Friday, September 30, 2005

Scaring the nation

Or: what's being said about the Walter Wolfgang incident, and what isn't.

It's appalling that this should happen to an old man / a lifetime Labour Party member / a former refugee from Fascism

This is roughly the Blair line. I have every respect and sympathy for Walter Wolfgang as an individual, but really... spare us. Blair's recourse to this argument suggests a worrying confusion between ethics and sentiment, between 'wrong' and 'unpleasant'. (A very New Labour confusion, incidentally.) If Walter had been a strapping twenty-year-old who'd recently joined the party from the BNP, what happened to him wouldn't have been any less wrong. (An ex-fascist being manhandled by security would have had a certain entertainment value, admittedly, but it would have been just as wrong.)

It's appalling that Labour should treat dissenters this way

This is closer to the mark. The idea of suppressing all heckling at a Labour Party conference in the 1970s or 1980s would make a cat laugh. You've got to wonder quite how much the party membership has changed in that time - does nobody oppose the leadership any more? Or have the members simply been managed into submission? We knew, of course, that the New Labour takeover had involved restructuring the apparatus of the Labour Party; perhaps until Wednesday we didn't appreciate quite how far it's gone. Wednesday's scenes put me in mind of accounts of BUF meetings in the 1930s ("a solitary heckler was quickly removed from the hall by burly stewards"). To be fair, the WRP in its heyday had a similar way with dissent; if Blair's a Fascist, so was Gerry Healy. (So, not quite out of the woods yet, Tony.)

It's appalling that the Terrorism Act should be invoked

I almost endorse this line of argument wholeheartedly. The Terrorism Act 2000 (commonly known as TACT) explicitly classifies as terrorism such activities as politically-motivated vandalism, political protest which threatens the 'health and safety' of the public and politically-motivated hacking. Even more alarmingly, it makes no distinction between the action itself and the threat of carrying it out. As I said earlier, if I threatened to take down the Home Office Web site on behalf of NO2ID, that threat would in itself amount to terrorism. The same would be true of threatening to impinge on public health and safety by... oh, I don't know... preventing petrol tankers from leaving oil refineries, say, or clogging up the M4 with a convoy of farm vehicles. TACT, in other words, is a catch-all law, which can be used to criminalise as much or as little of the spectrum of effective political protest as the government of the day chooses. This is not only an authoritarian law, it's an arbitrary law - a law which legitimises arbitrary state action instead of limiting it.

This vein of arbitrary authoritarianism runs right through TACT. Section 44 of TACT, under which Walter was supposedly detained, is all about defining situations in which police powers can be extended. Section 44 enables a senior police officer to issue an authorisation, covering a specified area for a period of up to twenty-eight days, under which the police have extended powers to stop and search people and vehicles. The authorisation must be issued because the person giving it considers it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism. Once it's issued, however, individual searches don't need to be justified; the existence of the authorisation, together with a police officer's stated belief that the search is related to the prevention of terrorism (as defined by TACT), is justification enough. Assuming that the area of the conference was already covered by a section 44 authorisation, all that would be needed to justify hauling Walter Wolfgang out of the conference hall and searching him would be a police officer's belief - well-founded or not, reasonable or not, the law explicitly makes no distinction - that Walter was on the verge of committing a terrorist act and that searching him would bring to light articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism. For instance, after shouting 'Nonsense!' Walter might have advocated mass civil disobedience in order to bring the country's war effort to a halt; a blockade of military bases would certainly create a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public. He might even have called for protesters to vandalise missiles and war planes (serious damage to property). And he might have been about to take a list of military bases from his pocket and read it out (articles of a kind...). Of course, he wasn't about to do any of these things, but the police weren't to know that. Under the provisions of section 44 of TACT, Sussex Police were entirely justified in searching Walter; which is to say that TACT is a arbitrary, authoritarian monstrosity.

But they didn't search him. And what's not being said about this incident is:

It's appalling that the police should have exceeded their powers

Contrary to much popular belief, the police do not have a legal right to play Simon Says: failure to comply with a police officer's requests is not a criminal offence. More specifically, the police do not have an unfettered right to detain people - indeed, this is precisely why section 44 of TACT was invoked in this case. But TACT doesn't give them this right either - section 44 provisions, as broad as they are, relate only to searches. If, as most observers seem to agree, Walter was detained under section 44, then he was detained unlawfully.

