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14.5.06

Against the Corps II

At the end of the article on the US Army Corps of Engineers that I discussed in the previous post, the author asks why Americans aren't outraged. I think there's a simple explanation: Americans (and people in general) get outraged by people, but the problem with the Corps is structural. Americans have a basic and unquestioned trust in the system, in large part because the system is so embedded in their common sense that it doesn't occur to them that things could be organized differently. So when something goes wrong, they look for a person to blame. The only kind of explanation that makes sense is that some individual subverted things through personal malfeasance. So Abu Ghraib is the fault of Lynndie England, abuse of executive power will cease once we get George Bush and Dick Cheney (or possibly the whole corrupt cabal of the GOP's current leadership) out of office, and racism is just a matter of individuals committing prejudiced acts. We don't see that personal malfeasance (real and blameworthy as it is) and responsibility happen within a larger system of human relationships, relationships that create perverse incentives and barriers to action.

So when Katrina levels New Orleans, we blame George Bush and Michael Brown because they exhibited personal failings like ignoring warnings and worrying too much about looking fashionable at photo-ops. But we can't sink our teeth into the structural failures of the Corps because there's no individual to point our finger at.

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