A Little Damp

Amanda at Think Progress posts more about the problem of responding to disasters, discussed in the last post:

This morning on CNN, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) said that the state is missing vital National Guard equipment because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Usually the state has approximately 70-80 percent of its equipment at any given time, but it currently has just 40-50 percent. She added that these shortages “will just make it [recovery] that much slower.” …

… According to a recent report by a congressional commission, nearly “90 percent of Army National Guard units in the United States are rated ‘not ready,” largely “as a result of shortfalls in billions of dollars’ worth of equipment.” A January Government Accountability Office analysis found that the Pentagon “does not adequately track National Guard equipment needs for domestic missions” and as a consequence, “state National Guards may be hampered in their ability to plan for responding to large-scale domestic events.”

The same problem was an issue after Hurricane Katrina, you might remember, although plenty of troops and equipment from other states were on the Gulf Coast in a few days. Our military has become more depleted and stretched since, however.

Floods are spreading throughout large parts of the Great Plains — Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and South Dakota in particular. Communities damaged by disaster not only need rescuing; they need money to rebuild. There’s some folks on the Gulf Coast who might have something to say about that. This weekend President Bush made noises about the “pioneer spirit” of Midwesterners. That sounds ominous to me. Instead of providing trailers, maybe this time FEMA will drop leaflets all over the Plains that explain how to build a sod house.

Based on Memeorandum, at the moment rightie bloggers are still more hysterical about the exploding backpack in Las Vegas than they are about our nation’s continuing inability to respond to disasters as well as we should. The few righties who have commented on the problem in Kansas have brushed it off as the whining of another woman Democratic governor.

NOLA News: Revelry vs. Reality

Director Spike Lee was just named a winner of the annual George Polk Awards for his HBO documentary, “When the Levees Broke,” the Associated Press says. Appropriate, considering today is Fat Tuesday — Mardi Gras — a day associated with New Orleans.

Mary Foster of the Associated Press reports that NOLA’s Mardi Gras revelers have traded revelry for reality. Last year’s Mardi Gras parades were scaled down, but not this year’s. Tracy Smith reports for CBS News:

The celebration has been bigger than last year, with more than 700,000 people coming to the party, which ends at midnight.

A lot of tourists come for the music. And one of the few signs of recovery in the 18 months since Hurricane Katrina is that many musicians have come back home, thanks in large part to a housing program designed to keep and attract them.

Musicians seem to be an exception. About a third of the city’s residents plan to leave. Bill Walsh reported for the February 7 Times-Picayune:

Congressional frustration with the pace of Gulf Coast hurricane recovery exploded Tuesday with one lawmaker calling Louisiana’s Road Home housing program “a joke” and others berating the Bush administration for limiting public housing. …

… Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., went so far as to issue an apology to the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi for what he called “a complete failure of the administration here in Washington to respond to that crisis.”

Pursuing that theme, the committee hammered away at Roy Bernardi, deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for plans to demolish four major New Orleans public housing complexes with 3,900 apartments rather than rehabilitate them. …

… But the level of distrust of the federal agency became clear during a break in the proceedings when New Orleans public housing residents confronted Bernardi across the witness table.

They said HUD was overstating the damage to public housing and that many apartments could be reopened in short order. They also said that $1,100 disaster rental vouchers, which expire Sept. 30, are of limited use in the New Orleans area, where rents have skyrocketed because of limited availability.

“Why are you playing politics with our lives,” said Sharon Sears Jasper, a former resident of the St. Bernard housing complex. “Why are you destroying livable homes? Why do you want to make us homeless?”

And then there are the schools. The New Orleans public school system was struggling before Katrina. After, it was devastated.

Less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana received a $20.9 million No Child Left Behind grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The catch? The grant was to reopen charter schools, not open enrollment public schools. In addition, the state announced it would establish ten new charter schools.

The result is described by Jan Resseger, The Chicago Defender:

In America public education is supposed to be provided for everybody, but during this past January in New Orleans, 300 children languished out of school on a waiting list because the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) had neither buildings nor teachers to serve them.

Only when the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and local attorney Tracie Washington filed separate lawsuits on February 1, under federal law and Louisiana’s compulsory attendance act, did the RSD pledge to open two additional schools for the beginning of second semester, February 5.

It is now clear that a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of a hurricane is a poor time to experiment with school governance.

Aided by a $20.9 million federal charter school grant that came on September 30, 2005, less than one month after the storm, the Louisiana Legislature used Hurricane Katrina as an excuse for state takeover and a massive charter school experiment in New Orleans.

Today, over half of New Orleans’s 54 public schools are charter schools. From a recent editorial in The Harbus, an Harvard University independent student publication (emphasis added):

New Orleans currently has the highest percentage of charter schools of any urban school district in the country. With over half of its 54 public schools operating as charter schools, New Orleans has become a focal point of the education reform movement in the United States. If the Crescent City can emerge from Katrina with a more effective school system than it had prior to the storm, two things will happen. On the micro level, the children of the city will benefit tremendously. On the macro level, proponents of charter schools will have the large-scale example they need to push increased reform in other districts around the country.

Back to Jan Resseger:

Since the hurricane, parents have been required to apply to a fragmented system: a few selective admissions public schools left to be operated by the New Orleans School Board, 31 independent charter schools, and 18 schools opened by the RSD itself only when too few potential operators filed applications to launch charter schools. While Robin Jarvis, the RSD superintendent, blames today’s dysfunction on the condition of the public schools pre-Katrina, the real problem is that Louisiana and the RSD never planned to manage school operations.