When it comes to outrage, this incident is a target-rich environment: New Labour management of dissent is genuinely appalling, as is TACT. But there seems to be yet a third level of arbitrary authoritarianism. Section 44 may give the police a free hand in selecting people to search, but that's all it does. Wednesday's incident suggests that Sussex Police, at least, are interpreting it as giving them much broader powers to clamp down on protest - and they're not, as yet, being called to account. That's really worrying.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Drop you where you stand

Fascinating. The only person to heckle Jack Straw at today’s Labour Party conference was an 82-year-old man, who couldn’t bear Straw’s garbage about Britain only being in Iraq to bring democracy and stability. “Lies!” he shouted. Five security guards promptly pounced. When the delegate next to the heckler told the guards to leave the old guy alone they pounced on him instead. He is apparently the chairman of the Constituency Labour Party whose parliamentary representative is John Austin MP. The delegate complains that he was violently dragged from the hall, thrown up against a wall and suffered bruising. The delegate tried to phone his MP and was told his phone would be seized if he didn’t put it away. Some of the security guards went back for the heckler. The 82 year old was subsequently detained by police. John Austin MP says he was present and couldn’t believe his ears when the cop informed the heckler that he was being “detained under section 44 of the Terrorism Act”.
The heckler, it turns out, was Walter Wolfgang, peacenik of long standing. (I used to know Walter slightly - in the early 1990s he was a Tribune contributor and a reliable presence on the Labour CND scene.) The BBC has more:
[Linda Riordan MP] was sitting just a few rows in front of the ejected man when he began shouting. "He was immediately surrounded by three or four stewards and physically lifted off his feet and bundled out of a side door," she said.
Ms Riordan's predecessor as Halifax MP, the prominent anti-war campaigner Alice Mahon, also witnessed the incident.

She said: "We were listening to Jack talking about Iraq. This gentleman shouted `That's rubbish, that's a lie'. Two or three of the security people dived on him. This other chap a couple of rows in front turned round and said `You must be joking', because this was simple political heckling. He wasn't threatening anybody. He got manhandled out as well. I think they were really over the top."

A Labour Party spokesman said: "Following a disturbance in the visitors' balcony, two people were escorted out, having been asked three times to be quiet."
As for that bit about the Terrorism Act... well, let's not get it out of proportion:
Police later used powers under the Terrorism Act to prevent Mr Wolfgang's re-entry, but he was not arrested.
Outlining the measures taken by its officers, Sussex Police said: "The protocol in this situation is that a police officer is called. The police officer attended and asked the man to wait for a member of the Labour Party. We wish to stress that the delegate was not arrested or searched at any point during his brief interaction with the police officer and that it is a matter for the Labour Party to decide who they allow into their conference."
It's just a case of providing police backup for Labour's hired bouncers, nothing more sinister than that. Why shouldn't they be choosy about who they let in? Just another case of privatisation of public space.

Still... the Terrorism Act? Here's Section 44:
44. - (1) An authorisation under this subsection authorises any constable in uniform to stop a vehicle in an area or at a place specified in the authorisation and to search-

(a) the vehicle;
(b) the driver of the vehicle;
(c) a passenger in the vehicle;
(d) anything in or on the vehicle or carried by the driver or a passenger.

(2) An authorisation under this subsection authorises any constable in uniform to stop a pedestrian in an area or at a place specified in the authorisation and to search-

(a) the pedestrian;
(b) anything carried by him.

(3) An authorisation under subsection (1) or (2) may be given only if the person giving it considers it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism.
There's an interesting slippage between the first two subsections and the third: the stipulation regarding the prevention of acts of terrorism refers to the authorisation, not to the individual search. Once an authorisation to stop and search has been granted - covering the whole of a specified area, for a specified period - the wording of section 44 does nothing to restrict the actions carried out under that authorisation. Which is to say that it authorises every police officer in the area to stop and search at will.

Hopefully somebody out there is now muttering about section 45 of the Act. Yes, section 45 modifies this picture substantially:
45. - (1) The power conferred by an authorisation under section 44(1) or (2)-

(a) may be exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism, and
(b) may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind.
Section 45 gives with one hand but takes away with the other. 45(1)(b) explicitly confirms that s.44 legitimises arbitrary stops and searches; 45(1)(a), however, stipulates that these can only carried out for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism (emphasis added).

Now, this wording is extraordinarily broad, particularly when you consider that the Act's definition of terrorism is pretty broad to begin with:
1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.
Note that the words 'use or threat' in 1(1) qualify all the types of action listed in 1(2); if I threatened to take down the Home Office Web site on behalf of NO2ID, that threat would in itself amount to terrorism - and the police, if so authorised, could frisk me and confiscate any articles of a kind which could be used in connection with mouthing off about being a L337 H4x0r.

