"Less than Nothing": Playing the Blame Game

John Ehrenberg

We Americans live in the most unequal advanced country in the world. When compared with similar societies, ours has the greatest inequities in the distribution of income and wealth, the provision of basic health care, the relationship between CEO salaries and average wages, the financial influence on office-holders and the level of political participation. This didn’t happen overnight and is not the unforeseen product of economic growth. It’s the direct result of twenty-five years of public policy that has favored wealth, rewarded property and encouraged the concentration of both.

 The appearance of general prosperity notwithstanding, the vast amount of money that’s gone to the few has come at the expense of the many. Disappearing pensions and weakened social protections, longer hours at work and more stress on the job, a large class of the permanently impoverished, the world’s largest population of prison inmates, less upward mobility and stagnant wages are only a few of the social pathologies that have worsened over the past twenty-five years. Nor is a corrective in sight. One of the most right-wing govern­ments in American history has intensified the assault on social welfare and accelerated a drive toward empire that is more formally acknowledged and explicitly embraced than at any time in recent memory. As radical as it is, the Bush administration doesn’t stand alone. Its policy of even more tax cuts on wealth, even more deregulation of business, and even more privatization of governmental functions continues the general pattern of the past twenty-five years. As the Right continues its long project of concentrating wealth in a small section of the population, destroying public oversight of capital and developing a political apparatus openly dedicated to serving the rich, the United States is beginning to look more and more like the diseased state that the ancient Greeks called “plutocracy.” 

 More is involved than a single president or a particular set of policies, but particular events can often illustrate broader trends and bring matters into particularly sharp focus. New Orleans has had the singular misfortune to serve as a poster child for the Right’s attack on public supervision and social responsibility. To paraphrase Malcolm X, Hurricane Katrina brought twenty-five years of right-wing political power home to roost. Demonizing the poor, abandoning public housing, attacking public health, ignoring the environment, worshiping the market, undermining solidarity, cutting taxes, eviscerating public transportation, deregulating business, starving federal agencies and privatizing everywhere are as responsible for what happened to one of North America’s great cities as a vicious storm produced by the blind forces of nature. Attacked by Katrina and abandoned by Washington, New Orleans never had a chance.

People who knew the situation have been warning for years that the city was vulnerable to widespread flooding and that a direct hit from even a Category 3 hurricane might inundate everything. An observer reports that “the federal government has been working with local and state authorities since the 1960s on hurricane and flood relief projects. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.”

Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security – coming at the same time as federal tax cuts – was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.[i]

Not long before Katrina served notice that the Right had become an active threat to public welfare, many people knew that New Orleans was in danger and that federal planning was inadequate. From July 23-27, 2002, a five-part series called “Washing Away” ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Reporters John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein warned that “it's only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.” They weren’t alone. Local officials understood that more than 200,000 people without cars could be left at the mercy of a catastrophic storm and developed rudimentary evacuation plans that relied on buses and National Guard vehicles to get people to the Superdome staging area, from which they would be taken out of the city. But the plan’s defects soon became obvious: there weren’t enough buses, no one knew what routes they would take, and it wasn’t even clear whether the drivers would show up if things went badly. Since it was clear that dealing with a Category 4 storm was beyond the capacity of local authorities, FEMA stepped in and organized a 2004 “table-top” simulation that generated a new set of plans. Named “Hurricane Pam,” it assumed that the levees would be swamped, hundreds of thousands of homes would be destroyed, a half-million people would be left homeless, hospitals would be useless, and local officials would be overwhelmed. Detailed plans were developed for evacuating the city by car. As for the 300,000 poor residents who would be left behind, they would have to rely on their own resources, the kindness of their neighbors, and the Christian charity of their churches.[ii]

The report generated by “Hurricane Pam” was finished in December 2004. It’s clear that there was plenty of warning, some planning and considerable concern long before Katrina roared ashore, but twenty-five years of right-wing of social policy got in the way. Consider the following chronology, doubtless incomplete about the full extent of federal negligence but chillingly accurate as far as it goes:

·                      January 2001: Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh, a political crony from Texas with no experi­ence in disaster management, to be the head of FEMA


·                      April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces plans to privatize much of FEMA’s work. A month later, he announces that FEMA will be “downsized.” The Right’s old anti-statist saw was trotted out to explain why money was being diverted to tax cuts for the rich and war in Iraq.  “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into an oversized entitlement program,” Daniels said. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” Announcing that he wanted to curtail FEMA’s mission, he announced that the administration intended  to “restore the predomi­nant role of state and local response to most disasters.”


·                       July 2002: “Washing Away” appears in the Times-Picayune. It evaluates the failing state of the city’s defenses and concludes that a catastrophe was “a matter of when, not if.” 


·                      December 2002: Allbaugh announces that he’s leaving FEMA to start a consulting firm that will advise companies wanting to “do business” in Iraq. He’s succeeded by his former college roommate and now deputy, the infamous Michael Brown. The former President of the International Arabian Horse Association presides over the dismantlement of FEMA.