That the RSD was unprepared to run a school system was clear in July 2006, when its ten person staff included a public relations liaison but no special education coordinator. After Louisiana laid off and then fired all 4,500 of New Orleans’ teachers who had been working in classrooms the day before Katrina struck, the RSD began advertising for 500 teachers only in late July 2006, after those best qualified had already taken jobs in charter schools or outside New Orleans. A shortage of teachers has plagued the RSD since last September. Today 33 percent of teachers hired by the RSD are uncertified.

So much for the education reform movement. The New Orleans “reformers” seem to be following the Iraq model — lay off everybody with job experience and knowledge and replace them with ideologues and hacks.

Other school districts across the Gulf Coast have scrambled successfully to welcome children back to the schools they attended pre-Katrina. A better plan for New Orleans would have been to keep one coherent system, retain New Orleans’ pre-Katrina teachers, open schools in all neighborhoods, and plan for slightly more schools than required for children immediately expected to return. The only side effect would have been smaller classes in under-enrolled schools until children moved back to fill the seats.

Now, after Louisiana granted charters and selective admissions schools the right to cap class sizes, the RSD is in the position of trying to pressure those “protected” schools to accept more children to reduce appalling over-crowding in RSD schools. Meanwhile the RSD has lacked the capacity to get other rotting buildings repaired.

Becky Bohrer of the Associated Press reported this month that the RSD is trying to attract new teachers by appealing to their sense of adventure:

Wanted: Idealistic teachers looking for a Peace Corps-style adventure in a city in distress.

Some of New Orleans’ most desperate, run-down schools are beset with a severe shortage of teachers, and they are struggling mightily to attract candidates by appealing to their sense of adventure and desire to make a difference. Education officials are even offering to help new teachers find housing. …

… After the storm, some of the worst of the worst public schools were put under state control, and those are the ones finding it particularly hard to attract teachers. The 19 schools in the state-run Recovery School District have 8,580 students and about 540 teachers, or about 50 fewer than they need — a shortage so severe that about 300 students who want to enroll have been put on a waiting list. …

…At Rabouin High, which has about 600 students, the halls echo with the shouts of teenagers who should be in class. Many have to share textbooks, if they have them at all. Doors lack knobs or, in the case of a girls’ bathroom, don’t close completely. Students have to pass through a metal detector to get inside, and guards patrol the halls.

About half of Rabouin’s 34 teachers are first-year educators or new to Louisiana.

Earlier this month the American Federation of Teachers called for a protest.

“Where will these children receive an education?” asked Ed McElroy, president of the 1.3-million-member AFT, a national affiliate of NYSUT. McElroy was responding to reports in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that at least 300 children seeking spots in the city’s so-called public schools have been turned away – “wait-listed” – and told that the campuses “would have no room.”

“These recent events make a mockery of the promise, made soon after Hurricane Katrina, that a state takeover of New Orleans’ public schools would create a ‘new birth of excellence and opportunity'” for children in the city’s long-troubled school system, McElroy charged.

He said the 17 schools that are part of the state-run Recovery School District are resorting to the same tactics – enrollment caps and selective admission standards – that many of the locally operated charter and non-charter schools have long used to turn away applicants.

McElroy noted that a charter school group called “Teach NOLA” recently sponsored a number of teacher recruitment ads on several Web sites, including Job.net and Idealist.org, that included the proviso: “Certified teachers will teach in charter schools, and non-certified teachers will teach in the state-run Recovery School District.”

It seems some children are being left behind.

Blown Away

Sorry I’ve been a bit scarce today; I wasn’t feeling entirely well.

The most recent news stories say that 19 people are known to have died in the Florida tornadoes. As near as I can tell, President Bush hasn’t bothered even to issue a statement. No surprise; Bush is barely going through the motions of being President any more. Google “President Clinton tornado” and you’ll get no end of old stories about President Clinton visiting the sites of tornado damage and promising to send FEMA.

Speaking of FEMA: Just a couple of days ago, FEMA denied a request for aid for damage to central Florida from tornadoes and other storms that hit Christmas Day. That request was one of the last acts of outgoing governor Jeb Bush. Is the White House still pissed at incoming governor Charlie Crist for dissing the president during the midterm election campaign?

However, today did seem to be just the time for the White House to release bits of a National Intelligence Estimate that the Bushies have been sitting on for quite some time. It’s Friday, and the news media was all over a natural disaster story. Perfect.

Although there has been much commentary today on the NIE’s use of the term “civil war,” I fear this is the finding that we will most need to discuss:

“Rapid withdrawal” of U.S. forces would likely lead to a “significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq”:

Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi Government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.


The overall security situation “will continue to deteriorate” in next 12-18 months

Iraqi society’s growing polarization, the persistent weakness of the security forces and the state in general, and all sides’ ready recourse to violence are collectively driving an increase in communal and insurgent violence and political extremism. Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this Estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006.

So if we leave, it gets worse; if we stay, it gets worse. This seems to me to be an argument for leaving, although there’s no reason we can’t take, say, diplomatic measures to mitigate the damage. But be prepared — when we leave Iraq we will live leave a mess behind us, and for the rest of our lives we’ll have to listen to the righties whine that we could have fixed it all had we stayed.

New Orleans: What a Difference a Year Didn’t Make

Jeff Franks writes for Yahoo News,

In New Orleans, 2007 begins much the same way 2006 did, with large swaths of the city still wrecked and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and local officials promising that better days lie just ahead.

All that’s missing is President Bush to drop in for a photo op.

