Saturday, September 24, 2005

Confronting Racism

It seems to me that those of us who are concerned with addressing racism in our society should begin by listening to the grievances of those who are most affected by it, and work to ensure that their opinions about what might help the situation are taken seriously. All too often I find the discussion turns to the preoccupations of white people over how things should be done, who should pay for what and under what conditions, objections to minority leadership, and large quantities of time and energy devoted to examining any inconveniences that may befall whites in pursuing such concerns. In other words, racism plays heavily in the efforts to address racism. This is why I think it's important to defer some authority to minority groups in coming up with the solutions that can best help them, with everyone else playing a supporting role.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Communists reemerge in Afghanistan, this time with US support?

from (via Angry Arab)
Peter Dimitroff, the country director of the National Democratic Institute, a leading, mostly US-funded NGO, ''appreciates the irony in his organization's support for former communist groups. ''We support all registered parties, but we support some in a deeper fashion. We like groups that get together on the basis of ideas not ethnicity or geographical background. That is why we are supporting groups like the communists with US money, which is kind of funny . . . They are good guys and well organized. They are the closest to a professional political party you can get."

In the traditionalist and highly conservative Afghan political context, the former communists are openly ''women-friendly," fielding a sizeable number of female candidates. Given the party's gender equity policy, it is hardly surprising that some of the leading women on the political scene have a communist affiliation. And the female quota -- which stipulates that 25 percent of the parliamentary seats will have to be filled by women even though they make up only 10 percent of the candidates' pool -- will undoubtedly boost not only female but also communist representation in parliament.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Race and Katrina, cont.

I noticed the posting from Sept. 6th. It's been my feeling that the failings (at least in regards to dealing with post-Katrina) were class motivated rather then race motivated. I recognize that the majoritty of the poor are black, or hispanic. (And boy did they lose out, since there were no spanish language warnings issued at all.) Still my thoughts are that it's because they are poor not because of their race that they were ignored and left to die. I'm not ignoring the fact that racism caused poverty for minorities in the south and elsewhere, I just think that poverty is the bigger problem since the expectation was, "Issue the warning and people will evacuate themselves."

I agree with your observations; I simply presume that racism has an intrinsic class dimension; after all, you can't really talk about one without implying the other.

I don't believe the motivation behind the Katrina response-failure was anything other than a concerted lack of motivation. I think that's where racism played a central role: it was a situation where the people who suffered and died were predominantly poor and non-white, while those with the authority to help them were predominantly neither. As such, the outcome should not be entirely surprising. I don't think it needs to presuppose any conscious dislike for the poor or minorities. These groups simply have no voice in the executive branch as it is currently administered; subsequently their needs--in this case their lives--do not constitute a high priority unless some compelling political reason (e.g., scandal) can justify it.

Monday, September 12, 2005

No-bid reconstruction contracts awarded for Katrina, Iraq-style; Bechtel, Halliburton among winners

from The Wall Street Journal:
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is importing many of the contracting practices blamed for spending abuses in Iraq as it begins the largest and costliest rebuilding effort in U.S. history.

The first large-scale contracts related to Hurricane Katrina, as in Iraq, were awarded without competitive bidding, and using so-called cost-plus provisions that guarantee contractors a certain profit regardless of how much they spend.

Contracts for temporary housing have been awarded to politically connected companies like Fluor Corp. and Bechtel National Inc., a unit of Bechtel Group Inc., leading congressional Democrats to renew charges of cronyism they first leveled when the firms won lucrative work in Iraq.

In response, there have been bipartisan calls in Congress to establish a new government agency to manage the Louisiana rebuilding, and possibly have it run by a pro
minent figure such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Separately, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) yesterday said she supported the creation of an "antifraud commission" to oversee government contracts issued in response to the disaster.

Some are questioning as well whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- which has a small procurement staff responsible for spending a relatively tiny amount of federal money each year -- is capable of effectively disbursing tens of billions of dollars.

In Iraq, several audits found that contracting problems were exacerbated by overworked and inexperienced government procurement officers who weren't up to the difficult work they were entrusted to carry out.

"You can easily compare FEMA's internal resources to what you saw in the early days of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq: a small, underfunded organization taking on a Herculean task under tremendous time pressure," said Steven Schooner, a contracting expert at George Washington University law school in Washington. "That is almost by definition a recipe for disaster."

FEMA already is under fire for its poor initial response to Katrina. Its chief, Michael Brown, was removed on Friday as head of the direct relief effort.

Officials at the agency, a division of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, said they are up to the task of ensuring that the money will be spent efficiently. "FEMA has extensive experience in acquiring the products and services required to make sure that the support needed in response and recovery operations is secured quickly to meet the needs of disaster victims," said James McIntyre, a spokesman for the agency.

In Iraq, audits have uncovered evidence that hundreds of millions of dollars were misspent by some contractors willing to stretch or break rules, while government officials were unwilling or unable to prevent abuses. Government reports have detailed systemic management failings, lax or nonexistent oversight and alleged fraud and embezzlement by officials charged with administering the rebuilding, as well as questionable activities by the contractors they employed. For example, audits have found evidence of procurement officers paying contractors twice for the same work and spending tens of millions of dollars with little to no documentation.