·                      March 2003: FEMA is folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is “refocused,” a process that was necessitated by the Bush administration’s policy of devoting three out of four federal preparedness grants to counterrorism. According to a new organizational chart, FEMA’s earlier responsibilities are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will now be responsible only for “response and recovery.” Between 2001 and Katrina’s entrance into history, Louisiana and New Orleans would receive $750 million in federal emergency and terrorism preparedness grants.


·                      June 8, 2004: The Times-Picayune warns that “for the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane levees, a complex network of concrete walls, metal gates and giant earthen berms that won't be finished for at least another decade.”


·                      December 2004: the report from “Hurricane Pam” finds its way to FEMA Director Michael Brown’s desk.


·                      Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana’s requests for “pre-disaster mitigation funding.” The Army Corps of Engineers’s budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed even more. Jefferson Parish emergency management chief Walter Maestri observes that “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay.” President Bush repeatedly demands that more taxes on wealth be cut, Social Security be privatized and the inheritance tax be permanently eliminated.


·                      January 2005: Amid great fanfare, the Department of Homeland Security unveils the National Response Plan. Its preface proclaims a lofty goal for all to hear: “The end result is vastly improved coordination among federal, state, local and tribal organizations to help save lives and protect America’s communities by increasing the speed, effectiveness and efficient of incident management.”


·                      June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers is cut by 44% – a record $71.2 million is slashed.


A long history of federal policy actively contributed to the destruction of New Orleans and made it impossible to respond to the National Hurricane Center’s extraordinary warning that Katrina could cause “human suffering incredible by modern standards.” The Right’s relentless assault on the public sphere made a coherent or adequate response to the catastrophe impossible. A few days after the storm hit, President Bush was interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” It took him a while to get it together, but he finally developed  his explanation for failure. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” he declares. That might have been true of him, but people who actually knew something had “anticipated” things quite differently. Not long after, Brown testified before the rump panel that Congressional Republicans had organized to make a martyr out of him and spare the Bush administration further embarrassment. The ex-Director wasn’t going to take all this lying down, though. “And while my heart goes out to people on fixed incomes, it is primarily a state and local responsibil­ity,” he declared. “In my opinion, it’s the responsibility of faith-based organizations, of churches and charities and others to help those people.”

Bush and Brownie were on to something. It’s become fashionable to say that New Orleans died because no one had a plan. Everyone’s saying that city, state and local officials were caught flatfooted, unable to respond because they hadn’t anticipated what a Category 4 hurricane would do. When the underfunded, mismanaged and eviscerated FEMA was put in charge of an empty response and told to coordinate with no plan and few resources, the result had to be a mess.

This is an attractive story, easy to understand and relatively simple to fix. Replace some faces at the top, change the organizational chart a bit, make some pious speeches, throw more money around and things will be fine. There’s something to this of course, since appointing an idiot like Michael Brown and systematically underfunding domestic agencies are partly responsible for what happened. But it’s not the whole truth – not by a long shot. The real story is a lot worse. Despite what the authorities and the media are saying, there was a plan for the evacuation of New Orleans and it worked very well. The city was evacuated pretty quickly and photographs taken in the days before Katrina hit show that I-10 was full of cars getting out of town. Inbound lanes were reversed, police were available to oversee the operation and everything went just fine for 80% of the city’s residents.

There was one small problem, though: you had to have a car to be included in the plan. If you didn’t, then you were out of luck and on your own. That, too, was part of a plan that consciously ignored people without transportation. Some called it a “good samaritan” policy, but Jon Stewart was a bit more accurate. With his uncanny nose for the jugular, The Daily Show ruthlessly parodied the administration’s “faith-based” assumption that those left behind would take care of themselves and each other. No trains were gathered, no buses made available, no car pools organized, no information given, no attention paid. Twenty-seven percent of the city’s households didn’t own a car, but no one had bothered to develop evacuation plans for the more than 100,000 people who would need help escaping the city. Indeed, the plan was not to have a plan. That’s why Michael Brown could say what he said and get away with it. Three nights after the Superdome had filled with 25,000 people – citizens who had gone there because governmen­tal authorities had told them to – the 500 buses promised by Washington were nowhere to be seen. It would take two more days to round them up. Racial prejudice, corruption, old-fashioned stupidity, cowardliness and laziness doubtless account for a good deal of this failure, but there’s more. A national government that has deliberately isolated and concentrated the urban black poor for years consciously abandoned them in their hour of need, eloquently proclaiming its pre-Jacksonian position that property confers citizenship. If you had a car in New Orleans, then you were a member of the political community and the state would take care of you. If you didn’t, you were in the state of nature – literally.