Sixteen months after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and killed more than 1,300 people, less than half of the pre-storm population of nearly half a million has returned.

About 80,000 homes in Orleans Parish were damaged, and most remain that way, creating a panorama of blight in the hardest-hit areas, which were largely poor and working-class neighborhoods.

Many businesses remain closed or struggle to survive. The landmark French Quarter restaurant Antoine’s, run by the same family since 1840, said last week its business was down 60 percent from pre-Katrina and its future in doubt.

Franks goes on to discuss the “Road Home” project, which is a state-administered program to distribute $7.5 billion in federal money to people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Katrina. As of this week the program had distributed money to only 97 out of 90,000 homeowners who have applied. Louisiana officials blame Congress, which took its sweet time — ten months — to allocate the money. But there are problems at the state level as well, as this blogger explains. A contractor chosen to distribute the money seems to, um, not be performing up to expectations. The Louisiana House and Senate have passed two resolutions to terminate the contract. Yet the contract remains in effect.

Mayor Ray Nagin also continues to turn in an underwhelming performance. Franks says he “finally appointed a czar to oversee the city’s recovery effort” last month.

Bob Herbert’s New York Times column today looks at the poor of New Orleans.

Sixteen months have passed since the apocalyptic flood that followed Hurricane Katrina. More than 13,000 residents who were displaced by the storm are still living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Another 100,000 to 200,000 evacuees — most of whom want to return home — are scattered throughout the United States.

The undeniable neglect of this population fuels the suspicion among the poor and the black, who constitute a majority of the evacuees, that the city is being handed over to the well-to-do and the white.

If you talk to public officials, you will hear about billions of dollars in aid being funneled through this program or that. The maze of bureaucratic initiatives is dizzying. But when you talk to the people most in need of help — the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the children — you will find in most cases that the help is not reaching them. There is no massive effort, no master plan, to bring back the people who were driven from the city and left destitute by Katrina.

Only the federal government could finance such an effort. Neither the city of New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana has anywhere near the kind of money that would be required. “You’ve got a lot of people who don’t have a place to stay,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco told me in an interview on Friday, “and they’re spread all over creation.”…

… The simple fact is that no one at any level of government, city, state or federal, has shown the leadership that was needed in response to this astounding tragedy.

Herbert writes that the exiled poor and black of New Orleans are increasingly convinced the federal government wants to prevent them from returning to New Orleans. This reminded me of Riverbend’s recent post, in which she said Iraqis are certain the many U.S. blunders in Iraq were actually part of a plan to destroy Iraq. Maybe, but I still think you really cannot overestimate the colossal incompetence and corruption of the Bush Regime.

Yet there are poor people in New Orleans. They aren’t necessarily the same poor who lived there before Katrina, but they’re there. Many are illegal immigrants who were lured to New Orleans, often by federal contractors, to do the hard cleanup work for slave wages so the contractors can pocket more of our tax dollars. And now the city’s fragile health care infrastructure is straining to care for a boom of Latino babies being born to mothers who have no health insurance.

Thus, the city’s former deep poverty is being replaced by deeper poverty.

Instead of using federal money for projects that would have not only rebuilt the city but would also have provided jobs with reasonable pay to the devastated residents — money that by now would be flowing generously through New Orleans retailers and other businesses — tax money is disappearing into the pockets of contractors and subcontractors. And the underground labor pool the contractors are exploiting may be tomorrow’s wretchedly poor residents, clinging to subsistence at the edge of a rich nation.

How Americans Are

I’m guest-blogging on Crooks & Liars this week. I am trying to constrain myself over there and not write my usual kitchen-sink-plus posts. Yesterday and today I posted a couple of brief (for me) posts on two of my favorite subjects, post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and America’s failing health care system.

Although both posts were triggered by new news stories, there isn’t any information in them I haven’t ranted on about in the past. For the “kitchen sink” details of the “Katrina” post see The Mahablog “Katrina” archive. Past posts on the health care system issue include this, this, and this.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a column by Bob Herbert about the New Orleans Ninth Ward that I wish were not behind the subscription firewall. I am too repressed to defy the New York Times copyright and permissions department and post the whole thing here, even though I would probably get away with it. Anyway, Herbert writes that it “boggles the mind” that the U.S. seems to have taken the loss of a major city, New Orleans, in stride. Here’s a portion:

Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half of its population is gone and an enormous percentage of the people who are still in town are suffering.

As Mr. [Spike] Lee noted, the public face of the city is to some extent a deceptive feel-good story. The Superdome, a chamber of horrors during the flood, has been made new again. And the city’s football team, the Saints, has turned its fortunes around and is sprinting into the National Football League playoffs. (They beat the Giants in New York yesterday, 30-7.)

“They spent the money on the Superdome, and you can get drunk in the French Quarter again, and some of the conventions are coming back,” Mr. Lee said, “so people are trying to say that everything’s O.K. But that’s a lie.

“They need to stop this focus on downtown and the Superdome because it does a disservice to all those people who are still in very deep trouble. They need to get the cameras out of the French Quarter and go to New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. Or go to St. Bernard Parish. You’ll see that everything is not O.K. Far from it.”

Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental health situation, for the people in New Orleans and the evacuees scattered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.

There’s actually a fifth act, only recently completed, to “When the Levees Broke,” in which a number of people reflect on what has been happening since the storm. Wynton Marsalis, ordinarily the mildest of individuals, looks into the camera with an expression of anger and deep disgust. “What is the government doing?” he asks. “They’re trying to figure out how to hand out contracts. How to lower the minimum wage so the subcontractors can make all the money. Steal money from me and you, man. We’re paying taxes, you understand what I’m saying?”

