Friday, September 09, 2005

Beautiful, if dire

Okay, we talk now.

I am a member of the last generation to face mandatory military service. I landed in the Marines in 1966 and, while it was a real bad time to be a grunt, it was one of the most illustrative experiences of my adult life. Because it was during my time in the service that I saw how people get ahead in a bureaucracy, and it wasn't pretty.

Unfortunately, with the draft gone, fewer and fewer ordinary Americans get to see that kind of thing up close and personal. I say it's unfortunate because understanding the ecology of bureaucracy and the creatures attracted to it, is key to understanding messes like Iraq and the aftermath of Katrina.

The first thing I noticed once I got settled in the service was that almost anyone with an IQ over 90 wanted to get the hell out as soon as humanly possible. One guy  in barracks drank a whole can of Brasso metal polish one night. He got out. Another guy took the Cpl. Klinger approach and made goo-goo eyes at the drill instructor. (This was before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Back then it was more along the lines of "Don't Even Think About It.")

But I diverge. As my time in the service progressed I noticed that those who had chosen the military as a career – we called them "lifers," and not in a complimentary way – were being "all they could be," which, frankly in most cases wasn't much. They may have worn a soldier's uniform but beneath it beat the heart of a bureaucrat. And the job of all low level bureaucrats is to follow rules written by the level of bureaucrats above them. And to follow those rules to the letter, no matter what, whether a rule made sense or not or made matters better or made them worse.

In the military they called it, "doing things by the numbers." Whenever I heard my sergeant shout, "Okay men, we're gonna do this by the numbers," I knew we were about to make one life's simple tasks unnecessarily and hopelessly complicated and then screw it up. And I was never wrong. That's where the term SNAFU was coined. SNAFU is an enlisted solder's anachronism for "Situation Normal: All Fucked Up."

And that's exactly what we saw in New Orleans last week – a national disaster response "by the numbers," resulting in a massive SNAFU that was as inevitable as the hurricane that set the stage for it.

FEMA director, Michael Brown is a type familiar to this old former Marine. Forty years ago someone exactly like Brown headed our H&S (Headquarters & Supply) company. I swear, the man would not have lasted a month as a stock clerk at K-Mart. Nevertheless there he was in charge of feeding and supplying hundreds of troops in challenging, complex and ever-changing conditions. I recall returning from a week's maneuvers in the field and being ordered by this character to bury our unused ammo before returning to base. Bury perfectly good ammo? Why would anyone in their right mind do such a thing?  Simple. Because, in that little bureaucrat's world returned ammo meant paperwork. And that the bureaucrat above him would notice he did no use all the ammo he had been issued and might cut his supply of ammo next time.  Never mind that we did not need all that ammo in the first place. Because, you see, "stuff" was what established this guy's place in the world. The more "stuff," needed or unneeded, he could pile up the more important he felt. Stuff was his personal currency. He could give you stuff if he liked you, or withhold stuff if he did not. If he ran out of "stuff storage" room, he was granted a larger place to store his "stuff." It was an empire built and ruled by a fool.

So we dug ditches, by the numbers of course, and buried thousands of taxpayer dollars in ground. That kind of stuff happens every hour of every day on every military installation in the world. Count on it. (You are already paying for it.)

Bureaucrats are the most risk adverse creatures on earth. They cling mindlessly to rules and procedures because outside those boundaries lays their most dreaded foes -- accountability and personal responsibility.

Even human life cannot trump bureaucratic rules and regs. When 30 trained emergency response doctors called FEMA and told them they were ready to fly to New Orleans and render help with 24 hours of the storm, the bureaucrats stopped them cold. Instead they were forced to cool their heels while people died in the Super Dome while bureaucrats arranged temporary Louisiana and Texas medical licenses for them. It took three additional days before all the "t's" were crossed and "i's" dotted. Understand, this was not some group of unknowns and yahoos. This was the same team of docs that provided medical relief to tsunami victims 6000 miles away. In that case they got there in 36 hours. But US bureaucrats delayed the arrival of this same team in New Orleans for almost four days. Paper work is always more important to a bureaucrat than human lives. Always. Just hope your life never hangs on a bureaucrat's signature, because you're likely toast if it does.  (Unless of course you are already brain dead, in which case they will feel a kinship and move mountains to keep you alive.)

Look, let's just say it. Those who make bureaucracy a career are simply not the best and brightest. Sorry, but it's demonstrably true. If you look at the few bright spots in the wake of Katrina they were created by private citizens who simply shoved the bureaucrats aside and did what had to be done at the moment. They were local doctors and local police and fire, most of whom were victims themselves. But they got some remarkable things done with very little. The heroic help those people provided was in spite of bureaucrats.

