Drowning government in the bathtub

Russell Sadler

The failure of government to act competently in the wake of Katrina is the predictable result of an attitude toward government.

The attempt to determine accountability for the “unacceptable” government response to Hurricane Katrina is hampered by an artful “blame game.” Who failed to react competently -- state and local governments or the federal government? This is a non-issue, deliberately manufactured to shield the real culprit.

In the Deep South, this attitude -- it should not be dignified by calling at philosophy -- has been around since the Civil War. It is fostered by a suffocatingly paternal plantation-owner mindset of the aristocracy and the primitive sharecropper economy it creates to maintain a large, low-wage, docile, disposable workforce. This attitude toward government is characterized by governing on the cheap. Hapless Mississippi is at the bottom of the list in nearly everything society measures that counts -- education spending, literacy, economic health measures. Mississippi’s political and social leaders are content with this status.

Louisiana is not far above Mississippi in those statistics because it’s statewide leaders have the same attitude. This indifference, even hostility, to the public realm has a code name in the South. It is called “personal responsibility.” That label really means “You’re on your own if disaster strikes. Government has no responsibility for helping you. God and the church will provide voluntary help.”

This Southern attitude began to aggressively spread across the country when Ronald Reagan campaigned on the slogan “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Reagan demanded that welfare be limited to the “truly needy.” His purge of the welfare rolls created the largest population of the permanently homeless since The Great Depression.

Southern hostility to the legitimacy of the public realm grew a hard Libertarian edge in its most recent incarnation. The right-wing apparatchik Grover Norquist of Americans For Tax Reform, infamously said, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Be careful what you wish for Grover. You may get it.

For more than 20 years we have had a “discussion” about the size and scope of government. The right says it’s too big, the left says it’s fine the way it was. The majority of those in between think government is too large until a program they depend on is cut or eliminate or there is inadequate response to a disaster. The disagreement cannot be reconciled, because no consensus exists about the “legitimate” size and scope of government.

It is clear from Katrina that government at all levels was inadequate to cope with a predictable event of this magnitude. It raises the question of the country’s preparedness for a widespread terrorist attack with biological or nuclear weapons. It is not a question of blame. It is a question of accountability for an “unacceptable” response -- that is President Bush’s judgment, not this columnist.

It is clear that FEMA is run by incompetent political appointees chosen by the President. The Bush administration has already throwing the low-level suspects overboard. It is clear that Congress and the Bush administration shifted FEMA’s natural disaster preparedness funds and personnel to more fashionable antiterrorist activities when FEMA was downgraded from a cabinet status agency and folded into the ill-conceived Department of Homeland Security. That looting of money and personnel predictably left FEMA an enfeebled organization unable to meet its primary mission. State and local emergency response organizations also suffered from this shift of federal funds from disaster preparedness and response to antiterrorist activities.

Nor can Oregon stand smugly on the sidelines and tut-tut over Southern state incompetence. Last winter’s tsunami warning on the Oregon Coast witnessed too many people who did not know what to do or when and where to go. Fortunately, the tsunami did not materialize. The Oregon Legislature came and went without seriously looking into the inadequate response to the warning. I am reliably informed by emergency response personnel that current budgets are inadequate to deal with a tsunami on the coast or a major earthquake inland. The “Southern attitude” has taken root in Salem in the last two decades. In other words, it could happen here.

The lesson of Katrina is that you cannot put government in the hands of people who express contempt for government and expect government to function competently. As Katrina’s aftermath demonstrated, that contempt can turn lethal.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the distinguished American jurist, famously observed, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

After Katrina struck, American stared into the abyss while the whole world watched -- and saw how thin the veneer of civilized society really is. No one can say, “It can’t happen here.” It did. And American was not up to the job. We embarrassed ourselves in the eyes of the world. The Gulf states will not be the only things that will take a long time to recover.

And what of Grover Norquist? Grover is over. His reputation and hopefully his ideological influence drowned in a bathtub that was once the great city of New Orleans.

You still get what you pay for.

  • Steve (unverified)

    Even if everyone is a government employee (i.e. government was huge) if we cannot make effective decisions at top levels, it really makes no difference.

    In New Orleans we had inaction by city, state and federal government, so saying this is all the brainchild of Grover Norquist is not even relevant since this issue transcends party lines. I would be more intereted in what we can do to prevent this from happening in terms of actions and not just chopping heads.

  • Chris (unverified)

    These are valuable and insightful parts of the discussion Russel. I'd like to add another piece. I am of the persuasion that every level of government failed during this catastrophe and no one's failure excused the failure of others.

