September 10, 2005

Earlier this week, as most of you already know, Bob Denver passed away. Most famous today for playing the title character in the TV crapfest "Gilligan's Island", his obits also contained fleeting references to an earlier TV role, as Maynard G. Krebs in the series, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis". This LA Times column recounts the uniqueness of that character, a goateed, jazz-loving, bongo-playing hipster.

What is truly odd about this is the fact that Denver would have become so well-known for one character, but almost forgotten for the other. "Gilligan's Island" has been a staple on TV for generations, even though it was astonishingly bad and unfunny, and lasted for only four seasons. Very few people younger than 50, on the other hand, have any memory of "Dobie Gillis". In fact, that show lasted longer than "Gilligan", is said to have been a much better comedy (I have to rely on the opinions of others for this, since I have never seen a single episode of the show in the nearly forty-two years I've been on the planet), and had a much more famous cast. Besides Denver, the show also included a young Warren Beatty, who is only one of the most famous actors in the world, Tuesday Weld (as Dobie's infatuation), who came pretty close to becoming a star, and who was nominated for an Oscar for Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Michael J. Pollard, who was also Oscar-nominated, for Bonnie and Clyde, and Sheila Kuhle, who might not be a name many of you have heard of, but in California she is a pretty well-known political figure. And yet, other than a few odd episodes that might have been shown on Nickelodeon once upon a time, I don't know if its ever been syndicated. Strange.

September 09, 2005

The Buck Stops Nowhere: Now that the hapless FEMA Director has been "reassigned" to other duties in the capital, when is the incompetent moron who nominated him in the first place going to take the hint?
TalkLeft reports that displaced lawyers from the Gulf Coast will be permitted to practice law in Arkansas for the next two months. Don't be surprised if other state bars provide the same exemption, as the judicial system in that area has collapsed.
Seems like I might have to retract my earlier post about how Michael Brown had "disaster management" experience with the city of Edmund, OK in the late-70's. TIME is reporting that it was more like a college internship; Brown also padded his resume in other areas as well. The obvious question, after reading the transcript of his Senate confirmation hearing, below, is didn't the FBI do a background check on this guy? Did anyone perform due diligence?

September 08, 2005

Something for liberals to ponder: Mike Brown, the clearly-unqualified show horse official and unaccredited law school graduate, who went from being a non-practicing lawyer in Colorado to running FEMA, had to undergo one confirmation hearing before the Senate. In 2002, as the President's nominee to be Deputy Director of FEMA, he went before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee chaired by Senator Joe Lieberman (yes, the Democrats controlled the Senate at the time), and the hearing lasted forty-two minutes.

From there, his nomination went to the floor of the Senate, where he was confirmed without opposition by voice vote. Rather than blaming the local elected officials, such as Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin, who may have made mistakes but were clearly overwhelmed by the scope of the catastrophe, I think any conservative with a smidgen of intellectual integrity should hang his hat on this example, of how "vigorously" Senate Democrats exercised their Constitutional responsibility to advise and consent when the Brown nomination came before them. [link via TPM Cafe]
Thought of the Day:
Because they don't see blacks as a current or potential constituency, Bush and his fellow Republicans do not respond out of the instinct of self-interest when dealing with their concerns. Helping low-income blacks is a matter of charity to them, not necessity. The condescension in their attitude intensifies when it comes to New Orleans, which is 67 percent black and largely irrelevant to GOP political ambitions. Cities with large African-American population that happen to be in important swing states may command some of Karl Rove's respect as election time approaches. But Louisiana is small (9 electoral votes) and not much of a swinger these days. In 2004, Bush carried it by a 57-42 margin. If Bush and Rove didn't experience the spontaneous political reflex to help New Orleans, it may be because they don't think of New Orleans as a place that helps them.

