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September 05, 2005

Explaining Michael Brown

Neil the Ethical Werewolf

The idea that someone like Michael Brown could possibly get a job as director of FEMA belongs in parody. We're talking about a guy who had spent a decade running horse shows before being fired for supervision failures in 2001, when Bush crony Joe Allbaugh was hired as FEMA director. Brown had never managed a natural disaster, but his experience as Allbaugh's old college roommate got him the deputy director's job. After Allbaugh left to consult for companies seeking contracts in Iraq, Brown took over the agency. When Katrina hit, Brown spent his time denying the facts about what was going on in New Orleans, in a transparent attempt to fool people into thinking the situation was under control. Now Brown's FEMA is expending lots of effort in blocking incoming aid. Even Michelle Malkin wants Brown fired.

The difference between this and the stellar performance of James Lee Witt's FEMA during the Clinton administration is like night and day. When the manager of the Des Moines Water Works called local officials shortly after midnight on July 11, 1993 to say that flooding was going to shut down the city's water supply, FEMA set up 29 water distribution points in town by that evening. While floods rendered the Water Works inoperable for two and a half weeks, the city had all the water it needed. Five hours and three minutes after the Oklahoma city bombing -- an event that occurred with no warning whatsoever -- FEMA's advance team was on the scene to assess the damage, and James Lee Witt himself had arrived within 12 hours.

Why did James Lee Witt and the disaster-relief commandos of the Clinton Administration suddenly give way to Michael Brown and the incompetents of the Bush Administration? It would seem that there would be plenty for an administration to gain in hiring effective disaster-relief people, given the political fallout that accompanies mismanaged disasters.

A look at Kevin Drum's timeline suggests one answer. The Allbaugh/Brown regime saw FEMA chopped apart and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. One of the benefits of hiring clueless but loyal hacks to head government agencies is that they won't complain when you dismember their agencies or privatize essential functions in order to satisfy your anti-government preferences. If you actually hire somebody with genuine competence in doing things that the agency is supposed to do, you might get some angry complaints and defense of turf when mission-critical functions are compromised by your agenda.

There's also a reason that lies deeper in Republican psychology. Republicans don't really want to see government succeed in doing things right. Sure, when they're running the country, they want to get the political advantages of success, if such advantages are to be had. But this desire is in tension with a desire to see government fail, to see it held up to public scorn for its incompetence and ineffectiveness. So they're not going to go all-out to hire the absolute best people, especially if their buddies just got fired from the horse show business and need new jobs.

September 5, 2005 in Republicans | Permalink


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» FEMA: Agency of the Damned from Liberal Pen Pal
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Tracked on Sep 6, 2005 8:55:10 AM


If the Hurricane Katrina incident isn't an argument for big government, I don't know what is!

Posted by: Pepper | Sep 5, 2005 6:37:06 PM

Nice comparison of the slip in response times from the 90's to today. Kos has a diary of FEMA's Katrina screwups and another that cleverly compares the federal government's response time in the 1906(!) SF earthquake to Katrina. I haven't fact checked it, but if accurate, it's damning.

Good point, though. I've always been confused as to why people vote for politicians who say government can't do anything good. What do they think politicians are going to do with the job when they get it?

Posted by: theorajones | Sep 5, 2005 6:52:57 PM

If "ideology" were really triumphant, here, you would see government actually shrinking, but it's not. (In the first Bush term, private sector employment declined, while government grew.)

The Republican "ideology" is really just good PR, covering for callousness and corruption. Libertarian talk is just a cover for operational authoritarianism. And, competence would interfere with "contracting opportunities".

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Sep 5, 2005 7:27:32 PM

I think even more telling about the admin's attitude towards FEMA than Brown becoming the head guy, is that he was the second-banana. The guy who first had the job, and actually had some momentum in the political circles, decided to leave and earn money consulting on contracting in Iraq. They're staffed by people who simply cannot wait to get out of office and make a good buck.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Sep 7, 2005 12:49:19 PM

1) The comparison between the Des Moines water works incident and Katrina is not really very instructive. The scale is just totally different.

2) You do not have super powers and are not capable of divining that "Republicans don't really want to see government succeed in doing things right." Nor is generalizing in this way accurate or appropriate.

3) Specifically what parts of the federal response were late or not carried out according to the federal disaster planning?

4) theorajones:

"Good point, though. I've always been confused as to why people vote for politicians who say government can't do anything good. What do they think politicians are going to do with the job when they get it? "

Reduce it.

Posted by: b | Sep 7, 2005 5:50:32 PM

1. Yeah, the disasters are quite different. But any government agency that can respond to a crisis that quickly is clearly doing the right thing, re: not being tied up in red tape.

2. I've read enough Republican blog posts filled with delight at exposing failures of government -- and seen enough of their irritation as I posted about things government does right -- to have a body of evidence for this.

3. For one thing, forcing volunteer firefighters to take a 2-day orientation including sexual harrassment training was a waste of time. I still don't know why FEMA is turning away so many volunteers.

4. And if for some reason they can't reduce it straightaway, they hire morons to mismanage it so that it'll look more worthy of reduction.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 7, 2005 9:58:56 PM

1. I think the point of the post was that the disasters were very different. Witt responded urgently to a minor disaster, while Brown took time to mosey down to a major one. You might disagree with that statement, but the difference was part of the point and was not something blithely ignored.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Sep 8, 2005 1:01:57 PM


Why are they not talking about this in the news? It needs to be out there! Thank you!


Posted by: lorena | Sep 8, 2005 4:50:46 PM

I don't know why everyone is on Michael Brown's back? With appointments being made by most past or present Presidents, if they be Democrat or Republician have made appointments to individuals (many) having NOT a clue of the real job at hand of exactly what the job is to begin with. Paybacks after elections to the buddy system has been common for many years, not just by Presidents but with most (maybe all)elected officals making no difference if they are Democrat's or Reublician's! This is not new news!

President Bush, appointed Michael D. Brown to the post of FEMA Director but just, WHO MADE THE RECOMMENDATION OF MICHAEL D. BROWN IN THE FIRST PLACE TO THE PRESIDENT? Just WHO went on to get involved with government contracts after they left their post of being a FEMA Director?

Want to talk about wasteful spending? Just WHO is paying for all these so called Committee's that is set in pointing the FINGER OF BLAME? If they think they know it all then they need to run FEMA and do a better job than what Michael D. Brown did with their experience! I'm not saying all that he did was right but did anyone do the right thing in this situation from the beginning regardless of their position with City, State and Government position?

I am low-income, sick, disabled and live in HUD Housing. If I was faced with what so many of the poor, low-income, elderly, disabled, sick was faced with in New Orleans surely, I WOULD NOT HAVE COME OUT TO LIVE ANOTHER DAY AFTER KATRINA! I'M WHITE! THE POOR, LOW-INCOME, ELDERLY, DISABLED, AND SICK HAVE NO COLOR! I'M APPAULED THAT ANYONE SHOULD USE COLOR AS A REASON FOR WHAT HAPPENED IN NEW ORLEANS!

Can I ask, "What's really going to change in the future for ALL???"

Posted by: Jennie S. Arredondo | Sep 28, 2005 9:36:42 AM

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