For most of America, Katrina is an old story. In Mr. Lee’s words, people are suffering from “Katrina fatigue.” They’re not much interested in how the levees have only been patched up to pre-Katrina levels of safety, or how the insurance companies have ripped off thousands upon thousands of hard-working homeowners who are now destitute, or how, as USA Today reported, “One $7.5 billion Louisiana program to help people rebuild or relocate has put money in the hands of just 87 of the 89,403 homeowners who applied.”

There are other matters vying for attention. The war in Iraq is going badly. Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell are feuding. And, after all, it’s Christmas.

“You know how Americans are,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re on to the next thing.”

That may be how Americans are, but what it says to me is that we have no effective national leadership. One of the most important functions of a leader is to keep people focused and working together on what needs to be done. And we just plain don’t have anyone filling that role right now. Dear Leader Bush is floating around in his bubble oblivious even to the basic responsibilities of the job of POTUS. In a nutshell, whatever doesn’t glorify him doesn’t interest him. And he is way disinterested in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Meanwhile, the favored federal contractors are profiteering with abandon, getting fat and rich on our tax dollars, while New Orleans stagnates. And while some individuals have worked hard to help New Orleans, without effective national leadership most of us feel helpless to effect any real improvement.

Outsource This

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman explains how rightie “privatization” theories are compromising national security, and lots of other stuff.

For example, an article in Saturday’s New York Times describes how the Coast Guard has run a $17 billion modernization program: “Instead of managing the project itself, the Coast Guard hired Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two of the nation’s largest military contractors, to plan, supervise and deliver the new vessels and helicopters.”

The result? Expensive ships that aren’t seaworthy. The Coast Guard ignored “repeated warnings from its own engineers that the boats and ships were poorly designed and perhaps unsafe,” while “the contractors failed to fulfill their obligation to make sure the government got the best price, frequently steering work to their subsidiaries or business partners instead of competitors.”

Here’s the story Professor Krugman cites. It explains that this screwup has seriously “compromised the Coast Guard’s ability to fulfill its mission, which greatly expanded after the 2001 attacks to include guarding the nation’s shores against terrorists.”

Professor Krugman continues,

In Afghanistan, the job of training a new police force was outsourced to DynCorp International, a private contractor, under very loose supervision: when conducting a recent review, auditors couldn’t even find a copy of DynCorp’s contract to see what it called for. And $1.1 billion later, Afghanistan still doesn’t have an effective police training program.

In July 2004, Government Executive magazine published an article titled “Outsourcing Iraq,” documenting how the U.S. occupation authorities had transferred responsibility for reconstruction to private contractors, with hardly any oversight. “The only plan,” it said, “appears to have been to let the private sector manage nation-building, mostly on their own.” We all know how that turned out.

And then there’s FEMA.

On the home front, the Bush administration outsourced many responsibilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For example, the job of evacuating people from disaster areas was given to a trucking logistics firm, Landstar Express America. When Hurricane Katrina struck, Landstar didn’t even know where to get buses. According to Carey Limousine, which was eventually hired, Landstar “found us on the Web site.”

Brilliant. Now, note this:

It’s now clear that there’s a fundamental error in the antigovernment ideology embraced by today’s conservative movement. Conservatives look at the virtues of market competition and leap to the conclusion that private ownership, in itself, is some kind of magic elixir. But there’s no reason to assume that a private company hired to perform a public service will do better than people employed directly by the government.

You know that for years, one of the cornerstones of rightie civic religion is that private is always better than public. The rightie answer to all government problems has been (after cutting taxes) to first deregulate, then privatize. Righties have a pure and abiding faith that public bureaucracies are wasteful and stupid and corrupt, while private companies are efficient and competent and always do the job better, whatever that job is.

Personally, I suspect anyone who’s had a middle management position in any American company for more than ten minutes knows that’s a crock. But let’s go on …

It would be interesting to trace exactly how this bit of dogma came to be so rigidly fixed in the rightie brain. Certainly there’s been an anti-government streak in America since, well, the Revolution. But the traditional anti-government argument has been that government should have strict limits to its functions to keep it from becoming dictatorial, or too intrusive into people’s private business. And, of course, taking on more tasks also leads to more taxes. I postulate that the idea that government shouldn’t do stuff because it isn’t competent to do stuff is relatively recent — dating maybe from the 1960s, when memories of World War II were starting to fade. But by the 1980s St. Ronald’s axiom that government is not the solution, but the problem, was conventional wisdom. Ayn Rand contribution to the “private is better” myth, and the 1990s saw a full-blown “CEO as superman” cult. If anyone has any other ideas of where this nonsense originated, please speak up.

Professor Krugman tells us why some people love privatization:

In fact, the private company will almost surely do a worse job if its political connections insulate it from accountability — which has, of course, consistently been the case under Mr. Bush. The inspectors’ report on Afghanistan’s police conspicuously avoided assessing DynCorp’s performance; even as government auditors found fault with Landstar, the company received a plaque from the Department of Transportation honoring its hurricane relief efforts.

Underlying this lack of accountability are the real motives for turning government functions over to private companies, which have little to do with efficiency. To say the obvious: when you see a story about failed outsourcing, you can be sure that the company in question is a major contributor to the Republican Party, is run by people with strong G.O.P. connections, or both.