All this is alarming, mind-boggling and frankly rather weird. But it's also a bit beside the point, since it appears that Walter Wolfgang wasn't in fact searched (the delegate was not arrested or searched at any point during his brief interaction with the police officer). Which poses a problem for the Sussex Police. If we assume that the Terrorism Act was invoked (and assuming otherwise would mean calling several people liars) there are really only two possibilities. Either Walter was in fact searched for terrorist impedimenta, and the Sussex Police spokesperson got it wrong; or Sussex Police, in effect, stopped reading the Act before they got to section 45, and came away with the mistaken impression that an authorisation obtained under section 44 allowed police officers to stop anyone for any reason. To put it more bluntly, if they used a section 44 authorisation for purposes other than those laid down by section 45, their action wasn't covered by the Act - and Walter would have a good case for wrongful detention.

Needless to say, I don't hold out much hope for a prosecution. I think it's more likely that the government will tack on a clause to work round s45(1)(a) when they review the 2005 PTA. Making it retroactive would be a stretch, but I wouldn't rule it out; this is, after all, a government which not only wants to give the police a radical extension of summary powers but actually says so.

As for Walter, Ian McCartney MP has promised him an apology on behalf of the Labour Party. Which is nice. He's just not going to get it in Brighton:
"I'm going to personally apologise to him," Mr McCartney said. "I'm going to personally meet him if he takes the opportunity." But Mr McCartney said Mr Wolfgang would not be allowed back into the conference, which ends on Thursday.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Couldn't be simpler

[Cross-posted from my other blog, where the traffic is light and the polysyllabic abstractions roam free. Caveat lector.]

Several months ago, I wrote (regarding the Wikipedia page on 'anomie'):
For what I'd want to know about a concept like that, that page is pretty dreadful. It veers wildly between essentialism (there is a thing called 'anomie' and we know what it is, across time and space) and nominalism (different people have used this combination of letters to mean different things, who knew?). What's not there is any sense of the history of the concept
I was reminded of this argument by Tom's recent comments on the 'penis envy' page ("I know this article on penis envy is bullshit, and it's been on my 'to do' list of things to fix for weeks, and I've got nowhere"). The problem here is that making things more complicated is a lot harder than keeping them simple. What's worse, the kind of people who are critical of other people's simplifications tend also to be critical of their own work, which means that getting the complicated version written and getting it right is a long and painstaking job. Which, in turn, means that in the absence of serious incentives it's quite likely not to get done. Wikipedia's native system of informal incentives breaks down, in other words, where the workload gets too large - and, when it comes to making things more complicated (and getting it right), the workload starts at 'large' and goes up.

I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day (hi Chris!) when he came up with a proposal for filling the incentive gap. The idea is to mobilise peer pressure among the population of disgruntled complexifiers. What we want isn't so much an army of subject experts as a group of people who mistrust simple explanations and are good at digging out and writing down the underlying complications, in any of a number of fields. Hacks rather than professors, essentially - but good hacks. A list of apparently oversimplified Wikipedia articles could then be drawn up, and each one could be offered to names picked from the pool. I'll just reiterate that I'm not talking about people with expert knowledge, so much as perfectionists with inquiring minds. The Wikipedia articles I've mentioned left me with a stack of unanswered questions, which I'd happily devote a few evenings to answering if I was being paid to do so - or if I had any incentive to do so. A virtual tap on the shoulder from an online group of pedantic curmudgeons might just do the job.

That just leaves the task of assembling the group. Here, Chris made the brilliant suggestion of using PledgeBank. Something like this:
I will take part in a group of volunteers who will improve Wikipedia by correcting and extending inaccurate and simplistic entries on social science concepts, but only if another 99 people do so too.
I think it could work. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Plans that have far-reaching effects

