2005 - %3, September

Mad Scientists, Unite!

| Fri Sep. 16, 2005 11:13 AM PDT

So Bush gave his big post-Katrina speech yesterday, pledging a big reconstruction effort that will have Karl Rove running things, ushering in the long march toward authoritarianism via "greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces" at home, and generally trying to get people to like him again. Looking at more substantive matters, though, Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post gives a rundown of some of the possible problems with Bush's specific policy proposals:

1) Bush plans to "give away federal land through a lottery to low-income evacuees who pledge to build homes on the property." This one doesn't seem very objectionable on the surface, though Bruce Katz of Brookings worries that it doesn't come with assistance to help people build or maintain their houses. (And what about renters?)

2) "Bush also proposed to create a Gulf Opportunity Zone, or GO Zone, in which businesses would get substantial tax breaks to invest in equipment and build structures." Some economists think these zones just amount to tax breaks for businesses that would have invested there anyway. Harold Meyerson notes that these zones, first proposed by Jack Kemp in the 1980s, did little to revitalize poor urban areas. Counteracting any hypothetical surge in investment, meanwhile, is the fact that Bush has suspended prevailing wage laws for federal reconstruction. (Which may create its own hassles since, as Nathan Newman points out, by law, service workers would still receive prevailing wages but construction workers would not—likely leading to complaints from all corners.)

3) "Bush proposed worker recovery accounts of as much as $5,000, which evacuees could use to finance job training, child care, transportation or any other impediment to a new job." This is a longstanding Bush idea that no doubt he'd like to experiment with before pushing it on Congress, but it doesn't seem to be a good one. The Economic Policy Institute has noted that the accounts "are too small to purchase meaningful training but just large enough to discourage workers from pursuing cost-effective, short-term services."

So basically the area devastated by Katrina will be the perfect testing-ground for some half-baked conservative ideas and tax breaks in dire need of a laboratory and a few test subjects. No wonder he put Karl Rove in charge. On the other hand, Bush's address had precisely zero words about lending a hand to those who might go into bankruptcy as a result of Katrina, and nothing about extending health insurance to those who have lost their jobs and livelihood. (One idea, of course, would be to temporarily extend Medicaid, but of course he said nothing about it.) Sorry, I don't agree with those who call Bush's speech "Democratic"—though having a bunch of GOP political hacks running around, spending freely on boondoggles and half-baked schemes to enrich their friends will give certainly big-government liberalism a bad name from now until eternity. Maybe that was the point.

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Remembering Hurricane Pam

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 4:45 PM PDT

Hurricane Pam, a slow-moving Category 3 storm, hit New Orleans with 120 mph winds. Twenty inches of rain fell in some places, and the storm surge topped the levees. Over a million residents evacuated, and between 500,000 and 600,000 buildings were destroyed. Some say that 60,000 people died; others say the death toll was between 25,000 and 100,000.

If you're trying to figure out why you've never heard of Hurricane Pam, let me explain: Unless you work for FEMA or live in Louisiana, you couldn't be expected to know about it. Hurricane Pam was a hypothetical storm created for a 2004 tabletop exercise done by FEMA and Louisiana officials. The Hurricane Pam scenario involved thirteen parishes, and launched an action plan that included, among other things:

*The establishment of 1,000 shelters, 784 of which were immediately identified

*The identification of resources to support these shelters for 100 days

*A plan for replenishing resources after a 3 to 5 day period

*The identification of search and rescue personnel

*The establishment of a plan to remove people from harm's way--it was estimated that 100,000 in New Orleans would not have cars

*The implementation of an immunization program

*Obtaining emergency preparedness relief staff

*A plan for getting supplies to hospitals and getting patients to temporary medical units

*Establishing a system for debris removal

*Development and staffing of temporary schools

Hurricane Pam was deemed a success by everyone who attended the exercise. Hurricane Katrina, a fast-moving storm which shifted from a Category 5 to a Category 4 and moved eastward right before it landed, did not match Pam on paper, but its results were very similar. What was different was the implementation of the plan, which fell apart when a real storm landed on the Gulf Coast.

Not Over Yet?

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 3:04 PM PDT

Two links to Josh Marshall in one day, I know, but he seems wrong when he says that the Social Security battle is over: "Not forever. But at least for the next few years." Really? I mean, the odds seem long that the GOP will want to inch near any sort of privatization bill right now, but nevertheless, the Republican leadership hasn't explicitly given the battle up. This Bloomberg piece offers a variety of different quotes, including one from House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, who notes that he's "optimistic" about passing some sort of limited privatization bill; presumably he plans to stuff it with enough pension-related goodies to try and peel off Democratic support.

More notably, the president hasn't given it up. Right before Katrina struck, Bush was cavorting around at various events for seniors, touting his Medicare prescription plan and promising that they would have nothing to lose from privatization—only those under 55 would get screwed. He seems serious. Now granted, the president lives in a cocoon, and would certainly be the last to know that most Americans don't want to abolish Social Security, that the GOP's losing this fight, and that he's crazy for trying. Still, declaring victory seems a bit premature.

