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Policy Success Reaps Few Rewards…

[ 19 ] May 1, 2010 |

John Styles, via Chris Blattman:

About a week after the earthquake, economist Tyler Cowen wrote that Obama looked like the “Haiti president”:

Obama will (and should) do something about this situation … Yet he will have a festering situation on his hands for the rest of his term … Obama now stands a higher chance of being a one-term President. Foreign aid programs are especially unpopular, especially relative to their small fiscal cost … Just as it’s not easy to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it won’t be easy to pull out of Haiti.

But it’s now clear that Haiti won’t affect Obama’s political future in any significant way. In part, this is because the worst fears about the earthquake’s aftermath weren’t realized; Haiti didn’t descend to utter lawlessness. Still, it faces extraordinary challenges. The problem is that these are largely invisible in American news and thus among American voters, who are therefore less likely to hold Obama accountable for Haiti’s struggles.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, my co-blogger Galrahn repeatedly argued that this was a key moment for the Obama presidency. Failing to formulate a competent foreign policy response to the earthquake would result in a diplomatic and humanitarian disaster that would affect US standing in the hemisphere and, quite possibly, generate waves of refugees on American shores.

This disaster appears to have been avoided; things are hardly great in Haiti, but the state hasn’t completely collapsed, and relief efforts have in general been considered successful. The response of the USN in particular has been extraordinary. Haiti will not, as Cowen and Styles suggest, dominate the Obama presidency. It’s worth noting, however, that Styles and Galrahn might offer different explanations for why the effect of the Haiti earthquake will not endure. Styles argues that Americans simply don’t care about Haitians; if relief operations had failed to forestall a greater disaster, Americans would have taken little note (except perhaps insofar as the refugee crisis would directly impact Gulf communities). Galrahn, I suspect, would suggest that Haiti has ceased to be a story because relief operations have been so successful. No one remembers disasters that don’t occur, or recalls waves of refugees that never show up.

These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. Styles is certainly correct to argue that the American public is less than fully attentive to disasters that happen to brown people. However, I think that Galrahn is also right, and that there’s a very serious dilemma in this story for advocates of good governance. Sensible, responsive, well-staffed, well-funded governance tends to prevent horrible things from happening. When horrible things do happen, authorities respond quickly and effectively. Crisis prevention and effective crisis response, however, are inherently less interesting and less attention-getting than failed crisis response. If the 9/11 hijackers had been captured prior to conducting their attacks, very few people outside the intelligence community would have much recollection of a crucial policy victory. If the Bush administration had conducted adequate preparation for Katrina and responded effectively, there’d be relatively little shared memory of the disaster.

Success and failure in crisis response, consequently, have asymmetric political effect. The Obama administration’s response to the Haiti earthquake, in my view, has been a resounding success for responsible, capable governance. No one will remember that in six months. Bush’s response to Katrina will endure in the political memory for decades. On the one hand this is (politically) good for progressives, given that conservative efforts to gut governance tend to result in horrible disasters. On the other hand, because policy and execution failures stick in the mind longer than successes, it’s difficult to convince the general public of the importance of a responsible approach to government. In the rhetoric of anti-statist nutjobs, Katrina actually becomes an argument against adequate government, while success in Haiti fades from history.

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  1. Martin says:

    Excellent post. But I wonder if the dynamic of the last paragraph is little more than a paradox…. If your stated argument in favor of competent government is to avoid Katrinas, then something like Obama’s handling of Haiti is a more unambiguous success…. anti-statists may use Katrina to argue against robust government, but the fact is, Bush’s party lost Congress a little more than a year after Katrina, and lost the White House at the next available opportunity, even though the matchup, from a distance, looked favorable to the Republicans (war hero maverick versus African-American newcomer). Katrina was central to the GOP’s identity as incompetent hacks. So let the anti-statists say what they will, they’re not driving votes anyway.

    Also, the dynamic is probably context-dependent. The United States happens to be fertile ground for anti-statists…. in Europe, a regime would probably get a little more credit for a success like Obama’s handling of Haiti, and a disaster like Katrina might be more costly. The electorate might conclude that we need smart, competent people in government (what a concept). Americans would conclude that taxes are wasteful and should be reduced. So we get what we deserve…… our country was started in the belief that taxes are something that are externally imposed upon us, and we’ve never quite gotten rid of the “we pay in, but don’t get back” mentality implied by the original Tea Party. That has had its costs……

  2. Davis says:

    …the state hasn’t completely collapsed, and relief efforts have in general been considered successful.

