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Reflections on Hurricane Rita-1
September 26, 2005
[ Katrina 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Rita 1 | 2 ]
The official narrative, the one that would be deployed by the authorities, was a combination of Texans' superior self-reliance and superior (Republican) leadership. Houston's mayor, Bill White, is actually a Democrat who was Deputy Secretary of Energy under President Clinton (to 1997) and has been mayor since 2 January '04. His predecessor in office, Lee Brown (s.1998-2004), was also a Clinton Administration official. Nonetheless, it will be objected that Houston's libertarian spirit (no zoning laws) and conservative state government ensured that what little state intervention was needed, was administered successfully. Regardless of the party affiliation of the relevant officials, the official narrative is going to emphasize that state (or local) administration is what makes the difference. Louisiana and Texas will be held up as two case studies, and the differences between Rita and Katrina minimized.
The liberal narrative, naturally, responds to this smug claim by arguing the cases are not the same. Houston is not a bowl on a peninsula, as New Orleans was; New Orleans' population has different demographic cohorts than does Houston, with a far larger share of the New Orleans population not owning cars; there was no accurate test of the Houston emergency response, since Houston was not flooded, and therefore photos of school buses leaving the city in an orderly fashion proves nothing. Had Houston actually suffered massive structural damage and flooding, it's possible that tens of thousands of the infirm in Houston would be have been stranded for the same reason: evacuating a city is not a simple matter of calling in the school buses and handing out computer printouts of routes. For further details, I am grateful to N. Todd (Dohiyi Mir, via 2x106 Weblog). The fault lies with all levels of government (BBC).
The radical narrative sometimes goes further: that the Hurricane and storm surge striking New Orleans would cause a disaster too large for local authorities to handle, is a given. The radical may well argue that the different effect of the hurricane striking Texas reflects not a diminished severity of calamity (according to death statistics I've read, the overwhelming majority of Katrina deaths occurred outside New Orleans anyway), but the racial dynamics of the region. The people affected by Katrina were Black, those by Rita, White. This is a gross oversimplication, naturally, but Katrina didn't merely kill humans, it stripped them of everything they owned. The extreme difficulty and red tape associated with insurance claims, et cetera (as, for example, recounted here), while obnoxious for White households, are tantamount to another collapse of the Freemans' Bureau for Blacks. Like the prior disaster, corruption of White officials supposedly appointed to serve liberated slaves both eradicated the tiny capital built up by the freedmen, and served to humiliate Blacks who had no responsibility for the Stalwart Republicans.1
These, then are the rival narratives: (1) movement conservatives claiming the different outcomes under a single presidential administration automatically absolves the White House of responsiblity; (2) liberals, who say the comparison is invalid and incompetence was spread across all levels of government, not merely state or local; and (3) radicals, who say the different outcomes reflect a racialist agenda that may or may not be confined to the Bush White House (I personally would say that, if (3) is correct, it's endemic to US governance, and not merely the current presidential administration). At the risk of offending everyone, I shall take issue with all three.
First, (1) needs to be rejected out of hand. I've encountered no one, not even Mayor Nagin or Gov. Blanco, who alleges the state/local administration didn't err. One the other hand, the obsession with evacuation as the sovereign remedy (pun intended) is ill-founded; likewise, the contention that the Texas crisis response was excellent (Body&Soul). The events that caused global shame include prison guards deserting a jail building, leaving 600 inmates locked in cells (HRW) or National Guard blocking evacuation (EMS testimony). This is a much more severe problem than shiftless negroes or idle buses.
Ironically, while I will probably be accused of being a rabid leftist, my assessment is based on the most orthodox economic theories available; namely, that authorities in the affected region of both Rita and Katrina acted on the basis of nocooperative games, that they were prevented from cooperation by ideology (that of "self-reliance") from achieving a Pareto Optimum (everyone assigned some arrangement with which they can live) and instead, faced a Nash Eequilibrium. In plain English, the latter situation was one in which the local authorities, confronted with the breakdown not merely of the political order, but of the [normally far more robust] capitalist one, sought an equilibrium with each other under which the non-influential players (internally displaced city residents) were physically confined to places that were uninhabitable.
