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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Starving the Beast

As usual, The New York Times' Paul Krugman gets it right. In his column yesterday, he hit the nail on the head as to why FEMA failed so miserably to respond to Hurricane Katrina within the first 72 hours after that catastrophe, when aid is at its most critical to save lives.

According to Krugman - and I think he's spot on in his analysis - the Bush Administration, and its rightwing cronies, have long held a hostility to the federal government. As Krugman points out, they don't regard the government as an instrument of the public good, regardless of the circumstances.

Here's the money quote:



"But the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?"

Indeed, as Krugman also reminds us, after 9/11, these same people stubbornly resisted federalizing airport security. Incredibly, after four airplanes from three different airports had all been hijacked, largely due to egregious security lapses that allowed terrorists to get past the gates and the metal dectators with their metal box cutters and other weapons, the major private contractor responsible for providing the security to all the involved airports, Argenbright, had been allowed to continue providing airport security, while a debate was waged in Congress and the Administration as to whether airport security might be an inherently governmental function after all. It was only after Argenbright employees continued to fail to maintain security for months after 9/11 that Bush reluctantly created the Federal Transportation Security Administration with trained professional security inspectors.

Likewise, from almost the beginning of his administration, Bush has been downgrading FEMA's resources. He appointed a Texas political crony, Joseph Allbaugh, as its head. And Allbaugh appointed Michael Brown, his old college roomate, as his deputy. Neither Allbaugh nor Brown had any discernible qualifications to head a disaster recovery agency. And Brown, who turned out to be lethally incompetent, was the director that proved so unpreprepared to lead the FEMA rescue effort.

Indeed, not only did FEMA fail to provide critical aid. In some cases, it actually hindered relief efforts, as this other New York Times article points out. FEMA's top officials got so mired in red tape and in poring over organizational charts and engaging in turf wars with Louisiana's local authorities that it slowed down the rescue efforts.

And all of this, as Krugman so rightly points out, is part of an overarching ideology that is so anti-government that it can conceive of no good purpose for a government. Indeed, virtually all the tax cuts Bush has pushed through Congress have not been simply about rewarding America's richest one percent - although of course they did that too. But to the real ideologues, like Grover Norquist, it's also about "starving the beast." That's how they think of the federal and even state and local governments. For conservative Republicans, this is an historically unprecedented attack on government at all level because even states, cities, and small towns now have Republicans running on anti-tax platforms.

But after the disaster in New Orleans, its fair to ask: If not the federal, if not the state, if not the local government, who will rescue citizens the next time a disaster strikes someplace? And with what resources will they conduct aid efforts if the beast is starved any further?

To a certain extent, the size of government and the degree of its activisim in solving social problems is a legitimate topic for debate. Small government advocates can come up with good arguments for limiting the size and scope of government and encouraging private sector solutions to economic and other social problems. But never in our history has there been a debate about whether it is the role of government, at all levels, is to protect its citizens, and secure and defend our safety both at home and abroad. Certain functions, such as the military, the police, and emergency response forces have always been considered inherently governmental even by conservatives.

But in Iraq, as one example of their unprecendented hostility to any role for government, in any form, more of the war has been taken over by civilian contractors as Rumsfeld has sought to shrink the military. One of the reasons we are failing to secure the peace in Iraq is because we have an inadequate military force, while untrained civilians have been put in harms' way by taking on adjunct functions for the military. The "light force" that Rummy dreamed of did work in the blitzkrieg invasion of the poor and militarily inefficient Iraqi nation. But the light force is no longer effective in securing the occupation in a hostile region, just as the top military command predicted it wouldn't be. But the Pentagon's top military advisers were ignored by this arrogant civilian who sat out the war in Vietnam and cheered from the sidelines.

Just as the federal government's top career civil service experts are frequently ignored and derided by Bush's political appointees with little experience or knowledge.

But who can argue that guarding an airport's security, defending our borders, and providing efficient first response efforts aren't inherently governmental functions? Only an Administration that ignores government experts and truly believes in "starving the beast" while enriching millionaires with more and deeper tax cuts.

For ideological reasons, Bush and his allies have talked a good game of homeland security and taken billions of taxpayer dollars - much of it going to private contactors by the way - and, as Hurricane Katrina proved, left us even more vulnerable to the threat of disaster, whether natural or manmade.

That's the problem when you think of your own government as the beast. It might be a beast in a dictatorship. But ours is a democratically elected government. It reflects the wishes of its citizens. And the government has a vital role to play in truly securing the homeland from the most likely disasters, and those are going to be hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards even more often than they are going to be terrorist attacks.

The real beast is not the government but those now in charge who have been raiding its coffers to line the nests of their wealthy friends. But after Katrina, their scam is up. We don't have to starve the beast, but we need to throw these rats out.

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