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How the free market killed New Orleans.

THE FREE MARKET played a crucial role in the August 2005 destruction of New Orleans and the death of thousands of its residents. Forewarned that Katrina--a momentous category rive hurricane--might hit that city and surrounding areas, what did officials do? They played the free market.

They announced that everyone should evacuate. All were expected to devise their own way out of the disaster area by private means, just like people do when disaster hits free-market countries in the Third World.

It is a beautiful thing this free market in which every individual pursues his or her own personal interests and thereby affects an optimal outcome for the entire society. Thus does the invisible hand work its wonders in mysterious ways.

In New Orleans there would be none of the collectivistic regimented evacuation as occurred in Cuba. When a powerful category rive hurricane hit that island nation in 2004, the Castro government--abetted by neighborhood citizen committees and local Communist party cadres--evacuated some 1.5 million people, more than 10 percent of the country's population. The Cubans lost 20,000 homes to that hurricane--but not a single person was killed, a heartening feat that went largely unmentioned in the U.S. press.

On day one of the disaster caused by Katrina, it was already clear that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans had perished in New Orleans. Many people had "refused" to evacuate, media reporters explained, because they were just plain "stubborn."

It wasn't until day three that telecasters began to realize that tens of thousands of people had failed to flee because they had nowhere to go and no means of getting there. With hardly any cash at hand, and over 100,000 people without cars of their own, many had to sit tight and hope for the best. In the end, the free market didn't work so well for them.

Many of these people were low-income African Americans, along with fewer numbers of poor whites. It should be remembered that most of them had jobs before the flood hit them. That's what most poor people do in this country: they work, usually quite hard at dismally paying jobs, sometimes more than one job at a time. They are poor not because they're lazy but because they are paid poverty wages while burdened by high prices, high rents, and regressive taxes.

The free market played a role in the disaster in other ways. George W. Bush's agenda throughout his presidency has been to cut government services to the bone and make people rely on the private sector for the things they might need. So he sliced $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44 percent reduction. Plans to fortify New Orleans levees and upgrade the system of pumping out water had to be shelved and were even referred to as "pork." In addition, Army Corps of Engineers personnel had started work to build new levees several years ago but many of them were taken off such projects and sent to Iraq. And the president also cut $30 million in flood control appropriations.

It wasn't actually the hurricane that destroyed New Orleans. Katrina swerved and hit parts of Mississippi much harder. For New Orleans most of the destruction was caused by the flood that came when the levees broke, a flood that had long been feared by many.

On September 1 Bush took to the airways on "Good Morning America" and said "I don't think anyone anticipated that breach of the levees"--another untruth tumbling from his lips. The catastrophic flooding of New Orleans had been foreseen by storm experts, engineers, Louisiana journalists, state officials, and even some federal agencies. All sorts of people had been predicting disaster for years, pointing to the danger of rising water levels and the need to strengthen the levees and pumps, and fortify the entire coastland. And disaster drills were run just a year ago.

In their campaign to starve out the public sector, the Bush reactionaries allowed developers to drain vast areas of wetlands. Again, that old invisible hand of the free market was supposed to take care of things. The developers, pursuing their own private profit, were expected to devise outcomes that would benefit us all.

But the Louisiana wetlands served as a natural absorbent and barrier between New Orleans and the storms riding in from the Gulf. And for some years now, the wetlands of the Gulf coast have been disappearing at a frightening pace. All this was of no concern to the reactionaries in the White House.

This brings us to another way that the free market helped destroy New Orleans. By relying almost entirely on fossil fuel as an energy source--far more expensive and therefore more profitable than solar, tidal, or wind power--the free market has been a great contributor to global warming. Global warming, in turn, has caused a drastic rise in sea levels. And rising sea levels have been destroying the protective fringe of barrier islands and coastal marshlands along the Louisiana coast.

On September 5, 2005, the New York Times reported that "Every year, another 25 square miles, an area roughly the size of Manhattan, sinks quietly beneath the waves. In some places, the [Louisiana] coastline has receded 15 miles from where it was in the 1920s."

As for the widely criticized rescue operation, free-marketeers like to say that relief to the more unfortunate among us should be left to private effort. It was a favorite preachment of President Ronald Reagan that "private charity can do the job." And for some time after Katrina that indeed seemed to be the policy pursued.

The federal government was nowhere in sight but the Red Cross went into action, begging contributors: "Don't send food or blankets; send money." The Salvation Army also began to muster its troops, as did many other organizations. Pat Robertson and the Christian Broadcasting Network--taking a moment off from God's work of pushing John Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court--called for donations and announced "Operation Blessing" which consisted of a highly publicized but totally inadequate shipment of canned goods and Bibles.