    The system is broken no doubt, but there was also a lack of execution on many levels both prior to and after the hurricane. In other words, great executors could have done a much better job even within the current system. I fear that this lack of execution will further fuel the conservative and libertarian tendency to say, "See I told you so. Government can't do anything right."

    Unfortunately elections are essentially popularity contests which may have little to do with selecting those with a nack for execution. That's not as critical in legislative bodies, but is of the essence for the "Executive Branches" of government (i.e. mayors, governors and presidents). As a former business executive/entrepreneur and current business Turnaround Professional (consultant), I have seen it time after time. Some people are good with ideas but not good executors. Some people are good team players but freeze when faced with critical decisions on their own. Others have the natural take charge attitude and are at their best in high pressure.

    Electing mayors, governors and presidents has little to do with this reality. And good government or good policy poorly executed become bad policy.

    I'm not sure what the systemic solution is, but I wanted to inject this piece into the conversation nonetheless.

    Without a reliable method for ensuring that our "leaders" can execute, we must rely on systems. Simple systems, lest they burgeon into unresponsive bureaucracies. Progressives should promote the idea of good government execution as a guiding principle (which is different than accountability) when forming policies, systems and selecting leaders. Without good execution, the collective efforts we support as progressives will continue to be met with idealogical contempt as they continue to fail us in critical ways.

  • CAM (unverified)

    Steve and Chris make valid arguments, that is, if it were true that Government on all levels were given that responsibility.

    Unfortunately, it is not.

    FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency was given the charge of ultimate authority (and thus ultimate responsibility) for managing emergency situations here in America. This was done many years ago, for the very reasons mentioned by Steve and Chris.

    This doctrine of overall Federal authority in dealing with national disasters was further strengthened when FEMA was placed under the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, a department that nobody can doubt was created for that very purpose of Federal Authority (but just in case you do, you might want to read through the public record on this one).

    Because of this, it matters not who may have dropped the ball at what level. The ultimate authority, and thus the ultimate responsibility rests entirely at the Federal level. The right-wing is being disingenuous to even consider suggesting the blame rests with local government.

    This administration screwed the pooch on this one. If those on the right are truly concerned about how Homeland Security will handle another suprise terrorist attack, they should take a long look at how this administration handled the aftermath of a natural disaster that everyone knew was coming.

    Lives are at stake. Stop spinning it otherwise.

  • Russell Sadler (unverified)

    Did any of you three really read what I wrote before you shot off your comments?

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Russ, I was giving thought to writing an article this morning, but you have saved me the trouble. Well said, but I doubt that it will have much effect on the libertarians and other members of the anti-tax brigade in Oregon. They opposed a very modest tax increase in Oregon with the consequence that budgets were cut for schools and human and other services. Many of them rationalized this anti-tax attitude and said that people believing in these services should send Salem a check. You can bet very few of them wrote checks to Salem then or Katrina relief now but left it to others to do the humane and civilized thing. The odds are that most of them are among the 38% that still believe Bush is doing a good job and calling themselves patriots. As the estimable Dr. Johnson reputedly said, "Patriotism is the refuge of a scoundrel." This nation can and will survive Katrina, but with around 40% of the people still believing in Bush and his adminstration and Grover Norquist's philosophy of government I fear that things will get much worse before they get better.

  • CAM (unverified)

    Mr Sadler,

    In answer to your question: Yes I did. I apologize for addressing the deflecting comments of the other two rather than your main point.

    As usual, your columns are precise and to the point, and I agree wholeheatredy (although I did use the New Orleans bath-tub reference in an earlier post).

    My father, a Southerner (as there is no such thing as a former Southerner) has a slightly different take on the term "personal responsibility." He happens to believe that also entails taking full responsiibility for your actions, blunders and mistakes, be it individual, corporate or governmental. Probably explains why my father left the South for the West. I know it explains why he despises Bush.

    I also know that the appeal of the far-right on the masses only exists in a vaccuum, even in the South, and is only as successful as the vaccuum that carries it continues to exist. For a brief point in our history, before the emergence of neo-con power, I believe we were on our way to doing so.

    Sorry, like my Dad I can't seem to let a Norquist-like false euphamism go without some comment regarding the truith, even if that euphamism is directed off the main point.

    Call it taking personal responsibility.

  • Chris (unverified)

    I read your column. I understood your column. I thought it well written.