Katrina update. Back here, I wrote:
Louisiana, we now know (thanks to China at Lenin's Tomb) was one of the areas where the 'free market' reforms of FEMA took effect: in 2004, a private consultancy called IEM was paid half a million tax dollars to develop a 'Catastrophic Hurricane Disaster Plan'. It's not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. According to one source (cited by China), hurricane-oriented workshops in July and December 2004 produced "a series of functional plans that may be implemented immediately"; moreover, "resource shortfalls were identified early, saving valuable time in the event an actual response is warranted." However, a January 2005 report from the National Emergency Management Association (PDF) notes, "Participants from this exercise are waiting for a private contractor to finish the after-action report and plans from this exercise". Perhaps IEM's 'functional plans' weren't quite finished after all.
That NEMA report was dated 21st January 2005. You'd think that IEM would have got its 'functional plans' ready to go some time in the next seven months, but maybe not. Perhaps the reason why the local and national response to Katrina looked so shambolic was, quite simply, that the people in charge didn't know what to do.
Here is an important post by Greg of Suspect Device, who was present at the July 2004 'Hurricane Pam' exercise. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few particularly striking quotes:
As with most IEM projects, the Hurricane Pam exercise was put together at the last minute, in a blind animal panic with no time for refinement, testing, or subtlety, but it still was a remarkable and bold idea.
Attendees included emergency managers from all across Louisiana, representatives from the EPA, the National Guard, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the DOTD, the Red Cross (who I remember as being marginalized and tolerated at best, with more than a little eye rolling from the "professionals"), the State Police, and many others. Also taking on important roles were representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, who provided facilitators, computers, and a great deal of support.
There was a certain amount of contention, a few turf wars, some loud talk. None if it consequential, in the end, because of the single greatest emollient: FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the moon and the stars. They promised to have 1,000,000 bottles of water per day coming into affected areas within 48 hours. They promised massive prestaging with water, ice, medical supplies and generators. Anything that was needed, they would have either in place as the storm hit or ready to move in immediately after. All it would take is a phone call from local officials to the state, who would then call FEMA, and it would be done. There were contracts-in-place with major vendors across the country and prestaging areas were already determined (I'll have more to say about this later, but this is one reason FEMA has rejected large donations and turned back freelance shipments of water, medical supplies, food, etc: they have contracts in place to purchase those items, and accepting the same product from another source could be construed as breach of contract, and could lead to contract cancellation, thus removing a reliable source of product from the pool of available resources. I'm not saying I agree with this -- in fact, I don't, and think it's boneheaded -- but the reasoning is that if they accept five semis of water from the east Weewau, Wisconsin, Chamber of Commerce, the water supplier who is contractually bound to provide 100,000 gallons per day will be freed from that obligation.
The organizers of the exercise ... insisted that the plans contain no "fairy dust": no magical leaps of supply chains or providers ... Everyone tried to keep the fairy dust to a minimum, and they did so, for the most part, despite having big plans: LSU, Southern, Southeastern and other campuses dismissed for the semester and turned into giant triage centers/tent cities; acres of temporary housing built on government-owned land; C-130 transport planes ferrying evacuees to relatives in other states, and so on. Bold plans, but doable, with cooperation. A comprehensive plan was beginning to emerge.

Except that it didn't. A followup conference, to iron out difficulties in some of the individual plans and to formalize presentation of the final package, scheduled for either late '04 or early '05 -- I can't remember and can find no mention of the followup event on the web -- was cancelled at the last minute, due to lack of funding (which agency called the cancellation, I'm not sure, although the lack of funds would take it all back to FEMA, in the end).

So: Louisiana did have a hurricane plan, but was devising a new one, to be based on recommendation from the people who would actually be doing the work. The need to evacuate people from impact areas, including those without transportation or the means to obtain it, was discussed, despite media assertions to the contrary. ... There were and are officials in Louisiana, including New Orleans Emergency Management, who know the limitations of current planning and who have been trying to come up with a better solution.

The problem is FEMA, and by extension the Department of Homeland Security, which gobbled FEMA up in 2003. FEMA promised more than they could deliver. They cut off deeper, perhaps more meaningful discussion and planning by handing out empty promises. The plans that were made -- which were not given any sort of stamp of authority -- were never distributed or otherwise made available to those who most needed stable guidance; they vanished into the maw of FEMA
In comments, Greg sums up:
the state didn't convene the second Pam workshop, to flesh out the plan, because FEMA cancelled the funding, and that even the skeletal plans that were created are not available, because they're technically FEMA property and FEMA hasn't released them.
Greg also notes that the number of people without their own transport in south-eastern Louisiana was estimated at 100,000; he adds
The notion of doing something to evacuate those without transport was raised late in the game, but was left as an action item for the followup meetings.
It sounds as if the December 2004 meeting described here had not in fact taken place, because FEMA cancelled the funding.

It's not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. I think it's clear now. What's worse than handing responsibility for vital social support functions to a private company (along with a suitcase full of money)? Doing all that, then pulling the plug on them before they've finished the job. FEMA management aren't just ideologically-driven bureaucrats - they're incompetent ideologically-driven bureaucrats.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

We are the weeds

My previous post on Katrina and its aftermath focused on the contribution made by incompetence - albeit willed and cultivated incompetence. This post is about malice.

