September 14, 2005

Column 2005-9-11 Commentary

First, an administrative note: now that I'm a graduate student, my time has many more demands on it than before, and the recent trend in which my posts become shorter, more erratic, and, I fear, worse is likely to continue. Hopefully all five of my readers will be able to bear up under this crushing blow.

Brooks's latest column demonstrates conclusively that he has gotten over the devastation of Hurrican Katrina. How can one tell? Simple: he is back to spouting Republican talking points, in this case the claim that the failure of the Bush administration to deal effectively with the aftermath of Katrina is not their fault, but instead is due to the fact that government simply can't deal with something like Katrina. The government had a great plan, he says -- well, actually, he spends the first half of the column making fun of the bureaucratic nature of the plan, which makes his sudden approval of it rather surprising -- but government being government, all tangled up in bureaucracy and whatnot, it simply can't implement the plan effectively. This piece of propaganda would be more believable were it not that the implementation of the plan was so obviously screwed up that only a Brooks could believe that it could not have been done better. When the government leaders who are supposed to be in charge of the emergency response are getting information on the situation from the journalists who are interviewing them, it's hard to simply shrug one's shoulders and blame bureacratic inefficency. When the head of Homeland Security doesn't seem to know what he's supposed to do to set the implementation of the plan in motion (or possibly even understand the mechanism under which he acquires the power to do so), one starts to wonder whether, even if government can never be perfect, it can at least be better than this. (In the interests of balance, it must be noted that Tom Delay believes that government is currently running at peak efficiency. Which side of the argument this supports is left to the reader to determine.) When it becomes clear that the top staff of the agency which is intended to deal with situations such as this one was made up almost entirely of political appointees whose qualifications tended to have to do with managing political campaigns rather than natural disasters, and that its head appears to have achieved his position by dint of being the college roommate of the previous agency head, who achieved his position because he was a close associate of the president, one really starts to question whether bureaucracy is entirely at fault here.

Leaving these questions aside, though, this is a deeply pessimistic theory of government, and one that furthermore seems to be entirely at variance with Bush's, and hence Brooks's, ideas. After all, Bush has run on his ability to do big things with government, most notably keep Americans safe from terrorists. If government is unable to deal with a hurricane, it presumably can't do anything about a terrorist attack. And as for spreading democracy in the Middle East in order to defeat terrorism? If Brooks doesn't believe that it is possible for the American government to coordinate a relief effort to a relatively small area of the United States in a timely fashion, how can he, in good conscience, support a plan to reshape the political landscape of a large, volatile area of the world? Obviously, government would be bound to screw it up. Of course, a Brooksian government would be unable to do anything, except maybe pass tax cuts. Which makes it a perfect government to some movement conservatives, but most people believe government can do more. Even the Dobsons of the world think that government can effectively regulate morality, if nothing else. The fact that Brooks has been reduced to blaming the system for Republican failures -- once again proving that personal responsibility is only for the poor and non-white -- shows just how afraid Republicans are of this latest proof that they are incapable of governing effectively. "You might as well elect me, nobody else will do better anyway" is a slogan that may deter blame in the short run but is hardly likely to inspire confidence in the public.

But it is also worth noting that many movement conservatives truly believe Brooks's thesis -- for instance, everybody has heard Grover Norquists's quote about wanting to shrink government to the size where he could drown it in the bathtub -- and that this belief in the inherent inability of government to do anything is at least partly responsible for the complete incompetence the Bush administration has demonstrated. When people who believe that government can do nothing come into power, their convictions become self-fulfilling. FEMA will never be able to really deal with a big disaster anyway, so why not fill its top ranks with political operatives? The government would only waste this tax money: why not funnel it to major contributors? And when something big goes wrong, well, of course it did: after all, this is the government we're talking about here. Unfortunately for the movement conservatives, most Americans aren't going to simply accept that due to government shortcomings that nobody will ever be able to overcome, there will be nobody to help them for days in the aftermath of a major disaster. It is, hopefully, finally becoming apparent that when you vote for people who don't believe that the government can (or, for that matter, should) help you, you don't get helped. In the face of this fact, Brooks's claim that nobody can help you anyway is unlikely to be popular, especially when it's so obviously wrong. In this way, this column is actually quite encouraging: when the excuses are so poor, the excuse-makers are obviously in trouble.