Wall Street Journal Editorial Gets It Right

Dear Everyone;

The Wall Street Journal finally gets one right in an editorial. The less government the better.

Ron Getty
SF Libertarian

Bureaucratic Failure
To understand Katrina's problems, read the 9/11 report.

Friday, September 2, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT
Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies.--The 9/11 Commission Report
The response to Hurricane Katrina suggests we are not very good at it. The stark images of bereft people in New Orleans and Mississippi are said to reveal inadequate preparation by the agents of government--from elected officials to bureaucracies--whose duties include commanding the vast resources and authority of government to provide help when it is most needed.
To be sure, the scale of Katrina's force and devastation overwhelms the notion of a rationally organized response. The grim fact remains that disasters are relatively commonplace in the world. Swiss Re, the big reinsurance group, annually publishes a compendium called "Natural catastrophes and man-made disasters" listing the human and economic toll. In 2004, it recorded 116 natural catastrophes, with the Dec. 26 Asian tsunami leaving more than 280,000 dead or missing. Less well-remembered, often the case with Third World disaster, a June monsoon killed 1,845 in Bangladesh and Hurricane Jeanne in September left some 3,000 dead in Haiti, whose flooded city of Gonaives looked like New Orleans.
An industry of experts has emerged, dedicated to mitigating disasters, both their imminence and aftermath. Science magazine just dedicated its cover to "Dealing with Disasters." We know quite a lot.
Specialists in disaster mitigation hold annual conferences to share knowledge. In January in Japan, the U.N. held the five-day World Conference on Disaster Reduction, with numerous representatives from member states. A week earlier in Mauritius, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for "a global warning system" for tsunamis and "all other threats." Specialized disaster Web sites exist, such as the Pan American Health Organization's site on Disasters and Humanitarian Assistance." The U.S. oceanographic administration has created the Center for Tsunami Inundation Mapping Efforts, a sophisticated modeling program to help vulnerable nations in the Pacific.

So if we're so smart, why are Louisiana and Mississippi sinking beneath water and red tape?
It has been reported in past days how the relief agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA are struggling; basics such as food distribution are in disarray. On paper anyway, many of these problems had already been addressed. By law, FEMA requires all states, if they are to receive grant money, to file both pre- and post-catastrophe mitigation plans. Experts in Louisiana, and indeed New Orleans, have been drafting one for several years.
We know what to do. We have many specialists in the arcane disciplines relevant to understanding natural and man-made disasters. We know what to do, but we are not good at using what we know. Why not?
We fail to use well what we know because we rely too much on large public bureaucracies. This was the primary lesson of the 9/11 Commission Report. Large public bureaucracies, whether the FBI and the CIA or FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, don't talk to each other much. They are poorly incentivized, if at all. Budgets, the oxygen of the acronymic planets, make bureaucracy's managers first responders to constant political whim. Real-world problems, as the 9/11 report noted, inevitably seem distant and minor: "Once the danger has fully materialized, evident to all, mobilizing action is easier--but it then may be too late."
Homeland Security, a new big bureaucracy, has struggled since 2001 to assemble a feasible plan to respond to another major terror event inside the U.S. The possibility, or likelihood, of a bird-borne flu pandemic is beginning to reach public awareness, but the government is at pains to create a sufficient supply of vaccine or a distribution system for anti-viral medicines. Any bets on which will come first--the flu or the distribution system?
Big public bureaucracies are going to get us killed. They already have. One may argue that this is an inevitable result of living in an advanced and complex democracy. Yes, up to a point. An open political system indeed breeds inefficiencies (though possibly the Jeb Bush administration that dealt with Hurricane Andrew is more competent than Gov. Blanco's team in Louisiana). And perhaps low-lying, self-indulgent New Orleans understood its losing bargain with a devil's fate.
But we ought to at least recognize that our increasingly tough First World problems--terrorism, viruses, the rising incidence of powerful natural disasters--are being addressed by a public sector that too often is coming to resemble a Third World that can't execute.
I'll go further. We should consider outsourcing some of these functions, for profit, to the private sector. In recent days, offers of help have come from such companies as Anheuser-Busch and Culligan (water), Lilly, Merck and Wyeth (pharmaceuticals), Nissan and GM (cars and trucks), Sprint, Nextel and Qwest (communications gear and phone cards), Johnson & Johnson (toiletries and first aid), Home Depot and Lowe's (manpower). Give contract authority to organize these resources to a project-management firm like Bechtel. Use the bureaucracies as infantry.

A public role is unavoidable and political leadership is necessary. But if we're going to live with First World threats, such as the destruction of a major port city, let's deploy the most imaginative First World brains--in the private sector and academia--to mitigate those threats. Laughably implausible? Look at your TV screen. The status quo isn't funny.
Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.