Marvin Olasky, the journalism professor at the University of Texas and editor of World magazine who coined of the term “compassionate conservatism,” has a new book out called The Politics of Disaster: Katrina, Big Government, and A New Strategy for Future Crises. He recently took some questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez on Katrina, big government, and raw politics.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Has the government spent too much on Katrina relief?
Marvin Olasky: Yes: billions in fraud and billions through expensive semi-solutions, such as housing folks for months in hotel rooms rather than placing them in empty apartments.
Lopez: What was the difference between Mississippi and New Orleans, response-wise?
Olasky: The New Orleans situation was intrinsically harder and therefore required stronger leadership, but instead the mayor became hysterical and the governor tearful. Mississippi state and local officials were tougher. In both situations volunteers who went out in rowboats, skiffs, and kayaks saved many lives, and faith-based ministries did well wherever they were allowed in to help.
Lopez: What faith-based groups would you hold up as exemplars in service post-Katrina?
Olasky: The Salvation Army; Southern Baptist Disaster Relief; hundreds of local churches; many churches elsewhere that took in evacuees. These Dirty Harrys of relief took on the toughest jobs.
Lopez: You call the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Plan “unworkable.” Was creating the department a mistake in the first place? Doesn’t Michael Chertoff seem a little overloaded?
Olasky: Yes and yes, but reshuffling the organization chart won’t help much as long as we believe in salvation by governmental paperocracy. The basic mistake is in forgetting that the preamble to the Constitution has the federal government providing for the common defense but promoting the general welfare. Homeland Security can help to provide for the common defense against terrorists but it errs in trying to do the same in natural disasters, where the goal should be to promote the general welfare by engaging faith-based, community, and business groups.
Lopez: How has the press been “awol” on the Katrina story?
Olasky: Initial coverage: The New Orleans Times-Picayune did a good job but the national correspondents who came to New Orleans for photo ops generally treated gossip like gospel. By megaphoning hyperbolic rumors the press delayed rescue from the Superdome and Convention Center by a day or so because it seemed that the army would have to arrive in enough force to rout the armed gangs that had supposedly taken over.
In the later coverage, there was little understanding of the “long tail” effect by which the actions of hundreds or thousands of church or private groups add up to more than the government can deliver. Instead, much of the press has searched for culprits and retained its faith in government.
Lopez: Jeb Bush seems to be pretty cool when it comes to say, Ernesto. Is that just a better-government model?
Olasky: He’s definitely a better leader, and leaders (like Giuliani in New York after 9/11) make a difference. But Jeb also understands that the better-government model is a less-government model, with an emphasis on faith-based and community groups and also private enterprise. (The dreaded Wal-Mart, for example, performed well during Katrina, distributing water and selling generators in places where government had disappeared.)
Lopez: Does Katrina teach us how to deal with disasters on a global scale?
Olasky: The earthquake in Pakistan and the tsunami’s devastation in Indonesia and elsewhere taught us the major lesson: Use the U.S. Armed Forces to get relief to people quickly. Such relief is both humanitarian and an instrument of American foreign policy: Polls show that U.S. popularity in Pakistan improved hugely after our successful relief effort.
Lopez: Overseas, is Rick Warren’s approach the right one — encouraging churches to work with the likes of Global Fund for Aids?
Olasky: Generally yes, but I’m a little skeptical of global funds and disbursements from those funds to governmental and U.N. organizations. I visited last year and profiled in World two AIDS orphanages, one in Namibia and one in Zambia, that individual churches are funding in partnership with Africans. We need to find more ways to have thousands of small groups do more than merely giving money to large groups.
Lopez: Has the Bush administration been the model of “compassionate conservatism” you had hoped it would be?
Olasky: I expected lots of slippage but hoped for a .350 average and an all-star berth. Instead, it’s struggled with major-league curveballs and has batted about .225.
Lopez: Could Jeb Bush be your next compassionate conservative?
Olasky: He is one, as are millions of others. If you’re asking whether he would make a good president, I believe the answer is “yes.” I hope that to get him we don’t have to go through our recent pattern of alternating Bushes and Clintons.
Lopez: Since we’re dancing around 2008 now — will evangelicals vote for a Mormon?
Olasky: Depends who he’s running against. I’d vote for a Mormon if he’s running against someone who seems less able to deal with national-security issues, appoint good judges, and promote compassionate conservatism. (Despite what some good folks on The Corner have suggested, compassionate conservatism was not originally proposed as a euphemism for big government. For example, some critics have stated that the Newt Republicans would never back compassionate conservatism — but Newt helped enormously in popularizing the approach in 1995 and 1996.)
Lopez: Who is your book aimed for? The wonk, the bureaucrat, the frustrated NOLA-er?
Olasky: Citizens and bureaucrats who want to go beyond the official blame games and are open to private sector alternatives. If we can agree that a different strategy will work better, then we bring in the wonks.