No Comment — August 29, 2007, 11:58 am

The Mandate of Heaven, Revoked

As we come to the second anniversary of the Katrina disaster, we have an appropriate time to remember that assistance to the populace in times of natural disaster is an absolute, essential responsibility of government. Indeed, that view is enthusiastically embraced even by the most conservative and libertarian notions of the minimized role of the state. Consider Friedrich von Hayek’s words in The Road from Serfdom:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance…

To the same category belongs also the increase of security through the state’s rendering assistance to the victims of such “acts of God” as earthquakes and floods. Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

The question of relief from the effects of a hurricane, like the one that struck New Orleans with such devastation, does not belong within the framework of political debate. The obligation of the state to provide protection and render relief was absolute. The failure was staggering. The failure continues up to this date.

The historian Toynbee reminds us that times of war have from the dawn of human society provided a fertile grounds for corruption. Humans being humans and seeking always to enrich themselves exploit such opportunities, and the dangers are always greatest among those with political power to use it to help their friends and line their own pockets. And the problems are similar in time of natural disaster, when contracts are formed quickly and under great time pressure, without the time to allow competitive bids.

In theory, FEMA was supposed to avert this problem by lining up contractors well in advance, through a pre-approval process. But what transpired in the Katrina process seems a perfect domestic adjunct to what transpired in Iraq: waste, fraud and abuse at levels that have few if any historical parallels. This points to a widespread systems failure, with plenty of responsibility to be spread between governments at all levels, and state legislatures and Congress, which should have functioned as oversight mechanisms and so far have rather spectacularly underperformed.

The New Orleans Times Picayune has an editorial today that makes the case for mismanagement very pointedly. It’s formed as an open letter to President Bush. And the opening words are “treat us fairly, Mr. President”:

Despite massive destruction caused by the failure of the federal government’s levees during Katrina, despite the torment caused by FEMA’s slow response to the disaster, despite being hit by a second powerful hurricane less than a month later, Louisiana has had to plead to be treated fairly by our leaders in Washington. President Bush and Congress have sent us billions in aid — from $10.4 billion in grants for housing and infrastructure to $95 million for higher education to $168 million in business tax credits.

This community is grateful for the help. But Louisiana’s losses were dramatically higher than any other state’s and thus deserving of greater compensation. In reality, Mississippi has gotten a larger share of federal aid.

Yes, why exactly was the recovery money so disproportionately funneled to Mississippi? Might it, perhaps, have to do with the governor of Mississippi, former Republic National Committee chair Haley Barbour? Was he doing a good job for Mississippi, or was he doing a good job for Haley Barbour?

In any event, Haley Barbour played an impressively influential role throughout this process. About six months after Katrina, I was at a dinner party with a recently resigned Homeland Security official who told me that there were enormous corruption issues surrounding the contracting process. He said he what he had seen was so disconcerting and the attitude of his boss (who now figures as a candidate to be attorney general) was so permissive, he had decided to leave rather than be tarred with it. One name figured in that discussion: Haley Barbour. More recently, I have been dealing with some professionals down in the southeast who deal regularly with FEMA for contractors. “Word was, if you wanted work, you had to see one of Barbour’s nephews or Joe Allbaugh—they really run the show.” How could that be?

Timothy Burger at Bloomberg has been digging very deep into Barbour’s remarkable good fortune in the government contracts area.

Many Mississippians have benefited from Governor Haley Barbour’s efforts to rebuild the state’s devastated Gulf Coast in the two years since Hurricane Katrina. The $15 billion or more in federal aid the former Republican national chairman attracted has reopened casinos and helped residents move to new or repaired homes.

Among the beneficiaries are Barbour’s own family and friends, who have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from hurricane-related business. A nephew, one of two who are lobbyists, saw his fees more than double in the year after his uncle appointed him to a special reconstruction panel. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in June raided a company owned by the wife of a third nephew, which maintained federal emergency-management trailers.

Meanwhile, the governor’s own former lobbying firm, which he says is still making payments to him, has represented at least four clients with business linked to the recovery.

And Burger has another piece out today showing how Governor Barbour is able to continue all of this from his position of public trust in the Mississippi statehouse. Evidently he has a “blind trust” arrangement that must have been constructed along the lines of Senator Frist’s from next door in Tennessee.

Over at the Daily Dish, Steve Clemons, filling in for Andrew Sullivan, points to Burger’s two articles and forms a recommendation: “Impeach Hailey Barbour,” he argues.

Barbour, whether as Chairman of the Republican National Committee; Chairman of the National Policy Forum; Chairman and Proprietor of the lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers; or now Governor of Mississippi, has demonstrated obsessive disregard for the line between public ethics and private gain. Mississippians should impeach him because he’s undermined the interests of their state — and many around the country should help. Iraq is an ongoing tragedy — but so is Katrina. Impeaching Haley Barbour could start a healthy trend.

The situation needs to be exposed and remedial action needs to be taken, but let’s consider the “systems failure” here. How could Barbour and his extended family get away with all of this, unchecked and unexposed, for so long? With due credit to Bloomberg’s Burger, who is doing solid work, this persisted a long time, and escaped detection from the responsible oversight bodies—in Jackson and Washington. That also requires some thought.

Yes, there is plenty of blame to spread around. But in the end of the day, I take the Chinese viewpoint.

The Chinese philosopher Meng Zi (??, Mencius) in the fourth century before the common era (the Warring States Period in Chinese history) laid great importance on the Government’s role in dealing with floods and natural disasters. The ruler had a right to the obedience of his subjects because he held the mandate of heaven, Meng Zi said. But this mandate could only be held by one who knows the moral order of the universe, actually observes it and thus is a worthy ruler. Otherwise one has no business, and no right, being in power. And the person purporting to hold the mandate of heaven is also subject to the “judgment of history.” In particular, he has a duty to protect his people from the assaults of other states, but particularly from the ravages of nature manifested in flooding. If the levees failed, and the fields and cities are flooded, disaster and famine ensued. Then, in Meng Zi’s view, the mandate of heaven was revoked. It was time to search out a new leader. But more than this, it meant that heaven’s judgment had fallen: the leader was a fraud. He never actually held the mandate of heaven in the first place.

Meng Zi would look upon the experience of Hurricane Katrina and would draw clear and devastating conclusions for President Bush. Some may think this superstitious. But I’ll put myself in the camp holding out for the value of ancient wisdom.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Estimated portion of French citizens with radical-Islamist beliefs who grew up in Muslim families:

1/5

Human hands are more primitive than chimp hands.

Trump declared flashlights obsolete as he handed them out to Puerto Ricans, 90 percent of whom had no electricity in their homes; and tweeted that he wouldn’t keep providing federal hurricane relief “forever” to Puerto Rico, a US territory that the secretary of energy referred to as a “country.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today