Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Hurricane Katrina

The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina just passed, and it's an opportunity to revisit the decisions that were made one year ago in response to the devastation. There's a lot of talk about FEMA chief Brown, and whether Bush was really to blame, and whether New Orleans Mayor Nagin could have done more.

There's one point that I don't hear expressed very much, though, that seems almost obvious. You've got a political party in power that has said for years that the federal government has gotten too big, and that we need "smaller government". Over half of government spending is defense, but is this what is meant? No, typically Republicans want to increase defense spending. What about Social Security? While some Republicans want to cut government spending on Social Security, that's not a very popular position: among seniors, even conservatives feel that it wouldn't be right for their benefits to be cut when they paid into the system for years under the impression that they would get these benefits.

What's left to cut? Medicare. Food stamps. FEMA. There's more, of course, but we're talking the big ticket items.

According to Republican rhetoric, much of what the Federal government does should be done by the free market: companies and individuals that work on their own, deriving a profit for their work. What can't be done by the free market should be done by local control instead of involving the federal government.

So Hurricane Katrina comes along, and what happens? The Federal government waits for the private sector and for local government to act, and waits to see if they might be needed as a last resort. Surprised?

The Bush administration got caught in their own rhetoric, and now that their slow response garnered criticism nation-wide, they're trying to imply that their slow response was a one-time mistake, and not a natural consequence of their political philosophy. They tried to suggest early on that it was really the responsibility of local government to respond, but this stance was viewed as very unpopular.

This could have been the death knell of the "small government" mantra. But I'm not sure people are making that connection.

I got to thinking: What would China's response be to a major disaster destroying much of Hong Kong? China does not have a policy of "small government", nor does it really look for "local control". But it is sometimes out of touch with what is happening in a distant province. Numerous times, the news has reported a disaster, and Beijing has spent more time denying that the disaster happened than actually responding to the disaster. But Hong Kong is more public.

Hong Kong is a different story in many senses: it has quite a bit of money, which means that it might be able to do more on its own. That also means that China has an interest in making sure Hong Kong does well, especially since Hong Kong is one of the gateways through which the Chinese economy has been flourishing. Finally, it is a "special administrative region" meaning that it is a part of China, but Chinese laws don't directly affect it. It's not clear how this status would affect China's response to a disaster in Hong Kong.

Jared Diamond calls China's policy toward the environment as "lurching". This "lurching" is probably due to the fact that China would like to project a stance of unity in policy, so when they commit to some policy direction, everything goes that way. But in fact there are different people with different views, and a shift in power could make everything lurch in the opposite direction. And since power is concentrated so tightly at the top, it just takes the change of one person to make a big difference in policy. This "lurching" phenomenon makes it difficult to predict what China's policy will be on any particular point. The fact that China had a certain policy under Premier Jiang Ze Min does not imply anything about what the policy will be like under Hu Jin Dao.

In the United States, there are differences in policy depending on who is president (note the shift in policy toward global warming under Bush, compared to Clinton, for instance). But this is tempered by what Congress can do or what the courts decide.

What will China do in case of a natural disaster hitting Hong Kong? They might take some time to act, as they might be out of touch with what is happening. Any attempts to evacuate the population might be viewed with suspicion here, especially as people had tried so hard to immigrate to Hong Kong from the mainland. It's hard to imagine what China would do. It's also hard to imagine the results being particularly good.

We did get a Typhoon alert at the lowest level last week, but that disappeared after a day.


Post a Comment

<< Home