Monday, April 28, 2008

McCain's False FEMA Promise

While touring New Orleans yesterday, John McCain declared the government's response to the Katrina disaster "terrible and disgraceful" and pledged that it would never happen again. But McCain also demonstrated precisely the mindset that caused FEMA to revert from what both Republicans and Democrats in the 1990s had called a model agency back into the turkey farm it had been before the Clinton administration. He said: "Too often, government has its own peculiar way of doing things, following practices that in the private sector would invite financial ruin or worse." McCain reiterated the talking point of Newt Gingrich and every other purveyor of right-wing sound bites that UPS, FedEx, and Wal-Mart can tell you where packages are in real time, but FEMA couldn't even locate its own assets or people.

But it's the belief system that the private sector inherently does things better than government that impelled Bush's first FEMA head, Joseph Allbaugh, to dismantle the agency, notwithstanding its greatly improved performance in the 1990s, by farming out many of its activities to purportedly more efficient contractors.

Allbaugh, acting on the right-wing's hostility toward civil servants, politicized its top leadership with like-minded ideologues to bypass much more qualified and experienced personnel who had demonstrated their effectiveness in the 1990s. He cut programs, like the Project Impact disaster mitigation initiative, even though it had been widely considered to be cost-effective. And he told the states that they would have to bear a greater share of the responsibility for responding to disasters. That's the right-wing approach to government management, applied to virtually every domestic agency throughout the Bush years: politicize, privatize, devolve, and cut.

John McCain's comments give every indication that he would follow the same approach, which isn't surprising since conservatives have little else to say about government other than that the private sector is inherently better. In the Senate, he consistently voted against more funds for FEMA, against making it an independent agency as it had been in the 1990s, and even against the creation of a commission to investigate how the government failed after Katrina. That indifference to learning from experience and adjusting accordingly is a central characteristic of movement conservatism. No matter how many times, say, tax cuts for the rich have failed to provide promised broad economic benefits while exploding federal deficits, it remains a central element of the right-wing --and McCain's--platform. The same rigidity applies to neoconservative arguments about foreign policy, regardless of its self-evident failures.

At the very least, anyone who generally cared about preventing a repeat of FEMA's Katrina failures would want to start by looking at how it improved in the 1990s. Simply restating the right-wing incantations about government's inferiority is sure to cause nothing more than the same failures that conservatism produced in this decade.