As I wrote earlier,
FEMA is now functionally subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, founded after September 11; this may help explain why FEMA's interventions in New Orleans placed such an emphasis on securing the perimeter of the city and ensuring that nobody, as a general policy, moved. The triumph of the Homeland Security worldview: natural disasters as a public order problem.
Apparently the Homeland Security worldview predates the Department itself; here's a passage from the FEMA article I quoted earlier:
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration endowed FEMA with extraordinary powers to keep the country running - powers bordering on martial law, critics argued. The agency became responsible for "continuity of government" plans devoted to salvaging national authority in the event of a nuclear attack. Other plans, drafted by the likes of National Security Council aide Oliver North, laid the groundwork for rounding up rabble-rousers in the event of societal breakdown, whatever the cause.
Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Stronsky's story, in case you haven't read it already, is a graphic illustration of how this approach works out in practice. Now picture the forces of order going from house to house as the floodwaters subside, taking survivors away to 'refugee camps', in handcuffs if necessary (I heard that last detail on BBC Radio 4 this morning). And picture the forces of order waiting outside New Orleans until they had built up a large enough force to pacify a supposed insurrection. (Not for the first time, China at Lenin's Tomb has got the goods: the army had no delusions about their remit - it was not to secure human life and bring supplies, but to suppress an "insurgency".) If the aftermath of Katrina is a problem, in other words, the survivors aren't the people who have got the problem - the survivors are part of the problem. In the words of a FEMA staffer at an Oklahoma internment camp, You don't understand the type of people that are about to come here.

What type of people is that? Here's Barbara Bush, wife of one President and mother of another, visiting a stadium in Houston which was being used as a holding camp:
What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.

And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this - this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.
And here's her boy, visiting Mobile, Alabama:
The good news is — and it’s hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.
Even if we forget who Trent Lott is, this is dreadful, Marie Antoinette stuff. All those people have lost everything? They'll be OK - after all, my friend lost his house, and he's building a new one... If we remember that Trent Lott is the Republican who endorsed the segregationist Strom Thurmond ("we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years"); and if we remember that most of the people who got stuck in those New Orleans internment camps are Black... I'm not suggesting that George W. Bush and his government are pursuing an actively racist agenda - that they saw the chaos caused by Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to to treat poor Black people like dirt. I suspect it's worse than that. I'm suggesting that the government is genuinely attempting to mount an effective response to the disaster - but that its criteria for an effective response don't exclude treating poor Black people like dirt, and may even encourage it.

It's as if the government is running two sets of books on its responsibilities to the public. There are the deep-rooted assumptions of the social contract: if we have a government, and if it intervenes in our lives, it must surely intervene to maximise the safety of its citizens and prolong our lives - all our lives, without distinction. But then there's a political contract, which isn't cited openly but informs the government's rhetoric as well as its policy-making - and that contract says, quite plainly, that those people don't count. Hence, perhaps, a certain genuine bafflement on Bush's part in the face of the public reaction to the aftermath of Katrina: what's up with them? they knew what they were voting for, didn't they?

Here's Alasdair Gray in 1982 Janine:
[Frazer] was telling us about Machiavelli’s The Prince. “Listen,” he said, “you have just conquered a neighbouring state, right?, and you want to conquer another. So what do you do to the defeated people to stop them revolting against you when you withdraw most of your army?”
We could not answer because we had not read Machiavelli.
“Easy!” cried Frazer, “You split the population into three, take most of the wealth away from one-third and divide it with the rest. The majority have now profited by being conquered. They accept your government in return for your help if the minority start a civil war to get their own back, a civil war which will not occur because the impoverished losers know they are bound to be defeated. The conqueror can now repeat his manoeuvre elsewhere. What I don’t understand,” said Frazer, “is why no
governments have taken Machiavelli’s advice? Surely the first to do it would conquer the world?”
Alan, who seemed not to have been listening, said, “They do.”
After a pause I said, “You don’t mean the British Empire.”
“No. I mean Britain.”
I don't think this is a question of racism, in other words. (A friend of mine once wrote that she saw just as much evidence of a class structure in the US as she had in her native Britain; the only difference was that Americans persisted in referring to class as 'race'.) The concerted neglect and casual brutality which have characterised the US government's response to Katrina seem to be the product of an authentically Machiavellian philosophy of government, which holds that leaders can gain consent by mobilising their subjects against one another. We don't get many hurricanes here, thankfully, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we thought that this was someone else's problem:
Mr Blair said he wanted to change the culture of the criminal justice system. He called for "an historic shift from a criminal justice system that asks, first and foremost 'How do we protect the accused from the transgressions of the state or police?' to one whose first question is 'How do we protect the majority from the dangerous and irresponsible minority?'".
A criminal justice system which downgrades the presumption of innocence, the better to neutralise the 'dangerous and irresponsible minority'. An emergency management system which lets people die, the better to control poor and unruly survivors. All we need now is more votes for the decent folk - and perhaps that's not far away (Non-registration was highest in densely populated urban areas with mobile populations, particularly inner London, and areas of economic deprivation).


