Katrina – the column of the hurricane

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Below is this week’s column on Hurricane Katrina.

It seemed to me to be a good illustration of the importance of public goods that we take for granted. I also wanted to tell the story of my days in the Canberra bush fires. As I got into it, it seemed that the example of domestic security was not a very ‘pure’ version of a public good as people can purchase a fair bit of safety and security privately.

Instead the events of the hurricane illustrate a whole plethora of social assets that people refer to as ‘public goods’ but that an economist is a little uneasy referring to by that name. Still, I think the public’s more vague idea of a public good is not all bad. In the pubilc mind I think the expression conjures up a bunch of associations that are broader than pure public goods like defence from external attack.

Technically those things are often not pure public goods, they’re a bunch of institutions which are related to social capital and enable society to function peacefully, smoothly and productively. The rule of law, the idea of spontaneous co-operation in emergencies right through to a more generalised ‘goodwill’ between citizens. Perhaps anything that permits co-operation.

Now of course markets are a form of co-operation and they are built on these institutions.

I began intending to write a column pretty much like Paul Krugman wrote on the same subject. It was going to be on the ‘shrill’ side. Turns out he even used the same example of the egregious Mike Brown (though I didn’t see his column till I’d pretty much finished my own – promise). Good old ‘Brownie’ is hard to resist. He sure is doing a helluva job.

But my column is a little softer than Krugman’s in its economics because I didn’t really want to hammer home the ‘private goods versus public goods’ line as I think suggests a kind of bias one way or the other when the aim should be balance or rather private goods built around the infrastructure of public goods.

These decisions on how one writes something are also influenced by what one finds as one does the work. I went searching for Bush quotes like Ronald Reagan’s “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem”. I found some similar lines, but they were sufficiently thin on the ground and I decided they were not representative of Bush’s core messages.

We all know that he was elected as a ‘compassionate conservative’ (was that a guffaw I heard? Listen pal are you with or against the terrorists?). But even since he became a war president he’s continued to use the rhetoric of ‘compassionate’ more than small government, which is fair enough given his ‘tax cut and spend’ record.

In any event, I hope you like the column.

Note also that I’ve taken the liberty of filling out a few passages where there was no space to do so in the published version.

“Most of the goods we consume are private goods”. That’s my Economics 101 textbook speaking. It’s true enough just don’t tell the poor black residents of New Orleans. In the words of E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post:

It turns out that our individual striving goes on within a web of social protections that we take for granted until they disappear. We rely on each other more than we know. The rich, the middle class and the poor all of us bank on law, government, collective action and public goods more than we ever want to admit. The dreaded word “infrastructure” puts people to sleep at city council meetings and congressional hearings. But when publicly built infrastructure . . . breaks down, we realize that the things that seem boring and not worth thinking about are essential.

I had first hand experience of this in the Canberra bushfires of January 2003 attending my brother-in-law’s wedding reception on Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. The sky to the North was clear all day. But on that hot, horrible, windy day the vista looking South over the lake gradually morphed into an Old Testament scene you know the kind, when God had one of those really bad hair days.

The sky was an angry puce, though sufficient sunlight forced its way through the black smoke clouds to tinge the foreground an eerie washed out orange. Lunch was served.

But by the time it came to the sweets well we were deserted! The staff skedaddled to rescue their homes from the blaze. Canberra lost four lives and over five hundred homes that day, provoking the same kind of recrimination that we’re now seeing in New Orleans.

Driving home a primal scene played itself out before me as the smoke, thick enough to block the sun, turned day into night. A scene from Mad Max was unfolding within a couple of hours of the public infrastructure going down.

When they were not shut down by the fire itself, those systems which made the suburbs function were paralysed by the scale and speed with which the emergency had struck.

Police attended in force, but had no idea what to do. We had an old fire truck on Mum’s farm that could have defended a house or two as did neighboring farms. But the call never came. Instead the metropolitan fire service battled with equipment, personnel and strategies made for tamer things. They didn’t know what to do either.

Power to the traffic lights failed leaving drivers to fend for themselves which we didn’t do very well. In about 20 minutes I saw three accidents and an upturned car.

The situation in the Big Easy was massively worse and not just in terms of scale. And I’m glad we’re not all armed to the teeth like they are in New Orleans and Baghdad.

And I’m glad we don’t have a racially based underclass the size of America’s. I say that not just because as a relaxed and comfortable law abiding citizen I’m scared of gangs. But also because disaster planning in America seems better suited to those who have sufficient private goods not to require public protection.

In Chicago in 1995 just as in New Orleans ten years later, politicians were on vacation when disaster struck on that occasion a heat wave. The well heeled could leave in their cars. Or just use their air conditioners. 739 of those who couldn’t died. They were the isolated, the poor, the sick, the old. And a disproportionate number were black. And so it was in New Orleans.