Another way that the Bush Administration “outsources” is to invite outside interests into government — for example, making the chief lobbyist of the beef industry chief of staff at the Agriculture Department. Or naming an executive with the National Food Processors Association to head the Food and Drug Administration. Eric Schlosser explains,

Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican candidates for national office. In return, these industries have effectively been given control of the agencies created to regulate them.

Combine this trend with cutbacks in FDA budget and staff — gotta pay for those tax cuts for multimillionaires somehow — and the result a sharp increase in deaths by food poisoning, Schlosser says. See also this story in today’s Washington Post.

Last week the New York Times published a series of articles on the salvage effort that rebuilt the Pacific Fleet after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. These serve as a reminder of what government — transparent government, accountable government — can accomplish. Compare the work at Pearl Harbor one year after the attacks, as reported at the time by Robert Trumbell, to New Orleans today. And weep.

Professor Krugman:

So what happens now? The failure of privatization under the Bush administration offers a target-rich environment to newly empowered Congressional Democrats — and I say, let the subpoenas fly. Bear in mind that we’re not talking just about wasted money: contracting failures in Iraq helped us lose one war, similar failures in Afghanistan may help us lose another, and FEMA’s failures helped us lose a great American city.

And maybe, just maybe, the abject failure of this administration’s efforts to outsource essential functions to the private sector will diminish the antigovernment prejudice created by decades of right-wing propaganda.

I’m not saying the private sector isn’t better than government at some things — production, distribution, and sale of consumer goods, for example. Pitting the public against the private sector is, IMO, another of the false dichotomies to which righties seem susceptible. Public and private sectors should work to support each other, not supplant each other.

In any event, the Right’s antigovernment prejudice clearly isn’t making government better. We need to replace the antigovernment bias with a simple truth: The nation will have as good a government as We, the People, are determined to have.

Katrina’s Children

If indeed the GOP had hoped post-Katrina New Orleans would be whiter (and redder) than pre-Katrina New Orleans, it seems they hoped in vain. Eduardo Porter writes in today’s New York Times that the mostly Latino illegal immigrant community in New Orleans is growing fast.

First came the storm. Then came the workers. Now comes the baby boom.

In the latest twist to the demographic transformation of New Orleans since it was swamped by Hurricane Katrina last year, hundreds of babies are being born to Latino immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, who flocked to the city to toil on its reconstruction.

The throng of babies gurgling in the handful of operational maternity wards here has come as a big surprise — and a financial strain — to this historically black and white city, which before the hurricane had only a small Latino community and virtually no experience of illegal immigration. …

… There has been a small Latino population in New Orleans for several decades, mostly Hondurans who came after Hurricane Mitch battered Central America in 1998. But that population has started to grow.

According to the Louisiana Health and Population Survey, released in November, the number of Latinos living in households in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes has increased by about 10,000 since 2004, to 60,000, even as the total population has fallen by about a quarter, to roughly 625,000.

Last summer, researchers at Tulane University estimated that there were 5,000 to 7,000 illegal Latino workers in Orleans Parish alone, excluding nonworking relatives. But some community workers estimate that tens of thousands have arrived since the storm.

Immigrants can be seen working on roofs, installing Sheetrock and laying tile all over town, from the up-market Lakeview neighborhood in the west to East New Orleans. At the Lowe’s home improvement store in the city’s Bywater neighborhood, clusters of day laborers mill about in the parking lot every morning, waiting for jobs.

A year ago reports came out that the federal contractors the Bush Administration favored with lucrative contracts were recruiting illegals to do the work, and paying them near-slave wages. In the December 18, 2005, Washington Post, Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote,

The come-on was irresistible: Hop in the truck. Go to New Orleans. Make a pile of cash.

Arturo jumped at it. Since that day when he left Houston, more than two months ago, he has slept on the floors of moldy houses, idled endlessly at day-laborer pickup stops and second-guessed himself nearly every minute. …

… Arturo, a dour Mexican from Michoacan who did not want to disclose his last name for fear of deportation, stands at the nexus of the post-Hurricane Katrina labor crisis in New Orleans. A city desperate for workers is filling with desperate workers who either cannot find jobs or whose conditions are so miserable, and whose salaries are so low, that they become discouraged and leave.

Our President keeps telling us these are jobs “our people” won’t do … um, wait a minute, here …

At a New Orleans town hall meeting in Atlanta, displaced black civil rights activist Carl Galmon complained: “They’re bringing in foreign workers from South America, Central America and Mexico, paying them $5 an hour sometimes for 80 hours a week. They are undercutting the American labor force in New Orleans.”…

…For those who find work, conditions can be abominable, with laborers such as Rico Barrios and his wife, Guadalupe Garcia, slashing through the cough-inducing mold on walls in flooded Lakeview with only thin masks to shield their lungs, even though she is pregnant. “It’s hard,” said Barrios, who is from Mexico City, his face glistening with sweat.

This doesn’t have anything to do with jobs “our people” won’t do. It has to do with work “our federal contractors” don’t want to pay for.

David Sirota has a relevant post today at Huffington Post

… employers are using immigration and temporary visa programs to short circuit the labor market. The rules of supply and demand that corporations tell us we must never mess with are only applicable when those rules help corporations – but when they begin helping ordinary workers, the supply (in this case, of labor) must be artificially rigged to keep wages down.

It isn’t just wages that are affected. In New Orleans, the baby boom among illegals is swamping the hospitals and health care system generally. Of course, the mothers have no money, no health insurance, and they are barred from most government assistance. The few clinics that will provide free prenatal care to illegal immigrants are overloaded. So many mothers get no prenatal care; they don’t see a doctor until they go into labor. Emergency rooms have to take them at that point. After the babies are born the mothers hesitate to ask for assistance for the babies (who are citizens) because the mothers fear being arrested.

