Friday, September 02, 2005

All Wet

It would be hard to imagine anyone following the story out of New Orleans without feeling some measure of shock, pity or dismay. Even with headlines screaming “Anarchy!” (to cite today’s Toronto Star), newspapers can hardly be accused of exaggerating the horror of the situation. Indeed, one of the scariest things about reports from the Crescent City is how essentially anecdotal the news has been. There have been unconfirmed talk of rapes and murders, of bodies in the streets, of thousands of casualties, but so far the authorities have been mum when it comes to concrete details. In this case, no news is definitely not good news; if anything, it suggests we’ve barely glimpsed the tip of this iceberg.

Much has been made about the fact that, to a very real degree, this was an avoidable disaster. As this story in Editor & Publisher summarizes, the Times Picayune has been reporting for several years now on how government funding to maintain the levees protecting New Orleans had been decimated under the current Bush administration — mostly to pay for the war in Iraq. And speaking of the war, that was also why there was no National Guard presence helping out in New Orleans, for they, too, had been sent to Iraq, along with much of the equipment needed to get supplies through flood waters.

That’s not just appalling, it should be embarrassing. By any accounting, the U.S. is the world’s richest and most powerful nation, and yet not only did it leave a major city — a world-renowned cultural center and tourist destination — completely vulnerable to an expected natural disaster, it sat on its thumbs for days as people fought, starved, suffered and likely died. A charitable reading of the U.S. response would be that the disaster was so overwhelming that even the mightiest of the mighty were unable to cope.

A less charitable (and likely more accurate) view would suggest that the Feds did nothing to aid New Orleans because, frankly, they couldn’t be bothered. It may be “the home of the blues,” but it’s also a city whose population is over 60% African-American, which boasts high crime and poverty rates, and hasn’t exactly been a Republican stronghold. Nor is it likely that the bluenoses on the right are especially enamored of the party-hearty atmosphere that inspired the nickname “Big Easy.” Congressman Dennis Hastert (R-Ill) may have made headlines by saying in an interview that New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt, but you can bet he’s not the only person in power with that thought.

Some see echoes of 9/11 in the Federal Government’s ability to act swiftly, decisively and humanely to the Katrina tragedy. Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, suggests that Dubya’s inaction is somewhere between a character flaw and a philosophical stance. As he puts it:

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But I’d like to suggest a different reading: Dubya’s posse doesn’t like spending money. Period. Whether that reflects a belief in making government smaller or is simply the sort of selfish parsimony common to the exceedingly wealthy is anyone’s guess. But their record is too consistent to ignore. They’ve cheaped their way through the war in Iraq, refusing to commit sufficient troops or supplies to get the job done, and they continue to cut corners in the war on terrorism. They want to privatize Social Security and other aspects of the social safety net, and have slashed countless government programs. At bottom, all that their talk about making government smaller or more efficient boils down to is Spending Less Money. And that’s essential, because it’s harder to justify cutting taxes unless you’ve done something to cut spending. Like neglecting to shore up a few levees in Louisiana…

Short-sighted? Only if you assume the Feds will eventually bail out New Orleans, and despite the backlash against Hassert, that remains an open question. Once most of the survivors have been relocated — that is, made permanently homeless in some other city — suddenly, the government will begin to stress the importance of restoring the gulf’s oil infrastructure. And most Americans, pissed off by the price at the pumps, will heartily agree. So that relief money Congress is pushing through will mostly go to pipelines, not people. New Orleans, meanwhile, will sit wet and neglected, like some decrepit Atlantis. Just you watch.

Oh Bush's gang loves spendin' $ all right--so long as it's on contracts to the gang's corporate buddies, often in the military-industrial complex
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