Carmel fire contained

Israeli firefighters say they have fully contained the fire in the Carmel mountains of Israel, the country’s largest wildfire ever.

Actually, the Haaretz headline and one statement within the article say “full control,” but the substance of the article makes clear that containment is what has been achieved. “The fire is still burning in some locations and the winds are still strong,” the firefighters’ operations officer is quoted as saying.

The main threat to Haifa and its suburbs has been warded off.

With the mass evacuations of some populated areas, this was beginning to seem all too like the firestorms that gripped San Diego twice in the last seven years. Fortunately, the worst of it now seems over. The weather, however, remains unusually hot for the season, and there has been almost no rain so far, despite the normal rainy season being well underway.

The government is no longer requesting further help from abroad.

Israel, which has a dry climate for much of the year like southern California, is woefully ill equipped to fight major fires. I was amazed at the prevalence of outdoor burning of trash when we were there in spring and summer–both around Jerusalem and in other places, especially (but not only) in Arab areas where public services like trash collection tend to be less well provided. Various reports have suggested that it was a trash fire in a Druze village that got out of control. And now much of the Carmel has been devastated.

According to another Haaretz article,

Israel currently has about 1,300 firefighters available for operational duty, meaning one for every 6,000 residents. The average among Western countries is one firefighter per 1,000 residents.

I do not know what the figure is for southern California (or other fire-prone places like Australia), although at the time of the 2003 wildfires, the lack of preparation of San Diego was exposed. The County was somewhat better positioned to fight the 2007 wildfires.*

This is not Israel’s first major wildfire by any means. The just-linked article notes one in the Jerusalem hills in 1995, after which there was a government commission that noted the inadequacies of resources to cope with fires. Maybe this time they’ll actually do something to prepare for the next one.

* Photos and experiences of which appeared at this blog.

Why the Mumbai attacks are not India’s 9/11

Various news stories in the US have used phrases like “India’s 9/11” in attempt to contextualize the Mumbai terror for American readers.

Aside from the fact that India unfortunately has endured many previous militant attacks–some of them originating from the same likely suspects, even if not on the coordinated, militarily precise, and mass-terrorizing scale as these latest–there is one overlooked sense in which this horrible incident has already been shown not to be India’s 9/11. Continue reading

Homeland security, federalism, and bicameralism

In October, 2005, I commented on the intercameral differences within the Republican Congress on the question of federal grants for “homeland security.” The dispute–with the Senate favoring most of the money being divided equally among the states and the House favoring a high percentage of the disbursements being based on insured risk–is the stuff of classic bicameral policy disagreement. Insured risk tends to be roughly correlated with population, and so it is hardly a surprise that the House would prefer such a determination of where most of the money should go. The Senate, on the other hand, with its equal representation of even the smallest state, would be predicted to find the “risk” from terrorism to be about the same in Wyoming as it is in New York, and indeed that is the logic–the political logic–of its formula.

Now, fast forward to 2007. We had a change in party control, from both houses being Republican to both being Democratic. And at the moment, the chambers are once again bargaining over the formula for the distribution of homeland security grants. The proposals by each chamber again reveal the institutional biases of each chamber. But when compared to the 2005 intercameral bargaining, the 2007 proposals show even more starkly the difference between the parties and their constituencies, on this issue.

Here I compare the House and Senate proposals at each of these moments of bargaining:

    2005 bills (Republican majorities)

    House: 25% of funds distributed equally among states–but state must show need; most of rest allocated based on risk

    Senate: 75% of funds distributed equally among states; 25% allocated according to risk

    2007 bills (Democratic majorities)

    House: 12.5% of funds distributed equally among states; most of rest allocated based on risk

    Senate: 22.5% of funds distributed equally among states; most of rest according to risk

Wow. Good stuff!

Of course, one critical factor here is the relative sizes of the states each party draws its main support base from. That is, the parties’ positions (holding constant the chamber) are partly shaped by the same factor that separates the chambers (holding constant the parties). Consider the following breakdown of the populations of the states represented in each of these two Senates. The first column is the number of states (with half a state in each party row whenever the state delegation is split), and then the cumulative population of those states (or half states).

