Friday, September 30. 2005
Time for a news update:
Thursday, September 29. 2005
I have a few things I'd like to say about the question of "immediate withdrawal" from Iraq -- an argument that has worked its way through several of the blogs I read. Although it's hardly a new question, this particular thread started with Michael Schwartz arguing for immediate withdrawal. Juan Cole rejected Schwartz's main points, arguing that while US ground troops cause more trouble than they're worth, continued US air control (preferably under UN or at least NATO control) could still be critical in preventing an expanded civil war. Gilbert Achar wrote a response to Cole, which Cole published followed by his own rejoinder, eventually followed by a second response by Achar. Helena Cobban also wrote a critique of Cole's position. Meanwhile, Billmon weighed in on the same issue, citing Schwartz and Cole while adding his own arguments. Cole also posted comments on Cobban and Billmon (which I won't bother citing here), then eventually threw in half the towel in a post called Why we Have to get the Troops Out of Iraq, by which he meant ground troops. All this took place between Sept. 22-25. It all makes for interesting reading, although it also gets mucked up in speculations on military strategy, dubious historical analogies, misrepresentations, and general sloppiness. I won't try to recap the arguments or get into the details. I mostly want to write about what these people didn't write about, since all these people miss things that matter.
The first curious thing about all of these comments (with the partial exception of Billmon) is that the reasons they give for withdrawal (or not) are limited to the welfare of Iraqis. Schwartz argues that the Americans are already killing so many Iraqis that a civil war after withdrawal would be hard pressed to make up the difference. Cole is still concerned about that civil war. Very liberal, those arguments. But by not also considering what the war is doing to America, and what through America it threatens to do to the world, they ignore many of the most powerful reasons for getting US troops out of Iraq. And I'm not talking about dead and damaged (physically, mentally, morally -- see Billmon's discussion of "war porn") American soldiers, a shame and a waste. I'm not even talking about how the war was a godsend to Bin Laden. No, the real problem is how the war brutalizes politics in America, providing cover for a cabal that exacerbates every political and economic wound in the nation and the world.
First things first: why did Bush invade Iraq? The only rationale that holds up is that he thought a "quick, successful war" would be good for his political capital, which he could then convert for his political agenda. Afghanistan was a trial balloon, and that seemed to work. Iraq would be his prize. The rule of thumb is that war plays into the hands of the right. It leads people to vent their hate. It sends them looking for strong leaders. It gives Bush an excuse to strut and preen in front the uniforms. The Iraq war isn't much of an example of success, but then neither were Bush's businesses, his governorship, his economic policies, everything he touched. But it hardly hurt him that the pot kept boiling: unlike his father, who had prudently terminated his own Iraq war, the ongoing war let this Bush stay in Commander in Chief mode all the way to winning a second term. So war has been, if not very good to Bush, at least enough.
The only way to understand why the US has made the mess it has in Iraq is to view the war in the context of American politics. For Bush Iraq has always been a win-win proposition. Had the US succeeded in installing a pliant client regime, that would have been a testimony to the omnipotence of American superpower. But failure works too: it makes Iraq the "main front" of the War on Terrorism, reminding us of the Jihadist threat, which fortunately we're able to fight "over there, not here." At least that sort of rhetoric has worked until recently, as several doses of reality have set in. Undaunted, but rather desperately, Gen. Myers warns, "If terrorism wins in Iraq, the next 9/11 is right around the corner." (But then he got a little carried away, concluding "the outcome and consequences of defeat are greater than World War II.") One reason Bush has been able to get away with this is that, after having sold the war on the basis of fear of WMD, as soon as the invasion started the administration switched to a "democracy for Iraq" riff, usurping the rhetoric of his liberal opponents. And they fell for it: after all, they believe that the strong should help the weak, the rich should help the poor; they believe that when you break something you are obligated to fix it.
Bush, on the other hand, believes that when he has an advantage, he pushes it; when he doesn't, he spins it. He fights to win, and when he doesn't win, he slimes you. Democracy is a purely iconic, thoroughly meaningless word for Bush. He doesn't respect it, much less believe in it, here in America, let alone Iraq. The US occupation has been nothing but manipulation and skullduggery, as the US clings to promoting the baseless exiles, theoretically in our debt, certainly needing our protection. The US divided Iraq into warring political cliques: the illusion that all Sunnis are Baathists and/or jihadists, all Shias are Islamists, all Kurds are separatists. In doing so, the US started the civil war that many fear. Cole is right that it could get worse. Schwartz is also right that the most efficient killing force in Iraq is the US. But there's more going on: the "insurgency" is actually fighting two overlayed wars, one an anti-colonial revolt against US occupation, the other a civil war against the exiles and their parties. The latter has happened because the US put the exiles into positions of nominal power, propping them up as representatives of the new "democratic" Iraq.
