The terrible, tragic mess in New Orleans reflects and adds to the economic and social mess in the whole country. The foolish, endless war in Iraq has pushed the national debt beyond all reasonable limit.
The tax benefits for President Bush's friends, "the haves and the have mores" as he called them in an unwise slip of the tongue, have aggravated the deficit problems for which the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren will have to pay. Much of the debt is owned by the Chinese, who have also taken over the clothing market. Median family income and real wages fell again this year (according to the Wall Street Journal) and the proportion of the country that lives in poverty has risen again. The cost of gasoline climbs almost every day because the obscenely profitable oil companies have not plowed any money into building new refineries for the last 15 years. The proportion of people without any health insurance also has increased.
Many industries -- airlines and automotive especially -- are trying to make money by outsourcing jobs to other countries and curtailing the salaries and benefits of workers. The most notable of the offending industries -- Big Oil and Big Pharma -- are piling up profits squeezed from lifeblood of the working and middle class. No one cares about poverty anymore, so long as it is limited to the poor (like the people who couldn't escape from New Orleans because they couldn't afford autos).
Now the country faces the task of rebuilding a major city and its port and its oil refineries and the rest of its crucial industries and its flood control system and providing new homes for the homeless of the city, which is practically everyone. One has to ask where the money will come from. The administration will characteristically talk big but do the job on the cheap, just as it has done the Iraq war with its inadequate body armor, unprotected vehicles, amphibious landing craft used as tanks and not enough troops. New Orleans has become our second contemporary Big Muddy, and it will be mishandled as badly as the first. Karl Rove will doubtless spin it all into a big victory for the president.
The strains and the tensions that the New Orleans crisis will cause in the American economy are a punishment for the pride and greed of this country. The punishment is not imposed by the Almighty (who has better things to do than to spin out a vast storm to wipe out sin in the Big Easy) but it will be the result of the present cult of greed and pride. Ronald Reagan reintroduced this cult into our society, and George W. Bush has refined it to its logical conclusion. Greed is good. Pride in America is good, and anything goes.
Similarly, the Big Easy, one of the most interesting of American cities, if not high on the salubrious list, was punished for the greed and pride that permitted it (and the Congress of the United States) to gamble that its outmoded and inferior system of dikes -- far below the standards of the embankments the Corps of Engineers built along the rest of the Mississippi River -- would protect it. Like the rest of the country, New Orleans was not worried about the decline of infrastructure. But its unique infrastructure was a matter of life and death.
The country's habit of responding to infrastructure problems with too little and too late (Iraq writ large) will produce more disasters. Airports that are too crowded and inadequate air traffic control, poor public education, lack of concern for the poor, spiraling medical costs -- all are infrastructure problems that will come back to haunt us.
We are as a culture too proud and too greedy to worry about such matters, just as we didn't care a few years ago about the incompetence of the FBI and the CIA -- and the inability of the FBI to hire enough translators of Arabic or devise a working computer system.
The United States is the only superpower left, we can do anything we want, we don't have to care about what other countries think or worry about levees and pumps, new runways, more refineries, global warming, near misses at airports, better education, or competition from China and Asia. God Bless America!
© 2005 Chicago Sun Times