Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hindsight: A User's Guide

Today's Washington Post carries an editorial from the opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times, Michael Kinsley, in which he says, "There is no foresight. We fight the last war because hindsight is all we have."

If so, that in itself is a remarkable indictment of our nation, our politicians, and our entire society. It is, in particular, an abdication of the responsibility of our news media.

Anyone who has watched the National Geographic Channel in the last decade knew that New Orleans was in danger of being submerged by a medium-to-large hurricane. It was no great secret. It was not hidden in some arcane technical journal. The Army Corps of Engineers has been warning Congress about it for years. As Kinsley acknowledges, in August 2001, the federal government reported that a devastating flood of New Orleans was one of our top three potential national disasters. And yet the ACOE's proposal to spend $2.5 billion to strengthen the levees was rejected, because it was not "cost-effective." This wasn't a "dusty Corps of Engineers report in a filing cabinet somewhere" [Kinsley's phrase], it was a prominent report loudly trumpeted from the ramparts — and yet it was still ignored.

We knew that a catastrophic flood was likely, we knew that it would cost tens, possibly hundreds, of billions of dollars to recover from, and yet $2.5 billion to prevent it was "not cost-effective"? It is certainly true that the Clinton administration — and the Clinton-era Republican Congress — share blame for underfunding prevention efforts, and Louisiana politicians share blame for directing federal money to politically motivated projects, but if the Bush administration had reacted responsibly and in a timely manner to the August 2001 report, New Orleans would be returning to normal today instead of anticipating months of clean-up and years of rebuilding. The record is clear and unmistakable.

Yes, that's in hindsight, but it's hindsight not of foresight lacking, but of foresight ignored.

Our political leaders are supposed to have vision, including foresight. They are also supposed to listen to the wise counsel of experts. They are supposed to dig until they find solid truth upon which they can rely in making their decisions.

Was appointing political cronies to the top three positions at FEMA an example of vision or foresight? Was it listening to the wise counsel of experts? How about slashing the budget for FEMA the year after we had four hurricanes in six weeks in a single state? How does that stand up for wisdom or foresight?

Indeed, our current government not only ignores foresight, it all too often brushes aside hindsight. Was it a good idea to invade Iraq on false pretenses, with inadequate force to restore order? Oh, we mustn't play the "blame game." Freedom is on the march.

Also, the news media are supposed to take the overwhelming glut of warnings, both from inside and outside the government, and filter them through a critical appraisal. We had a warning that New Orleans was in danger of flooding. Was that warning on target? Was ignoring that warning a wise policy decision? Was deepening the Port of Iberia, Louisiana, a more important project than strengthening the levees? Then why was it funded? These are the questions that the Fourth Estate is supposed to ask, but the media has become more of a lap dog than a trusty news hound.

I can give you another, more 9/11-related example. I flew to Texas for my recent trip to Crawford. Because I purchased my ticket less than a week before my departure, I was "randomly" selected for extra security measures. As I approached the TSA employee, I said, "I've been randomly selected for having bought my ticket less than a week in advance." (It's no great secret, either: my ticketing confirmation warned me that, due to the last-minute nature of my travel, I should allow extra time for security procedures.) The screener's response: "Yeah, we really should refine that one." Any security measure that is that obvious to everyone, serves no useful purpose. The same goes for automatically picking everyone with a one-way ticket. Suppose just for a moment that you're a terrorist, bent on sacrificing your own life for the glory of your cause. Is there any real point in making you plan more than a week in advance and buy a round-trip ticket, as a means of throwing a monkey wrench into your plans? Do you really think that Mohammed Atta just woke up on a Tuesday morning and decided, yeah, I think today's a good day to die?

The problem with our society is not that we have no foresight, but that we have too few willing to make a critical evaluation of the deluge of conflicting foresight. We dismiss as pork-barrel a request for major funding to prevent a flood, without considering that it might actually be money well spent.

[Thanks to Bill for calling this article to my attention. Also please note that the Washington Post requires free registration to read articles on its site.]