The people around New Orleans rely on another public good levee banks on the Mississippi. Remember no-one will fund them properly for profit because they can’t capture all the benefits themselves.

Like those Old Testament prophets warning of God’s vengeance, frequent reports foretold just the kind of possibilities that have come to pass. But levee maintenance and development has been hampered by the prominence given to other priorities. Like settling scores with Saddam Hussein and hefty tax cuts to the wealthy.

And there’s another public good. Competence and integrity in government.

In his first debate with Al Gore in the 2000 election George Bush offered this compliment to the Clinton Administration.

You know, as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe. I can remember the fires that swept Parker County, Texas. I remember the floods that swept our state. I remember going down to Del Rio, Texas. I have to pay the administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis.

Democrat Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has just hired Witt to help the relief effort just last Sunday. How come he’s available. Bush replaced him as FEMA head with his political campaign manager Joe Allbaugh and folded FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security.

When Allbaugh moved on in 2003 he was replaced by Michael D. Brown who’d become FEMA Deputy in 2001. His qualifications? Running an Arabian horse association from which he was fired. Oh and he was a Republican and Allbaugh’s college roommate. In 2004 Mike Brown praised Gulf Coast states for being “a model of preparedness and risk reduction” against hurricanes.

Whatever . . .

Tens of thousands of New Orleans’ poor huddled masses followed official instructions and huddled into the Morial Convention Centre. They got shelter from natures’ storm but remained without food, water or security as the violence and looting escalated.

Nearly four days after Katrina hit Brown told reporters that he’d just learned of their plight.

Touring the devastated areas George Bush said “Brownie, you’re doing a helluva job”. Whatever . . .

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Cameron Riley
2024 years ago

The Department of Homeland Security is a massive Sir Humphrey Appleby. It has obfuscated authority, responsibility and ultimately effectiveness. It was of dubious need anyway, more a political stunt so the Administration and Congress “appeared” to be doing something about responding to disasters.

FEMA has large centres out in West Virginia; it is a source of local pride. Several of the folks out there work for FEMA and are proud of it, and the work they do in emergencies. Courtesy of Bush choosing political loyalty over competence, that is shot now. Wonder how the West Virginians feel.

It looks like Bush’s figures being in the 30s, coupled with his inability to govern in times of emergency, will mean he will be Bush-bashed continually in the media. Already they are starting to revolt. Their 20 second “human-tragedy” videos which were on constant replay may have sunk into their head. If he was a popular President, they wouldnt touch him. Fortunately for them, they can *be* out-raged as Bush has become nationally unpopular anyway.

2024 years ago

Never underestimate the spin-doctors.

The administration has counter-attacked with a number of articles -and the expected support from the blogosphere – placing the blame squarely on the local and state authorities.

Cameron Riley
2024 years ago

Bill, Ultimately the media is a reflection of their audience. Even Fox News has been breaking ranks at different times recently, which suggests that the “base” has some disquiet and miscomfort.

Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

Made my lunch hour at work reading this in my Courier-Mail with my uni standard sandwich, Nicholas. Very well said indeed!

guambat stew
2024 years ago

“Instead the events of the hurricane illustrate a whole plethora of social assets that people refer to as ‘public goods’ but that an economist is a little uneasy referring to by that name. Still, I think the public’s more vague idea of a public good is not all bad.”

I think the public generally has a better intuitive grasp of terminology than economists, who constantly box themselves in. E.g., http://guambatstew.blogspot.com/2005/09/doodoo-economics.html

And for something completely different, I was a little surprised that nobody here bought into the Telstra stoush. Quick, before it gets brushed back under the rug, here’s mine: http://guambatstew.blogspot.com/2005/09/full-fair-and-timely-disclosure.html

2024 years ago

Great post, Nicholas.
It occurred to me that the fewer reliable phone connections we have in the bush (Telstra!) the more vulnerable we are to bushfire.

2024 years ago

Great post, Nicholas.
It occurred to me that the fewer reliable phone connections we have in the bush (Telstra!) the more vulnerable we are to bushfire.

Terry McCrann
Terry McCrann
2024 years ago

Intrigued by your apparent need to go back to 1995 to find 739 dying in a Chicago heat-wave for a comparison.
Why jump over 2003, when 10,000-plus died in France in their heatwave? Adjusted for population, that’s something like 60-70 times the number who died as a result of Katrina.
Maybe, because it wouldn’t ‘fit’ your meme – that it’s all the fault of a George Bush who appoints cronies, hands tax cuts to the rich, and has no regard for the public good.
In France they purport to promote, and spend much more on, the ‘public good’; they are so much less ‘American’. Yet thousands – literally -died.
Interesting also that the only two commentators you quote are Dionne and Krugman. In very cosy agreement, apart from Krugmabn’s ‘shrillness’- and interesting word for someone who is clinically consumed by HBS – Hate Bush Syndrome.