Monday, September 05, 2005

friendly exchange re: Katrina

Slightly edited email "exchange" between yours truly and a Unnamed Friend (UF). Said friend has been a friend since junior high, so if you disagree with his fairly lefty viewpoint, you will do so politely or face me.

UF: What a nightmare, huh? Looking at the news, you'd think this was freaking India.

ME: I don't have a TV, so I've been following this madness online. I did, however, catch some CNN while over at my buddy T's place. Yeah, it's lookin' bad. Some Republican senator, speaking recklessly and with no reference to professionally done tallies, estimated that the final body count would be around 10,000, give or take a few thousand. What an asshole. I'd like to think that our communication infrastructures are better than those in India, but maybe not. Each state has its own government and manages itself either well or poorly. That's federalism. If infrastructure isn't in place, that's not the federal government's fault.

UF: On NPR the other morning, some reporter was talking about how a slew of big think tanks have been saying for years that one of the worst things that could befall the U.S. is a disastrous hurricane hit on New Orleans. And it's a no-brainer, when you think about it. Yet when it happens, they've got no game plan for it.

ME: That's human nature, not to take looming disaster seriously. Here I am, 80 pounds overweight, knowing full well that a host of problems are going to bloom in my body in the next five years... yet I'm not out running every day, or dieting, or doing whatever it takes to stave off heart disease, diabetes, and so on. People are fucking idiots.

Remember DC's response to 9/11? DC had disaster plans for city-wide evacuation, but they hadn't been updated since-- what-- the 1960s or 70s. DC is a prime target for terrorists because it's so easy to knock out the bridges and cause general havoc.

And of course, the NYC 9/11 thing, we now know, had been a topic of discussion since Clinton's administration. Both Clinton and Bush flubbed that one, failing to move decisively on the intelligence they had. But I've been sympathetic: people in authority have to sift through a blizzard of information, prioritizing the intelligence and acting according to those priorities. It's often hard to judge what belongs at the top of the to-do list.

When a disaster strikes, recrimination is easy. Saying "the signs were there" is also easy, I think.

It seems to be the cycle of things: we ignore danger, then disaster strikes, then we recriminate and display 20/20 hindsight. Whether we're talking about heart attacks or levees breaking or towers collapsing, this seems to hold true across the board.

UF: It takes five days to start dropping food from helicopters. More testament, from my cynical left-wing perspective, of how the increasing polarization of rich and poor in this country means less and less upkeep of infrastructure -- which of course winds up fucking the poor.

ME: I think that's true to some extent, but what system can you put in place that maximizes comfort for the largest number of people? A top-down nanny state won't do that: failed examples abound in history. China looks like it's making progress in that direction (totalitarian govt and quasi-free market), but people still get dragged out, lined up against walls, and shot. I'd rather have random gun violence than that sort of system.

And I'm wary of liberal utopianism. "The poor, you will always have with you," as Jesus noted. There's no perfect system, and the poor-- whoever they are-- will always be fucked. (Also: humanity isn't as perfectible as all that. Not until we start deeply screwing around with our own DNA.)

But in socialist economies like those in Western Europe, it's not only the poor who get shafted. Which brings me to what you say next:

UF: It's like the blackout of a couple summers ago all over again, only way deadlier. Try to image a blackout like that happening in Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland. Of course it wouldn't. Those people take care of their infrastructure. They pay through the nose for it, true, but at least the fucking lights don't go out for several days at a time on a goodly chunk of a continent.

ME: All throughout France two summers ago, massive death among the sick and elderly occurred because French medical facilties-- countrywide-- were unprepared for a sudden (but not unexpected!!) heat wave. "La canicule," the French newspapers called it. The canicule killed fifteen thousand people, who suffered in hospitals that had no proper ventilation or air conditioning*. That's the kind of astronomical death toll you'd expect from, say, an earthquake in Bam, Iran, or in some part of Turkey. Ridiculous. The French deaths took place all over the country, though especially in the southern regions. This shows the problem was (infra)structural in nature.

The disaster was a function of French governmental and economic policy. Socialized medicine's weak point was exploited by Mother Nature. The French were stacking bodies in gyms, under tents, in other places, because the heat was killing [old] folks in droves. I don't point this out to blame France, but merely to suggest that a socialist (or quasi-socialist) paradigm isn't going to provide the solutions you seek. The French "pay through the nose" for decent medical care... and this is the result!?

To put the blackouts and Louisiana into perspective: the diverse and localized nature of the power grid-- and of the state of Louisiana-- kept those respective problems from becoming more widespread than they were. Note, too, that the problems were isolated and solved rather quickly (true-- if you were one of the people lacking power, it probably didn't seem too quick).

The entire point of having diverse networks and multiple nexuses (economic, infrastructural, etc.) is that you can rip open one part of such a web and not take down the whole web. Because functions are spread out over many parts of that web, the web tends to weave itself back together. A centralized system is weaker because an attack on the center kills the entire system.

What this means is that the Mississippian and Alabamian governments have their own approaches to disaster relief, and they've been more effective than Louisiana at responding to their own disasters**. In the case of the blackout from a couple summers ago, the fact that the entire nation isn't wired to a single power grid was a saving grace. Yes, a major nexus took a hit, but it didn't knock all power in America out-- just power in some parts of the north (and in Canada, too, right?). If we were to rely only on the federal govt to take care of disaster-ravaged areas, there'd be a lot more misery right now.

This isn't to say that the federal govt is blameless re: Louisiana. I agree with you and the conservatives who think the govt should've moved in far more quickly to impose order, and also that Bush should have been far less glib on TV (cf. his recent speech, which many online conservatives are attacking). It's my understanding that Bush's approval ratings are in the toilet, and this disaster hasn't helped. He doesn't seem too great a leader in a crisis, does he. He wasn't on top of things at 9/11, either; then-Mayor Giuliani was the dude who captivated the nation by being active on site.

So, in a nutshell:

1. The poor will always be fucked, and I challenge anyone to show me a system that doesn't fuck the poor.

2. Generally speaking, many localized nexuses of control are better than one, huge, centralized nexus. Sometimes, though, order needs to be imposed by central authority. The Louisiana govt and the mayor of New Orleans have a lot to answer for, but so does Bush.

3. The European model (as exemplified by France) offers no guarantees about solid infrastructure, and can fuck over more than just the poor, as the canicule example shows rather painfully.

*We're talking mainly about the old and infirm.

**I'll grant that New Orleans is a special case, but that doesn't detract from what I'm saying.


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