SYNDICATED COLUMN: Coulda, Shoulda, Wouldn’tve

What Disasters Are We Creating Now?

No one could have known.

That’s what they always say after a disaster. Well, it’s what the establishment—a good ’60s word, let’s bring it back!—says. “No one could have known” is the perfect excuse. Don’t blame us, we did the best we could, but we’re not clairvoyant.

But it’s rarely true. Most of the time, the people in charge—the people responsible for what went wrong—were warned in advance. They simply chose to ignore the warnings.

Why? In the case of government officials and corporate executives, it’s typically because acting on such warnings would cost them money. Sometimes it’s because the man or woman who predicts the mayhem about to unfold doesn’t have the status, title or connections to make themselves heard.

Mostly it’s because scum rises to the top.

After hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff called the disaster “breathtaking in its surprise.”

“That ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight,” Chertoff said.

It didn’t surprise everyone. “We certainly understood the potential impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane” on New Orleans, Lt. General Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said the same week.

I had attended a journalists’ convention in New Orleans a few years before that. Probably half the New Orleans residents I met asked me to write about the “big one” that was sure to devastate their city someday.

Except for those who later claimed that nobody could have known, everybody knew.

Harry Markopolos, a Boston financial analyst, has a book out (title: “No One Would Listen”) detailing the eight years he spent trying to convince the SEC to go after Bernard Madoff, who was responsible for the disappearance of $65 billion.

The financial collapse that began in the fall of 2008 was attributable to the burst of the housing bubble, fiscal shenanigans at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the longstanding practice of allowing investment banks to hire and fire rating agencies. Economists, corporate insiders, and journalists had repeatedly warned about these problems since at least 2004. They were ignored, even ridiculed by those who claimed a “new paradigm” was in effect in the U.S. economy.

From the lack of WMDs in Iraq (Scott Ritter knew) to the losing quagmire in Afghanistan (I knew) to the recent mine disaster in West Virginia (inspectors knew), nearly every calamity you can think of could have been avoided. All the idiots in charge had to do was listen to the smart people who weren’t.

Adam Cohen writes in The New York Times: “Predictions of disaster have always been ignored—that is why there is a Cassandra myth—but it is hard to think of a time when so many major warned-against calamities have occurred in such quick succession. The next time someone is inclined to hold hearings on a disaster, they should go beyond asking why particular warnings were ignored and ask why well-founded warnings are so often ignored.”

Cohen answers his own question, citing four causes for institutional resistance to doing the right/smart thing before it’s too late: ideology (reflexive thinking), change would threaten the powers-that-be, inertia, and incompetence.

No doubt, those factors all play a role. I’d like to add another: the fear to speak truth to power, which is intimately coupled with powers that tell truth to shut up.

In my long work history it was a rare workplace where management sought out new ideas, much less criticism. It was rarer still that a contrarian voice was rewarded, much less heeded. We see the same thing in politics. Those who speak up are smacked down.

All too often, bosses and officials are insecure. Worried more about losing face than doing a good job, they instinctively reject anyone and anything who threatens their prestige. Better to lose a war than to lose face.

The problem is systemic. As long as business schools crank out automatons and companies are willing to hire them, as long as voters reward the smarmiest and godliest over the straight-talkers, as long as playing it safe (i.e. boring) is valued more than taking chances, our society is going to keep screwing up. And it’ll all be perfectly avoidable.

Look around today. What are we being warned about? Which smart people are we ignoring? They’re everywhere. Let’s start with the economists who warn that the U.S. economy is at the end of its rope, that the federal government can’t keep increasing the deficit, that underpaying workers as the rich gets richer is a recipe for collapse and revolution.

For my money, the fact that we are ignoring the thousands of scientists who warn of rising floodwaters due to global warming, dust storms and mass famine due to excessive cultivation and overpopulation, and untold damage to our ecosystem as thousands of species go extinct, proves a terrible point: As a society, we are nearly as stupid as our bosses and public officials.

