First, the sourcing of the story. The careful leftist Gary Farber reproduces an NYT article here. And Kathryn Cramer, who's been following the "private security contractor" story since Fallujah (and took a hell of a troll attack for it), reports on their presence in NO here.
Next, to reply to some of the more paranoid fears: whether these specific "contractors" now patrolling in NO were in Iraq, we of course can't know. We shouldn't fear, quite yet, that the New Orleans "insurgency" will be treated as the Iraqi populace is being treated, despite the appalling stories about police conduct floating around.
That doesn't make me much happier about high-wage commandos in US cities. Not while there is a nation of concerned citizens willing to volunteer to help NO, not while states are willing to send their National Guards, not while there are cities (like my NYC) willing to send their police and fire fighters.
No, the problem is structural, or rather, the problem is the ideological direction in which the structure is being taken. What the use of private security in Iraq made clear to me is the extent to which the basic state functions have been contracted out, and this has certainly been a factor in the New Orleans debacle.
I'm sure many have read DeLong's post reproducing the email of an insider who witnessed the "Hurricane Pam" drill. The most damning part for me, the one that ties into the use of Blackwater now, is this one:
There were contracts-in-place with major vendors across the country and prestaging areas were already determined (I'll have more to say about this later, but this is one reason FEMA has rejected large donation and turned back freelance shipments of water, medical supplies, food, etc: they have contracts in place to purchase those items, and accepting the same product from another source could be construed as breach of contract, and could lead to contract cancellation, thus removing a reliable source of product from the pool of available resources.I understand how such contracts make sense in the abstract, but the idea of a public emergency should give one pause before entering into private and restricted contracts for potentially limited resources.
There seem to be three alternative solutions to this kind of restrictive contract: 1) rely on volunteered goods and simply coordinate them effectively, 2) seize goods as need becomes clear, 3) write non-restrictive contracts to use both the pre-arranged goods and the volunteered/seized goods.
None of these more sensible arrangements makes anybody richer before tragedy strikes, of course.
The argument is always that private companies have a greater incentive to deliver effective results, but the record of subcontracting during this administration--for security, for delivery of emergency supplies, for testing our students--should stand as a counter-argument to this idea. Restrictive contracts make money in the short term, but in the long run, the American taxpayer ends up paying through the nose. And nobody ends up being responsible because the shellgame of contracting obscures all relationships.
Sit back and think for a minute. Do you know anyone who once worked for a public agency? Did they stay there or did they quit and found a private business? Know anyone who weighed going into, say, the DA's office or a corporate firm? Yeah: you make a helluva lot more money outside of government. And now government seemed to have thrown up its hands, and instead of paying its employees better--rather, it's destroyed federal employee unions--it's putting executives in charge of coordinating private companies. That might work as the fervent Norquist-types hope, except that the current politicos trying out this strategy have been appointing hacks and incompetents as CEOs to these private companies.
The corporate management culture of maximizing profits and efficient results is probably antithetical to humane public governance. That's my general belief, anyways. And in the wake of Katrina, when the contracted private companies were unable to organize relief and the volunteer relief were prevented from delivering in order to protect the prior contracts, I feel somewhat justified in my belief.