One thing I find odd is how critics of US policy in Iraq, like Cole, can still imagine a positive role for US military force over there. At best, that force is a reflection is US policy, which at this point means Bush policy: dividing Iraq into two warring camps, where the one branded terrorist has to be slaughtered. But best is an elusive quality with any military -- collateral damage always undermines the intent of the policies -- and even victory can ring hollow, confirming the obscene dictum that "might makes right." Before promoting a military role, one must first set right the policy to be implemented. Cole can't do that: even if US or NATO or UN military force could be employed to stalemate civil war, there is no political consensus for such a policy. The Bush Plan A for ending the civil war is to win it; Plan B is keep fighting, since halting would look like he lost (and that's how Milosevic got his ticket to the Hague).
The bottom line is that America can't help Iraq until we help ourselves first by driving Bush and his allies from power. And we probably won't be able to help even then. Getting Out Now may or may not help Iraq -- it could be done better or worse, and when the time comes we can talk about that -- but at least it cuts the cord that makes America responsible for Iraq's agony, and it lets America start to recover. Ever since WWII the US has repeatedly intervened in other countries affairs, often making disastrous mistakes in its choice of allies -- some that come to mind are Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, Suharto. It's such a shabby record that we really shouldn't be trusted to date anymore. It's time for America to chill out. Until "the indispensible nation" gets a grip on reality, the world should just try to cope.
Tuesday, September 27. 2005
I read Chris Hedges' new book, Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commands in America (Free Press). It was a tough read at first, especially when he writes: "It is an act of apostasy. . . . It is meant to be a break from God. But you trade one god for another. This is how life works. We all have gods." Much like a recovering alcoholic claiming we are all addicts, even lifelong teetotalers. I haven't felt the least need for "that hypothesis" in over thirty years, so such formulations in others strike me as disingenuous or maybe just muddleheaded. But I did get more than my share of religion when I was younger, and it took me a while to find my way free of its labyrinth. Hedges' father was a Presbyterian minister, and Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity, but went to report the wars in El Salvador instead of getting ordained. It's fair to say that he changed gods, and that this book is his way of thrashing through the ensuing chaos.
Hedges makes his case for the ten commandments through stories of violators and victims -- often the same, such as the soldier haunted by the killing he did and saw in Vietnam. He labels his ten vignettes with condensed titles, like "Murder" for "You shall not kill." I had my doubts in thumbing through the book, but the one that intrigued me was "Lying" for "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." That reduction isn't obvious, but lying strikes me as a real problem, a fundamental attack on social life, where blasphemy merely annoys the clergy. "Envy" and "Greed" are similarly injurious; "Idols" depends on how religious you get about them.
Hedges' argument on "The Sabbath" strikes me as poorly framed, but he's after something meaningful there -- perhaps that the resolve to step back from the relentless everyday rush is necessary for health and sanity. But the section includes the book's most memorable quote, as he dissects the boarding school he attended as a teenager: "We were fed generous doses of social snobbery, told that we attended the best school in the country and that we were being molded into leaders. I remember few actual assemblies, but I remember the one about the importance of becoming 'Renaissance men,' men able to excel in the arts, science and athletics. One quick around the assembly at the slouching, bored gathering of pimpled and vacant boys, most of whom attended the school because their parents were wealthy, gave the talk a discernible ridiculousness. There were long windy talks about what it took to be a man, filled with the usual clichés. Intellectual independence, and with it the spirit of self-criticism, was ruthlessly crushed. Those who succeeded were those who obeyed, believed what they were told and assisted the authoritarians above us in maintaining order. Initiative an doriginality were threatening to the school, which like most schools, was designed to promote mediocrity."
Didn't the Bushes attend schools like that?
Monday, September 26. 2005
Movies: Haven't seen many lately, but haven't written about the few I have seen. Here's to catching up, before I forget even more.