By day three even the usually myopic media began to realize the immense failure of the rescue operation. People were dying because relief hadn't arrived. Especially victimized were the infants, the elderly, the infirm, and others needing special medical attention. The authorities seemed more concerned with the looting than with rescuing people, more concerned with "crowd control," which consisted of forcing thousands to stay pent up in barren areas devoid of minimal amenities or proper shelter.

Questions arose that the free market seemed incapable of answering: who was in charge of the rescue operation? Why were there so few helicopters and just a small force of Coast Guard crews? Why did it take helicopters rive hours to lift six people out of one hospital? When would the rescue operation gather some steam? Where were the feds? The state troopers? The National Guard? Where were the buses, trucks, shelters, and portable toilets? The medical supplies and water? How is that newscasters could get in and out of flood areas but rescuers and supplies could not?

And where was Homeland Security? What had Homeland Security done with the $33.8 billion allocated to it in fiscal 2005? By day four, almost all the major media were reporting that the federal government's response was "a national disgrace." Meanwhile George Bush finally made his photo-op appearance in a few well-chosen disaster areas--before romping off to play golf.

By the end of the first week, as if to demonstrate that reality is irrelevant, various free-market bloggers were already claiming ideological victory. They argued that the failure to deal with the crisis is proof that "government is inept; it doesn't work." It was private individuals, charities, and corporations that pitched in to help. It was Wal-Mart that sent in three trailer trucks loaded with water, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that turned them away. It was private families that took the refugees into their homes, while government herded them into the Superdome.

Overlooked here is that the great outpouring of aid from private citizens, as heartening as it was, does nothing to address the problems of flood and storm, evacuation, public safety, community security, long term individual care, rehabilitation, and infrastructure reconstruction.

To be sure, government doesn't work--certainly not when it's in the hands of reactionaries who have no desire for it to work. New Orleans was victimized by those rightwing ideologues who oppose the idea that government can be a salutary force in regard to social needs and human services.

The Bushites want to demonstrate that government isn't to be counted on when it comes to helping communities (especially low-income and ethnic minority communities). For all their inertia, FEMA officials played a chillingly active role in sabotaging the delivery of aid, turning away supply convoys, and warehousing the many volunteer rescue units that poured in from other states. Meanwhile Washington took four days to respond to requests that National Guard units from other states be allowed into Louisiana.

Of course, it shouldn't go unnoticed that the Bushite reactionaries are selective free marketeers. They want to dismantle human services, get rid of public schools, public housing, and public health facilities; and they want to abolish the government's regulatory role in the corporate economy. But they also want to extend government power into other areas.

They want more power to carry out surveillance, classify official information, control private morals, vaporize civil liberties, and suppress public protest. They want plenty of government involvement when it comes to massive public subsidies and contracts for corporate America, limitless expansion of armaments and military technology, and perpetual overseas intervention. It is the victory of empire over republic.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in a moment of touching irony, foreign aid was tendered by almost fifty countries, including many poorer ones such as the Dominican Republic, Honduras, India, Pakistan, Russia, and Thailand. By day seven, Mexico had sent army convoys and a navy ship laden with food, supplies, and specialists. German cargo planes came in with ready-to-eat meals and a German officer who openly expressed his concern that the meals would eventually reach the people in need. (He must have been watching the news.)

Cuba--which has a record of sending doctors to dozens of countries, including a thankful Sri Lanka during the tsunami disaster--offered almost 1600 doctors and loads of medical supplies. Meanwhile Venezuela offered one million barrels of gasoline, $5 million in cash, water purification plants, and 50 tons of canned foods and water.

Predictably, the offers from Cuba and Venezuela were ignored by the U.S. State Department. And as of day ten, the Bush administration had nothing to say about the vast array of supplies offered by all the other countries. America the beautiful and powerful, America the supreme rescuer and world leader, America the purveyor of global prosperity most certainly couldn't accept foreign aid from a third-world communist "failure" such as Cuba.

And what a most deflating and insulting role reversal that the United States was taking aid from Mexico or anyone else. Nevertheless people throughout the world, having seen all the television images, were beginning to think that perhaps America really was not paradise on earth.

In sum, the Bushite reactionaries have neither the desire nor the decency to provide for ordinary citizens, not even those in dire straits. I recently heard someone complain, "Bush is trying to save the world when he can't even take care of his own people here at home." Not quite true. He certainly does take very good care of his own people--that tiny fraction of one percent, the superrich. It's just that the working people of New Orleans don't number among them.

Michael Parenti's recent books include Superpatriotism (City Lights) and The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), and The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories Press), all available in paperback,
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Author:Parenti, Michael
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Previous Article:Katrina's America: failure, racism, and profiteering.
Next Article:A humanist in a hurricane.

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