(Ted Rall is working on a radical political manifesto for publication this fall. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

33 Comments.

  • Excellent article, Ted, however I’d like to add one more reason. It benefits them personally, and so they have no incentive to know. Also, they can always bank of plausible deniability. All the Goldman CEOs right now? None of them will personally suffer. Senate hearings are just ritualistic shows to entertain the masses and assuage supposed public anger. This too is not a new concept, read Charles Perrow’s “Normal Accidents,” and Andrews Szasz’ “Ecopopulism” where he talks about “routine regulatory failure.”

    You forgot to mention Condi Rice’s “Nobody could have anticipated they would fly airplanes into buildings”. . . .as though nobody has ever read Tom Clancy novels?

    They got away clean, they always will.

  • GreenGestalt
    April 27, 2010 2:21 PM

    One factor I’m concerned about is the “Buy Gold” bandwagon. It’s clearly a “Boom” and IMO one deliberately set up as an artificial “Boom/Bust”. Inspired by that article in Rolling Stones that links Goldman Sachs bank to every boom/bust since the Great Depression.

    The media that caters to the “Right Wing” is of course flooded with “Buy Gold!” ads. Gullible fools, through and through. But they are buying gold massively thinking it’s a “Solid” investment, as they used to fight to sign faustian loans for “REAL estate! Not that Dot.Com stuff that could vanish overnight!”

    The problem is:

    1. Gold is a “Commodity”, not a “Currency”. It’s only “Worth” what another will pay for it. Plenty will sell it for full market value + fees, but to quickly buy it back, the cut is high. 1/2, 1/4 the current price is given back, maybe.

    2. Lots of grotesquely obvious scams. Like “Stock” in “Gold Backed” companies, etc.

    3. If we did have an “Economic/Social Collapse” (insert Mad Max movie scene here) having gold would be a lousy investment. In such times, people are murdered for gold. If you go to the “Barter Town” market for a new engine/medicine, etc. you’ll most certainly get what you seek but one or two gangs will follow you home. Even if you are armed and tough and everyone in your family is armed. A (presumed) “Sack of gold coins” in such a situation is well worth a bandit tribe leader sacrificing a few of his men for and going out of their way to murder a family. They’d quickly use the gold to either buy much better weapons or they’d trade it with whatever local officials remained to become “Police”.

    It’s really sad, or funny, that for all the bloodshed over it only in recent centuries has it been proven to have any practical use besides ornament. And the price due to the commodity/ornament issue hinders the practical use. Know what it was prized as originally? Sling fodder. You could easily mash/melt it into near perfect spheres, it was heavy and hit harder, and most importantly you could more easily see where it went and find it after you threw it. One of the earliest legal cases is supposedly a man who thought he bought a bronze axe but it turned out to nearly all be gold, making it useless for cutting trees.

    These “Right Wingers” who usually have very little money have invested a lot in “Gold” and I presume a lot of nicely presented “Gold” backed scams. Sooner or later, such as during a fake 90’s “Prosperity Injection” we’ll get (at the cost of the debt absolutely going out of control) a lowering of gold prices that’ll lead to a run on the market and collapse it. IMO, this is planned. The people trying to sell their gold will only get scalpers willing to trade it at 1/4 the 1999 low. And these are people who are also armed and being spoon fed daily psychotic paranoia about the government and the rest of society and mankind…

  • Here’s a few warnings:
    Social Securiy and MediCare have $108 trillion in unfunded liabilities
    California public workers pension is short $500 billion
    ObamaCare is going to break the bank ( the Office of the Actuary at HHS said last week that the new health-care law would raise health costs $311 billion from 2010 to 2019, HHS conveniently withheld this information until this week)
    We cannot continue to print money endlessly without hyper inflation

    OK, you’ve been warned of progressive policies. Don’t believe me? Go look into the financial hole the blue states are falling into.

  • The financial hole BLUE states are falling into?Not to play tit for tat but what red state with conservative policies is swimming in money? Are you referring to states such as Mississippi, Alabama or Texas with the lowest student test scores and highest rates of teen pregnancy? Please US 395 inform us of the conservative wonderland that awaits all of us.

