SYNDICATED COLUMN: Coulda, Shoulda, Wouldn’tve

What Disasters Are We Creating Now?

No one could have known.

That’s what they always say after a disaster. Well, it’s what the establishment—a good ’60s word, let’s bring it back!—says. “No one could have known” is the perfect excuse. Don’t blame us, we did the best we could, but we’re not clairvoyant.

But it’s rarely true. Most of the time, the people in charge—the people responsible for what went wrong—were warned in advance. They simply chose to ignore the warnings.

Why? In the case of government officials and corporate executives, it’s typically because acting on such warnings would cost them money. Sometimes it’s because the man or woman who predicts the mayhem about to unfold doesn’t have the status, title or connections to make themselves heard.

Mostly it’s because scum rises to the top.

After hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff called the disaster “breathtaking in its surprise.”

“That ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight,” Chertoff said.

It didn’t surprise everyone. “We certainly understood the potential impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane” on New Orleans, Lt. General Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said the same week.

I had attended a journalists’ convention in New Orleans a few years before that. Probably half the New Orleans residents I met asked me to write about the “big one” that was sure to devastate their city someday.

Except for those who later claimed that nobody could have known, everybody knew.

Harry Markopolos, a Boston financial analyst, has a book out (title: “No One Would Listen”) detailing the eight years he spent trying to convince the SEC to go after Bernard Madoff, who was responsible for the disappearance of $65 billion.

The financial collapse that began in the fall of 2008 was attributable to the burst of the housing bubble, fiscal shenanigans at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the longstanding practice of allowing investment banks to hire and fire rating agencies. Economists, corporate insiders, and journalists had repeatedly warned about these problems since at least 2004. They were ignored, even ridiculed by those who claimed a “new paradigm” was in effect in the U.S. economy.

From the lack of WMDs in Iraq (Scott Ritter knew) to the losing quagmire in Afghanistan (I knew) to the recent mine disaster in West Virginia (inspectors knew), nearly every calamity you can think of could have been avoided. All the idiots in charge had to do was listen to the smart people who weren’t.

Adam Cohen writes in The New York Times: “Predictions of disaster have always been ignored—that is why there is a Cassandra myth—but it is hard to think of a time when so many major warned-against calamities have occurred in such quick succession. The next time someone is inclined to hold hearings on a disaster, they should go beyond asking why particular warnings were ignored and ask why well-founded warnings are so often ignored.”

Cohen answers his own question, citing four causes for institutional resistance to doing the right/smart thing before it’s too late: ideology (reflexive thinking), change would threaten the powers-that-be, inertia, and incompetence.

No doubt, those factors all play a role. I’d like to add another: the fear to speak truth to power, which is intimately coupled with powers that tell truth to shut up.

In my long work history it was a rare workplace where management sought out new ideas, much less criticism. It was rarer still that a contrarian voice was rewarded, much less heeded. We see the same thing in politics. Those who speak up are smacked down.

All too often, bosses and officials are insecure. Worried more about losing face than doing a good job, they instinctively reject anyone and anything who threatens their prestige. Better to lose a war than to lose face.

The problem is systemic. As long as business schools crank out automatons and companies are willing to hire them, as long as voters reward the smarmiest and godliest over the straight-talkers, as long as playing it safe (i.e. boring) is valued more than taking chances, our society is going to keep screwing up. And it’ll all be perfectly avoidable.

Look around today. What are we being warned about? Which smart people are we ignoring? They’re everywhere. Let’s start with the economists who warn that the U.S. economy is at the end of its rope, that the federal government can’t keep increasing the deficit, that underpaying workers as the rich gets richer is a recipe for collapse and revolution.

For my money, the fact that we are ignoring the thousands of scientists who warn of rising floodwaters due to global warming, dust storms and mass famine due to excessive cultivation and overpopulation, and untold damage to our ecosystem as thousands of species go extinct, proves a terrible point: As a society, we are nearly as stupid as our bosses and public officials.

(Ted Rall is working on a radical political manifesto for publication this fall. His website is


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About the Author

Ted Rall
Ted Rall
Setting himself apart from the herd with a unique drawing style and a take-no-prisoners approach, Ted Rall began editorial cartooning in the 1980s with a handful of alternative weekly newspapers whose editors saw his photocopied work hanging from lampposts in New York City. In 1991 San Francisco Chronicle Features began syndicating Rall’s three-times-a-week editorial cartoons syndication with newspapers including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register and Philadelphia Daily News.

Universal Press Syndicate picked up Rall’s cartoons in 1996. Today the man often called “the most controversial cartoonist in America” appears in more than 100 newspapers throughout the United States, ranging from the Washington Post to the Village Voice.

His trademark “Generalissimo El Busho” is an iconic caricature of President Bush. It has drawn criticism from conservatives. He was called “treasonous” by the right-wing Weekly Standard and “anti-American” by the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page. The Right Wing News website named him 2003’s “Most Annoying Liberal” and was named number 15 in Bernard Goldberg’s book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. He has received numerous death threats.

Rall has also won awards, including the 1995 and 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards for Outstanding Coverage of the Problems of the Disadvantaged. In 1996 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Rall also draws non-political strips for MAD magazine and cartoon journalism for EurasiaNet, a news website about the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

"Editorial cartooning is an intrinsically negative medium,” Rall says, “but I’m an optimistic person. My hope is that, by calling attention to hypocrisy in our government and the inward focus of American culture in an amusing way, things will change for the better.”

Four collections of Rall’s cartoons have been published: Waking Up In America, All The Rules Have Changed, Search and Destroy, and America Gone Wild, as well as three award-winning graphic novels, My War With Brian, Real Americans Admit: The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done! and 2024, a parody of Orwell’s 1984. He edited an influential three-volume anthology of edgy alternative weekly political cartoons, Attitude. He wrote the bestselling 1998 “generational manifesto” Revenge of the Latchkey Kids.

Rall covered the war in Afghanistan in cartoon form, where his harrowing experience—3 of the 44 journalists with whom he traveled were killed—led to the critically acclaimed book To Afghanistan and Back. He released two books of prose during 2004, Wake Up, You’re Liberal: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho.

Rall’s most recent book is Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, a detailed analysis of the region in prose and cartoons.

See his books from NBM!

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