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

What the public gets

One possible reason why the aftermath of Katrina has been so dreadful is provided by the piece by Jamie I quoted earlier. There’s something weirdly soviet about all this. We’re seeing this immensely powerful country which has somehow stopped working. Perhaps we should take this image literally: perhaps the reason why it looks as if the US Government is broken is that the US Government, or at least its capacity to act promptly and effectively, is broken.

Or rather, the government's effectiveness has been broken. This article from 2004 throws some light on the weirdly sclerotic approach which the Federal Emergency Management Agency has displayed during the crisis. Over the last few years, FEMA has been systematically exposed to the logic of the capitalist market. Firstly, the agency has been told that everything it does could be done just as well by external contractors and consultancies; the result has been cost-cutting and corner-cutting, running to stand still and general demoralisation. Secondly, FEMA's own services have been marketised - thrown open to competitive bidding from potential 'clients'. The predictable result has been that FEMA's attention goes disproportionately to richer areas, rather than to those most at risk (such as Louisiana). Thirdly, preventative and 'mitigating' action - protecting people from natural disasters in advance rather than clearing up afterwards - has been downgraded, despite having been one of FEMA's great strengths. There is, after all, no market logic to this type of action: there's no demand-pull if the disaster has yet to happen. (Come to that, if it hasn't happened yet it may not happen at all, and then how would you cost-justify your 'mitigation'?) Read on:
In June [2004], Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran who heads the agency's government employee union, wrote members of Congress to warn of the agency's decay. "Over the past three-and-one-half years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation's emergency management capability is being eroded," he wrote. "Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors."
From its first months in office, the Bush administration made it clear that emergency programs, like much of the federal government, were in for a major reorientation. ... The White House quickly launched a government-wide effort to privatize public services, including key elements of disaster management. Bush's first budget director, Mitch Daniels, spelled out the philosophy in remarks at an April 2001 conference: "The general idea--that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided--seems self-evident to me," he said.
As a result, says a disaster program administrator who insists on anonymity, "We have to compete for our jobs--we have to prove that we can do it cheaper than a contractor." And when it comes to handling disasters, the FEMA employee stresses, cheaper is not necessarily better, and the new outsourcing requirements sometimes slow the agency's operations.

William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warns that the rise of a "consultant culture" has not served emergency programs well. "It's part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities," he says. "Pretty soon governments can't do things because they've given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don't necessarily maintain those capabilities."
In recent congressional testimony, a NEMA representative noted that "in a purely competitive grant program, lower income communities, those most often at risk to natural disaster, will not effectively compete with more prosperous cities.... The prevention of repetitive damages caused by disasters would go largely unprepared in less-affluent and smaller communities."

And indeed, some in-need areas have been inexplicably left out of the program. "In a sense, Louisiana is the flood plain of the nation," noted a 2002 FEMA report. "Louisiana waterways drain two-thirds of the continental United States. Precipitation in New York, the Dakotas, even Idaho and the Province of Alberta, finds its way to Louisiana's coastline." As a result, flooding is a constant threat, and the state has an estimated 18,000 buildings that have been repeatedly damaged by flood waters--the highest number of any state. And yet, this summer FEMA denied Louisiana communities' pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. In Jefferson Parish, part of the New Orleans metropolitan area, flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue is baffled by the development. "You would think we would get maximum consideration" for the funds, he says. "This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it."

Within FEMA, the shift away from mitigation programs is so pronounced that many long-time specialists in the field have quit. "The priority is no longer on prevention," says the FEMA administrator. "Mitigation, honestly, is the orphaned stepchild. People are leaving it in droves." In fact, disaster professionals are leaving many parts of FEMA in droves, compromising the agency's ability to do its job. "Since last year, so many people have left who had developed most of our basic programs," Mann says. "A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. Everyone who was able to retire has left, and then a lot of people have moved to other agencies."
A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. In the name of not doing anything the free market could do - and not doing anything the free market wouldn't do, because anything the market wouldn't do can't be worth doing - the government has, in effect, broken itself. It's divested itself of so many responsibilities that, when disaster strikes, the capabilities which it needed to maintain in order to meet those responsibilities just aren't there any more. Paul Krugman's peroration is horribly persuasive:
The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor. At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures.
So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can't-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job.
Which brings us back to Jamie's strange 'Soviet' parallel. The last years of the Soviet system saw a command economy undermined from within by a pervasive disillusionment with the system: if you were a factory manager, not only was there no point trying to reach your targets, after a certain point there was no point even bothering to doctor the figures to make it look as if you had. Everyone knew - above you in the chain of command as well as below - that the system wasn't working, if it ever had. Worse, everyone knew that the system they had in the West - where supply and demand information was exposed through the price mechanism - worked better. In that situation, there was no point keeping the system working, or even feeding the system the lies it needed to pretend it was still working. And so the system ground to a halt and fell apart. Unfortunately there wasn't much to replace it, initially; the years after the collapse were dark (note the change in the death rate between 1992 and 1993, in particular).