  • pilotx……Albania….that libertarian paradise with a weak central government and a well armed population. . . that’s what awaits us….Albania, check out how awesome Albania is, this is what the extreme right wants for the United States….well, maybe that or Afghanistan

  • Are you referring to states such as Mississippi, Alabama or Texas with the lowest student test scores and highest rates of teen pregnancy?

    States are not going broke because if spending on teen pregnancy prevention or school spending. States are going broke because of the public worker union pensions. And BTW there is no correlation between spending on education and test scores. Just look at California!

  • And BTW there is no correlation between spending on education and test scores.

    I agree wholeheartedly with US 395 on this….there is no correlation between the two, because test scores are a bogus measurement of actual student learning and achievement. There is, however, a very strong correlation between spending on schools and student learning and achievement.

  • Thanks for the info, but the question is still standing US. What conservative states are doing better economically than “liberal” states?

  • And for the record I never stated that spending and test scores have anything to do with each other.

  • Great to look back at these disasters and know what to do.

    What about what is coming up?

    What financial practices currently making the wealthy wealthier are in place today and are they going to cause problems down the road? Is there any regulation in place now governing these practices or is there any proposed regulations?

    How about climate change? What needs to be done today that will stop problems in the future?

    How about on a smaller scale, should we be looking at individual barns and noting where doors should be closed so that we won’t be chasing horses down the street next week?

    It is very easy to look at a bad situation and know how we could have prevented it but it is another thing to know how to prevent future disasters. We can’t afford to plug every leak, we don’t have enough putty or money to buy more putty.

    And looking back at problems, you can get skewed easily. Did America come out of the Great Depression because of FDR’s programs or because we fired up the Industrial Military complex to save the world? Or a combination of both. Or neither.

    Did the US nuking two Japanese cities ultimately save millions of lives on both sides or was it the ultimate in war crimes? Did the dropping of the bombs save the world from costly conventional conflicts because of the fear of destruction of all that is good and holy or did other circumstances prevent these potential conflicts?

    Do the times make the man or does the man make the times?

  • Pilotx, the answer is this: look at the red and blue states, and then overlay a map of states that receive the most federal tax revenue versus those who end up giving more money to the Feds. What you will find is that the BLUE states are subsidizing RED states. States like Mississippi are net importers of federal money and BLUE states such as California and Massachusetts are net exporters of federal money.

    Thus, the sick irony here is that the self righteous teabaggers whining about taxes tend to live in states that benefit greatly at the expense of others in the country.

  • Thus, the sick irony here is that the self righteous teabaggers whining about taxes tend to live in states that benefit greatly at the expense of others in the country. Good! Let’s quit redistributing income. Let’s start by having the Federal government do only what it is supposed to do.

  • Good! Let’s quit redistributing income. Let’s start by having the Federal government do only what it is supposed to do.

    The reason for this is because the first charge of the US federal government is to guarantee the rights and privileges of its citizens. Therefore, it is obliged to intervene in any situation where the rights and liberties of its citizens are being violated. Throughout the years, the courts have determined that states have routinely violated the rights of citizens, and this is why the federal government has intervened. However, the task of ensuring the rights of citizens is far from over, and thus the federal government will continually be called upon to intervene.

    If you don’t like this, I suggest you move to a country like Russia, where corrupt local officials will demand a bribe for every little thing you need, and the federal government is nowhere to be seen when you need help.

    Libertarians flagrantly take for granted all of the freedoms they enjoy, but those freedoms require a functional, centralized state that can enforce the rule of law. In short, you’re part of a society that includes people that are outside of your brain…..get over it and get on with it.

  • What you will find is that the BLUE states are subsidizing RED states.

    All the more reason so-called liberals in blue states should be all for secession, instead of being fervent believers in an eternal Union.

    Libertarians flagrantly take for granted all of the freedoms they enjoy, but those freedoms require a functional, centralized state that can enforce the rule of law.

