Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Krugman and Herbert Our Heros

Tragedy in Black and White
By Paul Krugman
The New York Times

Monday 19 September 2005

By three to one, African-Americans believe that federal aid took so long to arrive in New Orleans in part because the city was poor and black. By an equally large margin, whites disagree.

The truth is that there's no way to know. Maybe President Bush would have been mugging with a guitar the day after the levees broke even if New Orleans had been a mostly white city. Maybe Palm Beach would also have had to wait five days after a hurricane hit before key military units received orders to join rescue operations.

But in a larger sense, the administration's lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina had a lot to do with race. For race is the biggest reason the United States, uniquely among advanced countries, is ruled by a political movement that is hostile to the idea of helping citizens in need.

Race, after all, was central to the emergence of a Republican majority: essentially, the South switched sides after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, states that had slavery in 1860 are much more likely to vote Republican than states that didn't.

And who can honestly deny that race is a major reason America treats its poor more harshly than any other advanced country? To put it crudely: a middle-class European, thinking about the poor, says to himself, "There but for the grace of God go I." A middle-class American is all too likely to think, perhaps without admitting it to himself, "Why should I be taxed to support those people?"

Above all, race-based hostility to the idea of helping the poor created an environment in which a political movement hostile to government aid in general could flourish.

By all accounts Ronald Reagan, who declared in his Inaugural Address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," wasn't personally racist. But he repeatedly used a bogus tale about a Cadillac-driving Chicago "welfare queen" to bash big government. And he launched his 1980 campaign with a pro-states'-rights speech in Philadelphia, Miss., a small town whose only claim to fame was the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers.

Under George W. Bush - who, like Mr. Reagan, isn't personally racist but relies on the support of racists - the anti-government right has reached a new pinnacle of power. And the incompetent response to Katrina was the direct result of his political philosophy. When an administration doesn't believe in an agency's mission, the agency quickly loses its ability to perform that mission.

By now everyone knows that the Bush administration treated the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a dumping ground for cronies and political hacks, leaving the agency incapable of dealing with disasters. But FEMA's degradation isn't unique. It reflects a more general decline in the competence of government agencies whose job is to help people in need.

For example, housing for Katrina refugees is one of the most urgent problems now facing the nation. The FEMAvilles springing up across the gulf region could all too easily turn into squalid symbols of national failure. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which should be a source of expertise in tackling this problem, has been reduced to a hollow shell, with eight of its principal staff positions vacant.

But let me not blame the Bush administration for everything. The sad truth is that the only exceptional thing about the neglect of our fellow citizens we saw after Katrina struck is that for once the consequences of that neglect were visible on national TV.

Consider this: in the United States, unlike any other advanced country, many people fail to receive basic health care because they can't afford it. Lack of health insurance kills many more Americans each year than Katrina and 9/11 combined.

But the health care crisis hasn't had much effect on politics. And one reason is that it isn't yet a crisis among middle-class, white Americans (although it's getting there). Instead, the worst effects are falling on the poor and black, who have third-world levels of infant mortality and life expectancy.

I'd like to believe that Katrina will change everything - that we'll all now realize how important it is to have a government committed to helping those in need, whatever the color of their skin. But I wouldn't bet on it.


Go to Original

Good Grief
By Bob Herbert
The New York Times

Monday 18 September 2005

The president is Lucy, and he's holding a football. We're Charlie Brown.

In an eerily lit, nationally televised appearance outside the historic St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, President Bush promised the world to the Gulf Coast residents whose lives were upended by Hurricane Katrina.

He seemed to be saying that no effort, no amount of money, would be spared. Two hundred billion dollars? No problem. This will be bigger than the Marshall Plan. The end of the rainbow is here.

"Throughout the area hit by the hurricane," said Mr. Bush, "we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."

The country has put its faith in Mr. Bush many times before, and come up empty. It may be cynical, but my guess is that if we believe him again this time, we're going to end up on our collective keisters, just like Charlie Brown, who could never stop himself from kicking mightily at empty space, which was all that was left each time Lucy snatched the ball away.

In March 2003, in another nationally televised address, the president told us we had no choice but to go to war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein was sitting on "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." So we went to war, even though Saddam had not attacked us, and now - two years and $200 billion later - we're stuck there. Close to a couple of thousand brave men and women have come back in coffins (no pictures, please) and thousands more have been maimed.