After Katrina there was talk about the inequality and poverty the storm had exposed. Even the President, in his famous Jackson Square speech of September 15, 2005, spoke of the “lessons” of Katrina and the problems of poverty —

When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created.

Is it possible that Bush actually believed this when he said it?

I realize there is fault to be found in all levels of government, but — damn, this is just bleeped up.

I’m speed-blogging today during jury recesses, so if the post is incoherent in spots — well, I know you’ll add corrections to the comments.

Black Holes

Spencer S. Hsu writes for The New York Times,

The Bush administration unconstitutionally denied aid to tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and must resume payments immediately, a federal judge ordered yesterday.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said the Federal Emergency Management Agency created a “Kafkaesque” process that began cutting off rental aid in February to victims of the 2005 storms, did not provide clear reasons for the denials, and hindered applicants’ due-process rights to fix errors or appeal government mistakes.

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Leon, a D.C. federal judge, wrote in a 19-page opinion.

“Free these evacuees from the ‘Kafkaesque’ application process they have had to endure,” he wrote.

With FEMA, it’s hard to know how much of this nonsense is incompetence and how much of it is a deliberate strategy to avoid paying money. Possibly both.

As of June, Congress had allocated more than $107 billion “to provide emergency support and assist in longer-term recovery in the Gulf Coast,” according to the Brookings Institution. If you google for information on what has happened to that money, the words waste, fraud, and Byzantine pop up abundantly. In June, Eric Lipton wrote in the New York Times that

Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion. …

… The estimate of up to $2 billion in fraud and waste represents nearly 11 percent of the $19 billion spent by FEMA on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as of mid-June, or about 6 percent of total money that has been obligated.

Awhile back the Justice Department established a Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force. Browsing through their news releases gives the impression that the task force is focused exclusively on fraudulent claims for assistance, and certainly there’s plenty of that to keep them busy. Fraud on the part of government contractors, however massive, seems not to be a concern. And the Republican-controlled Congress seems to have done little more than go through the motions of providing oversight.

Let’s hope that’s about to change.

Meanwhile, via The Talking Dog, we find that Homeland Security misdirector Michael Chertoff has admitted that maybe Homeland Security funds are not being allocated sensibly.

Remember how this summer, the Department of Homeland Security reduced the amount of anti-terror funding NYC would get? Sure, NYC was still getting most of the funding, but funds were being increased in less risky areas with, well, influential politicians. And then the press had a field day with how Homeland Security didn’t think there were any national monuments or major buildings at risk? And then Homeland Security claimed that NY State and NYC didn’t file their request properly?

That’s pretty much what FEMA said about the people who’d had their rent aid cut off.

Well, now Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has come out and tacitly stated – though not outright admitting – that the DHS was wrong. The Post reports that at a grand-writing [grant-writing?] conference, Chertoff offered a mea culpa:

    “We’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps there was a little too much bean counting and a little less standing back and applying common sense to look at the total picture,” Chertoff told a grant-writing conference.

    “And I’ve heard the complaints about it, looking like we’re playing kind of a pop-quiz type of game with local communities,” he said.

    “They have to try to guess what we’re looking for – and if they guess wrong, they don’t get the money that they think they’re entitled to, and that they may be entitled to.”

The DHS was quick to say that Chertoff isn’t admitting the funding allocation was a mistake, but that “He’s pretty much just saying that this year we will apply some common sense [and] look at the risk in the city.” … Remember, he’s the same man who said that a terrorist attack on a subway is less catastrophic than a terrorist attack on an airplane, because it’s not like subways are connected to large stations or terminals or anything.

From here, it’s hard to know how much tax money given to the DHS (including FEMA) is actually being applied to homeland security, and how much is being sucked into a black hole. It’s also hard to know how much of the bureaucratic “bungling” is really a cover for payoffs, kickbacks, and other less-than-savory uses of taxpayers’ monies.

But I do get a strong impression that a whole lot of that $107 billion meant for Katrina relief and recovery got lost somewhere between Washington DC and the Gulf Coast.

The way the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress budgets and allocates money makes it damn hard to follow that money. The over-use of “emergency” supplemental appropriations has made the official budget something of a joke. Veronique de Rugy writes for Reason Online:

Supplemental spending, “emergency” spending in particular, has become Washington’s tool of choice for evading annual budget limits and increasing spending across the board. Funding predictable, nonemergency needs through supplementals hides skyrocketing military costs and allows Congress to boost regular appropriations for both defense and nondefense programs, thereby enabling the spending explosion of the last five years. …

… The Bush administration has used supplementals to hide the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years in, the Iraq war can hardly be called an emergency or an unpredictable event. This is especially true since one of the largest expenditures goes to the salaries and benefits of Army National Guard personnel and reservists called to active duty. Yet each year President Bush leaves out all war costs when he presents his budget to Congress, knowing that he will be able to secure the funding later through the supplemental process. This year Congress will appropriate nearly 20 percent of total military spending via supplementals.

“Emergency” supplemental spending bills have included monies for hurricane relief and recovery. Congress critters hate to vote against hurricane relief and recovery. But we have no way to know how much of that money, if any, is actually being spent on hurricane relief and recovery.

Great Minds Thinking Alike

Paul Krugman:

President Bush isn’t on the ballot tomorrow. But this election is, nonetheless, all about him. The question is whether voters will pry his fingers loose from at least some of the levers of power, thereby limiting the damage he can inflict in his two remaining years in office.