Hustle and Flow. Terrence Howard plays a Memphis pimp who takes a shot at rhyme when he bumps into a music soundman he knew from high school. No rags to riches story, no tragedy, no melodrama, this stays real by keeping its ambitions in check, and shooting them down when they threaten to escape. The music is no great shakes either, but DJ Qualls nearly steals the show as a dorky white beatmaker. And the girls surprise in unexpected ways, emerging as more resourceful and complex than often happens. A-
March of the Penguins. Hugely successful French documentary on the emperors of Antarctica and their struggle to survive and reproduce in the world's deepest freezer. The matinee we attended was overrun with parents and young children, the latter not necessarily tuning into the film. The anthropomorphism can be highly suggestive, especially when they blur the marching scene, approximating the queue of pilgrims filing through the desert. Still, this seems like something warmed over from a TV nature special. B
Walk on Water. Israeli film by Eytan Fox, about a Mossad assassin shook up by his wife's suicide -- death does follow him everywhere. He is given a soft assignment: get close to a pair of Germans -- sister and brother, the former living on a kibbutz, the latter visiting -- whose grandfather is an absconded Nazi war criminal, by now a very old man. He succeeds in finding the Nazi, but fails to kill him -- certainly not out of forgiveness, more like the belated realization of what killing has done to his own life. Palestinians fare poorer in the film, but one does manage to interject a key comment: that the problem with Israelis is that they can't forget. In some ways the German storyline seems like a cop-out, but it's more manageable, hence more realistic, than trying to conjure a reconciliation story with Palestinians. The latter, too, have trouble forgetting -- especially what happened in the last few days, months, years, not to mention what's bound to happen again and again in the future. Nor is forgetting the real key. The two Germans haven't forgotten -- they're deeply ashamed of their grandparent's past, and it turns out that the generously liberal Axel can be a stern judge. A
The Constant Gardener. John Le Carré's storyline about the deadly greed of pharmaceutical companies and their skill at corrupting governments may be well deserved but isn't all that interesting or novel. Moreover, its erratic unraveling is hard to follow; the editing is choppy, with bits of handheld camera smearing scenes so much you feel the choppiness in real time. The acting is nothing special, the characters roughly sketched with little flesh. But see this for the images -- the urban squalor of modern Kenya, and the harsh beauty of the landscape. B+
Wednesday, September 21. 2005
The Sept. 12 issue of The New Yorker dedicated its cover and "Talk of the Town" section to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but what I found most interesting was the letters section. The first two letters were in response to an earlier piece on small/dead government guru Grover Norquist:
These are good points, but they leave the basic question unanswered, which is why? I don't know about Norquist, but the key issue for some Republican ideologues isn't the size of government so much as their wish to break the poor, and for that matter the middle class, of the habit of looking toward government to help solve their problems. Starving the government beast is one way to do this, but more effective still is to render government incompetent. Bush may have failed the straightforward task of shrinking government, but he's done a bang-up job of making it incompetent -- or at least making it useless to all but his political backers. For Bush, this is a multi-pronged attack, but the main thrusts are: 1) put political agents in charge everywhere, especially to maximize the patronage potential of the government; 2) undermine the civil service system and the unions; 3) muck up all regulatory processes; 4) start a few wars to suck up resources; 5) pile extra security responsibilities on top of all other government functions; 6) cut taxes on the rich, driving the government ever deeper in debt; 7) push as much unfunded work as possible onto state and local governments. In this framework, greater debt does double duty: it provides discretionary rationale for rejecting spending now, and it makes future spending more prohibitive. The resulting government will, for most people, become so useless that they won't mind drowning it in a bathtub. It may not be as clean and principled an outcome as Norquist might prefer, but the differences are more tactical than strategic.
Still, there may well be a growing split between the principled ideological conservatives and the Bush politicos in that the latter are much more concerned with the preservation and extension of their power than any principles they might espouse. The latter discovered that controlling government's purse strings is a dandy way to further their political prospects by rewarding their core constituencies. The latter turn out to include plenty of companies and organizations who have no real beef with government spending as long as they get theirs first. But note that none of the above -- not the anti-government ideologues nor the spoils grabbers, and least of all the politicos -- have shown the least bit of support for the traditional reason behind a balanced budget (the need for long-term stability of the dollar) let alone any concern that a functional, competent government might be a useful thing to have.
This all comes into stark relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where the disaster is of such magnitude that even a competent and sound federal government effort is going to be stretched beyond our imagination. Had ideologues like Norquist succeeded New Orleans would have to be written off as a lost cause, leaving a half million people stranded, a giant hole in the economy, and a massive blow to America's self-conception as any sort of power at all. Even Bush understands that's not a politically acceptable position, so the administration has struggled to regain its political footing the only way it knows -- by throwing money down. In the short-term that's no big deal -- adds to the debt, but that just burdens future governments. The real problem is that they now have to acknowledge that there's a part of the government that people expect to work. That's a tough one for those who believe in the government of the corrupt for the corrupt. They couldn't quite get away with failing to reconstruct anything in Iraq; do you think people won't notice the same failure here?
