Monday, September 05, 2005

The Vast Power of Rationalization

Dennis Byrne and Niall Ferguson stand in awe of the vast power of nature, and can’t imagine why anyone would blame government at any level for the destruction caused by Katrina. In the Chicago Tribune, Byrne writes:

The ease and earnestness with which people express the knee-jerk belief that one of the most destructive and powerful forces in nature could have been defeated "if only . . ." belies a troubling level of ignorance or naivete. An "average" hurricane packs the energy of hundreds of atomic bombs. Or the equivalent of a half-year's supply of energy for the U.S.

To suggest that all "they" have to do to beat such a force is to build a sea wall 10 feet higher is screwy. So is the idea that all the food, water and shelter that a million refugees need can be positioned, as if overnight, within a day's ride of the destruction. Just assembling hundreds of buses, flatboats, helicopters, ice bags, hot meals and other necessities is a logistical miracle.

Rational people don’t believe that humans can "defeat" hurricanes, avoid all damage, fix every problem over night, or build a perpetual motion machine. Once Byrne is through beating the crap out of this straw man, he might address the question of whether better preparation, including a higher levee, might have limited the damage. He might address how well disaster management services performed in this disaster in comparison with other disasters.

Byrne continues:

Maybe the finger-pointing comes from today's mindset that someone else always must be ready and in charge of ensuring our safety and comfort. Or from an arrogance that we can plan in advance for every imaginable catastrophe. Or maybe it is simply partisan and ideological bunk, opportunistically tossed Bush's way.

We can’t plan in advance for every imaginable catastrophe. But experts have repeatedly identified the Katrina scenario– a hurricane hitting New Orleans, leading to a breach of the levees– as one of the most worrisome potential natural disasters. In fact, in 2001 FEMA identified the three most serious threats to the nation as a terrorist attack in New York City, an earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane hitting New Orleans. Byrne pretending that he doesn’t know this is partisan bunk, opportunistically tossed at Bush’s critics.

Ferguson’s LA Times column is about the important philosophical questions raised by Katrina– why does God allow such horrors to occur? What would Leibniz say? But when he turns to the question of government responsibility for dealing with the hurricane, he turns dismissive.

The banal response was, of course, to blame the city, state or federal authorities for sins of omission — a charge that prompted one of the city's former planning officials to declare defensively: "We are all responsible." For a hurricane?
At the risk of being banal, I’ll point out that while no human is responsible for a hurricane, specific people are responsible for building and maintaining levees, managing government responses to emergencies, and funding these activities. Just because Man cannot tame Nature is no reason to avoid a discussion of who has done their job properly and who has not.