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The Big Unwieldy Machinery of the Federal Government
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I think Lileks nails this pretty well:

I never have understood why some people sprong a Louisville Slugger when the subject of Activist Government comes up. In another age and place, I would have agreed. Hoover Dam, the Interstate Highway System, enforcing Civil Rights, the Moon Shot - these are big-ticket items, and big guv paid the freight. But they are limited ideas with limited, defined goals. If the federal government had decided to make New Orleans safe from floods, and had unlimited funds, it could have done so – either by building 67-foot walls or moving the entire city or enclosing it in a dome and blasting it into space. Give them a blank check and 27 years, and they’ll probably get it done, and done well. But Big Government is not good at dealing with things that happen at 3:57 PM Eastern Standard Time tomorrow.

I think this is right. It's a huge organization, with many moving parts. Our federal government is mostly likely the largest bureaucracy ever to exist on the face of the planet.

Think about who did the heavy lifting in the early hours of 9/11. It was the police and firefighters on the ground in New York. The mayor was more directly in charge of command and control in New York than the President, or the head of any national bureau. And there were mistakes made at every level, all with the benefit of hindsight. The jets were scrambled too late. The people on the ground didn't have good communication systems.

If you have a chaotic event, there's going to be, um...chaos. Not every variable of every catastrophe is foreseeable.

I'm not willing to give people a complete pass if they did legitimately screw up, if there was gross negligence. But I am willing to cut both federal and local officials a fair amount of slack when dealing with major catastrophes with many fluid variables.

I've heard many people over the past week that acted like they knew all along how horrible it was gonna be...that everyone should have known. They become retroactive experts on whatever policy they think the people they oppose politically have screwed up.

Such a posture is stupid, and it's wrong.

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