Ever since Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980, America has been in denial, and the Republicans have capitalized on that denial by feeding people fantasies. That worked because until lately it's never really been tested. First Reagan then Bush put together improbable coalitions of the rich and the foolish, and now that coalition is starting to show signs of fracture. Polls show that Bush is losing support among fringe groups like libertarians and racists. The more serious question is whether, or when, the rich will abandon him. The rich have more to lose than anyone -- do tax cuts matter so much that they're willing to countenance such thoroughgoing corruption and incompetence?
The third letter in The New Yorker is relevant at this point:
This is, of course, just one more example of where Bush's coalition of the rich and the ignorant leads to dysfunction -- where the insatiable demands of the anti-abortion diehards lead to greater impoverishment in the not-really-developing world, antipathy to America and its businesses, and worldwide strife. All for a few votes, to rig some tax cuts, to bankrupt the nation. In such lose-lose scenarios, how can the losers claim to be surprised?
Monday, September 19. 2005
It's proving impossible to keep up with blogging or much of anything else these days. In fact, I have trouble reading the few blogs I look at regularly. On rare occasions when I post almost daily I get little else done. Among the things that don't get done are: a redesign of my own website; a relaunch of Terminal Zone; a long list of project ideas, which as of today includes two more. I do manage to get my Recycled Goods and Jazz Consumer Guide columns done in a somewhat timely manner, but don't have enough surplus bandwidth to review much more music, and there's no way to economically justify myself as a music writer. My unrated list currently hovers around 950 records, which would take me at least nine months to drain if I got nothing new. I try to keep up a steady reading pace, but the books are piling up too -- not as fast as the records, but I read a lot slower.
The two new projects are:
Wednesday, September 14. 2005
I don't usually scan the obituaries, but I did today and found a familiar name: Willard I. Brooks, "77, retired Wichita Public school principal. Died Sept. 11, 2005." I had Brooks for 9th grade science at Hamilton Intermediate School in Wichita. He was one of the few teachers I had who clearly changed my life. Before I had him science was my primary interest, most likely my career path. After Brooks, I never took another science course. Many years later I read dozens of biographies of eminent scientists. I could see much in common with those scientists, but they had something I didn't have: support from family, teachers and mentors who steadied them and inspired them to pursue nature's secrets. Brooks was probably not the dumbest teacher I had, but he was a thug, a heavyset butch-flattop musclehead who would never try to convince you of something as long as he thought intimidation might work. I don't remember learning any science that year; just being bullied on assignments, which despite the friction resulted in straight A grades. Before 9th grade I was a straight-A student -- well, except for English, where I was graded down for lack of penmanship. Midway through 10th grade I was so disaffected with the school system that I dropped out. Brooks wasn't the sole problem I ran into in 9th grade. My history and English teachers were every bit as bad. (The only teacher I remember fondly was a Mrs. Robbins, who taught Latin.) And it's not like nobody has problems at age 14. But I never lost my interests in history or writing, like I lost all interest in science.
My brother was three years behind me. Brooks had been promoted to principal by then, which gave him all the more opportunity to throw his weight around. One chore we all had to do in 9th grade was to assemble a poetry notebook. After I dropped out of high school, all I did was read, which included a lot of poetry. I was embarrassed by the crap I had put in my poetry notebook, so I put my discoveries to work and assembled a huge notebook for my brother. I didn't have any mentors -- my parents were ex-farmer factory workers who had never graduated high school -- but my brother had me. The poems I came up with ranged widely but favored the beats: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Ed Sanders. When Brooks saw the notebook, he went ballistic. He expelled my brother for the rest of the year, and he insisted that my brother and I see a shrink -- who found the whole thing rather amusing.
The fundamentalist Christian war on teaching about evolution is big news in Kansas these days: a cause favored by the majority of the state's school board, an embarrassment to anyone who knows anything about the subject. The fundamentalists argue that we need to level the playing field, to give their theory a fair chance against the other guys' theory. That's an argument against teaching science at all: science isn't a theory or a bunch of theories -- it's a system for evaluating hypotheses (and mostly rejecting them). Anyone who actually teaches science can see at once that "intelligent design" isn't science at all. Which means what the fundamentalists really argue is that science shouldn't be taught at all. This is doubly dangerous: not only does it deny students vital insights into how the world works, it deprives them of any inspiration to pursue science further. I don't know whether Brooks was fundamentalist or not, though he certainly was a prude and an authoritarian -- bad signs. But he sure was one lousy science teacher.