    Before 2006 election
    54 Reps 27.5 138,079,342
    46 Dems 22.5 142,824,157

    After 2006 election
    49 Reps 24.5 118,950,125
    51 Dems 25.5 161,953,374

Note that the Republican states constituted the minority of the population even when the Republicans held the (spurious) partisan majority of the Senate. (This a theme I have covered before, in a somewhat more refined analysis with electoral data and cool graphs!)

President Bush has threatened to veto this bill over several other provisions, especially that which would extend collective bargaining rights to baggage screeners and other employees who were barred such rights when DHS was established.

We may see the first successful override vote in the House during the W years. The bill passed 299-128. However, the vote was 60-38 in the Senate. These results means a lot of Republicans in each house went with the majority, even if the non-democratic chamber will be able to sustain the minority veto in this case. What a difference it makes which party is setting the congressional agenda!


My main source on the differences in the bills in 2007 was an article by Chris Strohm for Congress Daily. Sources on the 2005 bills are discussed at the previous planting (first link above).

In calculating state populations by party delegation, independents are counted as if members of the party with which they caucus (here, all Democrat: Jeffords, Sanders, Lieberman); population numbers are based on 2000 census.

On the specific issue of union rights for baggage screeners, I highly recommend the thread sparked by Matthew Yglesias in early March. The discussion in the comments contains pretty much the whole gamut of hypotheses about policy-making!

Security funding: Pork vs. programmatic policy?

Does it make sense that Wyoming, rated as “low risk” for terrorist attack, should get almost twice the funding for preparadness programs, on a per capita basis, as New York? The independent commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks recommended more than a year ago that all homeland-security money be allocated based on objective criteria–the risk of attack.

This issue is being debated in Congress now–in a House-Senate conference committee, and it is an excellent example of the different interests of the two chambers of the US Congress.

This is a fascinating case, because both chambers are controlled by the same party. Yet the legislative preferences on this matter break down in a completely predictable way, based on the constituencies of the chambers.

The Senate passed a bill that would share about 75% of all homeland security funds equally between the 50 states, with the other 25% allocated according to a state’s actual assessed risk of terrorism.

The House, on the other hand, passed in July an amendment to the Patriot Act that would do almost the exact opposite. Under the House plan, 25% would be allocated equally between the states, and even to get that share, a state would have to prove why the money was needed. Most of the funds would be based on assessment of risk.

(The assessment of risk would be based on calculating potential insured losses.)

Representative Nita Lowrey (Democrat, New York), the author of the amendment to the bill that the House passed, says:

The current formula is distributed as pork barrel, the same amount to everybody, no matter what, and it doesn’t make sense. New Yorkers are not very pleased about being No. 1, but if we are No. 1 in the risk/threat/vulnerability category, we clearly should get the resources so that we can be prepared.

Senator Craig Thomas (Republican, Wyoming) counters that his state has a lot of energy production “that involves a substantial Homeland Security risk.”

Lowrey notes that is a valid argument, and points out that the amended House bill would allow Wyoming to make that case and receive the funds if they are indeed merited.

Good case in programmatic vs. particularistic policy-making, and in House vs. Senate constituencies!

(The above information comes from an article by Alexandra Marks in the Christian Science Monitor on October 24.)

Pork vs. programmatic policy-making

One of the things that I tell my students ever year in the Policy-Making Processes course is that there are, very broadly speaking, two ways in which policy may be made: In a programmatic fashion, or in a particularistic fashion. The good old “pork barrel” is an example of particularism.

Given that we are just now entering the part of the course where this comes up, Chris Lawrence’s post from October 20 regarding the Porkbusters project could hardly have come at a better time.

As Chris notes, when politicians, commentators, or regular citizens label government spending programs, “one man’s pork is another man’s necessary infrastructure project.”

But then Chris adds the kicker, with respect to post-Katrina projects like rebuilding the Ponchartrain bridge as a 6-lane highway and other big “revitalization” spending (which Porkbusters are trying to have Congress appropriate money for instead of projects like the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere“):

a real “porkbuster” would favor letting the FHWA bureaucracy, not Congress, decide where the money would best be spent.

