Hurricane Katrina

The 'Blame Game?' It's Called Accountability

There's nothing remotely game-like about the breakdown of government in the Gulf Coast.
After Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Bush administration apologists were saying: ''Stop the blame game.''

Is it asking too much of politicians, pundits and public citizens to forget the ''talking points'' and engage in a bit of original, or independent, thinking?

''The blame game?'' Game implies sport and fun. There's nothing particularly sporty or fun about the breakdown of government and civil society in the Gulf Coast.

Stop the blame? You can't preach personal responsibility out of one side of your mouth and ''stop the blame game'' out the other and still expect people to take you seriously.

Accountability, which is at the very heart of democracy, is intimately linked to assigning blame.

But, in an effort to shore up the broken political and moral levees Katrina exposed in the White House, apologists emphasize the ''unprecedented'' challenge posed to federal government officials while simultaneously blaming city and state officials in Louisiana for failing to evacuate everyone from New Orleans.

There's a huge hole in the argument. The long sought-after levee upgrade is a federal responsibility. Louisiana officials tried to finance the project without federal help but couldn't afford the billions of dollars it would have cost.

Uncle Sam can lay down billions of our tax dollars for the Big Dig in Boston, but was it asking too much to invest in a vital part of our national infrastructure down South?

And the issue of federal responsibility for levee maintenance is logically prior to the issue of city and state evacuation plans because if the levee system didn't fail, we wouldn't be talking about the evacuation plans of any level of government.

That's not to say city and state officials are blame-free, but to ignore the out-of-whack budgetary priorities of our federal government when it comes to basic infrastructure is dishonest and dangerous.

Then, there's this business about Gov. Blanco not asking the feds to come to the rescue. For the sake of argument, let's say Blanco completely dropped the ball and didn't make the right phone call or send the right e-mail or fill out the right paperwork.

Here's what I'm wondering: Where was that forget-the-protocol posture the Bush administration took toward the United Nations in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq?

Remember all the talk about the ''unprecedented'' threat of terrorism and how the U.S. can't be bound by Old World international law and bureaucracy? The president said he wasn't going to ask anybody's permission to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland.

You mean to tell me it's perfectly OK to unleash John Bolton on the U.N. and tell the rest of the world too bad if they don't like it, but get all deferential about precedent and bureaucratic rules when it comes to intervening on our own soil? Say it ain't so.

Tell me that our market morality, with its slavish and idolatrous commitment to ''division of labor'' abstractions, hasn't reached the point where people are human robots unable to do the right thing without first getting an order to act?

Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, warned us about this kind of thing in ''The Wealth of Nations'' - something that laissez-faire free-market cheerleaders conveniently skip over.

Smith recognized that ''the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments.''

And, he wrote, ''the man whose life is spent performing a few simple operations...has no occasion to exert his understanding...and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be.''

But Smith, a distinguished moral philosopher (not an economist) by profession, doesn't advise the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps canard.

The ''great body of people'' cannot avoid such mind-numbing effects, Smith wrote, ''unless government takes pains to prevent it.''

Stop the blame game? Sorry, but that doesn't butter the biscuit.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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