Iraq and VA

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 1:42 PM PDT

Via BitchPhD, an old Harpers article discussing one of the hidden, and lesser-discussed aspects of the Iraq war—disabled soldiers:

The hidden economic costs of the war in Iraq will not be found in the immediate treatment of the wounded or in increases to military death benefits. As expensive or labor-intensive as these might be, the largest monetary costs will involve the long-term care of thousands of severely and irrevocably damaged veterans; and these costs will only increase as the years pass. We are going to have to care and pay for a very large number of patients with what are, in any honest prognosis, lifelong disabilities....

Every wounded soldier will soon become a veteran and will--unless he or she is old enough for Medicare or miraculously lucky enough to find a managed-health-care company that will take on patients with extreme preexisting conditions--be forced to receive any ongoing care through Veterans Affairs. There is little to suggest that the VA--an overburdened and underfunded system--can handle the wounded from Iraq once they are released from Department of Defense care.....

The average wait for a VA decision on an initial claim for disability benefits is 165 days; to rule on an appeal of one of its decisions, the VA takes, on average, three years. (In the last ten years, some 13,700 veterans have died as they were waiting for their cases to be resolved.) In Minneapolis the waiting period for an orthopedic appointment at a VA hospital can be more than six months, and patients there have been told to expect a further decrease in services over the next budget period. The VA needs more money, and its claims and appeals process needs an overhaul. Yet this administration hasn't adequately increased funding to the VA to deal with the influx of new veterans from Iraq. Of the 290,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who had left active duty by January 2005, 22 percent have already sought treatment from the VA; more than a quarter of them were diagnosed with some form of mental disorder. At this time, more than 1 million have served in these wars. The GAO recently found that six of seven VA medical facilities it visited "may not be able to meet" increased demand for PTSD. Hundreds of billions have been given to the Pentagon to pay for this war; to pay for the war's aftermath, VA discretionary funding for 2006 is to be increased by only one third of 1 percent.

As a side note, the long-time rap on the VA—that it's a backwater of medicine—is really no longer true; as Philip Longman reported in the Washington Monthly, the government-owned and -run health care system is one of the best in the country. Still, the strain on VA by incoming veterans will be tremendous, and one of the hidden costs of war that never really get acknowledged.

Education Abroad

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 11:10 AM PDT

Dan Drezner links to a new OECD study (pdf) on education, and the results aren't entirely encouraging for the motherland—the United States is still lagging behind its developed-country peers in math and science education—but we seem to be improving. As far as the "What is to be done?" question goes, this passage deserves comment:

Lower expenditure cannot automatically be equated with a lower quality of educational services. Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and New-Zealand, which have moderate expenditure on education per student at the primary and lower secondary levels, are among the OECD countries with the highest levels of performance by 15-year-old students in mathematics.

The study also notes that the United States spends, on the aggregate, much more on education than any other OECD country besides Switzerland. Seems the answer to fixing schools in America does not involve spending more money, right? Maybe, but not necessarily. First question: A good deal of public education spending in the United States, after all, goes towards spending on students with disabilities; in 2004, IDEA grants to states totaled $12 billion, roughly a tenth of all federal education spending. So I wonder what the OECD numbers look like with that factor removed.

Second question: looking only at aggregate expenditures seems misleading to me—as Jonathan Kozol reminds us in Harper's this month, the United States boasts a segregated public school system in which many (often white, suburban) districts rake in obscene amounts of money from local property taxes, while others (often black or Hispanic, urban) have very little to spend on their students. A chart merely showing that the U.S. spends a lot on education obscures some of these points. On the other hand, the "between-school variance" on public education in the United States was fairly low, when compared to supposedly stellar countries like Japan, Germany, and South Korea. I don't know if this means that our savage inequalities aren't quite as savage as they are elsewhere around the world, but it's fairly surprising.

Flipping through some of the other charts, it looks like the United States pays its secondary-school teachers more than most other countries, on an absolute level, but in the context of GDP per capita, our public school teachers don't make very much. Incidentally, Norway and Sweden pay their teachers even less than we do, when compared to GDP per capita, and they seem to be lagging in math and science too. Coincidence? No idea; it would be interesting to see some regressions on this. I also see that teachers in the United States teach far and away more hours than any of their OECD peers, while teachers in Japan—a country generally noted, with caveats like the above, for its educational excellence—teach only about half as many hours as their American counterparts. This doesn't pass for proof that underpaid and overworked public-school teachers are partly the reason for America's poor education showing, but on the surface that idea has at least some plausibility.

Good One!

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 10:31 AM PDT

Since he's going behind the subscriber-only firewall tomorrow, let's have a last-minute David Brooks appreciation for this parody of Jeff Sessions today: "This may be a good moment to remind my colleagues on the other side of the aisle that in this country unelected judges don't write the laws. We have unelected lobbyists to do that." Rest of the piece drones on, but that's quality stuff.

