Conservative ideologues like the guys who run the Bush Administration just don't want to admit that government can do any good in society. Why? Because they're rich, so they want to end the redistributive function of government - they don't want rich people like themselves to have to pay for any services for the not rich. They want people to get what they pay for out of government services, which means that the poor, who can't afford to pay for anything, don't get anything.
Their approach to Social Security is a good example. Basically, their plan is to take the risk-pooling social insurance function out of Social Security, turning it into an investment in which you receive a return on what you put in. The problem with this is, of course, if you're not one of the lucky ones who can put a lot in, you're return will probably be small or run out before you die, meaning the program will no longer function as a solution for the problem of poor people living in poverty.
The disastrous response to hurricane Katrina is the result of the same ideological thinking. Basically, the conservative argument is that it's not government's role to take care of people in need, it's their responsibility to take care of themselves. If government action is warranted at all, it's warrented at the local level.
Now, it should be obvious that poor families are not really capable of protecting themselves from a deadly hurricane. But the same is actually true of local government. Like most big cities in today's America, New Orleans is actually quite poor. That's because most of the white middle class has fled to the suburbs, where they can hoard their tax money for their own, better school districts and such while leaving lower-income African Americans to fend for themselves. Again, the goal isn't really to give people more control over government, it's to prevent the redistribution of resources from one group to another. In other words, to make sure the rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor. Add to this the fact that the two states hardest hit by the hurricane, Louisiana and Mississippi, are also quite poor compared to most states, and quite unable to guarantee an adequate level of services to all of their residents, and you see that any attempt to protect their citizens organized and funded only at the state and local level is doomed to failure.
If George Bush represents anyone in this country, it's big corporations and well to do suburbanites. His goal has been to allow them to hoard as many resources to themselves as possible, by minimizing the amount redistributed to the less fortunate through taxes and government spending. How ironic that he has drawn so much of his political support from regions in the American South filled with precisely the kind of working-class folk he's been so determined to dick over. Maybe that will change someday. Survivors and rescue workers have nicknamed the new body of water submerging much of the Gulf Coast "Lake George" after the do-nothing president who stood by and watched as so many died there.
In Monday's Tribune, Dennis Byrne argues that
Maybe the finger-pointing comes from today's mindset that someone else always must be ready and in charge of ensuring our safety and comfort. Or from an arrogance that we can plan in advance for every imaginable catastrophe."It's your own responsibility to save your own ass. There's nothing the government could possibly do to protect its citizens from natural disaster." It's exactly the kind of argument you'd make, if your top priority was reducing taxes on the wealthy, rather than building a better society for everyone. The sad thing is that so many people who aren't rich, have bought into this crap.
Some other random notes on the disaster
I am dismayed to hear so many otherwise intelligent people immediately start declaring that all foreign aid should end because we have our own problems now. The fact is, aid like that we gave to Asia after the tsunami builds up a great deal of goodwill around the world. And we're getting paid back - many countries around the world have offered aid to Katrina's victims, both in money and personnel. Even ostensible enemies such as Iran have offered to help. After all, we helped them after the 2003 earthquake in Bam, disregarding the bad blood that lingers between our two countries.
There's been a lot of discussion about the wisdom of too much development in vulnerable coastal areas. In 1960, there were 180 people per square mile in the coastal United States; by 1994, there were 275 per square mile. And Michael Powell and Michael Grunwald point out in the Washington Post
In 1998, Deputy Assistant Army Secretary Michael L. Davis tried to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from rubber-stamping casino applications without studying the impact dredging would have on marshes that shelter wildlife, purify drinking water and help prevent flooding. This angered Lott, then Senate majority leader, who had recently flown to Las Vegas in a casino executive's jet and had raised $100,000 for Republicans at a casino-industry fundraiser.
Lott got the moratorium lifted, then he got the Army to launch an investigation of Davis. No wrongdoing was found, but Davis was removed from Gulf Coast permitting issues.
So even suggesting that overdevelopment might be a bad idea is enough to get you blacklisted. Personally I think that the lure of the ocean is too overwhelming for government policy to effect it too much. But in terms of spending public resources, shouldn't our focus be on shoring up and protectin existing communities rather than subsidizing the construction of new ones?
This blog entry on the history of New Orleans is too cool to describe. You should just read it.
Louisiana and Mississippi Guardsmen whose homes have been destroyed in the disaster are being reassured that their families will be guaranteed housing at Fort Polk, if they choose to remain on active duty or enlist in the regular Army. How's that for a novel way to improve recruiting?