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Friday, December 30, 2005

Expectations misplaced....

To follow up on yesterday's post (more like a harrangue), I offer two examples of the how bureaucracy fares in this strange "media-ted" political culture of ours.

Case in point: an otherwise interesting interview conducted by Gwen Ifel on Wednesday's The New Hour with Jim Lehrer. The subject: identifying the victims of Katrina. The guest: Robert Travis Scott, a reporter from the Times-Picayune (which is turning out to be the best newspaper in the US of late...).

The focus was the problems facing the officials who have been trying to deal with the identity and disposition of those who died as a result of the Katrina storm -- and the story is an interesting and tragic one from any perspective. The interview goes well until Ifel (who I otherwise think is pretty level headed and not subject to the craziness of the Fox/CNN so-called anchors) blurts out a quesiton (more a comment) that I think even stuns Scott who was about to speak to the issue of DNA matching: "I want to get to that," Ifel says in a tone that indicates she thinks something more interesting is behind all the problems with victim identification; "but I'm curious how much of this has to do with, perhaps, federal, state, local bureaucratic bungling or delay." It is a leading question, and Scott seems to delay a second before responding.

"Well, I think you'd have to attribute a substantial amount of the problem here to the nature of this catastrophe. And the fact that the system that is set up for trying to identify families and matching them up was really created for a 9/11-type disaster or an airplane crash in which you were fairly sure you knew who the victims were, and you were fairly confident you could find the relatives.

"But setting that aside, there were a lot of problems on the state and federal level in pulling this operation off. You had a lot of criticism from the company that was hired to actually pick up the bodies in the early weeks. We had bodies that were out in the streets for weeks before they were picked up.

"And there was a lot of complaints by the company that was performing that operation about how -- what a quagmire of bureaucracy they were facing with the federal government."

In short, Scott was saying yes, there are problems, but it is more complicated than just "bureaucratic bungling or delay". This was an unprecedented situation, unplanned for, and going as well as can be expected. The problems are in the situation, not in the bureaucracy per se! Want someone to blame? Well, let's see, where shall we begin....

(Besides the bashing issue, what annoyed me most about the segment was that it was so out of character for the NewsHour which, along with other PBS news shows and NPR, I regard as the last bastion of informed reportage, or at least interviewing without the bias and hype that is so annoying (but obviously "popular") on the commercial/cable news shows. I wonder if Ifel is trying to cross over....)

Second case in point: a commentary on the efforts to rebuild New Orleans by Witold Rybczynski in Wednesday's Slate.com. Titled "After Katrina: What is going on in New Orleans?", it takes to task the efforts (or lack thereof) to really get things rolling on the reconstruction of New Oreleans, and he offers numberous examples of past responses by governments (notably Japan's rebuilding of Kobe after the 1995 earthquake) to do what needs to be done. He seems to be pointing the finger at our frragmented federal system and its inability of the US political system to mobilize for such a massive project, and he plays up the positive virtues of centralized states and their capacity to do what needs to be done. I am sympathetic, but I thought it ironic that the same political culture that generates constant complaints about the inefficiencies and ineptitudes of bureaucracy also generates demands for even greater use of strong bureaucratic initiatives to deal with the problems it faces. While we seem to despste the bureaucracy and fear its bungling and intrusiveness, we find calls for a concerted state-led (i.e., bureaucracy led) program of reconstruction quite inviting. The lessons of James C. Scott's Seeing Like A State be damned, we want action -- and we want it now!

I am politically sympathetic with Rybcznki's analysis, but it has only been four months (!) since Katrina. I am curious about how long it took before the Japanese government launched their Kobe-reconstruciton plan, although I am sure they took to the effort more easily than our government(s) will, and I am a bit anxious about the "Seeing Like a State" mentality implied in his comments. At the same time, I am not certain whether our bureaucacy-bashing political culture has the capacity or the will to empower and sustain the kind of commitments required for a Kobe-like endeavor....
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