I’m a bit worried that in all of the pouring of cold water on assorted spanking fantasies in: re unemployment during the Depression, people are losing track of the main point that needs to be hammered home: that Amity Shlaes is an unscrupulous hack. Readers may need to be reminded of her final two op-ed columns before her inglorious and swift departure from the pages of the Financial Times.
First, on September 1 2005.
the fact that the country and President Bush personally were already mobilised for disaster has saved lives. … , among Mr Bush’s advisers were federalists who deplored the concept of expanding Washington’s power. They recognised that weather emergencies, like wars, often provide the excuse for just such expansion. Faced with a Katrina in the summer of 2001, the president, thinking as a federalist, might have been slower to call for Washington’s intervention. He might have said: this is a job for Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana. With a little help from Washington. And that, alas, probably would not have been sufficient.
September 11 changed Mr Bush and the country. Many of Mr Bush’s critics remarked that he looked like a deer in the headlights in that moment at the primary school when aides first whispered to him the news of the aircraft hijackings. But Mr Bush grew into a new role of leader in emergencies, and so did the federal government. … But Mr Bush grew into a new role of leader in emergencies, and so did the federal government. In addition to its old Federal Emergency Management Agency, it created the Office of Homeland Security to co-ordinate local, state and federal responses.
… The level of preparedness for a giant storm may not have been obvious outside the country, filled as it was the London bombings and the constitutional challenges in Iraq. But the US was prepared for Katrina. All the old and new federal offices worked together and confronted the storm early. … Nearly two days before Katrina hit New Orleans, the president made millions available to Louisiana by declaring the state an official disaster area. In a press conference on Sunday morning, he instructed the country to listen for any alerts – and warned straightforwardly that he could not “stress enough the danger this hurricane poses to Gulf coast communities.”
Second, on September 11 2005.
Incompetence has been the word used the world over to describe the rescue from Hurricane Katrina. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency and its parent, the new, giant Department of Homeland Security, did not respond fast enough. … There was hesitation. That hesitation at times represented incompetence. But it was also something else: what we might call the Federalist Pause. … The habit of the pause goes back more than two centuries, to the founding fathers. … President Calvin Coolidge paused – and decided the flood was not the president’s job. To manage the rescue he sent Herbert Hoover – his own version of Rudy Giuliani, who got New York back to work after the attacks of four years ago. But that the Mississippi rescue was different from the sort expected today. Hoover, the commerce secretary, had no giant government checks cheques. His role was more that of brokerringleader than funder. He negotiated among states; his Red Cross drive raised $15m. illion. When Hoover needed something, he found private buyers donors or simply commandeered goods. …
Today the US federal government plays a much larger role on the national stage than it did in 1927. Yet some would like to see it even more powerful. They blame, in effect, the Federalist Pause for the hurricane deaths, pointing out that, even now, Fema is not supposed to be a “first responder” – it must wait for an invitation to act. … Still, to argue , retroactively, that President Mr Bush should have jumped into New Orleans like a crisis dictator is to superimpose a European sensibility on an American crisis. Mr Bush is commander-in-chief when it comes to war but, when it comes to disasters, he is still only a chief executive in a system of checks and balances. …
… As for the value of increased federal bureaucracy, a bureaucracy with a mandate larger than Herbert Hoover ever dreamed of – the Department of Homeland Security – is now getting failing poor marks for its Katrina rescue. New Orleans is a tragedy, but a larger tragedy still would be to sacrifice federalism in its name.1
The dissonance between these two columns, published within ten days of each other, is remarkable, even if one forgets the quite reprehensible cheerleading for Bush’s handling of Katrina in the first one (which garnishes its raw meat partisanship with repeated criticisms of Democrats for seeking to politicize the crisis). In the first, Bush is the Awesome Commander in Chief, Who Throws Concerns about Federalism to the Winds, Because the People Need Him, and Uses the Super-Duper Awesome Department of Homeland Security to Kick Some Hurricane Ass. In the second, Bush is the Leader whose Sobriety and Wisdom are Demonstrated by His Hesitance to Challenge the Federalist Dispensation Even in An Apparent Crisis, and are Borne Out by the Incompetence of the Department of Homeland Security.
It takes both chutzpah and a complete lack of intellectual scruples to be able to make two arguments that are so diametrically opposed to each other in such a short period. I’m not sure that even Bill Kristol in his McCain-Campaign-Advice mode could execute so swift and comprehensive a volte-face. I don’t understand why, say, Jon Stewart, has helped this hack along by inviting her onto his show as a purported expert on the Depression (yes – he invites Kristol too – but he treats Kristol as a political hack). You really shouldn’t trust a word that she says or writes before verifying it with three or four independent sources.
1 The online version of the column seems to be a potpourri of the English and US versions that got left over from the editorial process, with some resulting grammatical weirdnesses duplications of cognate words etc.