The Strength of Strong Ties

by Henry Farrell on September 9, 2005

A few days ago, Tyler Cowen gave a “quite unfavourable review”: to Barbara Ehrenreich’s _Bait and Switch_. Tyler observed, not unreasonably, that a job candidate like Ehrenreich’s _alter ego_, who didn’t appear to have much in the way of social networks, was unlikely to secure many offers. But as Paul Campos “observes today”: this logic cuts both ways – manifestly unqualified candidates can land plum positions which are far, far above their “level of incompetence”:, as long as they have the right college room-mates.

bq. It’s clear that hiring Brown to run FEMA was an act of gross recklessness, given his utter lack of qualifications for the job. What’s less clear is the answer to the question of exactly what, given Brown’s real biography, he is qualified to do. … Brown’s biography on FEMA’s website reports that he’s a graduate of the Oklahoma City University School of Law. … Of more relevance is the fact that, until 2003, the school was not even a member of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) … it’s fair to say that Brown embarked on his prospective legal career from the bottom of the profession’s hierarchy. … When Brown left the IAHA four years ago, he was, among other things, a failed former lawyer–a man with a 20-year-old degree from a semi-accredited law school who hadn’t attempted to practice law in a serious way in nearly 15 years and who had just been forced out of his job in the wake of charges of impropriety. At this point in his life, returning to his long-abandoned legal career would have been very difficult in the competitive Colorado legal market. Yet, within months of leaving the IAHA, he was handed one of the top legal positions in the entire federal government: general counsel for a major federal agency. A year later, he was made its number-two official, and, a year after that, Bush appointed him director of FEMA. It’s bad enough when attorneys are named to government jobs for which their careers, no matter how distinguished, don’t qualify them. But Brown wasn’t a distinguished lawyer: He was hardly a lawyer at all. When he left the IAHA, he was a 47-year-old with a very thin resumé and no job. Yet he was also what’s known in the Mafia as a “connected guy.” That such a person could end up in one of the federal government’s most important positions tells you all you need to know about how the Bush administration works–or, rather, doesn’t.

Ehrenreich’s experiences as a middle-aged woman with a thin resume and no networks worth speaking of stacks up, shall we say, in an interesting fashion against Michael Brown’s experiences as a (slightly less) middle-aged man with an equally thin resume (if not a worse one) and high-level connections to the Republican kleptocratic classes. Tyler is right that personal networks count for a lot. But Ehrenreich’s riposte, I imagine, would be that the networks you have access to are a product of both your social position and your “‘ability to be a suck-up'”: A point which Brown’s skyrocketing career in the current administration drives home trenchantly (even now they’re hesitating to fire him).

Laissez Les Têtes Rouler

by Belle Waring on September 9, 2005

Here are some people who have to lose their jobs, and maybe also get sued for wrongful death. Or go to jail.

1. Whoever is in charge of Louisiana’s state office of Homeland Security, maybe it’s this Major General Bennett C. Landreneau? Whoever it was who made the decision not to let the Red Cross into New Orleans. This person needs to lose his job, and he’s on my “get sued into the ground and maybe go to jail” list. If my baby had died of dehydration in the Superdome, I would be ready to kill this guy.

2. Whoever it was who gave the Gretna police orders to turn people back at gunpoint and prevent them from walking out via an Interstate to a shelter 2-3 miles away in Jefferson Parish. The Gretna Police Chief (Chief B.H. Miller, UPDATE: Arthur Lawson, guilty as charged.)? The mayor (Ronnie Harris)? Again, fuck these bastards. I’m not even that sympathetic to the policemen on the front lines obeying these orders. Is it even legal for local police to ban citizens from using public roads? I imagine there is leeway for emergency situations, but if no orders came down from above? If they did get an order from higher up, fire that bastard too.

3. Governor Kathleen Blanco. I have seen nothing to convince me that she has been at all competent in dealing with this catastrophe.

Officials in Louisiana agree that the governor would not have given up control over National Guard troops in her state as would have been required to send large numbers of active-duty soldiers into the area. But they also say they were desperate and would have welcomed assistance by active-duty soldiers.

“I need everything you have got,” Ms. Blanco said she told Mr. Bush last Monday, after the storm hit.

In an interview, she acknowledged that she did not specify what sorts of soldiers. “Nobody told me that I had to request that,” Ms. Blanco said. “I thought that I had requested everything they had. We were living in a war zone by then.”

Look, I think the feds are hiding behind a fig-leaf of federalism on this one. When she said “we need all the help you can give”, the 82nd Airborne should have been there the next day. Nonetheless, whatever i’s she had to dot or t’s to cross, she could have damn well figured out herself before the hurricaine hit, like, I don’t know, when she first got into office? Likewise, she could have put everyone in the same room and knocked heads together earlier to get some kind of unified effort going. Crying about how you’re dissappointed in looters don’t cut it.

4. Michael Brown, FEMA head. I don’t think I need to say anything here.

5. Michael Chertoff, head of DHS. There was a pop quiz on homeland security last week. He failed.

6. President Bush. There’s no point in suggesting that he resign or be impeached, since I might as well just wish that everyone had a pony. Still, we can try our best to hold him morally responsible for hiring incompetent political apparatchiks to do crucial jobs, and for manifestly failing to mobilize federal resources in a timely way once the scope of the disaster (that includes local failings too) was known. The buck has to stop somewhere, and I think the President’s desk seems a likely place. He will never run again, and the only punishments he can receive will be moral opprobrium, diminished political influence, and a severe hit to the electoral chances of his party. I suggest he receive them all.

UPDATE: I think it should be obvious that I listed these people in bottom-up hierarchical order, not decreasing-level-of-blame order. (Perhaps, in that case, 1 and 2 should be reversed, but you see my general thrust.) Someone who has 1000 gallons of water is more to blame when someone near her dies of thirst than someone with 1 gallon. The locals were overwhelmed and the feds should have stepped up to the plate, not complained about the mysteries of federalism. That doesn’t mean Gov. Blanco magically did a great job, or Jefferson Parish officials weren’t a bunch of racist bastards.

Books and bombs

by John Q on September 9, 2005

Tom Stafford points to academic publisher Elsevier’s involvement in the international arms trade. Even the legal aspects of this trade are deplorable, given the excessive readiness of governments and would-be governments to resort to armed force, but the boundary between legal and illegal arms trade is pretty porous. For example, there’s evidence that the arms fairs organised by Elsevier subsidiary Spearhead are venues for the illegal trade in landmines. Tom has a number of suggestions for possible responses.

Education, education, education?

by Chris Bertram on September 9, 2005

Maria’s “post about America”: got me thinking about issues to do with social mobility. Here I want to offer some completely data free speculations, to float a hypothesis for commenters to shoot down if they want to. That hypothesis is that there’s far too much higher education in Western societies and that it constitutes a real barrier to social mobility (and is probably bad for demographics too). To put it in a nutshell: strategies for improving social mobility by getting a broader swathe of the population into higher ed are bound to fail because it is too easy for the middle classes to maintain their grip on access to education. A better strategy would be to take that card out of middle class hands by abandoning the insistence on credentials that aren’t materially relevant to the job at hand.

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