The weapons? As Emily Litella would have said, "Never mind."

In the same lavish way that Mr. Bush is promising to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the storm-damaged Gulf Coast, he assured us and the rest of the world that the invasion he was ordering would lead to the rebuilding of Iraq and its devastated economy. "Freed from the weight of oppression," he said, "Iraq's people will be able to share in the progress and prosperity of our time."

But last Thursday, the very same day that he delivered his speech in New Orleans, the World Bank released a report showing that the continued violence in Iraq had frightened away private investors, slowed reconstruction and disrupted oil production.

The Times reported yesterday that even in Najaf, an Iraqi city often cited by the US as a success story, American officials have acknowledged that reconstruction projects "are hobbled by poor planning, corrupt contractors and a lack of continuity among the rotating coalition officers."

Polls have shown that over the past two years Americans have lost a great deal of faith in Mr. Bush, who tends to talk a good game but doesn't seem to know how to deliver. Thursday night's speech was designed to halt that slide.

But Mr. Bush's new post-Katrina persona defies belief. The same man who was unforgivably slow to respond to the gruesome and often fatal suffering of his fellow Americans now suddenly emerges from the larva of his ineptitude to present himself as - well, nothing short of enlightened.

Not only was he proposing a Gulf Coast Marshall Plan, but he was declaring, in words that made his conservative followers gasp, that poverty in the US "has roots in a history of racial discrimination which cut off generations from the opportunity of America."

If you were listening to the radio, you might have thought you were hearing the ghost of Lyndon Johnson. "We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action," said Mr. Bush.

He was being Lucy again, enticing us with the football. But before we commence kicking the air, consider the facts.

This president has had zero interest in attacking poverty, and the result has been an increase in poverty in the US, the richest country in the world, in each of the last four years. Instead of attacking poverty, the Bush administration has attacked the safety net and has stubbornly refused to stop the decline in the value of the minimum wage on his watch.

You can believe that he's suddenly worried about poor people if you want to. What is more likely is that his reference to racism and poverty was just another opportunistic Karl Rove moment, never to be acted upon.

Charlie Brown's sister, Sally, once asked how often someone could be fooled with the same trick. She answered her own question: "Pretty often, huh?"


Why I don't live in San Francisco!

Fine Wine For A Big Quake
Sure a quake kit is a great thing -- if you can afford it. Too bad about everyone else
- By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

You are not ready.

This is just a fair guess. You are not fully prepared for the monster life-slapping colon-rattling quake that is slated to devastate our fair state somewhere between the time you finish reading this sentence and about 2035 -- an epic disaster that will make Katrina look like a waterslide and that, if all predictions and all experts are to be believed, will look something like "The Day After Tomorrow" crossed with "28 Days Later" with a dash of "War of the Worlds" and nothing at all like "Just Like Heaven," with cute blonde Reese Witherspoons walking around all sassy and blonde and perkily dead and haranguing the really cute living dudes by casually walking through the wall while they're taking a shower. Whoops!

It will, of course, be much worse. If the quake is big enough and hits us just right, experts predict nightmare scenarios, presumably full of desperate hordes of lost citizens tearing like wild dogs through twisted skyscrapers stuck like stalagmite Popsicles around the state, as the levees crumble and bridges shatter and roads split apart to reveal great underground networks of secret government nuke labs and three-legged alien hellbeasts working in collusion with the GOP to zap all the heathen pagan queers of California once and for all. See? You're not even close to ready.

Here's the test: Do you have a fully stocked earthquake preparedness kit? Have you followed the official guidelines? Do you have emergency stashes of fresh water and canned salmon and bandages and batteries and flashlights and traveler's checks and pliers and disinfectant and sewing kits and emergency radios and camping stoves and guns and flares and blankets and fuel and a generator and a radio and candy and porn? No? Have you not been paying attention?

Do you not know that they predict 1,700 destroyed roads? Over 330,000 uninhabitable homes? How about the flailing emergency response teams, police and fire and so on, unable to communicate with one another because of faulty communication channels? Did you know they predict innumerable smashed levees across the state, resulting in flooded cities and unusable bridges and collapsed everything and dead bodies like confetti, with only a fraction of the regional hospitals still functioning to accommodate all the death? It is not, let us just say, a very pretty picture.