Considered in this light, the actions and inactions now being picked apart are readily explicable. The president drastically reduced budget requests from the Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen the levees around New Orleans because there was no effective pressure on him to agree. When the levees broke on Tuesday, Aug. 30, no urge from the political gut overrode his natural instinct to spend another day vacationing at his ranch. When Bush finally got himself to the Gulf Coast three days later, he did his hugging in Biloxi, Miss., which is 71 percent white, with a mayor, governor, and two senators who are all Republicans. Bush's memorable comments were about rebuilding Sen. Trent Lott's porch and about how he used to enjoy getting hammered in New Orleans. Only when a firestorm of criticism and political damage broke out over the federal government's callousness did Bush open his eyes to black suffering.

Had the residents of New Orleans been white Republicans in a state that mattered politically, instead of poor blacks in city that didn't, Bush's response surely would have been different. Compare what happened when hurricanes Charley and Frances hit Florida in 2004. Though the damage from those storms was negligible in relation to Katrina's, the reaction from the White House was instinctive, rapid, and generous to the point of profligacy. Bush visited hurricane victims four times in six weeks and delivered relief checks personally. Michael Brown of FEMA, now widely regarded as an incompetent political hack, was so responsive that local officials praised the agency's performance.

The kind of constituency politics that results in a big life-preserver for whites in Florida and a tiny one for blacks in Louisiana may not be racist by design or intent. But the inevitable result is clear racial discrimination. It won't change when Republicans care more about blacks. It will change when they have more reason to care.
--Jacob Weisburg, Slate.

September 07, 2005

YBK [Part 17]: Not surprisingly, Hurricane Katrina will have a major impact on the bankruptcy numbers in the three states (Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama) that have been devastated. The L.A. Times reports that after every major hurricane in the last 25 years, bankruptcy filing rates have gone up at a rate of over fifty percent over unaffected states in the three years following the disaster.

Ironically, with the new law set to go into effect less than six months from now, the people who are most likely to be screwed by its provisions aren't the now-homeless African-Americans of New Orleans, whose annual income was too low to qualify for the new means test, but instead are the middle-class whites who lived on the outskirts:
But unless changes are made to an overhaul of the nation's bankruptcy law due to kick in next month, many of those affected by Hurricane Katrina and the resulting floods will have a substantially harder time winning court relief from loans they incurred for homes and businesses that are now gone, according to a variety of judges, lawyers and policy experts.

"Just because your house or car is somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico doesn't mean that your auto loan or mortgage went with it," said Brady C. Williamson, who was appointed by President Clinton to head a national bankruptcy commission in the mid-1990s.

UCLA professor Kenneth N. Klee said, "The new law is going to make it much more difficult for people to put their lives back together." Klee is a former Republican congressional staffer who was a chief author of the previous major bankruptcy-law change in the late 1970s.

House and Senate Democrats are expected to propose, perhaps as early as today, delaying the effective date for the new measure and easing some of its most stringent requirements. When it passed the bankruptcy overhaul last spring, the Republican-controlled House rejected an exemption for victims of natural disasters.
There is an exception within the new law for waiving the means testing and credit counseling upon a showing of "special circumstances", language that was deliberately kept vague by Congress, but how that will be interpreted is going to be left to the individual judges; some will apply a very broad standard, no doubt, allowing anyone who can show that the means test is unrealistic in their situation to remain in Chapter 7, while other judges will approve exemptions only in rare instances. Congress explicitly refused to grant an exception for victims of natural disasters, so there are no assurances that the victims of Hurricane Katrina will be able to use the "special circumstances" exemption.

I suspect that unless federal action on this front isn't enacted shortly, there will be a veritable stampede to the courts before the new law goes into effect on October 17.

September 06, 2005

A mortician associated with the DHS has been told to prepare for up to 40,000 dead. My God. [link via Josh Marshall]
Tony Pierce, the poet laureate of blogtopia, explains who is ultimately to blame for Norquist's Bathtub.

September 05, 2005

Tens of thousands of people may be dead, a great city and cultural center destroyed, and Stephen Fry is inspired to write a tasteless article about the stench of the suffering. We could use compassion, and instead we get derivative Wildean mockery. What an asshole.
Norquist's Bathtub: In many respects, August 29, 2005 is already turning out to be a more important date than 9/11, and not just because the number of fatalities caused by Hurricane Katrina will dwarf the best efforts at savagery by Osama's thugs. The collapse of the levees of Lake Ponchartrain seems to have awakened us to the rotten underpinnings of our institutions, our government, our leaders.

