Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2005 / 10 Elul, 5765

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FEMA versus Wal-Mart

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Whatever later investigation may turn up about the mistakes of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in New Orleans, it is unlikely to show the shrill charges of "racism" to be anything other than reckless political rhetoric.

FEMA has bungled other emergencies where most of the victims were white and in previous administrations. Like many government bureaucracies, FEMA is an equal-opportunity bungler.

Many people who think that government is the answer to our problems do not bother to check out the evidence. But it can be eye-opening to compare how private businesses responded to hurricane Katrina and how local, state and national governments responded.

Well before Katrina reached New Orleans, when it was still just a tropical depression off the coast of Florida, Wal-Mart was rushing electric generators, bottled water, and other emergency supplies to its distribution centers along the Gulf coast.

Nor was Wal-Mart unique. Federal Express rushed 100 tons of supplies into the stricken area after Katrina hit. State Farm Insurance sent in a couple of thousand special agents to expedite disaster claims. Other businesses scrambled to get their goods or services into the area.

Meanwhile, laws prevent the federal government from coming in without the permission or a request from state or local authorities. Unfortunately, the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana are of a different party than President Bush, which may have something to do with their initial reluctance to have him come in and get political credit.

In the end, there was no political credit for anybody. There was just finger-pointing and the blame game.

Politics is only one of a number of reasons why governments are not the best handlers of many emergencies. Nor is the United States unique in this respect.

A few years ago, more than a hundred Russian sailors paid with their lives for their government's reluctance to accept an offer from the U.S. government to have our navy rescue the crew of a Russian submarine that was trapped under water. How would it look to the world if the American navy could save Russians who could not be saved by their own navy?

Public outrage within Russia after that episode caused the Russian government more recently to allow British naval experts to carry out a rescue of Russian navy men trapped under water in another submarine.

Sheer bureaucracy can slow down emergency help. It is not uncommon, when there are famines, for food shipments from other countries to sit spoiling on the docks, while people are dying of starvation in the interior, because the food is not being moved fast enough to reach them in time.

Back in 2001, refugees from the war in Afghanistan were dying of starvation while aid workers were completing paperwork before distributing food to them. During the tsunami in Southeast Asia this year, supplies of food, medicine and other necessities from abroad piled up at airports.

In both emergency times and normal times, governments have different incentives than private businesses. More fundamentally, human beings will usually do more for their own benefit than for the benefit of others. The desire to make money usually gets people in gear faster than the desire to help others.

This is not true of everybody. Virtually nothing is true of everybody. We rightly honor those who do their utmost to help others, in part because not everyone acts that way.

It would undoubtedly be a better world if we all loved our neighbors as we love ourselves and acted accordingly.

But in the real world that we actually live in, the question is what set of incentives has the better track record for getting the job done — and especially getting the job done promptly when time can be the difference between life and death.

The country does not have one dime more resources available when those resources are channeled through government. The resources are just handled less effectively by government and dispensed in an indiscriminate way that encourages people to continue locating in the known path of predictable disasters.

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