The key event in all the survivor stories I hear is of a group of desperate survivors attempting to reach a place of safety. The authorities bar them from doing anything to ensure their safety through lawful means, such as leaving; but when asked by the survivors what they should do, they authorities say, "That's not our problem." In other words, exactly the same as the Japanese soldiers of World War 2 guarding American prisoners of war (see, for example, James Clavell's King Rat).
This is an imponderable matter, since I don't have the means to "prove" that individual initiative was doomed to failure in the crisis. I think it's obvious that a community police force, whose own community is intact, is going to do whatever it can to avoid a massive onslaught of refugees from a neighboring one that is destroyed. That will mean, if there's no alternative, that even a police force or contingent of national guardsmen consisting entirely of clones of (say) Mothers Theresa or Arundhati Roy would behave the same way. As angry as I was—i.e., reduced to a thoroughly crippling depression—even I could see this. Because even a Corporal Roy, thrown into that hellish predicament, would know the alternative was mob violence at her back.2 The "evil" was caused not by Bush (much as I loathe the man), but by the entire way of thinking that he had to validate as candidate and as policy-referee. If we were to calmly, and without rancor towards Bush, acknowledge that our prevailing ideology were flawed, then we would shake the industrial system to its foundations. Our very role among peoples, as privileged by our sovereign borders, would loose its sacredness; we would recongnize our borders and our sense of self-reliance was not sacred, but an expedient fiction.
ADDENDA: Two points I neglected to mention:
- One extremely important difference between Katrina and Rita is that Katrina struck earlier. Obvious, of course, but disaster response is a highly political act. Earlier, before Katrina struck New Orleans, having a group of city officials arrive at your door and tell you to get on the bus, now, would be unacceptable. If your elderly mother died in the process of evacuation (Houston Chronicle), and if the hurricane bypassed the city, you would be homicidally angry. In the event, the costs of evacuating a hurricane-threatened city are now regarded as well within reason.
- I neglected to credit Don Pableaux (Humid City) for bringing my attention to the shocking scandal of the prisons; Loki De Carabas (ibid) has written about the vicissitudes of dealing with FEMA. I have to say, I think FEMA's atrocious behavior fits the same template as that of the improvident police: FEMA's officials, knowing the White House and Congress will undermine them if they challenge the insurance companies on anything, and mindful of the fact that Bush & Delay have served notice that assistance to Katrina Victims is a zero-sum game (Cato), they are thrown into a situation where each employee can be disciplined or sacked for every single thing they actually accomplish for hurricane victims. Sorry, Don, incompetenece is not the problem.
NOTE: 1 The Republican Party in 1865 consisted of two branches, the "Radicals" (numerically tiny) and everybody else. Stephen Oates uses the term "liberal" and "conservative" to refer to other factions within the party, but "liberals" are lumped with Radicals. Montgomery Blair is lumped with the Radicals, but as Carl Sandburg points out (p.292 of the Readers Digest 1-volume edition of his biography of Lincoln, unavailable on Amazon), Blair insisted on a beefed-up Emancipation Proclamation. The fact was that almost all Republicans during the War dabbled in Radicalism at one point or another, and most ultimately abandoned it if they lived so long. In 1864 the first Republican candidate for the presidency, Gen. John C. Fremont, started another party to challenge Lincoln on his "radical" side, while Gen. George McClellan ran to Lincoln's "anti-radical" side; in 1868, the most prominent Radical not in government, Horace Greeley, defected, along with a huge number of the Radical's base of support, to the Democratic Party. By then, the Radicals were a spent force in politics.
The Stalwarts could claim "Radical" credentials through their founder, Roscoe Conkling, but so could nearly everyone else. Conkling backed the winner, Grant, and sought to use Grant's prestige to win control over the civil service. This, of course, would have perpetuated one-party rule in the USA. Meanwhile, the needs of the actual Free[d]men were allowed to wither on the vine. The corruption of the Gilded Age Republicans has to this day been used to tar both all Republicans and their objective allies, the former slaves, with the same brush of corruption. Ironically, the beneficiaries of the [white] corruption in the FB were the slavocrats, with their monopoly of privately-held finance capital; the key victims were the Blacks, who had no financial intermediary but the FB.