There are still some people urging Mr. Bush to change course. For example, a scathing editorial published today by The Military Times, which calls on Mr. Bush to fire Donald Rumsfeld, declares that “this is not about the midterm elections.” But the editorial’s authors surely know better than that. Mr. Bush won’t fire Mr. Rumsfeld; he won’t change strategy in Iraq; he won’t change course at all, unless Congress forces him to.

What I’ve been saying. Maybe Professor Krugman is a Mahablog lurker.

At this point, nobody should have any illusions about Mr. Bush’s character. To put it bluntly, he’s an insecure bully who believes that owning up to a mistake, any mistake, would undermine his manhood — and who therefore lives in a dream world in which all of his policies are succeeding and all of his officials are doing a heckuva job. Just last week he declared himself “pleased with the progress we’re making” in Iraq.

Yesterday there was much buzz about David Rose’s Vanity Fair piece, “Neo Culpa,” in which prominent neocons throw President Bush under a bus. There is much to remark upon in this short article, but I was most struck by this bit:

Richard Perle: “In the administration that I served [Perle was an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan], there was a one-sentence description of the decision-making process when consensus could not be reached among disputatious departments: ‘The president makes the decision.’ [Bush] did not make decisions, in part because the machinery of government that he nominally ran was actually running him. The National Security Council was not serving [Bush] properly. He regarded [then National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice] as part of the family.”

Michael Ledeen, American Enterprise Institute freedom scholar:
“Ask yourself who the most powerful people in the White House are. They are women who are in love with the president: Laura [Bush], Condi, Harriet Miers, and Karen Hughes.”

For more on the walking pathology that is Michael Ledeen, see Glenn Greenwald. The point is that from 9/11 until Katrina, Bush floated along within a carefully crafted image of a great leader. But in fact, he is no leader at all. He is to leadership what a black hole is to matter. All the time he’s been occupying the White House he’s been playing dress-up, putting on a president’s clothes and pretending to do a president’s job. But no one is really doing the president’s job, and the nation lurches from one disaster to another, unguided.

Back to Krugman:

In other words, he’s the sort of man who should never have been put in a position of authority, let alone been given the kind of unquestioned power, free from normal checks and balances, that he was granted after 9/11. But he was, alas, given that power, as well as a prolonged free ride from much of the news media.

The results have been predictably disastrous. The nightmare in Iraq is only part of the story. In time, the degradation of the federal government by rampant cronyism — almost every part of the executive branch I know anything about, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been FEMAfied — may come to be seen as an equally serious blow to America’s future.

And it should be a matter of intense national shame that Mr. Bush has quietly abandoned his fine promises to New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast.

If I believed in a personal God, I’d be tempted to interpret Katrina as a Divine Memo — the hand of the Almighty sending a great storm to show America who their much ballyhooed President really is. It’s a heartbreak the storm devastated the unique but fragile city of New Orleans and sacrificed so many vulnerable people. But if the hurricane had hit Texas or Florida, President Bush might have felt a spark of personal interest and been less disengaged. I know this sounds harsh, but for American politics Katrina was, in truth, a perfect storm.

The public, which rallied around Mr. Bush after 9/11 and was still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt two years ago, seems to have figured most of this out. It’s too late to vote Mr. Bush out of office, but most Americans seem prepared to punish Mr. Bush’s party for his personal failings. This is in spite of a vicious campaign in which Mr. Bush has gone further than any previous president — even Richard Nixon — in attacking the patriotism of anyone who criticizes him or his policies.

That said, it’s still possible that the Republicans will hold on to both houses of Congress. The feeding frenzy over John Kerry’s botched joke showed that many people in the news media are still willing to be played like a fiddle. And if you think the timing of the Saddam verdict was coincidental, I’ve got a terrorist plot against the Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.

Moreover, the potential for vote suppression and/or outright electoral fraud remains substantial. And it will be very hard for the Democrats to take the Senate for the very simple reason that only one-third of Senate seats are on this ballot.

Tomorrow night will likely be a nail-biter. Some recent polls show the race tightening. Billmon calls this phenomenon “the idiocracy vote.”

Part of the trend shown in the Pew and ABC/Post polls may simply be “natural tightening” — as Republicans and Republicans-who-call-themselves-independents come home to their party. But what needs to be kept in mind is that at this late stage the remaining independent undecided or soft leaners generally constitute the least informed, least involved and, in many cases, least intelligent segment of the electorate. Or, to be perfectly blunt about it: Many of them are completely fucking clueless, which means they tend to be the most easily manipulated by the kind of limbic, cesspool politics the Rovian machine now specializes in.

I think it’s also true that for a stubbornly high percentage of the voters, the default position is still conservative and Republican. Scandals and/or disappointments, such as the Mark Foley case or the Iraq quagmire, may knock them off that position, but there’s a built-in tendency for them to drift back. The Reagan coalition may be old and fraying, but it remains the dominant structure in American politics.

Yet hope remains.

The key question, of course, is how many of these soft-headed soft leaners will actually turn out on Tuesday.

That’s what the famous Republican “ground game” does, of course; flush out the idiots and get them to the polls. Recent events may have taken some of the energy (and volunteers) out of the ground game, however. We’ll see.

Returning to Krugman:

What if the Democrats do win? That doesn’t guarantee a change in policy.

I’ll come back to this in a minute.