    This is neither deflection nor spin. I agree with Cam that lives were and are at stake and FEMA was responsible. AND, had local government worked better more lives wouldn't have depended on the clearly inept FEMA. That's a fact, not spin.

    Regarding the size and scope of government, Russel wrote: "The right says it’s too big, the left says it’s fine the way it was. The majority of those in between think government is too large until a program they depend on is cut or eliminate or there is inadequate response to a disaster."

    It is relevant to suggest that more people would be more supportive of government if government seemed to work well. I don't think the majority believe this.

    When discussing Oregon's lack of preparedness for a natural disaster and the fight to garner more public support for the funding of such, it is important to recognize those factors which undermine the people's faith in government. People want competency in their leaders. They dislike paying for government as it is, and perhaps government can never perform well enough in the minds of many. Failure to perform though, undermines public trust and makes the struggle for a better society more difficult.

    I don't think that's a euphemism and I don't understand the disagreement. I see a whole lot of agreement by everyone at the table: FEMA is inept and more importantly, we need to fight an anti-government attitude that would have us starve out those programs and agencies which make our country a better place.

    I think we're all on the same team here...

    If there is something I am still not "getting" about this then please let me know. If you think I'm off topic, well, I've already explained my position and I'll shut up.

  • user (unverified)


    I enjoy your comments, but your anti-Southern bias and ignorance can be appalling. The home of anti-government, "personal responsibility" individualism is the West, my friend, and has been for at least fify year.

    Reagan? He was born and bred in the Midwest and made his name in California. The god of the anti-government movement? He was a Senator in Arizona, perhaps you remember him. Many of the most powerful conservative groups in America started in good old Orange County, CA.

    I also remember a governor in Louisiana in the 30s, wouldn't call him a small government type. The South has a long history of populist governors and Senators (Byrd, Russell, etc). Maybe you forgot that William Jennings Bryan won the South--McKinley won in the NE and guess where...Oregon!

    And I'll close with this: the state and local governments I left in North Carolina was far more competent than anything I've seen out here.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    For anyone interested in an cogent perspective on government I would recommending reading Peter Drucker's books, particularly those that deal with topics beyond management. Younger readers may not be aware of who Peter Drucker is or was. He was considered the father of modern management and his book "Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices" was once considered the bible of management, so he was no left-wing, bleeding-heart liberal, but he believed there were three components to a civilized, functioning society: Enterprises, non-profit charitable organizations AND government. The trick was to decide where each function belonged. I don't believe he would have had much in common with Grover Norquist or the libertarians who would deny assigning responsibilities to government to avoid paying taxes.

  • (Show?)

    Amen, Russell.

    What's fascinating is that now, when government really is failing, the GOP--whose long-stated goal has been to destroy government--say you can't really blame the GOP for the failure. You get various apologetics, some of which appear on the comments to this post.

    It will be interesting to see if voters blame the GOP or lose faith in government altogether.

  • Sid (unverified)

    Yes, government failed at all levels in this disaster. But as I remember last summer and fall, the main thrust of Bush's campaign was about "protecting Americans." It was a "Bush will protect Americans and John Kerry won't" message. It worked. But in the end when thousands of Americans in Mississipi and Louisiana desperately needed help and protection, they didn't get it from the Bush administration.

    Because Bush made "protecting Americans" the theme of his campaign and failed to follow through on the promise, Bush has to pay a heavy political price. Now, had he said it was not his job to protect us, but soley the job of state and local officials, it would be a different story, wouldn't it. I suppose had that been the case, Bush wouldn't be the president today.

  • Becky (unverified)

    I disagree that the left thinks government is fine as it is. I constantly see the far left looking to expand the role of government - nationalized health care is one good example. Perhaps the moderate left is satisfied, but it's not fair to compare the moderate left to the far right and ignore the far left simply by leaving out the word "far." Further, I would wager the moderate right is also satisfied with the status quo. My point is, you should not be ignoring the extremism on the left end of the political spectrum.

    That said, don't count Gorver Norquist out just yet. Already it is amazing to see the way the right wing spin machine is turning the Katrina story around. They're masters at it, and I don't think they're down for the count just yet. Unfortunately. The American people don't like what they've learned about our government over the past couple of weeks. Given the opportunity to believe their impressions about the Katrina situation were wrong and that everything is OK, I believe they will take it.