Monday, September 12. 2005
Here's a rather apocalyptic quote from Bill McKibben, writing for TomDispatch:
McKibben's book, The End of Nature (1987), was one of the first important arguments made about the dangers of global warming caused by humans burning fossil fuels. I read it in the mid-'90s on an August trip to Florida, where the local (if not global) warming was quite a revelation -- a model to make sense of the coming world. McKibben is a writer I don't quite trust, but can't quite dismiss either. The science he writes about has only grown more convincing over the years. The metaphors are something else. Nature may have ended if we view nature as a global system independent from human effects, but if that's the definition it ended long ago -- and by many measure, including human longevity and population levels, one can argue it's a good thing. One can also argue that nature hasn't ended at all: nature continues in ever new forms as we perturb it, its newness upsetting our understanding of how it works. McKibben aludes to this when he talks about once-per-century storms becoming once-per-decade storms. But what happened to New Orleans had more to do with local and national breakdowns in our political and economic system than it had to do with global anthropogenic effects on climate. The real fear is not so much that nature is going to become deadlier as that we might lose our ability to understand and respond to its challenges.
To do so in what stands to be an increasingly perilous world, we're going to have to get smarter -- which includes more mutual support, fairness, justice, and a better understanding of what technology can and cannot do. Otherwise McKibben's prediction stands a good chance of becoming true. The shocking thing about Katrina wasn't the power of the storm so much as the utter breakdown in competency in response to it. That represents a much more urgent problem than global warming, and perhaps more important as well. I don't discount global warming: I think it is real now, and going to get worse, and I really doubt that there's much that can be done to slow it let alone to reverse it. On the other hand, what we can learn to do is to respond better to both the ordinary and catastrophic events it worsens. If we don't, McKibben is sure to be right.
Friday, September 9. 2005
Sidney Blumenthal, in a piece called "What didn't go right?" in Salon, reviews the history of FEMA. He points out that FEMA had been widely criticized for its response to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but that Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as director and turned the agency around, "setting high professional standards and efficiently dealing with disasters." All that changed, of course, when Bush took over.
Bush appointed his former campaign manager, Joseph Allbaugh, as FEMA director. Allbaugh then "immediately began to dismantle the professional staff, privatize many functions and degrade its operations." Blumenthal quotes Allbaugh as testifying before the Senate: "Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance many have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters." The key word here is "entitlement": the idea that anyone might think that the government owes them, even that the government might lift a finger to help them, is the dividing line between the right and the sane in America today.
The sane position is that government belongs to the people, who charge it with the responsibility to support the common, collective interests of the people. There can be debates about what should or should not be supported, but when it comes to disaster relief, there are few who doubt that the government has to step in, and in all but the most marginal disasters that means the federal government. The plain fact is that state and local governments don't have anywhere near the resource level to handle anything like Katrina. Thanks to Allbaugh, his hand-picked successor Michael Brown, and the oversight of the Bush administration, the federal government didn't have the resources to respond either. Guess that'll teach Louisiana to do a better job of preparing next time? At least when a disaster strikes a state like California or New York there are competent people who care working for the state and local governments. In Louisiana and Mississippi, this sort of moral hazard argument is so ingrained that Governor Blanco's pre-storm preparations didn't extend much beyond urging residents to pray.
Due to the sudden, episodic nature of disasters, the rotting (or the looting) of FEMA didn't become unavoidably obvious until it was tested by a major disaster. Not that it couldn't have been measured. It certainly could, but no one in the Bush administration, and few in Congress, cared. And those who did care didn't have the clout or the visibility to make their case -- and in many cases didn't have the time, because they were too busy fighting other dumb and vicious acts of the administration. But it should have been clear what the plan was from Allbaugh's quote: make FEMA useless so people won't get used to the idea that the federal government might help them in times of crisis.
As Blumenthal points out, Allbaugh left FEMA in 2003 to cash in on his lobbying connections and, especially, to get in on the Iraq War graft. Leaving his crony Brown in place ensured that his work would be continued, and that he'd be well connected to help his clients siphon off any money that Congress foolishly allocates to FEMA. If Allbaugh was the only one doing this, he'd merely be a masterful crook. But he's not -- this is the way everything works in the Bush administration. The view there is that government spending is the new patronage system, especially where they can privatize: spend money, often wastefully (since they want agencies like FEMA to fail), get kickbacks (political contributions, jobs) in return. This system has built a powerful political machine, but at costs we're only beginning to be able to imagine -- because we've never seen such self-inflicted ruination before. Some still think this is incompetence, but there's too much malicious forethought for that to be the only problem.