2 I hope it's obvious that I'm using Ms. Roy as an example of one appropriately outraged by racism here, not as some whipping girl. Ms. Roy's speeches, however, do mirror those of George W Bush in both crucial respects: (a), that bad things occur because of bad people (in this case, our leaders being even more representative than usual of that innate evil to which all Yankees are heir); and (b), that humans suffer as a result of their own peculiar failings as humans (in this case, the failed humans being Americans). Of course, both Bush & Roy agree that failed humans cause misery to virtuous bystanders, but in Bush's view it's affluent, tax-paying US nationals, and in Ms. Roy's view it's everyone but that group. Which, of course, reflects a third notion Ms. Roy shares with Bush, their dualistic ideology. Ms. Roy, of course, completes her Ahriman by lumping the Bush Administration with al-Qaeda.
Other than that, I expect she probably is a really nice person.
on this Post:
Umm...just to raise a theoretical point: can political actors 'properly' be reduced to the utility-maximalizing of 'individuals,' responding to all situations in terms of their "strategic" calculability, without regard to the "legitimacy" of ends? There used to be a notion of "public interest" as the constraining function of political actors, whereby, no matter how mediated through "representation", the general interests of each and all were to be taken into account in forming capacities and programs of collective action that could only be legitimated in the public light of such "universality". That thoroughly differentiates public political action from the motives and rationale of private gain and their supposed equilibria, in that the former constitutes "authority", which the latter lacks, and derives from motives of "honor" rather than the mutual influence of wealth. That was part of the point of Arendt's rather quixotic conception of political action: that it could never be (reduced to) a consideration of utility.
Posted by: john c. halasz at September 26, 2005 02:12 AM
The prevailing ideology of administration-friendly economists is "public choice theory." This argues that political actors have a personal utility function which is necessarily at odds with the public welfare function.
Public choice takes the same principles that economists use to analyze people's actions in the marketplace and applies them to people's actions in collective decision making. Economists who study behavior in the private marketplace assume that people are motivated mainly by self-interest. Although most people base some of their actions on their concern for others, the dominant motive in people's actions in the marketplace-whether they are employers, employees, or consumers-is a concern for themselves. Public choice economists make the same assumption-that although people acting in the political marketplace have some concern for others, their main motive, whether they are voters, politicians, lobbyists, or bureaucrats, is self-interest. In Buchanan's words the theory "replaces... romantic and illusory... notions about the workings of governments [with]... notions that embody more skepticism."
In my opinion (which obviously could be wrong), the problem with introducing this analysis is that it applies with equal force to the impact of allowing a vacuum in the public space for corporations to act. The one difference is that PC theorists can simply insist that the poor behavior of corporate surrogates of the state, are merely conforming to the demands of the market.
ADDED LATER: Can political actors 'properly' be reduced to the utility-maximalizing of 'individuals,' responding to all situations in terms of their "strategic" calculability, without regard to the "legitimacy" of ends?
If I understand the question properly, I would have to answer, "Using the premises of economics, absolutely." Personally, I believe that the moral reductionism of economics is generally unrealistic, but not because economists have an excessively jaundiced view of human character.
Posted by: James R MacLean at September 26, 2005 02:21 AM
Yes, "public choice theory" is very much to the point. Not only must it deny the public functions of the political and the distinctive constraints that imposes on the behavior of various political actors, willy-nilly, by disaggregating political processes into the dispersed perspectives of individual actors, (whether the "individuals" are understood as singular human agents or organizations), but it must narrow the diverse criteria and weightings that go into political deliberation to fit into a "linear" and univocal model of calculative "decisions". As with any theory, the question is what features or aspects of reality does it adequately capture and explain and what features or aspects does it rule out of consideration. No one in their right mind would deny that political actors are self-interested, usurp as much as "constitute" "authority" and are liable to corruption, inefficiency, and programatic dysfunction, but it's questionable that those liabilities are necessarily, "essentially" the case, without considering the broader complexion in which political affairs take place. (And the anthropology of atomistic, self-interested, externally related individuals, as prior to the communities and institutions that form them, is thoroughly implausible.) So it's doubtful that such a perspective and its analyses are simply bracingly skeptical,- (since skepticism would entail a questioning of presuppositions, including its own),- rather than dogmatically cynical. With respect to the failure of public governmental functions at several levels in the event of Katrina, the analysis of that failure in terms of the individual positions within the governmental structure and their strategic interrelations, in the absence of consideration of the public function and responsibilities that make for those structures and positions in the first place, has the effect of obviating the very criticism that it makes, that is, of making public criticism of political authorities tautological.
