George the Unready

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

March 3, 2006

Iraqi insurgents, hurricanes and low-income Medicare recipients have three things in common. Each has been at the center of a policy disaster. In each case experts warned about the impending disaster. And in each case well, let's look at what happened.

Knight Ridder's Washington bureau reports that from 2003 on, intelligence agencies "repeatedly warned the White House" that "the insurgency in Iraq had deep local roots, was likely to worsen and could lead to civil war." But senior administration officials insisted that the insurgents were a mix of dead-enders and foreign terrorists.

Intelligence analysts who refused to go along with that line were attacked for not being team players. According to U.S. News & World Report, President Bush's reaction to a pessimistic report from the C.I.A.'s Baghdad station chief was to remark, "What is he, some kind of defeatist?"

Many people have now seen the video of the briefing Mr. Bush received before Hurricane Katrina struck. Much has been made of the revelation that Mr. Bush was dishonest when he claimed, a few days later, that nobody anticipated the breach of the levees.

But what's really striking, given the gravity of the warnings, is the lack of urgency Mr. Bush and his administration displayed in responding to the storm. A horrified nation watched the scenes of misery at the Superdome and wondered why help hadn't arrived. But as Newsweek reports, for several days nobody was willing to tell Mr. Bush, who "equates disagreement with disloyalty," how badly things were going. "For most of those first few days," Newsweek says, "Bush was hearing what a good job the Feds were doing."

Now for one you may not have heard about. The new Medicare drug program got off to a disastrous start: "Low-income Medicare beneficiaries around the country were often overcharged, and some were turned away from pharmacies without getting their medications, in the first week of Medicare's new drug benefit," The New York Times reported.

How did this happen? The same way the other disasters happened: experts who warned of trouble ahead were told to shut up.

We can get a sense of what went on by looking at a 2005 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office on potential problems with the drug program. Included with the report is a letter from Mark McClellan, the Medicare administrator. Rather than taking the concerns of the G.A.O. seriously, he tried to bully it into changing its conclusions. He demanded that the report say that the administration had "established effective contingency plans" which it hadn't and that it drop the assertion that some people would encounter difficulties obtaining necessary drugs, which is exactly what happened.

Experts within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services must have faced similar bullying. And unlike experts at the independent G.A.O., they were not in a position to stand up for what they knew to be true.

In short, our country is being run by people who assume that things will turn out the way they want. And if someone warns of problems, they shoot the messenger.

Some commentators speak of the series of disasters now afflicting the Bush administration there seems to be a new one every week as if it were just a string of bad luck. But it isn't.

If good luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, bad luck is what happens when lack of preparation meets a challenge. And our leaders, who think they can govern through a mix of wishful thinking and intimidation, are never, ever prepared.

Correction

On Jan. 30 I cited an article in The American Prospect that reported that Indian tribes who hired Jack Abramoff had reduced their contributions to Democrats by 9 percent. Dwight Morris, who prepared the study on which the article was based, says on The American Prospect's blog that "there is no statistically valid way to calculate this number given the way the data were compiled." The American Prospect was sloppy, and so was I for not checking its methodology.

However, Mr. Morris goes on to say this is a minor point because other calculations show "an undeniably Republican shift in giving."

Pre-Abramoff, the tribes gave slightly more money to Democrats than to Republicans; post-Abramoff, they gave 70 percent to Republicans, versus only 30 percent to Democrats. In other words, there's nothing bipartisan about the Abramoff scandal.