OVER THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS major parts of America have been ripped apart by high winds and inundated by a flood filled with a noxious brew of stinking pollution -- and that's just what has come from talk radio, right and left. If you alternate listening to a left-leaning Air America station and to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, as I have been perversely doing, you will discover that the Gulf Coast was hit not by one but two disasters: one caused by the Republicans and another caused by the Democrats. (And this was before Hurricane Rita came onto the radar.) It's clear to me they couldn't be talking about the same event.
Well, as my mother used to say, in attempting to end arguments between my stupid brother and me, "You're both right." Government at almost every level whether controlled by Democrats (the city of New Orleans or the state of Louisiana) or Republicans (the federal government in its many manifestations) was far more than a day late and much more than a dollar short. Which leads me to consider the major social organizations this country.
Three major types of organizations exist in America: the non-profits, for-profits and the anti-profits. The non-profits are the civic, service, educational and religious organizations that operate to do good as they see it without regard to producing an economic surplus by using voluntary contributions of time and money. At least that's how they're supposed to work, and does seem to be how most of them do in practice.
I think that the non-profits' actions (local civic groups raising money, local church congregations adopting families, the Red Cross delivering relief supplies, hospitals sending mobile clinics) have been more than exemplary, testifying to the best of humanity's desire to help his brother in need. They also seem to be acting relatively quickly, smoothly and competently.
The for-profits are the businesses that operate to provide goods or services with the intent of making an economic surplus from customers' voluntary purchases. These are everyone from the small local restaurant to Wal-Mart, many of whom have charitably taken of their economic surplus and given to those in need, for example, donating a portion or all of a day's sales to Katrina relief. But beyond that, acting just like good for-profit businesses, many have had major positive impacts on areas hit by the hurricane. Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Walgreen and other national retailers were ready, in advance of the disaster, to immediately supply their stores on the Gulf Coast with the things that they know from experience that people need (batteries, water, Pop Tarts) after a catastrophic event such as Katrina.
The anti-profits are the organizations that operate to do good as they are mandated by elected officials using conscripted time and money from the economic surplus of productive citizens. These are what are commonly called government. While the intent of the anti-profits are generally good, the results are often inefficient, ineffective -- or worse.
The aftermath of Katrina makes this clear. While only a commission (something anti-profits specialize in) will clarify which government agency did what wrong when, a few examples make it clear that the anti-profits often didn't just not know what they were doing, or do what they should have known that they should, they often got in the way of the people who did. Examples: The city of New Orleans left hundreds of school buses sitting in parking lots while the estimated 100,000 car-less citizens in the city were left to fend for themselves in evacuating. The suburban city of Gretna's police closed a bridge that provided a way out of New Orleans while the city itself was flooding. The Louisiana State Homeland Security Department refused the Red Cross permission to take food and water to the Superdome before the hurricane struck because they did not want to "encourage people to go there." FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, early in the disaster turned away Wal-Mart trucks delivering supplies including bottled water. These are not examples of inefficiency and ineffectiveness; these are examples of inanity and inhumanity. These are not examples of our tax dollars being wasted but being used against us.
Listening to talk radio makes it seem as if Katrina is making the reds redder and the blues bluer. It's doing both to me: turning me purple, and into a libertarian. I want disaster relief oursourced to a coalition of the Red Cross, Walmart and Lowe's. I want emergency housing given to the interfaith shelters, and long-term housing to Habitat for Humanity. And I want a whole bunch of currently elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike, kicked out of office. But, thank God, whether we do or not, millions of ordinary people will, with or without the government's help, or even with its incompetent interference, do what's right and help the people of the Gulf Coast regardless of their color -- red, blue, black or white.
Gary D. Gaddy, a former professor of journalism, is a local writer and advocate for the disadvantaged, especially those with disabilities.
A version of this column was published in the Durham Herald-Sun September 26, 2005.
Copyright 2005 Gary D. Gaddy