Monday, September 12, 2005


I don't have much to say about Katrina that hasn't already been said better elsewhere. I do think it's important to remember that Katrina exposed existing problems in a dramatic way, and most of those problems were not simply issues of technical coordination. No matter how good our government gets at managing disaster relief, poor people will still bear the brunt of natural or manmade catastrophes. I liked Nicholas Kristof's take on this:

If it's shameful that we have bloated corpses on New Orleans streets, it's even more disgraceful that the infant mortality rate in America's capital is twice as high as in China's capital. That's right - the number of babies who died before their first birthdays amounted to 11.5 per thousand live births in 2002 in Washington, compared with 4.6 in Beijing.

Indeed, according to the United Nations Development Program, an African-American baby in Washington has less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in urban parts of the state of Kerala in India.

Under Mr. Bush, the national infant mortality rate has risen for the first time since 1958. The U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in infant mortality, according to the C.I.A.'s World Factbook; if we could reach the level of Singapore, ranked No. 1, we would save 18,900 children's lives each year.

So in some ways the poor children evacuated from New Orleans are the lucky ones because they may now get checkups and vaccinations. Nationally, 29 percent of children had no health insurance at some point in the last 12 months, and many get neither checkups nor vaccinations. On immunizations, the U.S. ranks 84th for measles and 89th for polio.

One of the most dispiriting elements of the catastrophe in New Orleans was the looting. I covered the 1995 earthquake that leveled much of Kobe, Japan, killing 5,500, and for days I searched there for any sign of criminal behavior. Finally I found a resident who had seen three men steal food. I asked him whether he was embarrassed that Japanese would engage in such thuggery.

"No, you misunderstand," he said firmly. "These looters weren't Japanese. They were foreigners."

The reasons for this are complex and partly cultural, but one reason is that Japan has tried hard to stitch all Japanese together into the nation's social fabric. In contrast, the U.S. - particularly under the Bush administration - has systematically cut people out of the social fabric by redistributing wealth from the most vulnerable Americans to the most affluent.

Kristof makes important points. What happened in New Orleans was tragic, but the reason so many died was because of ongoing inequalities that most people manage not to think about most of the time. But there's more to it than bad policies. It'd be nice if everything bad that happened could be chalked up to one president or one political party or one side of the political spectrum. Then you just vote the bastards out and things should get better. But it's not that simple. We had Clinton for a long time, and things didn't get measurably better for most people around the world. It's nice that the Japanese get along well with each other, as Kristof acknowledges, but that doesn't do Bangladeshis or Bolivians much good when disaster strikes in those places (as it seems to do quite frequently). Local problems often have global roots, and when they do, they should have global solutions. The tragedy on the bridge in Iraq managed to share the spotlight in the US press with Katrina for nearly an entire day, until we realized New Orleans hadn't dodged a bullet after all. I'm guessing that Iraqis have been less than riveted by our national tragedy; for the past two weeks, they've been dealing with one of their own. Superficially, Katrina and the bridge disaster look like unfortunate accidents, until you realize that virtually the only ones who died were the ones who already had nothing. That's no accident; it's a failure to acknowledge and address pervasive, ubiquitous inequality.


Michael said...


I am always impressed with your knowlege on international politics. But of Course, that is what you studied. I always learn so much from you.

your girlfriend said...

my question to you, as always, is this: what to do in the interim? i ask this in a real way, and not just about this issue but about change in general. one of the reasons global solutions often don't happen is because they are difficult to enact--it's hard enough to get a small polity to agree on an issue, and when that's extrapolated ten or 100 or 100-fold, the difficulties mount. "the local" still matters for many people precisely because it's the place that is nearest to them; it's what they know; it's where they might have at least some chance of having a voice. i agree with you that inequality is systemic and that a systemic problem requires a systemic solution, but i am more prone to think about these things as incremental steps. i don't understand and can't fathom a political system in which each global citizen can feel adequately represented AND something could actually get done. you studied political science--you know about decision making and organizational culture and all that jazz, i assume. but really, what i'm saying has less to do with that--though still huge concerns--and more to do with what you do for people who are suffering in the here and now, when idealized macro-solutions are dozens of years away, if not more. what do you do besides complain, point to the needs for a bigger picture, and continue living your life as is? sorry if this sounds accusatory, but i ask these questions in a real way, not just for you but for all of us. moreover, the notion of ideal, macro solutions is muddled and made more difficult by differences in perception, intent, culture, language, age, resources, economics--some of which pose problems we seek to address while at the same time making very difficult root-oriented solutions to those problems; some of which are necessary and vital to the very idea of being human and which people won't readily give up, even if "in the long run" things might turn out better.
to go back to your catalyst for all this, take new orleans and katrina. i agree with all the punditry that say that the hurrican has exposed many of the inequalities of this country and world--how could i not? but i disagree that the only solution in the end is the end of global inequality. that is an important, necessary goal, but practically speaking, why not do more to preserve the wetlands in new orleans, or have better emergency management in the area, or put money into refurbishing the levee system, or anything--anything at all that could have averted the tradgedy? those things, and many, many others could have helped many people--and while it's only a short term solution it could have had major consequences.
secondly, (a tangent not exactly put out by you, but whatever) i have been very irritated at how patronizing some of the liberal rhetoric about katrina has been. it seems all to often that there is a fine line between pointing out inequalities in our society and using those inequalities as a means of otherizing people who are different and poorer and darker than the average east coast intellectual. we can talk all we want about how to help "those people," but what do "those people" actually want? how do they want to live, versus how "we", whoever we are, want "them" to live? in many ways, new orleans was a difficult and downtrodden city, but it was also home to many people who loved its way of life ferociously. this is not to excuse the violence and poverty as an adequate substitute for culture, but it is to say that one person's visions of what equality even is can vary drastically from another's.