    The irony is that all authoritarian regimes of the last, unfortunate century were built on strong centralized states, all very functional. Petty local “tyranny” and corruption don’t even compare with Big Brother watching over you: compare nowadays Cuba and the Dominican Republic, to keep it at the same cultural context.
    Plus, you’re selective reading of federal intervention is very moving, but one has to ask the obligatory “quis custodiet yada-yada.”

  • So, between Big Oil, Big Federal Guvmint, and Big Local Guvmint — nobody had a contingency plan in place for an oil spill in the Gulf?

    I guess winging it while the ecosystem burns was step number one.

    Drill, Baby, Drill!

  • Bucephalus: The bigger point when one steps back from the minutia, is that centralized government isn’t really the main issue in terms of personal liberty and quality of life, because you have good and bad examples of each that can be cherry picked. Right? Places like Cuba are essentially run by organized crime gangs…..sure they call themselves the government, but that’s basically what they are.

    Increasingly, the United States is run by organized crime gangs that call themselves corporations, but when one looks at outcomes, instead of getting hogtied with silly semantic arguments, one starts to see through the ideological bullshit. Social order is social order, whatever you call it. It’s about the outcome it creates. The means don’t justify the ends, buddy.

  • nom du jor,
    Considering it took Barry 8 days to respond I think we can now say Barry hates blacks.

  • bucephalus ,
    Progressives never give up. The worst kind of (soft) tyranny is a tyrant who thinks everything they are doing is for your good. They are relentless. Even if you are too stupid to know you need them, they are brilliant, deep-thinking, high-minded enough to know better. I have a liberal friend who knows everything about Glenn Beck except what time he’s on. She is a Democrat because the word Democrat has the same root as Democracy. She’ll tell you how much smarter progressives are. She admits to getting her news from Micheal Moore. Yea, real brain trust she is. She’s right up there with the girls looking for “Obama’s stash”.

  • Aggie_Dude
    May 1, 2010 1:34 AM

    US 395: This is in response to your comment here as well as your post on this week’s cartoon. Dude….it is not all about you and your adolescent rebellion against authority in any form. Are you really that self-centered that every issue is about “what do I get personally from this?” Your thinking is completely ideographic….think a bit bigger than inside your own head, other people in the world exist too, and having to coexist with them does not equate to tyranny.

  • nietzchuck
    May 1, 2010 1:43 AM

    US 395: I don’t mean to gang up on you, but was your cute story really necessary? I mean, I work with a guy that claims Libertarian because he thinks the root word is “Aryan,” are we going to generalize this onto the entire Right of the political spectrum? How about we ignore this sort of rhetoric as the masturbation it is, and get back on topic.

  • bucephalus
    May 1, 2010 2:18 AM

    Places like Cuba are essentially run by organized crime gangs…..sure they call themselves the government, but that’s basically what they are.

    For once we agree, government is basically an organized crime gang, with law enforcement on its side. Trouble is, it’s not only in Cuba.

    Increasingly, the United States is run by organized crime gangs that call themselves corporation […]

    Are you just using “corporation” as code for “any big company I hate”? Or do you mean the ones that umbilically linked to the State (Xe, Halliburton et co)?

  • I don’t know, I’m not really fearing this tyrany thing. Our current president is no different that any other past president so why are we so up in arms about gubment takeovers now? The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act was already passed, W. was spying on us, the two wars we were lied into cost us untold billions and NOW we’re protesting? Sorry but after centuries of slavery, genocide against the Indigenous peoples, Jim Crow laws and outright legal discrimination this current group doesn’t scare me much. Getting dragged out of bed by the Klan for daring to vote, now that was tyrany, this stuff now is a bunch of bored whiners mad because they got their butts whipped in the last elections but I could be wrong.

  • BTW US 395 you never did answer my question. What state is this conservative utopia you speak of. I may want to move there.

  • “For once we agree, government is basically an organized crime gang, with law enforcement on its side. Trouble is, it’s not only in Cuba.”