    Finally, I think the horrible behavior we've seen in this disaster is a symptom of a broad-based lack of human compassion throughout our government, from bottom to top. Too many (not all) police, judges, city councilors, legislators, and federal officials really do not care about the problems of those who can't make it without help. They are in it for power, money, cronyism, etc. I have observed within the conservative mindset a sort of "manly" approach that believes forcing people to fight their own way through hard times makes them achieve more, and while there is some truth in that, it is not a universal truth - and it is ignorant of the value of the social structure in which most humans thrive. These "manly" types don't want to indulge in compassion and they make fun of those who do. Personally, I find a strong but compassionate approach much more manly. Beyond that, we are also seeing an incredible amount of corruption and good-ol'-boy dealings.

    I am concerned because these attitudes are very prevalent throughout Oregon's government, and learning this morning that the director of operations of FEMA in the northwest is another political favor appointee with no experience or credentials in the field makes me quite nervous about what would happen here if we had a major disaster. We have many of the same ingredients that have resulted in chaos in New Orleans - including crooked cops and a lot of tweakers who would not do very well after a few of days without their meth.

  • LT (unverified)

    I am tired of hearing about "the left". I remember when that meant the OLD left (socialist, for instance) and the NEW left (Tom Hayden and the anti-war protests, among other things). I believe there is no left, left if you are talking about ideology.

    I challenged a Republican friend who talked about "ultraliberals in the state senate" to name one and he said Alan Bates. Excuse me, but back in the mid-1960s, a doctor who got elected to the legislature is not exactly what was meant by a member of "the left" unless it was someone out protesting the Vietnam War or maybe involved in civil rights marches.

    My sense of the 21st century use of the term is a way to disparage anyone who doesn't vote a straight Republican ticket. Or someone who supports gay rights, for instance, or a more sane approach to budgets. Which leads to the question of whether Ben Westlund or even Frank Morse is a member of "the left" for supporting things Karen Minnis opposes.

    I do think that Grover is over in terms of showing his true colors and not able to hide in the shadows anymore. Exactly what did he contribute to hurricane relief, or is he just waiting for that to go off the front page so he can push more tax cuts? Does he have any contact with current reality? At a time when even Newt Gingrich is talking about which party will be the party of performance in the new century, and David Brooks is talking about how the 1927 flood which damaged New Orleans (and the response to the cleanup afterwards) helped fuel the Progressive movement, I suspect the days of "you'd better take the anti-tax pledge or big bad Grover will make your life miserable when you run for re-election" may well be over.

  • Mike Austin (unverified)

    As a "progressive", I also must take issue with the notion that "lefties" think government is fine as it is. For starters, the Defense, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Interior Departments are little more than conduits for funneling tax dollars to large corporations.

    Even here in Oregon, largess to corporations accounts for a significant portion of "big government".

    I am one "leftie" who would like to see the corporate welfare part of government bloat reduced and the monies split between paying off the debt and being returned to the bottom 80% of taxpayers.

  • howard (unverified)

    Mr. Sadler, I categorically reject the following acount substituting opinion for history and diluting the time honored term "personal responsibility" as posted by you in the above polemic:

    "Louisiana is not far above Mississippi in those statistics because it’s statewide leaders have the same attitude. This indifference, even hostility, to the public realm has a code name in the South. It is called “personal responsibility.” That label really means “You’re on your own if disaster strikes. Government has no responsibility for helping you. God and the church will provide voluntary help.”

    This Southern attitude began to aggressively spread across the country when Ronald Reagan campaigned on the slogan “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Reagan demanded that welfare be limited to the “truly needy.” His purge of the welfare rolls created the largest population of the permanently homeless since The Great Depression."

    As a son of a young adult of the Great Depression I was taught that the uneducated, undereducated, poor, disabled, physically ill or weak tend to be disempowered AND invisible; particularly during times of emergency. Long before I heard of Ronald Reagan, I was motivated to be personally responsible for pursuing an education, developing skills and a work ethic and being appropriately self sufficient and empowered to assume the responsibility of first responder to family, extended family and others during times of emergency.

    All school kids should constantly be reminded that school is, indeed, relevant. We should keep reminding them that education, workplace skills and good health are the foundation of self sufficiency. Depending on the kindness of others or government is the worst choice a person can make for himself or his family except for times of true emergency. Katrina showed us one of those times when government falls short and "the other guys" can sometimes be too busy taking care of themselves to give the disempowered and invisible a hand.

    Link to a teacher's commentary on some Oregon kids in need of a teachable moment about education and self sufficiency:


    And another link about some folks who had the personal responsibility, resources and mobility to pay their own way to Oregon and established themselves in communities with mostly excellent public schools.


  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    Hey Georgie!

    Time for YOUR bath.


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