We are undergoing an ideological, not a partisan, reawakening. Historian Timothy Naftali compared the events of the past week to the core meltdown at Chernobyl, where the inability of the Soviet Union to protect its own people was laid bare, leading to the fall of Communism, but we need not look overseas for historical precedent. The combination of the Watts Riots and the first heavy casualty figures from Southeast Asia in 1965 brought about the beginning of the end of Cold War liberalism, coincidentally in the first year following the reelection of a President, just as the ineffectual responses to crises led to the obliteration of the Republicans in 1932 and the Democrats in 1980.

Although the blame has deservedly focused on the Bush Administration, and their typically inept response to Hurricane Katrina, the Democrats bear a great deal of responsibility for what happened. Obviously, there were failures at the state and local level to quickly respond to the impending disaster; the call to evacuate came less than 48 hours from impact, not enough time to get safely away from the storm, and certainly not enough time to prepare the mass evacuations of the destitute. If anything symbolizes the local failure, it was the row after row of empty buses that were parked in a flooded lot in New Orleans, instead of being used to transport people out of the area. That neither the state of Louisiana nor New Orleans and its surrounding parishes can be considered well-governed sovereignties even in the best of times (a problem shared throughout the South, as the slothlike measures taken by the buffoonish Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, while his state's coastline disappeared, attest) exacerbated the problem, particularly afterwards.

More important than the failure of its local politicians, though, the Democrats have failed to provide any effective opposition. Just as with 9/11, we were victimized by our own lack of imagination. You can go through all the preparedness drills and make all the contingency plans that you like, but if you don't have political leaders who will make a stand and insist that we be prepared for any contingency, if your party lacks the will to stake out unpopular stands, even in the best of times, then democracy fails. The most telling fact so far is that even if the funding to repair the levees had come through, in full, they still probably wouldn't have been ready in time to stop what happened.

So, Republicans didn't think that budgeting money to protect a city from a semi-centennial disaster was important, and the Democrats didn't put up enough of a fight. Bush nominates a political crony to head FEMA, then a small-town lawyer straight from the world of show horse competitions, and the Democrats silently assent; both Joe Allbaugh and Michael Brown breezed to confirmation, with no Democratic filibuster. This disaster was predictable, inevitable, and overdue, something we knew for decades, and still the Democrats failed to do enough, either in opposition, or even in those brief times we controlled the government. No wonder Clinton was so reticent about attacking his successor over what happened last week.

But in the end, the events of the past week, when combined with the ongoing debacle in Iraq, has thoroughly discredited the governing ideology this country has had since 1980. It is a philosophy that holds that tax cuts are the panacea to prosperity, that no one need sacrifice for the common good, and is best encapsulated by Grover Norquist's infamous phrase that his aim was " cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub". Although the federal budget has increased during the Reagan-Bush Era, its effectiveness, its ability to accomplish things, has diminished. "Conservatives" have, with malice aforethought, strangled the initiative of society to publicly confront issues of poverty, racism, and inequality, and to adequately protect the safety of the public. This week, the Gulf Coast is that bathtub.

It is the Republican philosophy of governance. Our infrastructure rots, our military is undermanned, our environmental protections are being sabotaged. Starve the beast, and let the private sphere, the realm of Enron and Halliburton, take care of things. As Naftali points out,

Not all of the questioning about the rapid growth in government since the 1960s was wrongheaded and Reagan at least admired Franklin Roosevelt and having experienced the depression first hand understood that government had a positive role to play. But Reagan's imitators ever since, mainly Republicans but also some Democrats, have lacked that historical perspective and have mechanically espoused the view that government had to be lean and mean and, when in doubt, could be underfunded lest money be taken from the pockets of "ordinary Americans," who knew best how to spend it. Underlying this was another, more amoral, message that those who fall behind in this society get what they deserve.

