Business of Disaster

We need more “good guys” without guns

Those who favor gun rights and oppose gun control like to divide people into two categories, the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Looking at people in such a simplistic way is reflective of the lack of critical thinking that seems to occur more among conservatives rather than progressives. But then again, what I just said might also be simplistic. There is some empirical evidence to support it, but we must be careful with where we go when painting with broad strokes.

There are two basic problems with using terms like “good” and “bad.” First, by only talking in polarities, we tend to eliminate consideration of shades of grey. Second, it’s hard to not use terms like these. They are low-hanging fruit; they are handles that are easy to grab.

We spend much of our political dialogue, or debate, in trying to fashion workable policies. But so long as human beings are needed to administer policy, and to make “on-the-fly” judgments and decisions, our best laid plans are susceptible to less than optimal outcomes due to that little problem called human error.

In the world of simplified thinking, there is less likelihood of human error when the people who are carrying out their jobs are “good” at them rather than “bad.”

This concept really struck a nerve with me last night when I watched a repeat PBS Frontline, “Business of Disaster,” about disaster relief to victims of major storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

We are talking about two storms in which damages were close to $100 billion, with a ‘B.’ That’s huge. And the program illustrated a few points very clearly:

  1. While parts of the governmental responses were effective, others were not. A lot of the problems emanated from Congress under-funding FEMA, particularly in administering aid to home and business owners.
  2. Insurance companies were caught in the middle of the aid process, and surprise surprise, they seemed to be more interested in their bottom lines than in adequately and properly paying claims. In fact, as reported by NPR’s Laura Sullivan, they made more money in the wake of these storms than they did in “normal” times. That seems to be a rather strange insight as to how insurance works.
  3. There were some very well-intentioned and skilled officials working at all levels of response – federal government, state governments, local governments, non-profits, private companies (including insurance companies).
  4. It seemed that most of the home-owners and business that had suffered damage because of the storms were honest in their claims. They were not trying to recover damages for something that happened unrelated to the storms.

But perhaps most importantly,

  1. Lots of people at all levels of the response acted poorly. In the right-wing vernacular, they were “bad guys.” There was profiteering by insurance companies, by builders, by suppliers, by bureaucrats, by agencies, by leaders and even by some claimants. There was stinginess by the government, by contractors and others. The response was far short of the need. When you combine inadequate policies with inadequate people implementing them, you have a series of new disasters that follow the initial disaster.

So, while gun advocates might say that the “good guys” with guns need to be further empowered, others might say that we need more “good guys” to be engaged in public and private decision-making and the implementation of mandates. But here we get to a new list of two problems:

  1. Who the hell are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys,” not only about carrying guns, but about weaving the overall fabric of our society?
  2. If we need more effective people to help us have better responses to disasters and non-disasters alike, how do we identify them? How do we attract the “best and the brightest” amongst us to carry out important societal decisions?

We seem to always come up short. I would submit that the problem is that there just aren’t enough “good guys and women” among us. If our society was a sports team, we would be in desperate need of rebuilding. It wouldn’t be just a rebuilding year, but at least a rebuilding decade.

Our main problem is that critical thinking is at such a low premium. Somehow, some way, we must try to aggregate those among us who can think critically and who also can empathize to find ways to increase their numbers.

I always think that starts in our schools. When our schools place more focus on critical thinking and empathy, we will then be better at responses to disasters, and a lot more.