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Hungry Like the Beowulf

Fighting Fire With Fliers, and Other Tales of Lumbering Bureaucracy

Based on Ernie's recommendation -- the very making of which showed a modicum of grace under pressure -- I have been reading John M. Barry's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.   I am at about the halfway point now, and I concur in Ernie's endorsement.  [Offer: If you click through the Amazon link and purchase this book, or most anything else by way of that referral, I will gladly divert my referrer's share of the purchase price to hurricane relief.]

While the Mississippi River itself is not the principal culprit in the present devastation of New Orleans, the parallels in human behavior between past and present are striking.  In particular, as fingers have pointed and tempers have boiled over who was responsible for what and who was too slow and who was part of the problem rather than part of the solution, I find myself returning to one passage in particular: 

It is the 1880s.  After years of hard-nosed competition between the brilliant civilian engineer James Buchanan Eads and the Army Corps of Engineers embodied in the somewhat less capable but still talented General Andrew Atkinson Humphries, Eads succeeds by means of elaborate jetties in creating a reliable entrance to the River from the Gulf.  Between them, Eads and Humphries know most everything there is to know about the River, and science and engineering appear to hold the promise of controlling it at last.  Always Here to Help, the federal government steps in in earnest with the creation of the Mississippi River Commission:

It never became, formally or informally, 'the Eads Commission.'  Though Humphries and the War Department could not prevent the establishment of the commission, they did succeed in having Congress stipulate that Army officers outnumber civilians on it by three to two, that an Army officer serve as president, and that this officer report to his military superior, the chief of engineers.  Eads was named to the commission, but he could not dominate it.  In 1882 he resigned to protest its compromises.

Science, he knew, does not compromise.  Instead, science forced ideas to compete in a dynamic process.  This competition refines or replaces old hypotheses, gradually approaching a more perfect representation of the truth, although one can reach truth no more than one can reach infinity.

But the Mississippi River Commission never became a scientific enterprise.  It was a bureaucracy.  The natural process of a bureaucracy, by contrast, tends to compromise competing ideas.  The bureaucracy then adopts the compromise as truth and incorporates it into its being....

Bureaucracy is always with us, and it is a large part of the reason that the current hurricane response is the inefficient, aggravating thing that it is.  Bureaucracy inevitably creates channels that must be gone through, procedures that must be followed, forms that must be completed exactly before one moves along to the next form that must be completed exactly before it can be forwarded through appropriate channels for review.  Here is one of innumerable examples of the process at work, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune:

As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters - his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week - a battalion of highly trained men and women sat idle Sunday in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta.    

Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.  Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.


The firefighters, several of whom are from Utah, were told to bring backpacks, sleeping bags, first-aid kits and Meals Ready to Eat.  They were told to prepare for 'austere conditions.'  Many of them came with awkward fire gear and expected to wade in floodwaters, sift through rubble and save lives.

'They've got people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified,' said a Texas firefighter.  'We're sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven't been contacted yet.'

[Emphasis added.  Link via Matt Welch at Hit and Run.  The photo of attendees at the harassment class that accompanies the Tribune story is expressive in its own right.  We might note another bureaucratic tendency -- redundancy and repetition -- at work as well: Quite apart from any debates over the necessity of such training prior to entering a disaster zone, is there a fire department in this country that doesn't have its own sexual harassment education program in place?  Why the federalized refresher?]

Bureaucracies are by nature self-perpetuating, with their day-to-day functioning levels most often filled by long term employees whose ingrained habits change little or at all as political appointees rotate through at the top.  Those appointees in turn, and the elected officials who appoint them, are commonly selected by methods in which expertise, experience and technical qualification are among the least of considerations, supplanted in the hierarchy by such concerns as is he/she my pal, did he/she write me a large check at some point, do I as a voter believe that he/she "cares" about me or "understands" me or has a nice smile or a spins out a better line of snappy patter than his/her alternative, and so on.

There is ample condemnation owing to every level of government this week, but I am persuaded that different elected and appointed officials in any of the key positions would produce, at best, only modest improvement in the end result.  Radley Balko, engaging in the sport of picking on Paul Krugman, observes something similar:

Krugman's second false assumption is more egregious.  And that is that cronyism is somehow limited to the right, or to limited-government types.  Please.  The bigger the government, the more corrupt the government.  I'll make no attempt to defend the appointment of [FEMA director] Michael Brown.  Nor will I attempt to absolve the Bush administration of charges of cronyism.  They're as guilty as every previous administration.  But they are as guilty as every previous administration.  Cronyism isn't symptomatic of those of us who distrust government, cronyism is endemic to government.  Corruption and backscratching are part and parcel of government.  They are the very nature of government.  They are one of many reasons why those of us who hold contempt for government -- well -- hold contempt for government.

Here's a question for Krugman: The Army Corps of Engineers set out on the task of shoring up those levees on the outskirts of New Orleans in the 1960s.  The federal government had taken responsibility for the system in the 1920s.  Forty years later, after both parties have held both the White House and the Congress, that task was never completed.  Despite repeated warnings, we finally paid the price for massive government incompetence.

[Emphasis in original.] 

I do not join Balko in outright contempt for government, but I will certainly allow that governments in every age have been and will with certainty remain a prime repository of head-scratching, hair-tearing human folly.  Yes, things are bad, responses and planning have been painfully inadequate in many many instances, and in a perfect world none of it would have happened.  In the best of all possible worlds, however, regardless of the particular local, state or federal administration that was in place, I think it is safe to say that the details or the degree of misery might differ somewhat, but there would still be misery aplenty. 

Like Eads' scientific truth, we can no more reach perfection, or even near-perfection, than we can reach infinity.  Let blame and retribution fall where and when they will and should, so long as pursuing them does not interfere with the efforts of millions in and out of government who are responding to that misery as best they imperfectly can.


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