For a quarter of a century, we have also been told we could have our cake and eat it, too. Local property taxes could be kept low, state budgets could be balanced and federal taxes could be reduced progressively with nothing but a positive effect on our national quality of living. For fifteen years, we have been told that the US military is large enough to handle every conceivable threat to the country because high technology would allow us to project force more efficiently. For three years we have been assured that our government is reorganizing to ensure that an urban disaster such as we witnessed on 9/11 would not happen again. Many Americans, unfortunately, came to believe these assertions and forgot not only the value of good government but that it costs money.

This week we saw the cumulative effect of these illusions. For six days thousands of babies were starved of formula, countless old people died of exposure and families lived with almost no water and had to defecate in public by a city Convention Center because the federal government lacked the resources, skill and troops to rescue them.

David Brooks, who is no liberal, noted over the weekend that "the first rule of the social fabric - that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable - was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield." It is pathetic that the Bush Administration, whose greatest innovation to conservatism has been to honor political loyalty at the expense of talent or competence, would attempt to (dishonestly, as it turns out) shift the blame to local officials. Ineffectual local government is to be expected when dealing with a Category-4 hurricane; in Mississippi and Louisiana, corrupt politicians are a feature, not a bug. In the post-9/11 world, we expected the Federal Government to handle the big stuff, and, as in the War against Terrorism, the Bush Administration was not up to the task.

If any good is to come out of the horrors of this past week, it will require us to abandon the notion that the public sphere can accomplish nothing worthwhile, that people must settle for inefficient, cheap government, or that individual desires must always trump the needs of the rest. I have a feeling we might have already begun to turn down that path.

September 04, 2005

A correction, and a silver lining:

1. Friday's post, about the previous job held by FEMA Director Michael Brown, may have implied that he was completely without experience in the field of emergency management. In fact, before he was the "czar" of Arabian Horse breeding, he was a city manager for the town of Edmund, Oklahoma, from 1975 to 1978, where he supervised the emergency services division. At that time, the population for Edmund, a suburb of Oklahoma City, was a little under 30,000.

2. At least one emergency professional sees an advantage of having someone of Mr. Brown's background in charge of things right now. According to Kate Hale, former Miami-Dade emergency management chief, "He's done a hell of a job, because I'm not aware of any Arabian horses being killed in this storm."

[links via Billmon]
But wait, there's more: What bloggers (and others) were saying two years ago, at around this time:
I'm a little late to this subject, but isn't it interesting that the fabled solidarity of French socialism leaves old people alone to die from the heat as the whole country goes on vacation at the same time? Yet that seems to be a consensus view of what happened...At least they have solidarity about when to take vacations--none of that evil American individualism and workaholism. (citation omitted)
--Virginia Postrel

13,500 people dead, in a modern nation, due to a heatwave the would scarcely get notice in Texas? True, France isn't prepared for the heat like Dallas is -- but neither was my old home (ed-St. Louis). Even 5,000 seems much, much too high.

Were there no emergency A/C shelters? Did the hydrants stay closed? Did the Seine dry up? Lord knows, the French know to keep their wine cool in cellars -- so what about people?

What the hell went wrong?

French President Jacques Chirac has promised to remedy defects in his country’s health service in the wake of the heat wave that has killed thousands of mainly elderly people.

We’ve proudly decided to become even more socialist!

The French funeral directors association said 10,416 had died during the first three weeks of August because of the heat wave and projected the death toll for the month from the heat wave would be 13,632.

10,000 people! Jeez! 100 degrees isn’t that hot, people... its that hot everyday in Texaaaas... what gives?

France, which normally has temperatures in upper 20s Celsius (80s Fahrenheit) was hit with temperatures in the upper 30s (90s to over 100 Fahrenheit). After the first week of the heat wave, French officials, many of whom had been on vacation,

that’s what we call in here in the good ol’ U.S. of A "being asleep at the wheel"

rushed back to work. The death toll soared by 3,000 in that week. In a bid to divert criticism, Chirac added: "Today, the time is for contemplation, solidarity and action. I think about each of these victims and hold out my hand and express the solidarity of the nation."

what a schmuck...

