Saturday, September 03, 2005

The New Orleans disaster

Absolutely horrified and astonished like everyone else. Of course people have been quick to blame Bush - and to the extent that the executive response has been painfully slow and woefully inadequate, which it certainly seems to have been - this is entirely justified.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume another president would have necessarily been able to perform better - a mistake because excessive partisan thinking leads one to ignore the inherent weaknesses that the American republic has when confronted with organisational challenges that require a strong central government response.

Most Europeans fail to grasp how decentralised this United States of America actually is. The powers retained by the states - perhaps most dramatically demonstrated in the exercise of political power in the arena of life and death - far exceed anything experienced in even the most federalist of European states. These have historically been jealously guarded and have been the source of much friction through history and particularly since the 1930s.

I haven't formed a judgment over where responsibility for the mismanagement of relief to New Orleans because there's just too much information at present but this paragraph from a Guardian piece didn't surprise me at all:
"At the heart of the failure seems to be a breakdown in the relationship between national and local agencies. The authorities in the Louisiana state capital are increasingly at loggerheads with federal disaster relief officials over what to do with the thousands of people still trapped in New Orleans."
At some level, I think it'll be found, is that the federal response was so dismal because the federal government is so accustomed to a role of relative inactivity when it comes to the whole business of mobilising resources efficiently in cooperation with the states.

When you consider that it was known that thousands of extra people would need transport during the predictable and welcome coming of the Olympics to the United States - and then when you remember what a shambles it was, perhaps the present incompetence won't seem so surprising. I know unfavourable comparisons have been made to the San Francisco earthquake and so forth but but leaving aside the questionable memory of prior internal relief efforts as a blinding success, one shouldn't overlook the fact that the federal government doesn't act swiftly and efficiently as a rule because it is not designed to do so.

And it shouldn't have taken a disaster like this for the misty-eyed view of state rights to evaporate. Liberals hailed this in the recent Shapiro case because "states rights" had in this instance been a bulwark against a pro-life agenda - forgetting, perhaps, that "states rights" have been used to resist the abolition of slavery and desegregation, and were used, in some cases effectively, against FDR's expansion of welfare and the national recovery programme. The other fact that needs to be faced is that the case for the federal government taking nothing to do with welfare is every bit as strong as the one that disallowed this born-again president using his executive power from intervening in a right to life case.

The way both liberals and conservatives in America bend the constitution to fit their own agenda is often as comic as their teetotal evangelicals trying to persuade people that the primitive church shared their abstemious attitude to alcohol. Instead of pretending the constitution says what it doesn't, liberals in particular should speak more plainly and simply argue for the changes they believe are required to bring it up to date. More constructive than deluding themselves that all America's problems stem from the fact their guy's not in power, I'd have thought...

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