Wall Street shouldn't trump the government in emergency response

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It didn't really take that long, not even a month. After careful consideration some of the leading conservative OP-ED minds in the country have pinned down the problems with the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. The problem was ... the government itself.

The argument goes something like this: The folks in this town - with all their red tape, their bureaucratic mumbo jumbo, their chronic inability to get anything done - simply can't be expected to handle emergency management. It would be better to turn it over to the private sector, or, as The New York Times's John Tierney suggested, to Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart, you see, responded quickly to the disaster on the Gulf Coast. While the government was busy twiddling its thumbs, the nation's largest retailer was sending truckloads of ice and generators and chain saws to the needy in region.

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Mr. Tierney, speaking on Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show, told the audience, "[Wal-Mart's] got its own emergency operation center where I think six days before the hurricane, as soon as that storm appeared, they started moving generators and supplies and trucks into position and they're ready. I mean this is what they do all the time and they, you know, they're efficient."

Indeed they are. The question is would we now simply say that we don't believe the government can be efficient in times of crisis? It has in the past. And since when is rushing materials to an area that needs it suddenly the province of geniuses - something only those whizzes on Wall Street could have come up with?

Just maybe, the government's real problem in responding to Katrina wasn't the fact that it was swimming in a sea of public sector inefficiency, but the fact that in this particular case these particular agencies were blatantly incompetent. Maybe some people in the Homeland Security Department and the people running FEMA and, yes, some local officials down in the Gulf made some big mistakes.

The blunders that followed Katrina may be a very nasty indictment of the Bush administration, or of Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco or of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin or all of the above. But if we are going to see those errors as an indictment of government in general, we need to apply the "errors equal failure" standard across the board, to business as well as government.

For instance, should we allow any private companies to supply electric power now that we've witnessed Enron's seedy activities? How can we keep giving contracts to private companies when we find out later they can't account for billions of dollars? And you can pick from a long list of culprits on that one, though Halliburton springs to mind.

None of which is to say the private sector is always bad or inefficient, it's just that the "government is the problem" approach is too simplistic. It assumes that efforts succeed or fail because of motive. That is to say, businesses succeed because money is at stake and government fails because there is no accountability or profit motive.

Beyond the fact that this formulation simply ignores some realities (the US military's ties to the dreaded public sector don't seem to get in the way when it's needed), there are two big problems with this thinking.

First, there are without question many successful and soundly built private enterprises in the United States producing excellent goods and services, but there are also many lousy, inefficient companies that produce garbage. In other words, using airlines as an example, for every "brilliant" Southwest, there's a "suffering" Northwest. The differences between the two isn't the profit motive, it's the minds at the top and the people inside.

Second, and more important, to say there's no accountability in government is simply wrong - and if you watched the way the White House responded to the arrival of hurricane Rita this past weekend you know they understand that.

If you didn't know any better you might have thought President Bush had appointed himself head of FEMA. Here he was at a FEMA meeting in Washington. There he was in the Rocky Mountains' NorthCom Headquarters monitoring the effort. It may have all been a bit showy, but the message was unmistakable. The president had read his poll numbers and knew he was being held responsible for FEMA's gaffes after Katrina. He was determined to do anything and everything to run a better show this time around.

It wasn't just the presidential photo ops, though. Federal, state, and local officials went out of their way to sound the alarm and to be prepared. Those who didn't have transportation in Galveston were given bus rides. The military was on the ground before the storm hit.

And they did it all without Wal-Mart.

Dante Chinni writes a twice monthly political column for the Monitor.

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