Mutatis mutandis - and yes, that's a lot of mutandis - something comparable seems to be happening in the USA; there, ironically, the ideology which is corroding the machinery of government is promulgated by the government itself. For the Bushites, it seems, the function of government is firstly to maintain a favourable environment for business, and secondly to step out of the way and let business do its thing. When this worldview is superimposed on the prudential, interventionist, humanitarian public-service ethic of an agency like FEMA, the result is confusion and bureaucratic paralysis at best. At worst... It's worth remembering that FEMA is now functionally subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, founded after September 11; this may help explain why FEMA's interventions in New Orleans placed such an emphasis on securing the perimeter of the city and ensuring that nobody, as a general policy, moved. The triumph of the Homeland Security worldview: natural disasters as a public order problem.

One last point. Louisiana, we now know (thanks to China at Lenin's Tomb) was one of the areas where the 'free market' reforms of FEMA took effect: in 2004, a private consultancy called IEM was paid half a million tax dollars to develop a 'Catastrophic Hurricane Disaster Plan'. It's not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. According to one source (cited by China), hurricane-oriented workshops in July and December 2004 produced "a series of functional plans that may be implemented immediately"; moreover, "resource shortfalls were identified early, saving valuable time in the event an actual response is warranted." However, a January 2005 report from the National Emergency Management Association (PDF) notes, "Participants from this exercise are waiting for a private contractor to finish the after-action report and plans from this exercise". Perhaps IEM's 'functional plans' weren't quite finished after all.

I said I had a theory - well, two theories, but this is long enough already; I'll keep the other one for the next post. Here's a theory. That NEMA report was dated 21st January 2005. You'd think that IEM would have got its 'functional plans' ready to go some time in the next seven months, but maybe not. Perhaps the reason why the local and national response to Katrina looked so shambolic was, quite simply, that the people in charge didn't know what to do. Oh, sure, they'd had policies and procedures in place for this kind of thing, but those were the old procedures. Under the new procedures... well, funny thing, they'd had a presentation about the new procedures and it all looked pretty good, and then an email had gone round saying the new procedures were about to be issued, but that was a while ago and they should really have had them by now...

Ridiculous, of course - that couldn't happen. Not in America.

Update: Shelley of Burningbird has some relevant reflections and pointers here. In particular, Shelley links to some searching questions about the preparation for and the response to Katrina, and to this extraordinary piece by Dave Rogers. Dave tells some sea stories, does some serious thinking about the meanings of faith, honour and leadership, and comes to conclusions similar to some of the things I've said in this post, but with less pussyfooting. Finally, Dave in turn links to this bizarre piece by Daniel Henninger; all I've got to say about that is that if I'm right, Henninger is precisely, diametrically, dead wrong. (And, I suppose, vice versa, if you insist.)

Monday, September 05, 2005

It's only water

They order these things better in Cuba; there, evacuation means that everybody leaves, down to dogs and cats:
they have family doctors in cuba (!), who evacuate together with the neighborhood, and already know who, for example, needs insulin.
they also have veterinarians and they evacuate animals. they begin evacuating immediately, and also evacuate TV sets and refrigerators, so that people aren't relucatant to leave because people might steal their stuff.
(The '(!)' isn't mine; I don't know what's funny about the idea of Cubans having family doctors.) Perhaps this isn't a great source evidentially - the speaker is talking about how things work in general - but it is borne out by the Red Cross in this story from 2002:
Hurricanes Isidore and Lili battered the whole country, especially the tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Río and the nearby Isla de la Juventud, causing widespread devastation.

Cristina Estrada, a regional spokeswoman for the Red Cross, told BBC News Online that only the country's prompt and well-organised evacuation procedures ensured no-one was killed.

"In any other country in the region it would have been a disaster in terms of loss of life," she said.
In any other country in the region, indeed.

Going back a bit further, in 1974 they ordered these things better in Australia. As Brian notes, Cyclone Tracy passed through Darwin on Christmas Day(!) 1974. The result was the effective destruction of 70% of the buildings in the town - and a death toll of 65, or slightly more than 0.1% of the pre-cyclone population. ('Pre-cyclone', because all but 10,000 of the population were evacuated, and many of them decided not to come back. Understandably, perhaps - apart from anything else, do you know where Darwin is?)