So then. It's time. Get your kit together. Do you have about $500 to spare? Or more like $1,000? Because if you truly follow the instructions and if you properly assemble the earthquake kit per the Red Cross guidelines, you will spend at least that on all the various "basic" supplies, double that if you make a kit for your car (which they do, in fact, recommend), quintuple that if you include vital ingredients and essential items any true SFite absolutely must have in the event they have to go without Pottery Barn and chilled pinot gris and Ace Wasabi's sushi for a whole week, and 20 times that if you actually lay out the ten grand to properly retrofit your house.

Because let's be honest. Disaster preparedness is mostly for the middle and upper classes. It is for the informed and the educated, the credit carded and the disposable incomed, the newspaper subscribers and registered voters and people who keep a spare pair of Timberland boots in the trunk of the Range Rover, just in case.

As Katrina proved in no uncertain terms, if you're poor or from the lower classes and a massive natural disaster strikes, you are, of course, screwed, given how you do not have extra money, no cash reserves to spend on motels or plane tickets, no credit card numbers to keep written down in a safe place. You do not have a car. You do not own a cell phone. You do not have wealthy relatives in Miami with a few spare rooms in their beach house. When disaster hits, you simply do not have anywhere to go.

All of which means the Bush administration will consider you, essentially, trash, disposable, invisible -- except for when the TV cameras find you floating face down in the flooded street and suddenly Bush's poll numbers collapse and Dubya comes on to pretend he understands your plight and will have his mom send you cookies and a warm condescending hug ASAP.

See, they just don't know. Or, for that matter, care. The government and the GOP in particular, they just have no idea of true American reality, of how the poor actually live, of the vicious inequities of consumer culture (which their nasty domestic policies only exacerbate), the brutal gap between the haves and the have-nots, between Lands' End and Salvation Army, between stock portfolio and food stamps, between stashing away an emergency block of Brie and a case of Sterling cab for when the Big One strikes, and hoping you don't get stabbed at the emergency shelter over a candy bar.

This is, after all, what most baffled the snide and quietly racist GOP leadership: Why didn't all those poor people in New Orleans just leave? Why didn't they hop in the Escalade and fill the tank with a hundred bucks' worth of Unocal premium and hightail it outta New Orleans and head for a Travelodge and watch the disaster on the Panasonic big-screen TV with the rest of us, like any good upstanding citizen? What the hell was wrong with them?

It's a breathtaking type of all-American myopia that probably won't be all that different here. Hell, any major disaster in San Francisco and California will have the same two-tiered effect as anywhere: those who have comfortable access to all goods and services, and the rest. And while our state may be better prepared than Louisiana to handle the onslaught of devastation to all classes, the burden will, of course, still fall disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor.

After all, as the Bush value system makes indisputably clear, how well you survive usually lies in direct proportion to how well you live. Sure, it's a global truism. Sure, it's the same as it ever was. But in the world's wealthiest and most (ostensibly) beneficent nation, the dichotomy is even more vicious, even more revealing of our troubled and Bush-ravaged spirit.

Chances are, if you're reading this column you could very well afford to put together a decent enough disaster kit. And of course you very well should. As the experts say, a massive quake is not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. And to be sure, you do not want to be running around looting the local Restoration Hardware for fine drawer pulls and Egyptian sheets with anything less than the finest in emergency tools and goggles and Tasers.

Meanwhile, the irony looms over our culture like a black cloud. Because much like health care and birth control and education and housing and the rest, the people who need disaster preparedness the most are, of course, the ones least likely to have access to it. And if massive natural disasters expose our culture to anything, it's just that type of inequity, the kind that still plagues the world's richest nation like a disease.

But hey, at least we have FEMA.

Thoughts for the author? E-mail him.
Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SF Gate and in the Datebook section of the SF Chronicle. To get on the e-mail list for this column, please click here and remove one article of clothing. Mark's column also has an RSS feed and an archive of past columns, which includes a tiny photo of Mark probably insufficient for you to recognize him in the street and give him gifts.

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