And with that, I send heartwaves to the Land of the Free and the Brave on this second anniversary of 9/11. I'm glad to have found Carine, Dissident Frogman and Damian...proof that Hope lives on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, if I could just find the magic formula to spread that Hope all over the world...

Of course, the French would refuse the formula AND the Hope, claiming them a menace to their oh so sacred culture. They would threaten to veto it or ask to renegotiate their share. They would leave it to die of thirst and bury it in an unmarked grave (which would later be defiled) without ceremony. And then, when held to account, blame everyone but themselves for the death of Hope.

God Bless America.
--Valerie, at "Pave France"

France received a shock this summer, when more than 10,000 of its elderly citizens died in distress during a heat wave--some while supposedly under medical care in hospitals. Thanks to the 35-hour workweek and the long August holiday, these institutions were short-staffed. The families of those who died were on holiday, too.

Yet another shock--and at the same time--the French government discovered that its unemployment-benefit plan for part-time workers in the entertainment industry, though generous, was underfunded and in danger of imminent collapse. The government suddenly decided to cut the benefits radically. As a result, the workers went on strike, and virtually all the great cultural festivals that are the pride of France's tourist industry had to be canceled.

These are all symptoms of a painful disease, a continental depression born of the realization that EU prosperity is a house built upon sand. While the American economy is picking up, the EU's remains in stagnation, bordering on recession. The 35-hour workweek is splendid, provided you have a job. But what of the growing millions who are out of work and whose social security payments are now threatened with reduction or cut-off dates? Unemployment, already high, is rising in France and Germany.


The omens for continental Europe, however, are sinister. The entire plan for perpetual improvement upon which the EU depends is based on continuous economic expansion. There is no provision for stagnation. As we see in Japan, once stagnation sets in, it can last many years. Americans should count their blessings, above all the supreme blessing of having an economy that is run by businessmen not bureaucrats, or that--under wise governance--runs itself.
--Paul Johnson

I don't know what M. Chirac heard in the dépanneurs and resto-bars of Quebec this week, but what I heard south of the border was complete amazement at how a nominally First World country could be so insouciant about an entirely avoidable Third World death toll. President Bush and the entire Washington press corps are spending a month in heat equal to the brutal Parisian summer, and he's playing golf in it all day while they stand around watching; in Phoenix tomorrow and Monday, it will be an unremarkable 105. This isn't about the weather.

In Paris this spring, a government official explained to me how Europeans had created a more civilised society than America - socialised healthcare, shorter work weeks, more holidays. We've just seen where that leads: gran'ma turned away from the hospital to die in an airless apartment because junior's sur la plage. M Chirac's somewhat tetchy suggestion that his people should rethink their attitude to the elderly was well taken. But Big Government inevitably diminishes its citizens' capacity to take responsibility, to the point where even your dead mum is just one more inconvenience the state should do something about.

Meanwhile, Maggie Pernot wrote the other day to chide me for my continued defence of the Rumsfeld Death Camps at Guantanamo. The prisoners, she complains, are "kept in tiny, chainlink outdoor cages where they were likely to be rained upon". In fact, they have sloping roofs and cool concrete floors, perfect for the climate. If they had solid walls rather than airy wire mesh, they'd be Parisian sweatboxes and everyone would be dead. By contrast, if those thousands of French pensioners had been captured by the Marines and detained by Rummy in Cuba, they'd be alive today.

Mme. Pernot writes from St Julien, France. That's right: she's surrounded by an actual humanitarian scandal on all sides but she'd rather obsess about an entirely fictional one. Heat getting to you, Madame? Or just the unusual odour from the flat next door?
--Mark Steyn (again!)

I'm surprised they had people who could buy it. After all, over 10,000 French people supposedly died from the heat wave.

Perhaps we could collaborate on a book where Frenchmen are doing the nasty while dehydrating.

We can call it, "Sweating Up The Sheets."
--Jay Caruso (in reference to a book that was on the Best Seller list in France)