ANALYSIS - Dancing with the Girl with the Strawberry Curl

On the previous page I had a little fun, but I want to settle down now and speak with you frankly about The Dance.  The pages are backwards, of course, because we all know the chorus is;

Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde,
And the band played on.
He'd glide cross the floor with the girl he adored,
And the band played on.
But his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded,
The poor girl would shake with alarm.
He'd ne'er leave the girl with the strawberry curls,
And the band played on.

We are all, collectively, the drunken Casey.  The politicians are just a different flavors of the strawberry blonde, and we dance with them each in turn - while the band plays on.

On the previous page I had a go at some of the principal players, and they all have some share of 'blame' for some things.  I'm not going to ride that rail too far, though.  It's not so very important to figure out what everyone is to blame for.  What is much more important is to understand that with very rare exception, no other persons in similar positions would have done too much better.  We have to extract the lessons without getting too hung up on the personalities.  In order to do that, we have to have some small understanding of American Politics in the modern age. 

1.  All American politicians are popularists.  

I mean this in a sense stronger than Don Luigi Sturzo's political doctrine, but 99 out of 100 people won't know who that is anyway.  All I really mean by it is that politicians achieve office by means of a highly organized popularity contest known as an election.  Politicians are always looking to please most of the people most of the time because eventually they will face an election cycle and they want to keep their positions of power and prestige.  A politician needs to be popular to be elected, and he or she needs to stay popular in order to be re-elected.

Now I want you to think back to your high school days and remember the most popular boys and girls in your school.  Now ask yourself...would any of these popular people be useful leaders in an emergency or disaster situation?  You probably just said, "Hell no!"  Just because a person is popular doesn't necessarily make them a good leader, nor is it an indication of advanced problem solving skills.  All it really means is that they aren't too ugly and people like them. 

Who in your high school would be useful in an emergency or disaster situation?  If your high school was like mine, you want to have two kinds of people in an emergency.  The first kind is geeks and nerds, who have the intelligence to look at something, say, "Now that's some really messed up stuff there.", and then come up with a workable solution set.  Of course, if your geeks and nerds start spouting about how they need to find some alien technology to make their plans work, then you probably need to guide them constructively.  You might also have to remind them to zip their fly.

The second kind of person you might want are the dark, brooding, anti-social types, because those people might have skills.  Unfortunately, the people who are generally good with emergencies and disasters aren't the kinds of people who hold public office.

2.  People in charge of government agencies are all friends or family of popularist politicians.

The people who become the heads of government agencies are appointed by politicians.  Generally these are 'second tier' popular people in high school.  They follow the popular people around like a fan club.  They frequently achieve their positions by a process known as 'brown nosing'. 

Let's take for example Mr. Chertoff.  Mike Chertoff graduated from Harvard Law School, was a Supreme Court clerk, and worked his way up to become a judge on the US Court of Appeals, a federal prosecutor, and an assistant U.S. Attorney General.  Then, in January of 2005, he was nominated by Mr. President to become the Secretary of Homeland Security.  He was confirmed by the Senate in February by a unanimous vote.  Ass-kissing pays off.  I'm not saying that Mr. Chertoff isn't a good person, or that he isn't a brilliant lawyer.  I am obviously not a brilliant lawyer, and wouldn't last three days at Harvard Law School. 

The question arises, however, if a lawyer - no matter how brilliant - is the least bit qualified to direct Homeland Security.  That makes about as much sense to me as putting a military tactician in charge of Harvard Law School.

The bottom line is that the people who are in charge of most Federal and State agencies are good people.  They just have no idea what they are doing because they have no particular background in what they are directing.  They become a part of the popularism, but accomplish little.  When SHTF, they really have no idea what to do.

3.  People who work for government agencies are usually pretty good at it.

The people in middle management actually do have qualifications to perform their jobs - for the most part.  The people with their boots on the ground likewise have specific skills.  The problem is that these people have bosses that are popularists and brown nosers - which causes no end of grief.

4.  Popular projects are funded first.  Visible projects are funded second.  Infrastructure is funded if there is money left over.

When there is an obvious need, politicians will spend money on popular projects.  After Hurricane Betsy, for instance, everyone was very active in making sure that levees were fixed and upgraded because the public eye was on these projects.  Forty years later, nobody was really watching anymore, so flood control projects were slowly de-funded in order to pay for other more visible and popular projects.

There really is no evil plot in any of this.  There is only so much money to go around, and so politicians all play the 'Rob Peter to pay Paul' game.  President Bush got a lot of attention for de-funding the flood control projects, but he was only following in the footsteps of President Clinton.  Yes, Congress and the Bush administration agreed to a $286.4 billion pork-laden highway bill that included more than 6,000 pet projects for lawmakers, as well as allocations for dust control on Arkansas roads, a warehouse on the Erie Canal and a $231 million bridge to a small, uninhabited Alaskan island - but they didn't invent that kind of popularism.

Ten years before Katrina, the Clinton administration cut 98 flood control projects, including one in New Orleans, saying such projects should be local, not national.  This is despite the fact that all such projects had been federalized, and no local or state authority could - by law - approve or construct such projects.  The $120 million hurricane project, approved and financed annually since 1965 was killed by the Clinton administration.

In 1996, Congress approved more for flood-control projects than was recommended by the Clinton administration. In 1999, Congress and the Clinton administration agreed to spend only $47 million on New Orleans area hurricane flood control projects half of what local and ACOE officials had requested.

Again, in 2000, Congress approved a $23.6 billion measure for water and energy programs, with sizable increases for several New Orleans area flood-control projects. Clinton, however, promised to veto the annual appropriation for the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers because it did not include a plan to alter the levels of the Missouri River to protect endangered fish and birds.

None of this is really the fault of the politicians themselves.  We reward their popularism, and so they only do what we have trained them to do - which is to buy votes by making us collectively happy.

5.  In an emergency or disaster, all Federal and most State officials will often be worse than useless.

Federal and State officials will eat regular meals, sleep in warm, dry beds, and have regular showers.  They will have no understanding or appreciation for the situation on the ground, and they will make popular speeches and perform popular actions.  They will not be of any real use to you, and their edicts and decrees can actually be harmful to you.  You can be 100% certain that they will all lie to you in some way, shape, or fashion.

6.  Look locally for logical leadership.

That's the '4L' rule.  Local officials are your neighbors.  They live in your community, and whatever disaster occurs to you also occurs to them.  They will fully appreciate and understand the conditions on the ground.  If you are unlucky, they will do stupid popularity things like throw fund-raising dinners.  If you are lucky, then you will get strong, solid leadership. 

Here in Harahan, Mayor Paul Johnson is one of my personal heroes.  He was completely together after the storm and directed Harahan better than any other official anywhere.  We will make a case study of him in time.

What, exactly, is the role of government in both the emergency management and disaster response roles?  That proves to be a very difficult question to answer, and it's something that we will have to examine in some depth at a later time.  There are some constraints on government, and government is frequently not the thing that most people imagine.  There are not, for instance, truckloads of supplies waiting to roll all over the country.  Some of this was pre-staged for Katrina, but much of it had to be assembled after the fact.  A key to understanding the government's response on all levels is understanding what government can and cannot do - and why.  Will will cover that as time goes on.

For now, though, fasten your seatbelts.  The clock is ticking...and the band plays on...



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