What happened in New Orleans wasn't much like either the Cuban system or the Darwin experience. On Saturday 27th August the city authorities issued a mandatory [sic] evacuation order, which was followed by many (most?) of those able to do so. For those who remained behind, the city laid on buses - which transported them, by the thousand, to assembly points within the city and left them there. Once inside what were effectively internment camps, the people of New Orleans were treated like internees everywhere - which is to say, like cattle (and not very highly-valued cattle at that). Water, food, sanitation, shelter and medicine were supplied haphazardly or not at all. No one was allowed out of the camps: locals who had survived unscathed offered to take people away in their cars but were told to stay away; survivors who could have walked out of the city were told to stay put. When buses out of the city finally came, survivors were not told where they were going until they'd got on one - nor, almost incredibly, were they allowed to get off a bus before it reached its destination.

The city at large, meanwhile, was effectively written off - far more decisively than seemed to be justified by the outbreaks of gang violence, as alarming as those were. My immediate reaction to those pictures of stranded survivors, waving from balconies and roofs as TV crews passed overhead, was to imagine similar scenes in Britain. And there my imagination failed me: I couldn't picture that scene without adding a boat of some sort, crewed by concerned neighbours or the RNLI or Red Cross or St John's Ambulance or the WRVS or the local Rotary Club... If disaster struck a British city, I thought, surely there'd be half a dozen charities and voluntary organisations and ad hoc committees lining up to help, even before the flood waters began to subside. What had happened to civil society over there? I still don't know if the St John's Ambulance and the WRVS have any US equivalent, but as it turns out that's not really the point. What had happened was that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been approached by several hundred locals who wanted to rescue survivors using their boats, and they had turned them away. FEMA had also refused to permit external agencies to enter the city - the American Red Cross included - on the grounds that their presence in the city would slow down the evacuation. They had also refused... but I won't go through the list; you can see it here. The long and the short of it was, the city was locked down, and locked down it would stay - whatever the immediate cost to the inhabitants of the city. In the context of a disaster recovery operation, this order of priorities seems odd, to say the least.

If all this is hard to understand, the personal interventions of George W. Bush beggar belief. He visited New Orleans on the 3rd of September - by which time evacuations were, finally, proceeding; his presence promptly halted food distribution for several hours, by imposing a no-fly zone. More culpably, he had relief and rebuilding work started for his media appearances - and halted afterwards. The story of a Potemkin food stall in New Orleans which has been circulating seems to be unfounded (thanks to Chris (in comments) for the nudge). What has been reported on German TV - the video is here (from about 3:20) - is a sudden outbreak of ground-clearing and construction work when Bush and his media crew visited Biloxi. The workers downed tools after Bush left; it was all done for the cameras. But the Biloxi charade was no more than a missed opportunity to do something more constructive - the workers had been clearing an area where nobody had actually lived before the hurricane. More seriously, vital repair work in New Orleans was started for the President's benefit - and stopped when he no longer needed it. Also via Kos, here's Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, writing on 3rd September:
perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.
Paul Krugman, writing on September 1st, sums up:
Katrina hit five days ago - and it was already clear by last Friday [26th August] that Katrina could do immense damage along the Gulf Coast. Yet the response you'd expect from an advanced country never happened. Thousands of Americans are dead or dying, not because they refused to evacuate, but because they were too poor or too sick to get out without help - and help wasn't provided.
Something's going on. Or rather, something's going wrong - really horribly wrong. Jamie nails the mood:
So the hurricane strikes and all of us foreigners watch the footage on the news with concern but without much anxiety. It’s just a matter of time before can-do America rolls up its sleeves and cleans up the mess, right? Time goes by and then the Mayor of New Orleans pops up on the BBC talking about bodies floating down the streets and suddenly the estimate of deaths goes up into the thousands. It’s like watching someone jump out of an aeroplane and slowly realising that that person does not, in fact, have a parachute.
There’s something weirdly soviet about all this. We’re seeing this immensely powerful country which has somehow stopped working. There’s sand in the joints and the parts don’t fit together properly. There’s a general air of sluggishness and fatalism. No-one in authority seems to know what to do about anything, or if they do, they don’t have the resources. The president looks on with vague stupefaction as bits drop off and float away.
As for what's going wrong, well, I've got a theory. Two theories, actually, and I'm not sure yet whether they fit together. I'll let you know when I find out. Tune in tomorrow ect ect ect.

[Update: the analytical posts are here and here.]