By the fifth day -- with New Orleans under 20 feet of toxic water, with federal help still nowhere to be seen, and with 100,000 or so poor people trapped in unbelievable misery and danger -- some of the locals still were able to muster enough of the Big Easy's irreverent humor to crown their drowning city with an apt new name: "Lake George." What happened in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi was not merely the abject failure of the Bushite presidency (both in preparedness and response), but also a deep moral failure, reflecting the bankruptcy of their extremist ruling ideology. They have a blind hatred of the idea that government exists to serve the common good, instead insisting that people should be on their own.
In New Orleans, they were. To help pay for tax cuts for the rich, Bush had cut the money to shore up the levees...so people drowned. If you ever wondered what George W's "ownership society" would look like, there it was. Step right up if you want to own a casket. What Bush & Company don't get is that the great majority of us Americans simply do not share such a callous ideology, and we are totally embarrassed that federal officials failed to be there for the people of the Gulf Coast from day one. Whatever else people think about government, ordinary folks (including the conservativeminded who are not partisan ideologues) expect government to respond hard and fast in times of real need -- and the aftermath of Katrina has to be the absolute definition of real need.
Yet Washington dawdled for days (George went on a meandering political trip out west, Cheney was out on Maryland's Eastern Shore buying a $2.4 million vacation home, Condi Rice took off for some shoe shopping in New York City, and Bush's homeland emergency team was locked inside the Beltway doing a terrific impersonation of the Three Stooges). Americans were appalled, for the Bushites' indifference and ineptitude reflected on our sense of ourselves and our nation. "Is this America?" That was the question I heard being almost shouted out everywhere I went, asked in a combination of disbelief and outrage. We are a can-do, roll-up-our-sleeves people (as demonstrated amply by the gusher of grassroots charity and volunteerism that immediately followed the storm), and it was deeply offensive to our core values of fairness and justice that the Bushites were such clueless slugs.
The third disaster
Katrina should be known as K3, for it brought three disasters. The first two -- the storm itself and Bush's non-response -- have been widely covered. But there's a third disaster that's still unfolding: the reconstruction of New Orleans and other ravaged areas. Rushing to make up for their tardiness and incompetence, the White House and Congress are airdropping massive sackloads of taxpayer cash on their political problem. The first delivery was $62 billion (with $50 billion going through those comical bunglers at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and the best guesses are that the final toll will top $200 billion. Two important questions about this bundle are not being addressed by the politicos in charge: One, where's it coming from? Two, who's getting it?
Funding the relief and reconstruction. George is up to his usual fiscal hocus-pocus, delivering federal largesse without being honest or accepting political accountability for it. Just as with his $210 billion tab (so far) for his Iraq attack, he is refusing to assess us taxpayers for the bill for his Katrina project. Instead, he's putting every dime of it on the federal credit card, passing the actual payout to our grandchildren, who'll have their taxes hiked to pay off the ever-ballooning debt. Of course, Bush will be long gone by then, so he and his GOP congress will pay no political price.
As usual, some of the right-wing congress critters are calling for more cuts in Head Start, job training, college grants, and other "social programs" to finance both the war and Katrina. But these cuts would hurt the very families fighting the war and the ones devastated by the storm. A better way has been suggested in numerous letters to the editor I've seen in papers all across the country: Cut corporate welfare and pork-barrel spending!
Take the recently passed highway bill, bloated by $24 billion in boondoggle projects stuffed into it by lawmakers wanting political credit for bringing home the bacon. There are a record 6,371 of these projects in the bill -- nearly all of which could easily be sacrificed to free up funds for the urgent needs on the Gulf Coast. For example:
• Don Young, the GOP chair of the House Transportation Committee, proudly said of the bill he passed, "I stuffed it like a turkey." One reeking blob of stuffing was $223 million to build the Gravina Island Bridge in his home state of Alaska. Dubbed the "bridge to nowhere," it will be the size of the Golden Gate Bridge, yet it will connect only the 50 people who live on Gravina Island with the 8,000 people who live in the mainland metropolis of Ketchican. I'll bet most of these 8,050 beneficiaries would give up this pricey span to help the folks down south, especially since there's already a ferry running every 15 minutes between Gravina and Ketchican.
• Don brought another bridge to Alaska, too, this one connecting Anchorage to Port Mackenzie (population 1) and Knik (population 22). In tribute to the chairman's porky prowess, this span is to be named "Don Young's Way." Alaska's former highway commissioner says that neither of Young's bridges make sense, "but a lot of people are going to make a lot of money building [them]."
• What would Ronald Reagan say about the $2.3 million piece of pork for some "beautification enhancements" along California's Ronald Reagan Freeway? The Gipper once vetoed a highway bill because it contained 152 unnecessary add-ons like this, while the latest bill has nearly 6,400 larded into it.
• Dennis Hastert, the GOP speaker of the House, grabbed $207 million to build a "Prairie Parkway" through a stretch of his Illinois district, even though the locals say it is unwanted, dubbing it the "Hastert Sprawlway." Wouldn't repairing the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway be a better use of this money? about cutting the highway pork to help shoulder the load of what is now being called the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, his office assailed the idea as "moronic." Contrast that selfish nastiness with the spirit of the good folks in Bozeman, Montana, who have now petitioned their own city council to return the $4 million Bozeman is to get from the highway bill to build a parking garage. "We figure New Orleans needs the money right now a lot more than we need extra downtown parking space," one Montanan told the Wall Street Journal.
On another front, why saddle future generations with Katrina's costs when there's an obvious, readily available source of new tax revenues: windfall oil profits. Thanks to Bush's failed war strategy, thanks to his oil-soaked energy policy, and now thanks to the hurricane, Big Oil is charging up to four bucks a gallon and wallowing in record profits. Shell has reported profits of $37 billion in the last year, and ExxonMobil is expected to make $10 billion in profit in just the last three months.
