Today’s Paul Krugman column is a must read. Shorter version: We are all New Orleans now.
Today, much of the Gulf Coast remains in ruins. Less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding, as opposed to emergency relief, has actually been spent, in part because the Bush administration refused to waive the requirement that local governments put up matching funds for recovery projects — an impossible burden for communities whose tax bases have literally been washed away.
On the other hand, generous investment tax breaks, supposedly designed to spur recovery in the disaster area, have been used to build luxury condominiums near the University of Alabama’s football stadium in Tuscaloosa, 200 miles inland.
But why should we be surprised by any of this? The Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina — the mixture of neglect of those in need, obliviousness to their plight, and self-congratulation in the face of abject failure — has become standard operating procedure. These days, it’s Katrina all the time.
If you want to be worked into blubbering outrage, read Tim Shorrock’s “Hurricane Recovery, Republican Style” in Salon. Although tight-fisted with Louisiana, the Bushies have been more than generous to Mississippi and its Republican governor, former RNC chairman Haley Barbour. But distribution of the funds in Mississippi has favored the wealthy, and a large part of it is being used to build casinos and luxury condominiums while poor, devastated communities wait for help. And notice there’s little about this outrage in the mainstream media.
Consider the White House reaction to new Census data on income, poverty and health insurance. By any normal standard, this week’s report was a devastating indictment of the administration’s policies. After all, last year the administration insisted that the economy was booming — and whined that it wasn’t getting enough credit. What the data show, however, is that 2006, while a good year for the wealthy, brought only a slight decline in the poverty rate and a modest rise in median income, with most Americans still considerably worse off than they were before President Bush took office.
Most disturbing of all, the number of Americans without health insurance jumped. At this point, there are 47 million uninsured people in this country, 8.5 million more than there were in 2000. Mr. Bush may think that being uninsured is no big deal — “you just go to an emergency room” — but the reality is that if you’re uninsured every illness is a catastrophe, your own private Katrina.
Yet the White House press release on the report declared that President Bush was “pleased” with the new numbers. Heckuva job, economy!
Today E.J. Dionne wonders why the rising number of uninsured Americans isn’t getting more news coverage. “Why is it that the poor — and, for that matter, the struggling middle class, too — disappear in the media, barricaded behind our fixation on celebrity, our titillation with personal sin and public shame, our fascination with every detail of every divorce and affair of every movie star, rock idol and sports phenom?” he asks.
Poll after poll puts health care near the top of citizens’ concerns. But I’ve yet to see anything remotely resembling an intelligent discussion about the health care crisis in mass media. If the issue is addressed at all, it’s given a six-minute segment in which some well-paid partisans mouth talking points and demonstrate they are utterly out of touch with Americans’ real opinions and concerns.
Back to Professor Krugman:
The question is whether any of this will change when Mr. Bush leaves office.
There’s a powerful political faction in this country that’s determined to draw exactly the wrong lesson from the Katrina debacle — namely, that the government always fails when it attempts to help people in need, so it shouldn’t even try. “I don’t want the people who ran the Katrina cleanup to manage our health care system,” says Mitt Romney, as if the Bush administration’s practice of appointing incompetent cronies to key positions and refusing to hold them accountable no matter how badly they perform — did I mention that Mr. Chertoff still has his job? — were the way government always works.
And I’m not sure that faction is losing the argument. The thing about conservative governance is that it can succeed by failing: when conservative politicians mess up, they foster a cynicism about government that may actually help their cause.
This worries me, also. Younger people in particular (i.e., anyone born after 1970) can’t remember a time before the “government doesn’t work” meme took hold. My parents’ generation, whose ideas about government’s capabilities were shaped by FDR’s Hundred Days and World War II, generally trusted government. It was us Boomers who became cynical about government, and not without reason. But now that cynicism is paralyzing us.
Even as the health care crisis touches nearly everyone in the middle class, directly or indirectly, government and media continue to treat it as some little inconvenience for “the poor.” Being cut off from all but emergency care is considered a personal problem no doubt resulting from an individual’s bad choices. Just about every voice in Washington and mass media tells citizens that it’s wrong to expect government to make it possible to get decent health care. They should just suck it up and cut out trans fats. (See also “Let Them Eat Gold-Plated Cake.”)
But while ordinary Americans have bought the idea that government solutions are not for them, for the wealthy and well-connected government works just fine.
Of course, the Right cannot abide the thought of citizens using their own government to solve problems. Even though they mostly support the Republican Party, the Right doesn’t seem to grasp republican government. They think like 19th century imperialists who saw the “underclasses” as an intractable burden, and their “let it rot” attitude toward New Orleans is reminiscent of Britain’s treatment of Ireland during the Hunger.
Lurking behind much rhetoric about “big government” is Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, first published in 1944. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Hayek, although I’d be willing to bet not many of today’s wingnuts have read him, either. But I understand that his ideas had an enormous impact on people like Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “Hayek’s central thesis is that all forms of collectivism lead logically and inevitably to tyranny,” says Wikipedia. For a synopsis I’m told is accurate, see the cartoon version.
Hayek’s first step, “war forces national planning” of the economy, was no doubt a swipe at Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board, which I notice did not lead to serfdom. But generally, says Hayek, planned economies lead to planned everything else, and pretty soon you’ve got a totalitarian government. Certainly the Soviet-style planned economy was accompanied by political oppression, and bread lines to boot. But I have never in my life met a fellow American who seriously proposed establishing a planned economy, in which government controls all production and distribution of income. And there’s a huge difference between a planned economy and citizens choosing, through their elected representatives, to establish a universal health care system.
And the biggest laugh of all is that righties, fleeing in hysteria from serfdom threatened by communist government, run headlong into the waiting arms of serfdom imposed by a corporatist government.
Professor Krugman concludes:
Future historians will, without doubt, see Katrina as a turning point. The question is whether it will be seen as the moment when America remembered the importance of good government, or the moment when neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others became the new American way.
I think it can be argued that America has been at this crossroads for a long time. Certainly “neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others” was the rule through all the years when white America was able to shut racial minorities out of equal opportunity, for example. But the truth is that as long as America had a big, strong and upwardly mobile middle class, the nation also grew stronger and, in fits and starts, wealthier. But now the rot has reached into the middle class, and if we don’t turn this trend around, America can look forward to long years of diminishment and decline.