This is the crux of the matter. If policy specialists in the bureaucracy are given fairly wide leeway to apply their expertise and merit criteria in determining which projects should have priority, we are probably looking at programmatic policy-making. If, on the other hand, committees of politicians are establishing which projects will have priority, we are almost certainly looking at particularism/pork.

It is worth adding, however, that bureaucracies can also produce pork. It depends on the authority that has been delegated by their political principals—whether to implement the broad program of the governing majority or to reflect the preferences of politicians’ particular organized or localized constituencies. (This is “structural politics,” as Moe and Caldwell call it; that reference to a reading is for the benefit of my students).

Sometimes it is a fine line—and it clearly is a continuum—but the distinction between these two basic types of policy-making comes down to the extent of specific political criteria imposed on the bureaucracy. And that extent, of course, depends on how the politicians build their own election/reelection constituencies.

Follow-up post related to this theme:
Security funding: Pork vs. programmatic policy? (October 30, 2005)

The US military role in disaster relief inevitably will increase—Robert Kaplan

A theme of F&V dating back to the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina has been the need for better institutional design and coordination in disaster relief. For instance, on September 1, I called the then-slowly-emerging response to this disaster a Test for government reorganization under DHS.

In that post, I noted that back in 1993, after Hurricane Andrew, several specialists in disaster response had testified before the senate that the military should be given a much greater role in the government’s handling of natural catastrophes.

On October 22, CSPAN’s BookTV re-aired (right before the ridiculous segment on the electoral college) a terrific presentation at AEI by Robert Kaplan. He was talking about his new book, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground. (The segment originally aired on October 15.)

The book itself sounds fascinating. As Kaplan said, he has travelled and lived for extended periods with military units in mostly unnoticed (though not secret, he noted over and over) operations all over the world, including places like Algeria (!), Colombia, Georgia, and Yemen.

One thing that really caught my ear in his presentation was a theme he articulated regarding the military and disaster relief. Among the operations he was present for was the aid operation by the US Navy after the south Asian tsunami. He said this sort of operation, as well as the military’s (late) engagement in New Orleans were the sort of operations that would inevitably become more common in coming decades.

The reason, he said, is not just that the US military is uniquely capable of mounting such operations in settings where, just as in wartime, public order inevitably breaks down. Also because to a greater degree than at any time in human history–and increasingly so–we have large dense population centers all around the world in flood plains and sesmic zones. In other words, the scale of major disasters will only increase, and militaries (not only our own; he also mentioned Canada and France as being well versed in relief operations) will be called in to provide relief and security.

He specifically outlined scenarios of military involvement in a New Madrid earthqauke that could devastate St. Louis and Memphis, and US forces being on the ground in China after a major flood.

It was not clear to me how much of this discussion is in the book, but it was clear that he was envisioning something very important and, I would add, that needs to be more explictly prepared for.

FEMA and the taking of “responsibility”

Armchair Generalist hits the nail on the head in this post today, and a previous post of his from September 7.

If the resignation of Michael Brown as FEMA head is the end of the accountability process, rather than its start, we will never get around to the really serious questions that need to be asked about whether the US government is properly equipped to handle major disasters, or whether we need a serious rethink about our institutions and organizations responsible for these tasks.

It is very easy to jump on Brown, who clearly had minimal qualifications for the post. But the bureaucratic reorganization under DHS meant that the head of FEMA takes orders from the Homeland Security Secretary, currently Michael Chertoff. And of course, he is responsible to the President.

Now, I know Bush has taken “responsibilty.” But what does that mean? Responsibility, like leadership itself, is not words, it’s actions and consequences. Obviously he is not going to resign, and porobably neither is Chertoff (resignation is the usual meaning of taking “responsibility” in the highest levels of government in parliamentary systems), but a good place to start might be for Bush to call off his allies in Congress who are blocking the formation of an independent commission to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrina.

It is about accountability, and being accountable for decisions made and not made is how government officials take responsibility. It is also through the process of holding officials accountable for past actions that we have dicussions about reorganization of the responsible bureaucracies that might save lives in the future.