Thursday, September 8. 2005
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a very good piece on the health care system in the U.S. It is called "The Moral-Hazard Myth," and appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The New Yorker. Moral hazard is an economics concept, mostly used in regard to insurance. The argument is that if one is insured against costs or adverse consequences of some act, one has no interest in preventing the act from happening. For instance, if you're insured against your house burning down, why bother to work to keep a fire from starting? Moral hazard argues that insurance causes fires. With regard to health, moral hazard argues that if one has insurance, one will use health care resources without any regard to cost. Hence, with more/better insurance, costs will rise as resources are overused. Hence, a way to limit health care costs is to transfer costs back to the "insured" through deductibles, co-payments, etc. Of course, the only way to eliminate moral hazard from health care is to eliminate insurance.
Economic dogma says that if everyone paid for their own health care, they'd spend their money optimally, buying only what services they need, and skipping any services they don't need. That this is a myth isn't a big surprise. One need only fill in a few blanks -- little things that the theory assumes but doesn't spell out. For starters, patients would have to understand medicine better than their doctors do. Otherwise, how can you know when you need a procedure and when you don't? Second, how do you know when one doctor is competent enough and another isn't? Another important factor is that different people value money differently, mostly because some have more than others. What one pays for health care comes out of some other budget (assuming the money exists at all). It's much harder to rationally spend food or rent money than it is to spend money that otherwise might go to a second Porsche. So even as a theory moral hazard doesn't provide much insight into health care economics.
The data is as clear as the theory is dubious. People without health insurance don't get adequate health care. They put it off until it becomes unavoidable, and often too late. Gladwell's first example is dental care, and the stories are harrowing. I mentioned this story to a periodontist I was seeing, and he told me: "Tell me about it. I've seen people wait so long I can't help them. I tell them they have to go to the hospital, and if they don't they could be dead in two weeks."
I want to quote two paragraphs from Gladwell's piece. The first summarizes what happens to uninsured people in America. The second is the single best description of America's "system" I've read.
In the last week most of us have discovered that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. Even those of us who knew that much now know it in ways that were inconceivable before the fact. While the topography was critical in New Orleans, the region's poverty and its unrepresentative, uncaring government has also been exposed. The area is quickly becoming a public health disaster as well as a physical and economic wreck. The immediate response will be to suspend the rules: to provide emergency health care support to victims of the storm regardless of ability to pay. But the real problem goes a lot deeper and is much broader. The real moral hazard would be if the only way to get quality health care to poor people is in the wake of a hurricane.
Wednesday, September 7. 2005
Here's a little news item for you, from the Wichita Eagle, dateline Washington, which probably means Knight-Ridder:
Just one of the ways the Republicans' agenda has worked to make a difficult situation worse. Other titles of short pieces on the same page: "Foreign aid stuck at the border"; "Disease may have killed four hurricane survivors"; "Evacuees unwilling to move onto cruise ships." No explanation why anyone thought cruise ships might be an emergency housing solution, let alone who stands to make money on the deal, which FEMA worked out. The larger pieces are: "Disasters new to FEMA leadership"; "Katrina's brewing a budget disaster." The latter piece noted that now's an inopportune time for the rich to carve the budget up even worse: "On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist postponed plans to push for a vote on repealing the estate tax, a move that would benefit the wealthiest 1 percent of households, costing more than $70 billion a year once fully put in effect."
Aside from the cruise ships, all of this was pretty easy to see coming, for anyone with their eyes open, that is. But today's letters page was full of people trying to cover up. Titles include: "Don't argue now; help relief effort"; "Share the blame"; "Keep it positive"; "Not an issue of race." The first author argues, "Hurricane Katrina has affected everybody worldwide. Here, a common effect on everyday lives is rising gas prices. We shrink every day, more uncomfortable with each record high." So everyone shares the pain! Another writes: "The criticisms only stir up resentmment and anger in victims, and prevent them from having a more cooperative attitude." So that's all it is! The latter piece started by dissing Kanye West for turning "the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina into an issue of ethnicity and race." On the contrary, "We, as Americans, have come together and supported the survivors with food and water. . . . Our government has done a good job in helping survivors, despite being shot at and under the adverse conditions that now exist in New Orleans." And that's just the Katrina-related letters: there's also one that claims Israel is a democracy, and another insisting Bush never lied, and certainly did not start the Iraq war: "The United States, through its elected representatives, deliberated and approved the war." Congress sure twisted Bush's arm on that one!