    And yet there has been a spate of murders in Haiti gone largely unreported here — most of them targeted at the Haitian National Police (so they’re probably just grudge-killings resulting from police corruption), but at least 4 Americans have been murdered without the news hitting the States.

    Moreover, non-essential US embassy personnel were ordered to depart the country at some point prior to April, in spite of the supposedly stabilizing situation. Cynical as always, I’m suspicious that the US has been trying to control the message coming out so we could withdraw the troops in the name of “success,” when the real concern was allowing them to become bogged down in a difficult situation.

  3. Erik Loomis says:

    Right–the idea that somehow Haiti is to Obama what Katrina was to Bush is absurd. It’s not just that Americans don’t give a shit about disasters that affect brown people (though certainly there’s a good argument to be made for this.) It’s that Americans don’t give a shit about other countries. So while we might see an outpouring of donations for Haitians, I can’t imagine Americans ever judging a president based upon how he or she responds to a natural disaster in a foreign country.

    And this seems blindingly obvious to me, so much so I’m surprised anyone would argue otherwise.

    • Martin says:

      I completely agree with this. The tendency not to care about Haiti must flow more properly from this fact, and not the color of the people’s skin.

    • JRoth says:

      I agree with the larger point, but as an ex-Miami resident, one who arrived months before Mariel, I think it’s missing the specifics. No amount of fuckup in response to the Christmas tsunami could have hurt Bush, not just because everyone already hated him, but because there was no plausible impact on Americans. But an Obama fuckup in Haiti that resulted in 5 rafts a day showing up in Miami, with another raft a day sinking en route, with drowning Haitians filmed from hovering helicopters, would have been a black mark on Obama’s record, one that would have provided a great excuse for idiotic swing voters to decide that Obama was like “all of them.”

      I agree with Robert that an actual upside to being competent is basically unavailable to Obama, but I certainly think that a downside was possible (note that a middle path – such as that alluded to by Davis above – is also possible, even likely, but would have no affect in the US. Politically, Obama’s job was to prevent a maritime exodus, and he’s succeeded. More fine-grained judgments will have no effect on the public).

  4. [...] Farley writes about the fact that when you get something done right you tend not to get much credit for it: These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. Styles is [...]

  5. soullite says:

    It’s not that success doesn’t matter, it’s that nobody really considered Haiti a crisis in America. They do, however, consider a massive unemployment rate to be a crisis. It really doesn’t matter what on earth you do so long as you ignore the economic difficulty most Americans are going through. How on earth could that actually shock anyone?

  6. [...] great point: Our opinion of government is greatly distorted by the fact that its failures get a lot more attentio….  We’ll remember Katrina for decades, but not the competent, quiet responses to, say, other [...]

  7. bay of arizona says:

    Nobody remembers the fact that Al Qaeda was foiled before they were able to bomb LAX by the Clinton Administration. Especially with intel, you only find out about it if somebody fucked up.

  8. Witt says:

    The other consideration is that the Haitian-American population is smaller and less politically noisy than, say, Irish-Americans.

    The major way that a non-domestic situation would be kept in the news here in the US after the initial disaster would be if people with strong ties to the area kept it at the forefront. Haitian-Americans may like or dislike how Obama is handling the quake aftermath, but either way, their views are going to get relatively little airing in the public sphere.

  9. Kate says:

    I’m not sure it’s policy, so much as disaster management.

    There’s a rule among disaster managers – Get it right, and nobody notices. F*ck it up, and the whole world watches.

    Or, for every Katrina, there are many Floyds and Ivans.

  10. Alex says:

    Another issue here is that Tyler Cowen is full of shit, and tends to make things up out of whole cloth. I request your indulgence for linkwhoring.

  11. [...] you’ll get nowhere. In fact, in discussing the Obama administrations post-earthquake efforts, Robert Farley points out that no one “remembers disasters that don’t occur, or recalls waves of refugees that [...]

  12. [...] for this to sink in: …conservative efforts to gut governance tend to result in horrible [...]

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