Part of what Arendt was getting at in OT was the collapse of any sense of normative politics, (which, for her, was rooted in human self-limitation as the condition for constituting a "human" world). Totalitarianism was not the apotheosis of politics, but rather anti-political, the ultimate falsification and destruction of any possible political "world". But the point is precisely not that a political "world" can be judged in narrowly moral terms. (That would be to render it, indeed, "superstructural".) The point is that any such world must involve the extended set of conditions that render any consideration of individual and collective well-being, (or eudaimonia, "well-spiritedness"), possible. One way to consider the notion of political legitimacy is to reduce it to the minimum level of trust necessary to sustain any given set and level of social relations. If such trust can indeed be reduced to a minimum, then not only does a "political vacuum" open up, but the very insecurities, with their attendant anxieties and resentments, thereby engendered can be harnessed to that "vacuum" precisely through phantasmagorias of "trust". Without conflating it with totalitarianism, such an anti-political motivation,- (since the regulatory force of politics is conceived as inimical to the expansion of business interests),- has been part of the rightwing/corporate ascendancy over the last generation, whose fruits we are now in the process of reaping.
Posted by: john c. halasz at September 26, 2005 12:20 PM
Thank you James for your thoughts on this calamity and those many links to other information/opinion. I am not too far from bilmon's state of being incapacitated by a decidedly 'Heart of Darkness' mood. Surely it will pass and I will be able to do more than commend you for the good work you do.
Posted by: calmo at September 26, 2005 10:59 PM
I am not too far from Billmon's state of being incapacitated by a decidedly 'Heart of Darkness' mood.
Yes. In my case, I'm looking at the political behavior of this country with a different attitude from Billmon's; he seems to believe, if I understand him correctly, that he thinks the policy that has to be abandoned to prevent a sort of "Polandization" of SW Asia is the occupation of Iraq. He formerly thought the Usonian national character wouldn't allow this, and now he thinks it would. He formerly thought the authorities of this nation were, however corrupt and vicious, not the totalitarian fanatics responsible for this sort of thing.
Unlike Billmon, I never harbored the thought, however furtively, that there was some sort of cultural distinction that spared us this capacity for cruelty. In fact, I doubt Billmon ever did either; I think he just supposed that, absent our own experience of defeat in WW1, Weimar hyperinflation, predatory foreign occupation, and so on, it was still a long ways off.
In fact, I've long suspected that our leaders are driven by a universal reluctance to accept that our industrial system is due for massive, sweeping, irreversible overhaul. Those days of the "blessed" lifestyle we all know so fondly, are really numbered.
My long dark crankcase of the soul comes from the sense that I personally am not emotionally robust enough to face this sort of truth. For, being as I am, I must either fling myself with all my strength at the danger, or be crushed with remorse that I did not. The really profound, spirit-crushing futility of insight is the thing that's got me, gentlemen.
Posted by: James R MacLean at September 27, 2005 07:11 AM
I see that my reference to 'Heart of Darkness' did not lead to Bilmon's 'Karma' piece. No matter. His heart is in the right place like yours James and I'm not in the mood to make distinctions between your (and his) attitudes regarding America's political behavior. Too scholastic for me.
Posted by: calmo at September 27, 2005 09:12 PM
No, I'm in the mood for a primal scream.
No, I'm in the mood for a primal scream.
Posted by: James R MacLean at September 28, 2005 08:29 AM