Everyone should be particularly careful in the aftermath of disaster. There are shady characters who would use the vulnerability present in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to take advantage of a devastating situation for their own gain.
You may think that describes street thugs or seedy Internet scammers, but the lion's share of looting and con-artistry is coming from political, ideological and corporate special interests. They are supported by our own government, with White House and congressional leaders joining forces with their supporters to cash in on disaster.
They look at disaster and see the opportunity to further their long-term goals, often at the expense of those hardest hit -- the poor who are now homeless and jobless.
The lifting of labor laws protecting wages, the removal of diversity in government contract acquisition, the introduction of a private-school voucher program, oil company profiteering and potential devastating budget-cutting proposals are but a few examples of the rush to fulfill a reactionary agenda.
Outside of the government, the multinational conglomerates that control most of the oil and gas industry here in the United States, as well as around the world, have been among the greatest offenders.
According to figures reported in The Washington Post and attributed to the financial reports from the first quarter of 2005, crude oil producers enjoyed a nearly 50 percent increase in profits since the first quarter of 2004, while oil and gas refiners realized profits of more than 250 percent of those recorded in the first quarter of 2004. Those figures represent profits, not income.
At the same time, retailers such as your local gas station, which often are accused of price gouging, only saw a modest 4 percent increase in profits.
During that same period, consumers watched average gas prices rise more than 60 percent. Keep in mind that these large increases in profits came well before the hurricanes decimated the Gulf Coast.
Consumer price gouging starting happening months and months ahead of the hurricanes while Katrina and Rita simply opened wide the doors of opportunity.
As we move forward to cleaning up and rebuilding the Gulf Coast region we should strongly consider cleaning up the culture of the political and economic profiteering that makes many hard-hit citizens victims of two disasters -- one natural and the other political.
Over the past few weeks it seems that the guilty consciences -- or more likely the public-relations nightmares -- of several big energy companies have pushed ads into print and over the airwaves urging consumers to participate in energy-saving techniques to help with tough times.
Good advice, but this green message rings hollow when you see that they have been gouging us for years in the name of big profits and executive compensation. When do they begin to save and conserve for the good of the community? When do we see their sacrifice?
It's time that the rich and powerful reverse their rapacious greed and give back. One way to achieve this goal would be to impose a tax on the exorbitant profits registered by the oil giants -- with revenue thus generated going to disaster and energy-price relief.
Such a windfall-profits tax would be a reasonable way to rebuild the communities to which they owe so much. But big oil can and should do more -- using its monetary muscle to prove how green its really is by helping to clean up the environment, particularly that of the coastal waters of the Gulf Coast. Superfund fees so that polluters pay for clean up should be reinstated immediately.
Now is certainly not the time to play politics with people's lives. Shamefully, enough of that has already been done. Oil companies should improve their role within the community, and congressional leaders should help them by resisting those actions that hurt those who have already been so greatly burdened.
Amy Isaacs is the national director of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal lobbying group.
© 2005 Miami Herald