Jan 27, 2008

September 17, 2007: Beshit in the Bayou.

Last week the Nation published a series of articles on the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. Rebecca Solnit detailed the struggles of the lower ninth ward to battle back from the ravages of the storm. Michael Tisserand writes of the ‘Charter School Flood’ wherein fully 70% of New Orleans school children now attend private charter schools. Fully two years after the disaster, Robin Templeton in her article “Locked Up in New Orleans” said,”only one-third of the childcare centers and 45 percent of the public schools in Orleans Parish have reopened. Mental health services for residents suffering from depression, drug addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder are practically nonexistent. The city’s Housing Authority has slated thousands of units of public housing for demolition, the majority of which were not damaged by the storm.” Whole sections of the city still lay waste as residents struggle to return.

The Neo-Cons, ever keen to maximize the political potential of an unmitigated disaster, saw in Katrina a golden opportunity to create a veritable Petri dish of Right-wing ideological fungus masquerading as penicillin. The first response after the untimely removal of ‘You’re doing a helluva job’ Brownie was to announce that hereafter the old Wade-Davis provisions would not apply to the rebuilding effort. Back in the good old days, before the ideological cabal had hijacked the government, two members of congress one a Democrat the other a Republican had joined forces and passed the Wade-Davis bill which required any government-funded project to meet the prevailing community wage rates. This requirement was the first casualty of the recovery effort. Gone also was the need to employ U.S. citizens. Twenty percent, by some estimates, of the construction workers employed in the rebuilding of the city are illegal aliens. Judging by the prevalence of the illegals in the construction industry in the greater Atlanta area and in other parts of the country this may be a gross underestimation. In any case the storm provided the crisis needed to overrule sound and established policy traditionally governing our response to such crises and gave the Neo-Cons the opportunity to impose the ideological imperative and in so doing denied the residents of the city a chance to work at a living wage or a chance to find work rebuilding their own city at all.

While temporary housing in the form of mobile trailers sat for years in an Arkansas field, citizens of the city, having nowhere to stay, could not come home and rebuild. To use the public purse for such charity is in clear violation of the ideological imperative so dear to the Neo-Cons. To Wit: the response must be by the private sector (albeit with a large dose of public funds) and it must be profit driven.

The same with the schools. According to Tisserand, “immediately after the flood, Bush attempted a $500 million voucher program to allow displaced children to enroll in private and religious schools across the country. Critics saw the move as an attempt to exploit the disaster to finally enact vouchers, a longstanding Bush goal, and the initiative failed. There was no similar outcry when the US Department of Education pledged $44.8 million to Louisiana for post-Katrina charter schools. Yet the Administration left no doubt that the move was intended to quickly prop up charters: It offered no comparable funding to re-establish traditional neighborhood or district schools.” The result is that the public school system has become a ‘dumping ground’, a system of ‘catch-all’ schools that
“Is required in a free market system, because there must be a place for the kids who don’t gain entry elsewhere” (The Nation, September 10/17, 2007 pg. 22).

So the Administration loosed the dogs of greed upon the helpless survivors of the Gulf coast in a fevered attempt to surpass ‘Ol Pappy’s days when Florida was set upon by the “roofers from Hell” and other beasts of prey in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. It was a strategy ‘Ol Two-Cows’ had worked elsewhere to perfection. He would simply replicate on the Gulf Coast what he had so assiduously struggled to attain in the Persian Gulf: to privatize everything in sight, to get his friends at Halliburton another government sinecure and put another feather in the cap of his able vice-president, still on the Halliburton payroll. Who cares if we beshit ourselves in bayou country, there is real money to be made making hay in a hurricane.

“Money for nothing
And chicks for free”—Dire Straits

The country cared. ‘Ol Two-Cows’ popularity plummeted to Nixonian levels; below even the base Republican vote in any respectable or even legitimate election. Gone was his much touted “political capital”. America suddenly saw that the emperor had no clothes, and even less sense. For all intents and purposes, George W. Bush became a dead duck president. Suddenly seeing an imminent end, CNN began to post the number of remaining days until the next election and the number of days until inauguration on its crawlspace. States began a stampede to move up their primary elections so as to jump-start the next election cycle. A collective wish that the long national nightmare be over.

But there was a silver lining in the clouds of Katrina for gone now was George W. Bush’s congressional majorities, his assault on overtime and his neglect of the minimum wage. Gone too was his assault on Social Security. America had been repulsed by the sight of the emperor beshit with incompetence and reveling in unimaginable degradation. Katrina had, at least temporarily, saved the surviving remnants of the New Deal.