On the next page, in the rant column, we read: "I get so tired of Bush bashing all the time. He is our president. We should respect him even if we don't agree with him. Nothing is perfect, so quit whining." Touchy, especially after the Republicans took such pains to respect the previous president! Then there is: "I hope the leaders of the flood victims stop pulling the race card. Everything is being done, but it takes time to move supplies and reach disaster areas." Not to mention that it's hard work! Still, the Bush bashers outnumbered the shrinking apologists in the rant column, and Richard Crowson's cartoon nailed the point.
The rest of the opinion page featured columns by Cal Thomas and J.R. Labbe. The latter wrote: "What is a sham is to deny what military service has meant to generations of Americans who have found opportunities for education and career training that they would not have gotten anywhere else." Except any country with a competent universal education system, that is. "And it's nothing short of liberal fantasy to drone on about minorities being overrepresented on the front lines of the military." To disprove this, Labbe cites new enlistment statistics which show blacks no more likely to enlist than anyone else, without pointing out what a dramatic Iraq-era drop that has been. "Do the math. Anglos account for 3 of 5 new soldiers." So who's playing the race card now? Whatever else Katrina has done, and it's done a lot, it's been rough on self-conceptions and delusions. That doesn't bode well for Bush, since that's about all he had to run on.
I added Chris Floyd's Empire Burlesque and Billmon's Whiskey Bar to the blog links in the left navigation block. One thing I like about these blogs is that they don't pull their punches viz. Bush. I still believe that respect is the single most important quality of social and political life, but it has to be a two-way street, and Bush and his gang have lost their rights to respect -- mostly because they've shown respect to nobody else. For a good example, read Billmon's "Potemkin President" postings. I'm not all that pleased with Billmon's doctored photos, like the one with Bush strolling through a slave market. But then it's no more fake and much less misleading than the one with Bush and the firefighters.
Monday, September 5. 2005
Six to eight days into the disaster that hurricane Katrina brought to Louisiana, Mississippi, and thereabouts, and what do we know? The Gulf Coast of Mississippi has been decimated, and the city of New Orleans is under water and uninhabitable for a minimum of 4-6 months. The number of dead is unknown but certainly rising day by day. The number of people made homeless (our refugees) is huge -- a million, more or less. Louisiana's shipping and oil and tourist businesses are basically out of business. (Up here in Kansas gas prices have shot up to $3.30 a gallon and will surely go further, while the corn crop is going nowhere.) Government at all levels has responded poorly -- how poorly is hard to judge, but given that failures often cost lives it is likely that judgments will be harsh. Nothing comparable has ever happened to Americans -- excepting war, of course, but wars compound by our own actions. If you consider 9/11 as a natural disaster, it was remarkably tidy compared to this one. That we've turned it into something far more destructive was a bad choice made on bad values.
My habitual approach to events is to look at the historical context and try to draw some general principles out of it. I'm not all that interested in individuals, nor am I particularly compassionate. That's the opposite of the way the news has handled this -- I've seen and heard many tragic and/or poignant stories, but they're all part of some larger picture that isn't clear yet. What little I know about New Orleans, aside from its wonderful legacy in music, comes from John McPhee's book, The Control of Nature. I read that book so long ago it's far from fresh in my mind, but the lingering image is that New Orleans has long been a precarious proposition -- a city below sea level surrounded by water waiting to rush in. I'm sure that there is an interesting story in how it came to be what it is, and I'm also sure that the intention to build a death trap doesn't figure into it. What built the death trap was the normal desire to preserve property despite increasing adversity. That's a general principle, both in McPhee's book and for many other places. As long as one gets away with it, it's hard to question.
The best book that's been written about a hypothetical disaster in the U.S. is Marc Reisner's A Dangerous Place, with its sketch of the probable effects of an earthquake along the Hayward Fault, east of San Francisco Bay. To the best of my knowledge, no one wrote a comparable speculation of disaster in New Orleans, but the prospect isn't exactly unknown. I found one article, by Joel K. Bourne called "Gone With the Water" that provides what turns out to be a pretty accurate description of what just happened, except that it was published by National Geographic in Oct. 2004: "As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however -- the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm . . . Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States."
