One should approach politics a bit like a science, with a theory. So, to explain the astounding event that major city of the world's most prosperous country should break down to such a total degree that thousands of people are dying out of dehydration, malnutrition, disease, and petty violence, we need a theory. I propose three:
- A natural disaster came suddenly, with unexpected force, and overwhelmed the government's reasonable defensive measures. As we speak the government is on top of the situation and organising the relief effort. This theory is provided for affluent white people who are hopelessly naive or in denial.
- The authorities tried to evacuate the city, and then to move the refugees, maintain order, rescue stranded people, etc. but they did too little too late. The government was hamstrung by its own rules, or failed to appreciate the magnitude of the disaster. The government is incompetent. This theory is for the majority of decent but not deeply politicised folk.
- The government is very competently and cool-headedly handling the situation, as it has been from day one. Unfortunately, Its aim is to preserve any valuable property in the city and expel (or remove through attrition) the poor inhabitants of the rest, so that the City of New Orleans can rise again gentrified. I offer this theory for wealthy FT readers and progressive people alike.
The day after, they city lay flooded, but in perfect calm, with only a hundred or so dead. It was not destroyed by the flood in the way that large areas of Bangladesh or the Andean slopes are routinely destroyed by monsoon rains or landslides. People were not being swept out to sea or clinging on branches against the current. They were stranded on rooftops or wading shoulder-deep in filthy - but still - water. Roads and buildings were, in general, standing, the weather was good, and some places had power and communications. Not much was on fire. As far as natural disaster aftermaths go, this is benign.
Yes, the city and the airport are flooded and that makes access kind of inconvenient. However, there is a working highway (there were only ever three leading in and out of the city, it's in a weird location on the Mississippi delta), other major cities are only a couple of hundred miles away, the nearest working airport is surely much closer, and the city is on a navigable river by the goddamn sea! The Gulf of Mexico/Carribean is full of cruise ships because it's a holiday destination, and granted, some of those may be destroyed, but it's not really that hard to reach the city or move large numbers of people or resources in or out. Not over a timeframe of days.
So the government wasn't completely overwhelmed by the forces of nature, but maybe it acted incompetently. Maybe the authorities weren't aware of the gravity of the situation until late on, or maybe layers of bureaucracy prevented swift and decisive executive action. Maybe this is all a lesson to learn about balancing the imperatives of a government that has to deal with emergencies with the legality and order that private enterprise needs to prosper. Maybe, in other words, there are lessons to be learned and inspiration to be derived from sources like the US constitution.
At this point calling the US government incompetent would be very tempting. It would be tempting to decry their failure to evacuate a mere 20,000 poor people, when the much impoverished government of Cuba recently evacuated 1,300,000 people in a similar situation with no lives lost. It would be tempting to suggest that maybe Mr. Castro should be given the job of organising FEMA and get some results! It would be tempting to say that a President who fails to answer his elected mayor's cry for help, never mind turn on the news, but instead flies by and stays on vacation, is incompetent and unfit for office. It would be tempting to say that maybe Mr Putin, who presided over the rescue of a handful of bloody sailors in the Arctic Ocean, could teach Mr Bush a few things about leadership. It would be tempting to say that the US government has shown itself to be so desperately, gob-smackingly incompetent that it ought to be ridiculed whenever it proposes to run someone else's country, like Iraq, for years to come. However, I will not say these things because the US government was not incompetent.
The US government reacted immediately and decisively to control the crisis. It did three things:
- It organised strategic supplies of oil (and related products) to stem disruption to the energy market.
- It swiftly approved several billion dollars worth of reconstruction budget.
- It sent the troops in to prevent those in the city from taking any form of direct or mutual action that might weaken property rights in order to end human suffering.
That looks like a competent and quick-acting government to me. Let's go through it again: It stabilised the energy market at what must have been an intangible cost of billions of dollars. It opened up its coffers, within days, for more billions of dollars to pay the contractors and assorted speculators who will reclaim the city. And it sent in the police and national guard, who were there at day one despite troop shortages due to the Iraq war, to prevent those stricken from taking abandoned property they needed to survive, to prevent those able to leave from leaving, and to prevent those who volunteered to give food and shelter to victims from giving it.
Nothing in this suggests confusion or incompetence. It suggests the government had a crystal-clear sense of its priorities, and the first priority was to prevent any breakdown of strict property rights - either through commandeering (I will not use the loaded word "looting" to describe people taking perishable food from abandoned stores to survive) or through any dangerous or infectious camaraderie where citizens who had some food and water might give it to others. So government was there immediately to look after strict property rights. Faced with a choice between old people dying taking goods from empty stores? Save the goods. Refugees crossing the city to take shelter in empty structures, or even shelter willingly provided by those with undamaged homes? None of this "fellow human" crap. Incidentally, the government also knew the end of its tough law and order remit. People being raped? Who cares, we have to protect milk cartons.
Tragically, the US has both a religion of strict poverty rights and an "all or nothing" political consciousness. If this had happened to a politically softer country, like France or Italy, everyone involved would have found a way to do what was right for a time of emergency (take all the available resources and distribute them according to obvious need) and somehow reconcile that with life outside of emergencies, with inequality and private property and all. European countries have both lived through this Emergency Communism - Normal Capitalism duality (although not painlessly, it has caused at least two civil wars) and they lack the (noble, but in this case unfortunate) Anglo-Saxon ethic that the same rules should apply in all circumstances. As it is, the US could not have slightly bent private property rules and later return to a collective understanding that that was a special case, not to be excessively talked about. The culture would not allow that flexibility. President Bush could have either signed an executive order to permit the taking of private property and sort out due compensation later (which he stupidly didn't do), or take the business-as-usual strict property rights stance that he's taking.
The government seems to have a second priority, besides keeping property rights sacrosanct. It has to do with somehow "dealing" with the refugees who remain in the city, in the negative sense of the word. I cannot really tell what the situation is because there are confusing reports, some of forced evacuations (eh, what happened to property rights there?), some of people being prevented from evacuating on foot, and some of suburban home owners wanting to return to their property while relief agencies were denied entry. I've no idea what is really going on. But my guess is the government and the city's richer inhabitants want the poor who remained as refugees to leave and never to return. I can't see any other explanation for the cattle-like manner in which the city's remaining inhabitants are being treated.
New Orleans has been (before Katrina) a bit of an embarrassment for the US. It was a poor, relatively subversive and defiant place, a focus of the Black Panther movement, glamourous, internationalist, and proud. I've never been there, but it always seemed like a place that ought to be in Canada, or maybe France. It's also a place where the romantic middle class might like to own converted mansion apartments and drink Southern Comfort like in the advert, if it weren't for the unsightly black citizens with their unsettlingly communal and artful customs. Well, soon they will be able to. I'm guessing that the government will succeed in forcing those inhabitants out, and declare the relevant portions of the city "destroyed", so they can be "rebuilt" in the image of New York and other once-alive cities occupied by the middle class. I can already see the real-estate adverts "Be a part of history...". Too right!