Bureaucracies have their own pecking order, their own tried and true paths to advancement. In the service I quickly learned that those who got promoted were seldom the soldiers who questioned, thought, probed or suggested changes. Instead it was those who followed rules even when the rules did not fit the circumstances at hand, always agreed with superiors, showed little or no curiosity about much of anything, and never, NEVER uttered the following words:  "Sir, this rule really doesn't make any sense." They were the "yes men," the ass kissers, the brownest of brown noses.

And so it came to pass at FEMA.

"Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.....FEMA's top three leaders -- Director Michael D. Brown, Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode and Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler -- arrived with ties to President Bush's 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation, according to the agency. Two other senior operational jobs are filled by a former Republican lieutenant governor of Nebraska and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official who was once a political operative. " (Full Story)

President Bush affectionately calls his FEMA chief, "Brownie," How ironic. How true. How tragic.

This is one of those politically incorrect subjects that no one in his or her right mind utters out loud, even at times like this when the truth of it piles high around us. It's the proverbial elephant in the room everyone pretends isn't there. I don't mean to hurt feelings, though it's unavoidable. Sugarcoating a turd doesn't make it any less a turd. I remember a teacher telling me that sometimes she was tempted to tell a parent the hard truth, that their kid was just not terribly bright. She never could, but I can. Go ahead, call me elitest, insensitive, cruel, out of my mind. I don't care. I know stupid when I see it. Stupid is as stupid does. And  the poor storm victims in the Gulf are neck deep in stupid right now.

I offer no solution. Not all things in life have a solution and this is one of them. The best and the brightest generally stay in the private sector where thinking outside the box is rewarded rather than punished. Where personal initiative is encouraged, instead of "against regulations." And where people get fired for failing, rather than rewarded just for having a pulse.

Who's to blame for allowing such a dysfunctional system to not only exist but flourish in this day and age? Well, I guess we are, those of us who decided at a young age that our brief adult lives could be more profitably and creatively spent avoiding bureaucracies instead of trying to reform them. Public employee unions share a big hunk of the blame too, for creating an environment in which its members are almost entirely insulated from personal accountability or responsibility. And of course, the nation's CEO, George W. Bush, is responsible for appointing incompetent toady, ass kissers, like Michael Brown, to critical posts like FEMA.

At least Katrina was a natural disaster. Bureaucracy is a man-made disaster. It's a double whammy for those unfortunate enough to become a victim of the first and thereby a ward of the second.

I saw a New Orleans resident on CNN this morning fighting bureaucracy. He was in a dry part of the city, had plenty of food and water and his house was not damaged. Nevertheless, the evacuation had been ordered -- "by the numbers," -- and they insisted he be saved. But he didn't need or want saving. He didn't want to go. His house was fine. And he was fine, at least before they showed to help him  The frustrated and angry man shouted at his saviors,

"Go away. Get out of my neighborhood. Get out of my life. Get out of my city. Treat me with benign neglect. Please!"

Yep. Good luck with that little fella.

Bush to the Rescue – of Construction Firms
So, what do you do after a disaster that destroys tens of thousands of homes and businesses? If you are Republican you cut everyone's wages.

"President Bush yesterday suspended application of the federal law governing workers' pay on federal contracts in the Hurricane Katrina-damaged areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The action infuriated labor leaders and their Democratic supporters in Congress, who said it will lower wages and make it harder for union contractors to win bids. Bush wrote that his decision is justified because Davis-Bacon increases construction costs..." (Full Story)

Outsourcing jobs over the past few years has managed to get wages down to sweatshop levels in the manufacturing sector. But wages have remained high in the construction business, largely because construction jobs can't be outsourced.  Ah, but Katrina to the rescue. Thanks to President Bush's suspension of Davis-Bacon rules, construction companies, among them  Halliburton, will be able to round up all the cheap labor they can eat in the disaster zone. Since labor costs can represent as much as 50% of the cost of construction, expect company profits to skyrocket.

Warning -- Get your heads ready for this mind twisting moment: When construction unions demand fair wages be paid during the rebuilding, the now familiar Orwellian Bush spokespeople will, without a hint of embarrassment or irony, accuse them of "profiteering off disaster,"  Come on, you just know that's gonna happen, don't you?

But wait, there's more political lemonade to be squeezed from this lemon. Once they have thousands of disaster victims swinging hammers at minimum wage, President Bush will arrange a photo-op to take credit for "creating much needed jobs for the unemployed," in the stricken area and "expediting the recovery." 

If this administration has been competent at anything it's been figuring out how to make hay for it's friends when the sun don't shine. They can't (won't) provide the rest of us affordable health care, but they can start a war that fattens the coffers of defense contractors and even turn a hurricane into a windfall for corporations like Halliburton and it's kind.

Here's a little ditty the folks down in New Orleans should sing whenever a Bush administration official tries to hold a press conference down there. It was quite a popular song the last time these same kind of people had America's golden goose by the neck: 

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob.
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear,
I was always there, right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead --
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run,
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it's done --
Brother, can you spare a dime?


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