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Bechtel: Republican Disaster Manager

Republicans were caught flat-foot with the Katrina fiasco. But not for long. Two weeks after the disaster, they are back to their usual remedies. Now they say, that since FEMA and Homeland Security, as well as the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, botched the job of helping disaster victims, we should look to other ways of doing the job. Why not call in the private sector? Why not replace FEMA with a proud American corporation - Bechtel, for instance?

First, Republicans take a well-functioning FEMA, degrade it by submerging it into Homeland Security and reducing its budget and appointing hacks to run it and keeping it out of any important executive loop. Then, when FEMA does not perform properly in the terrible Katrina fiasco, Republicans announce that the problem is with government and its bureaucracies. The private sector would do a much better job.

Daniel Henninger writes in the Wall Street Journal:

"We fail to use well what we know because we rely too much on large public bureaucracies."

According to him, Bush had nothing to do with this. "Bureaucracies" in the government are at fault. He continues:

"We should consider outsourcing some of these functions, for profit, to the private sector. In recent days, offers of help have come from such companies as Anheuser-Busch and Culligan (water), Lilly, Merck and Wyeth (pharmaceuticals), Nissan and GM (cars and trucks), Sprint, Nextel and Qwest (communications gear and phone cards), Johnson & Johnson (toiletries and first aid), Home Depot and Lowe's (manpower). Give contract authority to organize these resources to a project-management firm like Bechtel. Use the bureaucracies as infantry."

"Outsourcing...for profit." Why should we let another opportunity for profit slip by? The government can't do it, but Big Business can. Is he trying to tell me that the corporations he listed do not have "bureaucracies"? Nonsense. Every big organization has a bureaucracy. The big difference between government "bureaucracies" and business "bureaucracies" is the former are concerned with all the people whereas the latter serve those who are ready to pay.

Yes, corporations will make profit. What will the people get? What will the poor and infirm receive?

Stephen Bainbridge refers to Henninger's ideas with approval. He says:

"If we can outsource war, we can outsource disasters."

He does not bother to think about the lousy results we got from outsourcing war. Neither war nor disasters should be outsourced. They are both fundamental functions of government. However, we do need competent people, not political hacks, in charge.

Bainbrindge also says:

"Outsourcing works precisely because it takes advantage of Smith's invisible hand."

Maybe the invisible hand could have held back the levees that broke? Or it could have separated the waters, as it did for Moses, so citizens could leave town easily? Or it could have pushed into busses, boats and airplanes anyone who would pay a small - or perhaps not so small - fee?

We don't need or want a private sector disaster manager, whether it be Anheuser-Busch or Bechtel. We need a strong, independent and reinvigorated FEMA, the kind of agency it was under Clinton.

Posted by Paul Siegel at September 13, 2005 6:00 PM