The oil giants have done nothing to earn these unprecedented profits, but they are lifting these sums straight out of our wallets. Yet far from recouping even a penny of our money through an excess-profits tax, the Bush-Cheney energy bill passed in July doles out at least $4 billion in new subsidies! ExxonMobil is hauling in so much profit that its CEO says he doesn't know how to spend it all. Fine, let's take back the excess (as proposed in the "Gas Price Spikes Act," sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich and 33 others in HR 2070) and put the money toward the public good, including rebuilding the Gulf area.
Who's getting the money? Having failed the people of New Orleans and elsewhere early on, Bush now is hugging every victim he can find, using images of their suffering to show that he's a "compassionate conservative" intent on spending whatever it takes to rebuild the Crescent City (a place, he notes with a wink, he used to go party).
Hold it right there, party boy! While you're spending billions in the name of "the people," the big bundles of money are going to the same Republican-crony corporations that always seem to be first in line...such as Halliburton.
George W might have been a no-show in the critical week after Katrina hit, but Joe Allbaugh was Joey-on-the-spot. A longtime Bush buddy, Joe has raised money for George, been his 2000 campaign manager, and served as Bush's first head of FEMA (where he displaced the agency's competent pros with White House political hacks). Now he's a lobbyist for Halliburton, and he was on the ground in New Orleans before FEMA knew there was a flood, assessing federal business opportunities for his clients.
Not that Halliburton really needs a liaison to the White House, since former CEO Dick Cheney is its direct pipeline to policy. The Veep continues to hold $10 million worth of Halliburton stock options and draws more than $178,000 a year in payments from the corporation. In turn, Halliburton is a reliable donor of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Bush and the GOP each election cycle.
Sure enough, Halliburton now has a $500 million, five-year contract to repair military installations damaged by Katrina and was just granted another no-bid deal to restore levees in New Orleans.
The heaviest looting after the flood was not in New Orleans streets, but up in the suites of faraway corporations and in the backrooms of Congress.
One of Bush's first acts once he finally got in gear was to sign an executive order arbitrarily suspending enforcement of the law requiring federal contractors to pay the "prevailing wage" in any given area. In New Orleans, the going wage for construction work is about $9 an hour. In Alabama and Mississippi, it's about $7. So now, Halliburton, Bechtel, and the other disaster profiteers flooding into the region can get billions in federal no-bid contracts (which guarantee them a nice profit), yet pay no more than the minimum wage to people who've lost everything and are desperate to get work restoring their cities. With the stroke of his pen, Mr. Compassion took two dollars an hour or so out of the future paychecks of the people he's going around hugging.
Much more looting is being plotted -- the White House is already claiming that the Katrina spending bill will require Social Security privatization and cuts in benefits, Tom DeLay is preparing yet another energy bill filled with the entire wish list of oil lobbyists, and other ideologues are citing the hurricane as an excuse to privatize everything from local schools to the National Weather Service.
A New Orleans New Deal
More than two weeks passed before Bush finally spoke to the nation about the storm, the suffering, and the bungled response. His televised address from the eerily deserted French Quarter was a belated, Karl-Rovian flim-flam designed to reposition the fumbling president as a strong leader in a time of crisis. With sleeves rolled up, George focused his beady eyes on the camera and declared, "This great city WILL rise again. We will not just rebuild, we will build higher."
Higher? For New Orleans' community groups as well as its everyday characters (who, after all, are the ones who make this place the unique, enchanting, and "great" city that it is), George's rhetorical leap upward confirms their worst suspicions. The dread of the locals is that the chamber of commerce/ developer elites, out-of-state corporate powers, and other disaster capitalists will seize the moment (and the money) to turn the Big Easy into the Big Ersatz -- a Disneyfied, corporatized, upscale theme park. One group, Community Labor United, turned this dread into a defiant stand: "We will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans."
This is not paranoia. Newt Gingrich, the Heritage Foundation, and other loopy laissez-faire ideologues are lobbying hard to turn the city into a lab for their neocon economic theories. They would make New Orleans one big enterprise zone, eliminating wage protections permanently, privatizing public functions and resources, slashing corporate and wealth taxes, gutting environmental and safety regulations, etc. Instead, why not call forth the grassroots genius and gumption of the people themselves -- small businesses, workers, churches, community groups, musicians, and other residents? Two thirds of the city's people are African-American, and 28% of the residents are poor. They shouldn't get hand-me-down development that'll push them to the margins of their own city. Rather, they and all locals should be enlisted in an exciting grassroots structure to oversee the flow of our tax dollars and to direct the reconstruction of their own city in their image.
Forget the trickle-down, plutocratic approach of the neocons. This is a Rooseveltian chance to empower ordinary people, re-establish a social contract based on fairness, develop people's skills and enterprise, extend real opportunity for upward mobility, create thousands of good jobs and good wages, build a sustainable infrastructure, make mass transit work, show the way on affordable housing and renewable energy, and...well, make your own list of possibilities.
Most importantly, this populist approach will tell the people in New Orleans and all across the country that they matter. It'd be like a national barn raising -- as American as you can get. And don't stop in the Crescent City. Move it across America, putting people to work nationally to rebuild our deteriorating public infrastructure...and our sense of common good.
OK, the Bushites aren't about to do this. But where are the Democrats? I know that they can't pass such a plan now -- but can't they at least propose it? Rather than just carp at the Bushites on technicalities...let's offer a vision that would rally and excite people, drawing a bright line between us and them.