The Constitution says that Congress and the White House are co-equal branches of government, but Mr. Bush and his people aren’t big on constitutional niceties. Even with a docile Republican majority controlling Congress, Mr. Bush has been in the habit of declaring that he has the right to disobey the law he has just signed, whether it’s a law prohibiting torture or a law requiring that he hire qualified people to run FEMA.

Just imagine, then, what he’ll do if faced with demands for information from, say, Congressional Democrats investigating war profiteering, which seems to have been rampant. Actually, we don’t have to imagine: a White House strategist has already told Time magazine that the administration plans a “cataclysmic fight to the death” if Democrats in Congress try to exercise their right to issue subpoenas — which is one heck of a metaphor, given Mr. Bush’s history of getting American service members trapped in cataclysmic fights where the deaths are anything but metaphors.

Hidden behind the trivial and phony issues dangled in front of the American electorate, there are real issues critical to the nation’s survival.

Jonathan Schell writes,

The stakes, as President Bush likes to say–and on this point he is correct–could scarcely be higher. But they include one stake he never mentions: the future of constitutional government in the United States, which his presidency and his party have put in serious jeopardy. The old (lower case) republican system of checks and balances and popular liberties, you might say, is in danger of replacement by a new (upper case) Republican system of arbitrary one-party rule organized around an all-powerful presidency. …

… It is simply impossible to know in advance when, in a great constitutional crisis, the decisive turning point–the irrevocable capsizing–might come. We are left wondering whether we are witnessing just one more swing of the familiar old American political “pendulum,” bound by its own weight to swing back in the opposite direction, or whether this time the pendulum is about to fly off its hinge and land us with a crash in territory that we have never visited before.

This is the danger we face, and — with the exception of Keith Olbermann — the news media and the professional “pundit” corps are ignoring it.

Back to Krugman:

But here’s the thing: no matter how hard the Bush administration may try to ignore the constitutional division of power, Mr. Bush’s ability to make deadly mistakes has rested in part on G.O.P. control of Congress. That’s why many Americans, myself included, will breathe a lot easier if one-party rule ends tomorrow.

In spite of the poll-tightening, conventional wisdom still says that Dems are nearly certain to take the House, but not the Senate. If I had to choose one house of Congress to take back, I believe I’d rather have the House. Senators are too entrenched, too cautious. But the House will be infused with new blood, and under the leadership of old lions like Waxman, Conyers, and Murtha, the House might pose a real challenge to the Bush Administration.

But here’s the thing: no matter how hard the Bush administration may try to ignore the constitutional division of power, Mr. Bush’s ability to make deadly mistakes has rested in part on G.O.P. control of Congress. That’s why many Americans, myself included, will breathe a lot easier if one-party rule ends tomorrow.

I realize the Dems will not have a veto-proof majority. But I say again that Republican politicians are going to be in a very uncomfortable place for the next couple of years. They can no longer hide behind the coattails of a popular president, and now that Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay are out of the picture, K Street is not so much the cornucopia of cash and influence it once was. Republican House members in particular, once they are a minority, might feel compelled to choose between loyalty to Bush and party leadership and their reelection chances in 2008. I’m not saying they will switch parties, but it’s possible many of them will cross the aisle and vote with the Dems now and then.

And check out this editorial in the current issue of The American Conservative, “Bush Must Go.”

It should surprise few readers that we think a vote that is seen—in America and the world at large—as a decisive “No” vote on the Bush presidency is the best outcome. We need not dwell on George W. Bush’s failed effort to jam a poorly disguised amnesty for illegal aliens through Congress or the assaults on the Constitution carried out under the pretext of fighting terrorism or his administration’s endorsement of torture. Faced on Sept. 11, 2001 with a great challenge, President Bush made little effort to understand who had attacked us and why—thus ignoring the prerequisite for crafting an effective response. He seemingly did not want to find out, and he had staffed his national-security team with people who either did not want to know or were committed to a prefabricated answer.

As a consequence, he rushed America into a war against Iraq, a war we are now losing and cannot win, one that has done far more to strengthen Islamist terrorists than anything they could possibly have done for themselves. Bush’s decision to seize Iraq will almost surely leave behind a broken state divided into warring ethnic enclaves, with hundreds of thousands killed and maimed and thousands more thirsting for revenge against the country that crossed the ocean to attack them. The invasion failed at every level: if securing Israel was part of the administration’s calculation—as the record suggests it was for several of his top aides—the result is also clear: the strengthening of Iran’s hand in the Persian Gulf, with a reach up to Israel’s northern border, and the elimination of the most powerful Arab state that might stem Iranian regional hegemony.

The war will continue as long as Bush is in office, for no other reason than the feckless president can’t face the embarrassment of admitting defeat. The chain of events is not complete: Bush, having learned little from his mistakes, may yet seek to embroil America in new wars against Iran and Syria.

Meanwhile, America’s image in the world, its capacity to persuade others that its interests are common interests, is lower than it has been in memory. All over the world people look at Bush and yearn for this country—which once symbolized hope and justice—to be humbled. The professionals in the Bush administration (and there are some) realize the damage his presidency has done to American prestige and diplomacy. But there is not much they can do.

There may be little Americans can do to atone for this presidency, which will stain our country’s reputation for a long time. But the process of recovering our good name must begin somewhere, and the logical place is in the voting booth this Nov. 7. If we are fortunate, we can produce a result that is seen—in Washington, in Peoria, and in world capitals from Prague to Kuala Lumpur—as a repudiation of George W. Bush and the war of aggression he launched against Iraq.

If a conservative wrote that, then bipartisanship is still possible.