by $170 million.

FEMA is not the only agency to feel the effects of budget cuts. Bush’s 2005 budget proposal called for a 13 percent reduction in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget, down to $4 billion from $4.6 billion in fiscal 2004 and the New Orleans Corp of Engineers was to experience the largest cuts in its history of $71.2 million. This is the very agency who was responsible for the New Orleans levee system. Assistant Secretary of the Army Michael Parker was even fired for accusing the Bush Administration of failing to adequately fund the Corp of Engineers before Katrina struck.

Walker, I hope that addresses your question. I don’t fault the individuals and organizations who attempted to aid their countrymen post Katrina. It’s shameful that their help was rebuffed. But I trace the failings of FEMA directly to the ideology encapsulated in Reagan’s famous joke that the most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”


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