    Bucephalus. . .The fundamental difference is not what the institution is called but 1) how it is operated and 2) what its outcomes are. Far from perfect, the various levels of government in the United States really are accessible to citizen participation, and are capable of being very effective in promoting the welfare of the American citizenry. Yes, we are in a particularly paralyzed point right now, but it still represents one of the few aspects of social life that allows for broad participation.

    On corporations: I am specifically talking about corporations who are umbilically connected to the state as you say. This doesn’t include just the military contractors, but also numerous large agricultural firms who structure policy to wreck the market and provide us with a toxic food system that is the #1 cause of global climate change (land use), and have a history of utilizing the CIA to overthrow governments in Latin America in favor of strongmen who will let them rape those countries and populations at will (American Fruit Company/Chaquita in Chile, for example).

    So yes, I should be more precise. . .it isn’t a categorical statement against corporations (though I personally believe that public trading of companies is criminal, as is any form of absentee ownership claim…that’s my personal belief though). It isn’t that they are corporations, it’s what they do, and how they use their size and stature to manipulate and corrupt the decision making process for their greed. Behind corporations are individuals who are permitted to act this way without personal responsibility for the consequences.

    PilotX: The three states in worst financial shape are Arizona, Nevada and Oklahoma…not exactly the blue state havens that US395 was talking about. South Carolina is up there too….maybe we should evict them from the union.

    For the record, I’m in favor of secession for any state or municipality that so elects fairly to do so.

  • Harumph Harumph! Smells like a bucket of dead fish, eh, Holmes? Har Har Har. The Colonies have a proper term for it. Yadda Yadda Yadda. What has changed since 04 27 10? Nothing. Except more Yadda Yadda Yadda. The prize fish grows with every telling. Ach!

  • What state is this conservative utopia you speak of. I may want to move there.
    Who said anything about a conservative utopia?

  • Jim Crow laws and outright legal discrimination this current group doesn’t scare me much. Getting dragged out of bed by the Klan for daring to vote, now that was tyrany You shouldn’t be so hard on the Democratic Party.

  • I don’t mean to gang up on you, but was your cute story really necessary? Yes

  • …this stuff now is a bunch of bored whiners mad because they got their butts whipped in the last elections but I could be wrong.

    You’re not wrong, Pilotx, you’re absolutely correct. This is about a group that sees winning as the only thing and nothing else matters, and when they don’t win they throw a tantrum like a bunch of 4 year old brats. The only reason anyone pays attention to these people is that Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Fox News are making a killing off of them. Not to mention Rush Limbaugh and Co. So their silly world view gets perpetuated over the airwaves because they’re THAT gullible.

    Tyranny? Geeze, they have no idea what tyranny is.

  • Aggie,
    Please tell us the last time you watched Glenn Beck or listened to Rush Limbaugh? Glenn had an excellent show on Founding Friday about Samuel Adams. Did you catch it?

  • bucephalus
    May 2, 2010 4:29 PM

    the CIA to overthrow governments in Latin America in favor of strongmen who will let them rape those countries and populations at will (American Fruit Company/Chaquita in Chile, for example)

    I believe you mean Chiquita and Central America, not Chile whose main commodity is cooper. I see it more as an indictement of the CIA, which no American Prez, Democrat or
    Republican has vowed to extinguish.

    though I personally believe that public trading of companies is criminal, as is any form of absentee ownership claim

    I believe you mean it should be criminal. Criminal is what’s legally defined as a crime, not what goes against your personal notions of how the economy should work.

  • Wow 395, you really have this down. Ok, we can play the whole D’s are the real racist game but that in itself flies in the face of logic so I won’t go there unless necessary.
    Now, in your first post you mentioned the financial hole blue states are falling into and implied they are the result of liberal policies. Logic dictates that by implying that liberal policies result in financial disaster you are also implying that conservative policies work better at protecting a state’s financial interests. Are you making this case yes or no? If so what are your examples? Thanks.

  • pilotx,
    The Democrat party is the home of slavery, segregation, and the KKK.

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