Meanwhile Fred Thompson of Tennessee has entered the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. Fred is known primarily for acting stints on “Law and Order” and a few movie and television roles, once actually playing the president of the United States. The political pachyderms, in what amounts to a total panic at the electoral prospects now looming, are grasping at straws in Iowa and other primary states trying to find a new messiah to lead them out of the wilderness. “If only we could recreate the glory days”, they say to each other in whispered breath, “if only we could resurrect Ronnie”. What the hell an actor once held them and much of the nation spellbound, why not nominate yet another thespian. Perhaps he can deliver some of that old black magic.

Reagan was one of those characters who walks on stage, holds the audience in rapt attention, and then makes his exit to thundering applause. He accomplished on the political stage what he could not on the boards of Broadway or the silver screen for upon his exit the crowd sat transfixed unable to judge the man behind the curtain. Reagan was a host of contradictions. The darling of the bible-thumping fundamentalist idiot right he espoused family values but was, nevertheless, the first divorced man to be elected President of the United States. Campaigning against “big government” and charging that “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem”, he nevertheless presided over a peacetime expansion of the federal payroll not seen since the days of Lyndon Johnson. Espousing conservative fiscal restraint he created what were, for the time, record deficits. Advocating a strong military and talking tough to our adversaries (once calling the Soviet Union the ‘evil empire’), he nevertheless chose to wage war on countries whose military strength represented the might of roughly the police force of the city of Miami. No one remembers that when the going got tough, “the tough got going”, as in when 280 marines were killed by a suicide bomber in south Lebanon. Ronnie simply put his tail between his legs and called the boys home. Ronnie was able to straddle these contradictions and transcend them because he had somehow mastered on the political stage what had been so elusive on the silver screen: he had become, in the moniker Congresswoman Schroeder so aptly gave him, “the Teflon President”; he had succeeded in suspending disbelief.

The acting profession has not had such an impact on national public policy since John Wilkes Booth made his last brief appearance at Ford’s Theatre. Ronnie created a fiscal mess that took not only most of his second term but arguably cost his successor re-election because he had to break his famous ‘no new taxes’ pledge to keep the republic from sinking deep into a financial abyss. It wasn’t until Clinton again upwardly adjusted the tax code that some sense of fiscal responsibility was restored to the republic.

Reagan also gets credit for a booming economy. The historical record is checkered and somewhat contradictory on this point. The record shows huge deficits beginning in the early 80’s brought on by Ronnie’s cutting taxes on the highest earners from roughly 72% to 29%, later adjusted upward to around 33%. In fact for a brief period the highest tax payers were actually in a lower tax bracket than the middle class: 29% as compared with 32. This of course led to huge increases in the disparity of wealth and made it possible, along with changes in the Social Security tax structure and the passing of the cost of services to state and local governments where tax codes are much more regressive, for the rich to accumulate huge sums while the middle and lower classes struggled. For the entire first term, the nation stood dead in the water: Gross National Product, a measure of the economic productivity of the country, did not reach 1979 levels until 1985. Unemployment, high interest rates, and inflation continued to curse the best laid plans of presidents and men. As in the twenties, the prosperity of the 80’s was not widely shared by the country. The economy looked good on paper but while Wall Street prospered, Main Street languished.

Reagan is credited by Fox Noise, talk radio, and the idiot right with rebuilding our military. Yes he brought back the B1 and B2 bombers but he also brought the U.S.S. Iowa and other World War Two battleships out of mothballs and refitted them at huge expense in an erstwhile effort to fight the last war or to be precise the war before the war before the last war. In truth when Pappy Bush launched his assault on the errant Saddam in the first Gulf War, he did it with Jimmy Carter’s weapons—cruise missiles, smart bombs.

Reagan, it seems, was an amiable boob but a boob nonetheless, reminding one not so much of his hero Calvin Coolidge, but Warren G. Harding. The “Acting President”, as Bob Scheifer called him, who horrified the Neo-Cons by sitting down with Mikhail Gorbachev at Raykivic and nearly giving away our nuclear arsenal. Fortunately the vitality of the U.S. economy and a great deal of institutional inertia and memory prevented Reagan from running roughshod over the country. But Reagan paid homage to Coolidge only in taking down the portrait of Woodrow Wilson in the cabinet room and hanging ‘Ol Cal in his place and by regularly napping and thereby sleepwalking through half his presidency. With Oliver North playing Bernard fall and Iran-Contra replacing Teapot Dome, Reagan played his best Warren Harding in that he ushered in an era of reaction, greed, corruption and scandal.

It remains to be seen whether Fred Thompson brings the same ability to suspend disbelief with the same disdain for the facts. Clearly no facts can prevent him from genuflecting before the altar of low taxes. No facts can dissuade him from unabashed support of dubya’s war. Still I have my doubts. I didn’t know Ronnie, Ronnie wasn’t a friend of mine, but from what I can see, Fred you’re no Ronnie Reagan. But then again if you don’t put some distance between yourself and “The Great Decider”, if you don’t put more daylight between you and ‘Ol Two-Cows than there is between Dubya’s ears, we will never find out.

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