Saturday, August 30, 2008

Drowning it in a delta bathtub, pt. i

There are plenty of reasons not to vote for John McCain in the upcoming election: Iraq, Afghanistan, tax cuts, Katrina, health care, and so on and so forth. For me, the biggest reason of all is that I don't think that people who believe that government is the problem should be left in charge of the government. It's that simple. Something about a fox and a hen house comes to mind. Anywho...

Earlier this week the Washington Post ran a short story about an absenteeism report run on federal employees:
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has been checking up on the attendance records of federal employees. And he doesn't like what he's found.

Civil servants have been away from their jobs without permission much too often in recent years, Coburn says in a new report. Records from 17 federal agencies and the U.S. Postal Service show that workers were absent without leave for 19.6 million hours between 2001 and 2007, the study found.

That's the equivalent of 2.5 million missed days of work, or 316 employees skipping out for entire 30-year careers, says Coburn, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management.

First of all, it's quite precious that Senator Coburn, a man whose political ideology encourages the raping of government, is concerned about the aptitude and proper oversight of the federal workforce. To his modest credit he does step away from the whole this-is-an-affront-to-the-American-taxpayer line for a moment to lay responsibility where it needs to be laid:
In a telephone interview, Coburn said he is bashing not the rank-and-file but rather bosses who do not address the issue. "This isn't about the federal workforce, this is about the management of the federal workforce," he said. "That's what needs to be better."
To state the obvious, these words are coming from a United States Senator and member of the party that has had a majority share in managing the federal workforce for the better part of the past decade. Of course, his ideological sensibilities make it impossible for him to connect the dots:
"It is unreasonable and unfair to expect taxpayers to foot the bill for inefficiencies that federal agencies fail to address," Coburn wrote.
For nearly 30 years conservatives have filled the ranks of government with cronies, horse trainers, back scratchers, and all-around scoundrels. The great irony with Coburn's "concern" is that a malfunctioning federal workforce is actually considered a triumph by the people who subscribe to his sort of up-is-down politics. This is exactly the type of government you get when you elect people who hate government, or to quote the words of their hero, those who subscribe to the idea that government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.

The following is a short passage from Thomas Frank's new book, The Wrecking Crew. It is a fantastic example of the problem I am writing about:
It was just after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed New Orleans that I started to get it. Everyone who was able to turn on a TV knew the disaster was coming, and yet of its six thousand employees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) managed only to station a single person in the city before the storm hit. As I read about the thirty thousand desperate people in the Superdome, my mind turned to the billions and billions and billions that we had spent on "preparedness" since 9/11--the great levee of public money that was supposedly necessary to keep us safe--and it slowly dawned on me that it had all been a waste. These inconceivable expenditures--this greatest security effort ever, mounted by the mightiest nation in history--and it was all for nothing. We might as well have piled the banknotes up in a pasture somewhere and set them afire.

From first to last the New Orleans disaster was a test of Bush's "market-based" government. To start with, we have FEMA as it was in 2000, a well run, freestanding federal agency whose employees reported high morale and job satisfaction; candidate George W. Bush even praised the agency in one of his debates with Al Gore. President George W. Bush then put FEMA under the charge of Joe Allbaugh, a Texas winger with no disaster experience but a long history at Bush's side; Allbaugh proceeded to fill the place with political appointees and incompetent pals like the soon-to-be-notorious Michael Brown. Two years later Allbaugh left "Brownie" in charge and opened a lobby shop, representing companies that specialized in disaster relief and big reconstruction projects, much needed in Iraq those days.

FEMA, meanwhile, had become part of the Department of Homeland Security, where outsourcing was the normal practice, bungling was the normal result, and where, by 2006, fully two-thirds of top officials had departed for a job with the contractors (or their lobbyists) to whom the department outsourced its work. At FEMA the brain drain was more like a hemorrage. Between the dispiriting leadership of Allbaugh and Brown and the market-base opportunities dangled by the rising homeland security contractors, the old hands had rich incentive to get out. Morale among the career types at FEMA sank so low that the president of the union local wrote a letter to Senator Hillary Clinton in 2004 begging her to do something to save the agency. "This administration really distrusts government workers. Just right across the board," Leo Bosner, a FEMA career man told me in 2005. But outside consultants? "We can trust those guys [the administration thought], and they're the private sector, and they'll do it right."

So the hurricane hit, FEMA failed completely--and then came the really big money. Bosner told me that standard disaster procedure had previously been to hire recovery workers locally, because doing so helped the people most affected. This time, though, the idea was apparently to help the people most connected. The no-bid reconstruction contracts poured out like gravy, and clients of Bush's buddy Joe Allbaugh just happened to be among those who won them. An emergency housing contract went to the engineering conglomerate CH2M Hill, a client of a different lobby shop that also featured a detachment of former top Homeland Security officers. Still other contracts went to the Fluor Corporation, whose patriarch had been one of the original trustees of the Heritage Foundation, and to Bechtel, a longtime donor to right-wing organizations and employer of retired right-wing politicians.

A month after the disaster, the contractors got together to chortle over their good fortune at a "Katrina Reconstruction Summit" held in a Senate office building. The air tingled wiht talk of the billions that were to be handed out, and a former Reagan administration official named Ed Badolato was particularly ebullient. His employer, the Shaw Group--an enormous construction company and a client of Allbaugh's--had already bagged a $100-million contract. In the past, he related, people "around town" would say, "Shaw Group, we never heard of y'all." But today Shaw men were walking tall in the corridors of power. "Right now, I'm sure that with the large contracts that we have been receiving," Badolato boasted, "everybody [every subcontractor, that is] who had my name in a Rolodex...has been calling me and everyone else they knew at Shaw to get a piece of that." he gave a shout-out to "our consultants, people who really delivered the bacon to us...when we needed it"; reminded the crowd that Shaw had done "a lot of lobbying and consulting efforts, both in Louisiana and in Washington"; and allowed that this "really pays off when it's time to get some contracts."

By now over $100 billion has been spent, but parts of New Orleans remain empty. Repairing public housing seems to have been a low priority; rebuilding casinos an urgent one. All this might seem like social engineering in a cruelly nineteenth-century mode, but in fact it is the unavoidable result of a recover plan composed of tax cuts for entrepeneurs, fat handouts to chosen contractors, and toxic trailers for those who can't afford large donations to the GOP.

You can buy Mr. Frank's book here.

The one thing you should take away from this particular example is that conservative politics literally drowned a major American city. Not only that, but conservative politics have failed to properly rebuild New Orleans to such an extent that this week's GOP convention may be delayed so as not to share the split-screen festivities with Hurricane Gustav. They're worried because they know that the guys they've been funneling the money to have likely spent more time on the golf course than they have on the gulf coast. Again, when you elect people who think that government is the problem, you get a problematic government.

In part ii, I'll write about how the con works.

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