Incompetence and Greed

Former head of the International Arabian Horse Association, Michael D. Brown, has finally bitten the bullet and resigned as head of FEMA. I can't say how much this guy can be blamed for the suffering in New Orleans, but there is no doubt that somewhere along the line, FEMA stuffed things up big time. When all is said and done, there is no doubt that many people died because of FEMA's mistakes.

Just today we have learned that 2 million Californians were affected by a major power outage. The culprits, according to officials, were a couple of utility workers who had cut the wrong cable and connected it to another line that could not handle that amount of electricity. According to one report, "(the workers) directed too much amperage into a circuit that did not have the capacity to handle it".

My Dad was an Electrical Engineer. He helped design many of the coal-fired power stations along Lake Macquarie in New South Wales. He retired soon after the old Electricity Commission was corporatised, and thus did not have to suffer too much Thatcherism.

One thing about utilities like power, sewerage and transportation, is the absolute necessity of having built-in redundancies. The idea is that failure is not only expected, but it is planned for. If one part of the system falls over, the very design of the system allows it to continue while the broken bit is fixed up.

In terms of electricity generation, built-in redundancies should exist within the power grid, so that if one idiot of an electricity worker cuts the wrong line and puts it where he shouldn't, then the failure is localised and quickly overcome while the original problem is fixed up.

The problem is that governments, under various guises of philosophical economics, such as those espoused by Reaganomics, Rogernomics, Thatcherism and Privatization, have cut back spending on infrastructure. And, of course, "built in redundancies" are a prime target for cutbacks - mainly because savings can be made by ignoring these redundancies, while at the same time allowing the system to continue normally

Except of course, when something goes wrong.

I'm not an opponent of privatization and corporatisation per se. If efficiency gains can be made by exposing the sector to market-driven forces then I'm all for it. What I'm not happy about is when these efficiency gains are made at the expense of safety and reliability. Moreover, if the sector is more efficient if left in the hands of a government department, then why bother trying to fit it into a market-driven model?

FEMA is probably a good example of a government department that was interfered with too much by those in power. Apart from having massive amounts of money cut from its budget, it appears as though many of the top people were political appointees with little or no experience in managing disasters. So on the one hand you had a government that was cutting its funding, and on the other hand you had top people who could not do the job properly.

Of course, many supporters of small government would argue that, because FEMA is a government run organisation, its inbuilt inefficiency is actually a reason why less money should be given to it, and why disaster relief should be left in the hands of a private agency or charities.

But such an attitude does not take into account that incompetence is something that hinders many bureaucracies - not just those in government. Moreover, cronyism and nepotism - two characteristics of the Bush administration - are not limited to governments either. Why did Lachlan Murdoch have such a position of power in News Corporation? Was it due to his abilities or due to his Father's influence? What about Enron and WorldCom and Qwest? No one appears to be criticising the entire capitalist system as being the cause of such corporate disasters.

We have to understand that, without strict rules and their ability to be enforced, any organisation - whether government or corporate - has the ability to manifest incompetence. By cutting funding and appointing cronies, government departments like FEMA have lost their ability to function efficiently - and people have died as a result.

Let this be a lesson to those who keep chanting the ideological mantra of small government.

From the Osostrian School Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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