That scenario wasn't a unique piece of forecasting on Bourne's part. It's been common knowledge for quite a while, even if few people took it seriously. Much of the scenario was repeated in the evacuation warnings the government gave out before the storm. Mark Benjamin describes the "Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan" in Salon. The plan describes a disaster similar to what actually happened, and the plan was more/less implemented. However, it sounds like the plan left out a lot of things. "It says nothing about people having to be air-lifted from their rooftops. It says nothing about how looting, violence or sheer desperation-driven anarchy might overtake the city. It says nothing about untold gallons of chemicals, gasoline, excrement and dead bodies floating through the city. It does say, though, that people should get in their cars and drive away before the storm, or hide in the Superdome, until the water recedes." One reason you want to have a plan for things like this is to know what to do when such a disaster strikes, and the plan sort-of helped in that regard. But another reason to plan is to test whether you have the resources to implement the plan. New Orleans didn't have anything remotely close to what was needed. A thorough, rigorous, realistic plan would have other values, especially if it would make people think twice about draining a swamp.
I've complained all along not just that the Global War on Terror is not just a bad response to the terrorism problem: it's also an unrealistic, impractical assessment of risks. Aside from the 9/11 attacks, the most destructive terrorist attacks worldwide kill a few hundred people and cause damage over a couple of blocks. Also, the countries attacked are usually engaged in some kind of affair that if they ceased they'd be much less likely targets. 9/11 was the worst case, and still it is tiny and tidy compared to Katrina. Compare also the likelihood of storms like Katrina. Just one year ago another hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico threatened New Orleans, before veering toward the Florida panhandle. Most informed warnings about impending disaster are phrased as "when" not "if": the odds of such a disaster accumulate over time until they reach inevitable. This is true of many other "potential" disasters, most obviously California earthquakes.
Following last December's Indian Ocean tsunami I concluded that disaster relief is going to be one of the dominant political issues over the next few decades. What we call "natural disasters" are an interaction between chaotic natural processes and human development. If Katrina turns out to cost more than the tsunami, it's because we put more development in its path. This isn't a problem that can be solved -- it's a chronic problem, something that we'll have to live with. The prospects are mixed. The good news is that we're getting a better idea how these processes work. The breakthrough regarding earthquakes was the development of plate tectonic theory -- before the '60s we knew little about what causes earthquakes and what we thought we knew was wrong. The science relating to Katrina is more complex -- not least because it has to factor in several centuries of human acts (most committed with no real grasp on what the long term effects might be), including the building of levees and canals, the extraction of vast amounts of oil and gas, and the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Whether we know enough now to know what ought to be done is unclear, but we certainly know much more than we ever did before.
On the other hand, our capacity to use science to manage or to mitigate natural disasters seems to be diminishing. This is only partly because the political right has decided they don't much like science any more. The bigger problem is that the right doesn't want government to be of any use to anyone but the special interests of the rich, and in the U.S. they've been pretty successful at limiting what government can do. In particular, their "starve the beast" tax cuts keep support for the poor at levels that test the limits of subsistence, policies pursued with special rigor by the oligarchs controlling the state governments of Mississippi and Louisiana -- the two states with the highest poverty rates in America, and arguably the two states that do the least to help people get out of poverty, or to keep more people from falling in.
But poverty isn't just a Mississippi-Louisiana specialty -- it's national policy. Under Bush's presidency more people sink below the poverty line each year. This happens because the social contract -- the idea that we're all in this together -- has given way to this overwhelming cult of self-interest. Back in the '80s Robert Reich wrote about how the rich were "seceding" from America -- moving into their own ever-more rarefied circles, leaving the poor and the ordinary to fare for themselves. Bush didn't start that trend, but living and "working" in his fantasy world he exemplifies it, and he's done more than anyone to help the rich loot America. One of his first acts following the storm was to shelve air pollution standards for gasoline. When he finally made a heavily scripted, filtered and faked appearance, the only promise he made with any conviction behind it was to rebuild Trent Lott's mansion.
On the other hand, the news media fawning over "the President" has never seemed more irrelevant. With Iraq, at least, Bush was a critical actor, a person who by force of his position, his idiot beliefs, his extraordinary ego, and his ruthless opportunism led the U.S. into a monumentally stupid blunder. So with Iraq, Bush is singularly guilty. Bush has no comparable claim to have caused this catastrophe. But he's also no help, and worse, he's a major obstacle and embarrassment.
Bourne finished his article describing New Orleans as "the city that care forgot, but that nature will not." Since the storm we've seen a vast outpouring of private aid to try to compensate for the obvious lack of public aid. This shows that America still cares, at least at the moment of tragedy, even if the ruling clique does not. The question remains whether America cares enough to throw that clique out and to restore some sense of public interest, a sense that we're all in this together. One thing we can count on is that nature won't be impressed by rhetoric or prayer, least of all by the cult of the rich. Right now, Trent Lott's house looks a lot like everyone else's.