Officials from Bechtel and Fluor declined to discuss comparisons between their work in Iraq and the Gulf Coast. Bechtel spokesman Howard Menaker said the company's deal with the government was still being finalized and declined to comment further.
A Fluor spokesman referred questions to FEMA.

The administration has allocated more than $62 billion to the regions hit by Katrina, and the final price tag is expected to soar to more than $100 billion. Already, at least seven contracts have been awarded for the post-Katrina effort. The Army Corps of Engineers late last week announced a $100 million deal with Shaw Group Inc. of Baton Rouge, La., for relief operations including the pumping of flood water out of New Orleans. Halliburton Co.'s Kellogg, Brown & Root unit, also prominent in the Iraq reconstruction effort, is doing repair work at three U.S. Navy facilities in Mississippi as part of an existing Pentagon contract.

FEMA, meanwhile, has announced four major contracts with firms charged with providing emergency housing relief in storm-battered areas of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. The $100 million contracts with Bechtel, Fluor, Shaw Group and Denver-based CH2M Hill Cos. were awarded after what FEMA described as "limited competition." FEMA also recently hired Houston-based Kenyon Worldwide Disaster Management to collect human remains in the disaster zone. FEMA didn't announce the total of that contract, and Kenyon didn't respond to requests to comment.

All the deals include cost-plus language, which means the companies can pass along all their costs -- plus a predetermined profit -- to the government. Similar provisions were routinely used in Iraq. Critics said they encouraged waste by removing any incentive to control costs.

FEMA officials and outside contracting experts said no-bid contracting and cost-plus language have been used in prior disasters to speed the government's ability to get contractors on the ground and in place as fast as possible. They said cost-plus, in particular, is required after disasters like Katrina because it is difficult, if not impossible, for the government to know exactly how big the relief and rebuilding efforts ultimately will be.

FEMA has been given primary responsibility for spending the more than $50 billion in aid approved by lawmakers last week, which means it will be the lead contracting agency for months to come. That gives it a responsibility well beyond its normal role in past disasters. The agency has never before been asked to disburse money at the level that it will for Katrina. Of the $305 billion spent on federal-government procurement in fiscal year 2003, FEMA accounted for $87 million. The agency already has spent many times that in the Katrina aftermath.

Unlike in Iraq, where an inspector general is tasked solely with probing reconstruction contracts, FEMA has said oversight for the Katrina relief effort will be provided by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general.

Several Democrats and outside experts have raised additional questions about how the government spends the money allocated for Katrina relief. A provision in the latest Katrina relief bill temporarily raised the spending limit on government credit cards used for Katrina-related purchases to $250,000 from $15,000 per transaction, to allow officials to buy needed supplies more quickly than if they went through normal procurement channels.

Numerous audits have found that the government lacks adequate controls to prevent misuse of such cards. In 2000, for instance, a probe by the General Accounting Office, now the Government Accountability Office, found that government credit cards in two California Navy units had been used for more than $660,000 in fraudulent or questionable purchases of personal goods ranging from jewelry to pizza. The report by Congress's investigative arm found that government employees bought numerous objects of "questionable government need" like $2,500 flat-panel computer monitors.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Liberal Media?

I happen to agree that there is media bias, but it simply reflects a corporate structure of organization, incorporating both the "liberal" and "conservative" views of the owners and managers, the market (advertisers), and the product (audiences). The problem is that the centralized nature of corporate institutions does not allow local media to be reflective of their populations, as local networks essentially adapt to national formats: Conservative communities get the same news liberal communities do, and both are infuriated by whatever they disagree with, invariably leading to charges of bias. (Naturally, nobody notices what they do agree with, since that's just "unbiased reporting.") The fact that this ubiquitous gripe comes from boths sides by people watching the same networks and programs should tell you something about what is happening, and it has nothing to do any particular political hegemony other than whatever range of perspectives you would expect to get from the business interests who own and control them. If we want representative media, I would suggest we shift ownership and control to the communities that media serve, and away from centralized institutions which impose one format on everyone.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Racism in the Katrina Aftermath

In correspondence with Republicans...

The society is racist, but that does not mean, as a society, we are conceptually committed to racism; on the contrary, we are explicitly opposed to it. The racism that exists in our communities and institutions is mainly a function of unequal power relationships based on race, which most of us tend to deny or ignore, or at any rate fail to actively resist. It does not help that whatever (perhaps imperfect) attempts to address racism in this country are met with accusations of "racism" or "playing the race card" (as in the case of race-specific policies like affirmative action, or, in the case of Katrina, even acknowledging that race was a factor) by the very privileged sectors who have stood to gain the most from its legacy. In my view the question is not whether one is "racist" since most of us fall into the same boat: we oppose racism in principle while contributing to it in practice. The question really is, "are we doing anything to confront racism?" In the case of our current leadership, I think the answer is clearly no, since confronting racism presupposes the acknowledgement that racism is a problem that 1) exists and 2) warrants confronting.