WASHINGTON — The first measure of a society's effectiveness is its ability to organize itself to respond to its collective needs. The Romans, with the Barbarians at the gate, couldn't. And the Americans, with Al Qaeda at the gate, are having trouble getting their act together.
It was perhaps to have been expected that President Bush would shortchange health and social programs while pouring money into tax cuts. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1958 of a nation dedicated to "private affluence and public squalor."
In the 2003 version of public squalor, cuts are recommended in programs like preschool Head Start and free school lunches for poor kids. And the states come under pressure to raise taxes for basic needs while federal taxes are reduced.
As I say, some of this retrenchment in funds for public purposes, especially for the disadvantaged, could have been predicted. But not expected was that the president would shortchange this own stated No. 1 priority - the safety of the homeland.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge may provide low-cost diversion with color-coded alerts and advice to stock up on duct tape. But talk is cheap and real security is expensive. One would have thought that, with memories of Sept. 11, the president's first priority would be the first responders to a terrorist attack - police, firemen, public-health workers.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley wrote in The Washington Post this week that the federal government provided only $1 million of the $11 million his city has spent on homeland defense. And, Mr. O'Malley asks why it is necessary to wait for another devastating attack before taking action to protect America's ports, railways, and borders.
Recently, former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, who chaired a Council on Foreign Relations study on homeland defense, warned that another Sept. 11 would find most of the nation's cities no better prepared to react than last time.
It will take more than duct tape to meet this challenge. Maybe we need an alert system on Capitol Hill that flashes red when Congress is about to pass another tax break that siphons away money that our vulnerable infrastructure could use in our defense.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.