Telling people to get out of town after spending decades making it impossible for them to do so and then blaming them for their failure to save themselves describes the Right’s responsi­bility for the destruction of New Orleans as well as anything. “Everybody’s trying to look at it like the City of New Orleans messed up,” said Oliver Thomas, president of the City Council. “But you mean to tell me that in the richest nation in the world, people really expected a little town with less than 500,000 people to handle a disaster like this? That’s ludicrous to even think that.”[iii] Under the circumstances, it makes perfect sense that it’s the Red Cross, CNN and internet message boards that are reuniting separated families; that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were on the scene before the United States Army managed to arrive; that four enterprising students from Duke University were able to get into New Orleans and document the govern­ment’s total absence during the city’s devastation. At the end of the day, we are talking about a government that required the poorest, most isolated, sickest and most vulnerable elements of New Orleans’s  population to do what no civilized society should ask of any of its citizens.

The Right has spent a quarter of a century preaching the virtues of individual self-reliance while it systematically undermines democratic oversight and shamelessly serves wealth. No wonder it was so indifferent to New Orleans. Katrina is the full measure of what turning the public responsibility for social assistance over to charity, religion and the private sector has come to. No wonder Bush didn’t understand that it was important to mobilize all the reserves of the government to rescue those it had deliberately left behind. He really didn’t think he should have to.

Lack of coordination and outright incompetence only go so far to explain what happened to New Orleans. After the chaos and failures of September 11th, Bush promised the country that future responses to catastrophe would be efficient, seamless and effective. Tens of billions of dollars, countless color-coded warnings, and millions of words later, the government’s response has been as eviscerated by Right-wing social policy as other domestic programs. In a way, Washington has been hoisted on its own petard, paradoxically betrayed by the Right’s policy and paralyzed by its relentless hostility to anything coming from the public sphere. At the end of the day, though, a pretty simple humanitarian calculus is enough to get a picture of what happened. As badly as the whole affair was mismanaged, as ignorant and brutal as the federal government was, as incompetent and cynical as those entrusted with the elementary requirements of public safety showed themselves to be, things were even worse than the most embittered cynics could have imagined. If you had a car, the government planned for you and took care of you. If you didn’t, your were on your own. No wonder things tuned out as they did.

This is far worse than abundant cronyism, incompetence, corruption and indifference. The Right’s hostility to “special rights” and affirmative action, its love affair with wealth, its contempt for the poor and its assault on public welfare and social solidarity have been silently wrecking the country for a long time. But Katrina has ripped the veil aside and presented the bill for the politics of plutocracy. “These are people so much better at inflicting pain than feeling it, so much better at taking things apart than putting them together, so much better at defending ‘intelligent design’ as a theology than practicing it as a policy,” observed Thomas Friedman.[iv] Katrina has demonstrated with crystal clarity that a morally defensible social order requires more than tax cuts, attacks on social welfare, foreign aggression, assaults on the environment, contempt for the poor, deregulation of business and privatization of public functions. 

As indifferent as he was to the destruction of New Orleans, Bush has shown signs of life in recent days. That’s because he’s managed to remember the Right’s core economic project. After he made it clear that taxes would not be increased to pay for Katrina’s damage, his Republican congressional leadership announced that it would work to implement the administra­tion’s plans to cut even more taxes on wealth and eliminate the estate tax altogether. The time may not be quite right and nerves might be a little raw, so they’re willing to wait for a while. In the meantime, suspending the Davis-Bacon Act’s requirements that workers be paid prevailing wages, awarding no-bid contracts to the likes of Halliburton and Bechtel, and cutting almost a trillion dollars over the next ten years from vital national services like Medicare and Medicaid, student loans, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Amtrak, the Centers for Disease Control, and school lunches for poor kids will provide some of the “offsets” to finance reconstruction. As expensive as rebuilding the Gulf Coast will be and as much fraud and waste as there will be, even the largest estimates are considerably less than the $327 billion bestowed on the richest 1% of the population by Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. There’s no sign that this bothers anyone in power. It’s important not to burden the owners of wealth too much and to remember who really counts in Bush’s America.

“We had nothing before Katrina,” one of the survivors told a reporter. “Now we have less than nothing.” Without cars, credit cards or cash, confined to the poorest-paid jobs, living in the worst houses and dependent on the public institutions that have been systematically gutted for years, Katrina’s victims were easy bait. The administration seems to have been genuinely surprised when some long-overdue flickers of decency drove a few television reporters to openly attack the President’s ignorant and dismissive response to catastrophe. Ever mindful of public opinion, the White House has been dispatching a stream of high-profile national figures to make it clear that it’s on the case. Thus it was that Barbara Bush, former First Lady and Mother of the President, joined the parade and dropped in on the Houston Astrodome to show everyone how much she cared. But she just couldn’t help offering up her great Marie Antoinette line instead. “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality,” she said of 45,000 American citizens who had been deliberately abandoned by her son’s government and left to rot in the New Orleans Superdome and the Convention Center. “And so many of the people the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

The funny thing is that she probably thought she was being helpful. But Katrina calls for more than this sort of superficial condescension. It’s all good in George Bush’s world, but he really should stop listening to Mom and take a lesson from role models who had some real class. At least Marie Antoinette had the courtesy to offer cake.



[i] Will Bunch, “Why the Levee Broke,” http:www.alternet.org/story/24871

[iii] New York Times, September 11, 2005.

[iv] “Osama and Katrina,” New York Times September 7, 2005.