Yave said...

Please don't view this as an attack, but rather an attempt at explanation. My post was not particularly coherent, so I'll try to do better here. I'll not address the issue of inequality in this country, but rather focus on global inequality, although the two are related in ways I hope to explain in other posts. I'm not trying to condemn anyone, but only the current state of affairs.

I'm not arguing that the UN should be responsible for responding to disasters like Katrina, at least not in every case. Although a coordinated, centralized response could have saved thousands of lives in the Asian tsunami last year, even an effective supranational entity might not be the best avenue to provide disaster relief in developed countries. My point was more that many local problems are due to fundamental causes in other parts of the world, or are caused by faults in global governance, or lack thereof.

For instance, while there are big differences between the rich and poor in the U.S., those differences are mitigated by the fact that even the poor are Americans. Some people displaced by Katrina may have absolutely nothing now, and they may have not had much before. They may face prejudice due to their race or class, and they may not have had the benefit of a good education. In short, many of New Orleans' poorest are now even worse off than before, and things are not likely to get much better for them. But they do have certain advantages over say, the victims of the tsunami. They can travel to any state in the US to start a new life. They are receiving assistance from the federal and state governments to help them get back on their feet. Their prospects are not good, but they are not likely to starve to death or die of disease. That was not true, for example, of many of the tsunami victims in the weeks after the tsunami struck. This is not to minimize the devastation of Katrina and the death and suffering it caused, but things are much, much worse elsewhere.

See here for a list of recent worldwide natural disasters:

And some facts that struck me today from Peter Singer's book One World:

--The three richest people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 600 million. p. 81.

--One fifth of the world's people live on less than one dollar a day, adjusted for purchasing power parity (meaning adjusted for the fact that things are cheaper in other countries), and almost half live on less than two dollars a day. p. 79.

--30,000 young children die from preventable causes every day. p. 81.

Your complaint seems to be that, since any global solutions are distant and not easily ascertainable, that we should not worry so much about them as focus on ways to make things better for people in the here and now. That is a valid concern, in that people who call for global solutions should be more definite about what they want, and that we should always be looking for ways to make things better in the short and medium-term. Some of your suggestions are very good ones, and I'm not at all suggesting that we not take proximate steps to make things better now.

But I'd like to think of effective global governance and an end to gross inequality as long-term goals that can frame our thinking in the short term. For instance, women suffragettes in the early 19th century probably knew that they were a long way from their goal, but they didn’t give up on it just because it wouldn't happen in their lifetimes. They worked to make things better in the near term with a long term goal in mind. (I make these factual assertions based on a hazy remembrance of my 8th grade history class. I don't know much about the early women's rights movement, but I feel the principle holds true.)

People in the U.S. thrive in the midst of great cultural, linguistic, and economic differences. The reason is that the differences are mitigated by a strong rule of law and an overarching, inclusive vision of what an American is. That is why it sucks to be a non-citizen in this country, but it is also one reason people are relatively well-off in this country. Lord knows we have our problems in this country, but we, on the whole, are doing much better than most other countries. It is simplistic in some ways, but I envision a world where those conditions (rule of law, inclusive conception of identity) are true for everyone. I don't feel that would be undemocratic, any more than a federal government in this country is undemocratic. I don't feel it's unworkable, and I'll try to explain why in future posts.

As to your point about patronizing and otherizing poor people, I agree that it can be a problem. Outsiders who don't know local culture and local people have historically done significant harm to the people they were trying to "save" (e.g. early Christian missionaries in Latin America).

But I would venture to say many who don't have much would like to have more resources and more opportunities. I don't think it is culturally imperialistic to make that assertion. And if we stand by while others needlessly suffer and die, which they do every day in the thousands, we are complicit, and will be judged so by history.