Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Media, Waste and What Works

Real Clear Politics links to Lou Dolinar’s account of the rescue efforts during and after the passing of Hurricane Katrina. Along with Congress’s report evaluating the emergency response at all federal levels, I can’t help but be convinced that such a vast natural disaster shows why larger government doesn’t improve anything. FEMA collapsed under the pressure, fraud was rampant in awarding reconstruction contracts and issuing debit cards, and the Army Corps of Engineers took no responsibility in the faulty construction of the canal walls. Dolinar extensively highlights the impressive achievements of the government services that did indeed worked: the coalition of armed forces. In the whole wretched ordeal that was Katrina, the most visible glimpses of hope that I caught while watching the news coverage was the skillful and tireless efforts of coast-guard helicopters. I found interesting yet unsurprising that the media, which was eager to celebrate the efforts of police officers and fire-fighters after 9-11, seemed to give short shrift to the amazing rescues of the coast-guard. Somehow, even with tremendous competence at the local level surrounding, television cameras were more eager to broadcast scenes of chaotic disorder and misery.

The media’s myopia seems to have completely missed on the national guard’s efforts in coordinating rescue and evacuation efforts right in front of their noses at the Superdome. Dolinar’s article provides necessary details on these mostly non-reported efforts, whose success at maintaining a semblance of order helps explain how the rumors around what happened around the superdome were completely false. Beginning with the Indian Ocean tsunami a year and a half ago and then with the Pakistani earthquakes, it was clear that the armed forces could demonstrate not only that they can generally be a forced for good, but also a force that works. It is the only organization I have seen whose efficiency in managing through crises is unparalleled. After all, if you were one of the millions of unfortunate people afflicted by a civil war or an unmitigated natural disaster, which would you rather hope to have: the U.N. blue helmets or American officers?

The last institution I would ever rely on as a last resort is a bloated governmental bureaucracy. They have shown time and again how incapable they are in the face of emergencies or other tenuous situations. Whether it’s in the rebuilding of Iraqi infrastructure or the setting up of medical relief in far-flung places, organizations like USAID or the United Nations respond with near-scandalous lethargy and obscene financial profligacy. I find it difficult to recall when the contrary has ever taken place with such institutions. Even with large non-profits like the American Red Cross, I carry a sense of regret that I don’t have the option of donating directly to military efforts that are fare more potent in relieving crises. Sure I pay my taxes, but sometimes I think our armed forces have a lot more to show for their achievements in humanitarian relief than their share in government revenue. Considering the various things I pay for and support, I expect lots of waste by government that will fritter away the actual effectiveness of my monetary contribution.

But somehow I’m convinced that most taxpayers would gladly want more of their money frittered away by bureaucratic wastefulness and incompetence. After all, the general legislative response to intelligence failures such as 9-11 was to add a brand-new bureaucratic department under the guise of Homeland Security, coupled with several additional tiers of various directors of intelligence (which apparently contributed to an irresolvable inter-departmental turf battle that ousted CIA chief Porter Goss), and the massive nationalization of airport security that has failed to substantially improve passenger safety.

I’m afraid that if there was a mildly believable proposal to expand the powers of a government bureaucracy established to confront natural disasters, most voters would not hesitate to support it. All the while when there are clear examples of state-based institutions accomplishing far more with a more efficient use of resources. There’s no reason government bureaucracies could not adopt the mentality and tactics of the armed forces that enable better overall functioning. I for one would not bat an eye if our armed forces developed additional capacities that could eliminate the need for many of the government-run social and humanitarian agencies. Just cut one’s losses and ride the winning horse.

The media should not only report what fails, but also what succeeds. It maintains its critical stance to inform us why something has gone wrong. But the media should also inform us why something goes wright, so that its viewers will make more prudent decisions on how to government should spend their money. Otherwise our current disconnect between the problem and solution remains, deluding many of us to throw money at a problem with little consideration on actual effectiveness.

No comments: