Inspectors at the Levee

Government bids have not always been handled with transparency. My father found, in his short-lived & bitter experience as county engineer in the reddest, most heartland of states, that taxpayers were likely to prefer bids a bit more open than did commissioners. Pajamasmedia links to an AP story on hearings about the New Orleans levee failure; apparently, the lines of authority weren’t clear or at least the local commissioners didn’t take seriously their roles as “inspectors.” This confusion of responsibilities seemed to underlie the discussion on Lehrer tonight, as Margaret Warner kept after Donald Powell. Who was going to supervise the Corps of Engineers she asked; of course, they’d built the failed levees. As with everything about New Orleans, the hearings indicate sufficient blame to go around. (And we all understand what happens when everyone is kind of responsible and no one is held responsible.)

New Orleans is a special place; perhaps you can’t get big easy music & big easy food & big easy parties without big easy graft. I’m pretty sure a festive carpe diem spirit isn’t likely to nurture the kind of personality that obsessively calculates future (perhaps not in our lifetime) dangers. Still and all, these two bits of news combined with Bush’s promise of increased funding for the levees and Nagin’s promises to his citizens now in Atlanta is a bit worrisome. I figure the government can help people rebuild from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods. Acts of God can’t be predicted that well. But I don’t see the rest of the country enabling the parts of that culture which are, well, self-destructive. I’d like a bit more of the Haley Barbour/Benjamin Franklin response: God helps them that help themselves.

Saying that, a lot of hard-working, worn-out people are still living in tents and campers, trying to put their lives back together. And their problems include small scale ones of the large scale levees: put a house back together or build one, get bids, choose a contractor, then hope that contractor is honest & around in a couple of years. For those people living across Mississippi and Louisiana, this will be a hard Christmas. Some are finding a place to merely bring together an extended family is difficult.

On this day of that third, most important, great step toward democracy in Iraq, we need to remember in the coming months that the transparency so necessary to this form of government as well as the free market, free speech & free press is not easy to come by. By any standards, we’ve done a pretty good job with these. Still, New Orleans may be extreme, but is not unique. People being people, we are always on the road to and never likely to reach the place where transparency is so prevalent and duty so felt that graft & bid-rigging are ended forever. But, we keep trying. Knowing that, we shouldn’t be surprised if some stories in the coming year reflect that difficulty. The Iraqis have not exactly been encouraged to take responsibility for the last couple of generations and they still feel the strong tugs of the tribal. Those make what they did today and what they are attempting even more admirable. And they seem on their way to valuing that transparency, that duty, that responsibility that we have learned to value so highly.

3 thoughts on “Inspectors at the Levee”

  1. Corruption is endemic wherever power exists. Maryland politics were notoriously corrupt up through the 1970’s when, in the spirit of those times, a number of people turned evidence on the system of graft. The resulting scandals led to indictments and convictions. Richard Nixon’s first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign after it became public knowledge he had accepted kickbacks on publics works projects while serving as Baltimore County Executive. Governor Mandel eventually went to prison. Ahhh, the Good Ol’ Days! There probably is no answer to corruption other than constant vigilence and a free press. Exposure is usually the best antiseptic for these sorts of things. It’s not just the civil service with a history of corruption either. The police and the courts(both lawyers and judges) have a sordid record as well.

    In the specific case of the levees, firing everyone in the chain of responsibilty for that fiasco would be a good start.

  2. Building levees that don’t collapse when the water rises is hardly the enabling of self-destructive behavior.

  3. Yes, levees that hold are not asking for too much – especially if it has been promised. But the commissioners who check the levees should consider their role more seriously than as objects of a pr photo op followed by beignets. Look at Huey’s comments in the linked article; you might also want to look at the May release.

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