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Disaster in the Making

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 10:19 AM PDT

Josh Marshall on the Bush administration's plan to rebuild New Orleans: "Maybe you want to spend $200 billion on rebuilding the Delta region too. Fine. Something like that will probably be necessary. But don't fool yourself into thinking that what's coming is just a matter of a different chef making the same meal. This will be Iraq all over again, with the same fetid mix of graft, zeal and hubris. Cronyism like you wouldn't believe. Money blown on ideological fantasies and half-baked test-cases."

Mike Allen in Time: "By late last week, Administration aides were describing a three-part comeback plan. The first: Spend freely, and worry about the tab and the consequences later. 'Nothing can salve the wounds like money,' said an official who helped develop the strategy."

And… the Washington Post: "Bush already has dispatched his top strategist, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and other aides to assemble ideas from agencies, conservative think tanks, GOP lawmakers and state officials to guide the rebuilding of New Orleans and relocation of flood victims. The idea, aides said, is twofold: provide a quick federal response that comports with Bush's governing philosophy, and prevent Katrina from swamping his second-term ambitions on Social Security, taxes and Middle East democracy-building."

Tea Leaves Continued

| Wed Sep. 14, 2005 5:00 PM PDT

The John Roberts hearings have had an abundance of dullness and little else, so what are the major newspapers supposed to do? Liz Cox Barnett takes a look at various attempts to liven up a heavy-eyelid day. Actually, though, if you really, really want to go through Roberts' words with a fine-tooth comb, Lyle Denniston has some interesting revelations.

UPDATE: And see Publius' argument that Roberts' professed belief in the right to privacy probably doesn't automatically extend to abortion rights. That jibes pretty well with Byron York's point in National Review today that, when all is said and done, Roberts didn't say much of anything about his views on Roe.

On to the Next Scandal

| Wed Sep. 14, 2005 4:42 PM PDT

The best part of the Bush administration is that it's never short of scandals. Via Cursor, check out this post by RJ Eskow about the latest mishap percolating up from the Small Business Administration (SBA). Not only did the agency mismanage the disbursement of small-business funds after 9/11—companies "hundreds of miles away from the devastation" received SBA-backed loans from 9/11 relief programs—but it tried to cover it up in a subsequent audit. And the head of SBA? Surely some well-qualified administrator? Eh, maybe just a major Bush donor.

"We are blessed"

| Wed Sep. 14, 2005 9:20 AM PDT

That was the message Governor Kathleen Blanco gave Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina first hit. The storm had changed from a Category 5 to a Category 4, was moving very quickly north, and had shifted eastward before landing, creating horrendous damage in Mississippi. Until the levees were breached, Louisiana's citizens thought they had been spared a major tragedy yet again.

But if Louisiana was "blessed," the only logical conclusion we can draw is that Mississippi was cursed. It made me cringe every time I heard someone use this language, and it angered me to hear the governor use it. Only yesterday, a radio reporter told the people of Jefferson Parish: "You ought to be thanking God that the levees were breached on the Orleans Parish side."

The language of religion is a powerful one, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, where Southern Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and conservative non-denominational Christian churches are plentiful. In south Louisiana, there is also a very big Catholic population, which includes Governor Blanco.

A few days ago, Blanco, while touring a section of storm-ravaged south Louisiana, told residents that they would never be able to get through the hurricane crisis "without faith." The faith to which she was referring wasn't faith in the government or faith in the strength of community, but religious faith. Though they may fly under the radar, many churchless and non-religious people live in Louisiana, and they were essentially being told by their leader that they had no hope for recovery.

Certainly, in a time of crisis, religious people are going to talk about religion, and I, for one, have no objection to their doing so. I have no objection to the governor's doing so, either, as long as her comments do not cause division among constituents or imply that people in other states somehow wound up on the wrong side of God's favor.(Such thinking isn't even rational within the religious paradigm--why would God spare what is probably the most corrupt state in the nation?)

The problem goes beyond careless statements made by public officials. One of the New Orleans television stations had a psychotherapist on to talk about stress reactions to the hurricane. After she said all of the standard things about dealing with a disaster, she launched into a speech about there "being a reason" for the devastation caused by Katrina. She was careful to be inclusive, and said she was addressing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists--everyone. It was important, she said, to remember that these things happen "for a reason."

As a licensed psychotherapist, I was stunned by her remarks. I am as metaphysically ignorant as the next human, and do not wish to speculate about the possibility of mystical processes affecting natural phenomena. That is not the issue for me. My concern is that--in a culture in which people are constantly told that they are being punished for their sins--the last thing they need to hear is that there is a Big Reason for their having lost their homes, their jobs, and their loved ones. And bad theology aside, it is a remarkably stupid thing to say to people who have just suffered significant loss and disruption.

It is bad enough that the religious nuts want to blame some of our citizens for causing the hurricane to destroy New Orleans (though that theory does offer some other possibilities). Public officials and members of the clergy and other helping professions would be wise to stop and examine their religious rhetoric before broadcasting it to already victimized people.