Monday, September 26, 2005

Funny money


"Rita leaves a $6 billion mess," reads the banner headline in my morning Boston Globe.

I don't know how to react. That's a lot less than the $200 billion estimate to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina. And that in turn is but a fifth of the $1 trillion plus the war in Iraq will cost over its first three or four years, according to a New York Times graphic some weeks back -- a figure that included "peripheral" costs for things such as new limbs for shattered lives.

But $6 billion still sure sounds like a lot of suffering -- unless, out of sight and out of the headlines, some of it proves to be so much padding for much higher-end looters than those who were stealing food and diapers from deserted New Orleans stores.

In the world of politics, it appears, there's congressionally sanctioned skim and just plain skim. In the first category falls this Administration's tax cuts. It's well-established that the top 1 percent, and especially the top .1 percent, of people on America's economic totem poll, have benefitted disproportionately from President Bush's tax cut. Oh, the conservatives still argue that the rich must be freed from tax bondage for their hard-earned wealth so that the fruits of their entrepreneurship and business acumen can trickle down to the masses. But it's established fact nonetheless that they're getting a lot more back than the rest of us.

In the aftermath of the hurricanes, however, comes a new category of corporate welfare. Having already soaked the rest of us to get their big tax cuts, the President's political and corporate buddies show signs of playing on the pity for the suffering to extend their profits in new and dubious directions. According to today's New York Times, more than 80 percent of the clean-up contracts signed thus far by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were no-bid contracts, many arrived at by handshake agreements.

And guess whose hand FEMA is shaking? For starters a subsidiary of Halliburton, the all-pervasive giant that's cornered the lion's share of contracts in Iraq and -- surprise -- for which Vice-President Cheney served as chief executive officer before re-entering politics. That company and another major contractor that's cleaning up -- in more ways than one in Katrina's aftermath -- are both represented by Joe M. Albaugh, the president's former campaign manager, the former director of FEMA, and the good fellow who recommended his buddy, Michael D. "Brownie" Brown, to head the agency when he left.

Considering what a mess this Administration made of the federal response to Katrina, it's remarkable how tidy its connections are to the clean-up. Perhaps top officials are figuring nobody will bother looking now that the news has moved on to Rita and the President is everywhere, showing that true leaders never sleep. Perhaps they'll be proven right.

I hope not. As a student in graduate school, my professors gave me one overriding piece of advice: "Follow the money trail." It can be a convoluted trail with few signs. But more and more of them seem pointed in the general direction of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The pain-free presidency

This post appeared first on on Sunday, Sept. 18.


The White House advance team did its usual bang-up job in shining a bright light on President George W. Bush Thursday night as he stood in the darkness of New Orleans' Jackson Square and promised that, with his administration's help, the devastated and largely deserted city would rise again. Too bad our Compassionate Conservative has never invested a tenth as much interest in the federal bureaucracy as he has in his image consultants.

By the very next day, Mr. Bush had made clear that his gain-with-no-pain presidency hadn't changed its tune. As The New York Times lead headline pronounced "FEMA, slow to the rescue, now stumbles in aid effort," W. pledged that the rebuilding of New Orleans -- estimated by some at $200 billion -- would be accomplished with no new taxes. In fact, he continued to call for an extension of his tax cuts, which, The Times noted, stand to drain $1.4 trillion more from federal coffers over the next decade.

These are astronomical numbers, too big for anyone but a macro budget wonk to fully grasp. But anyone who has run up their credit card debt past what they can conceivably repay has a good intuitive sense of what the President is doing to the federal budget. It's already as awash in red ink as New Orleans' flooded neighborhoods are in toxic waters. Yet once again the President is insisting he'll solve a massive problem -- in this case, New Orleans' problem -- with no pain, no sacrifice and no reprecussions for the rest of us.

Will this country allow itself to be fooled once again? Do we really think this reconstruction will work a whole lot better than Iraq's, where our soldiers regularly get blown to bits because of a shortage of body armor and where billions earmarked for reconstruction have disappeared with little to show for it?

The early signs are not good. While it's too early to tell whether the administration will revert to its Iraq pattern of doing things on the cheap and inventing priority and rationale as it goes, we've already seen what five years neglect of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has accomplished.

New director or not, that agency's efforts still are coming up short, The Times reports. Storm victims can't get through to FEMA by phone. Many federal help centers, which are supposed to be central sites for aid and information, still don't exist. Evacuees struggle even to get information about family members scattered around the country.

"The problems clearly stem largely from the sheer enormousness of the disaster," The Times acknowledges. "But the lack of investment in emergency preparedness, poor coordination across a sprawling federal bureaucracy and massive failure of local communication systems -- all of which hurt the initial rescue efforts -- are now impeding the recovery."

Most eerie, in a century of computer databases and up-to-the-second communication systems, is that even efforts to reunite parents with an estimated 2,000 separated or missing children apparently are so scattershot three weeks after Katrina that the cable network CNN is dedicating much of this weekend's news to showing some of the lost and separated children on television.

So who again is in charge here?

Calling on God's help, as the President did Saturday in his weekly radio address, falls short of an answer. And promising the American public a free pass, when it comes to taxes or any other form of sacrifice, will do nothing but assure that the bill collector and repo man will come calling in the next administration and in generations to come.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The 'blame game,' Mr. President?


President Bush is revving the gears of his spin machine. He and his staff are whining that Democrats are playing the "blame game" rather than showing unswerving support in the face of an unnerving national disaster.

Poor George. He seems to have forgotten -- and so, perhaps, have many of us -- the still uncounted dead from Hurricane Katrina who may number in the thousands (the Federal Emergency Management Agency has ordered 25,000 body bags.) I wonder how many died while the president vacationed and his federal managers fumbled? I wonder how many drowned, trapped in wheelchairs and attics or clinging to roofs and trees, in the hours and then days that it took a full-scale federal rescue effort to take shape? I wonder why we still can't get it right for survivors, some of whom collapsed in the heat Thursday waiting for debit cards FEMA promised and then didn't deliver?

And the president is upset that his critics aren't holding their tongues? No one is calling for a multi-count indictment for involuntary manslaughter, Mr. President. They just expect you, our self-proclaimed war president, to be a leader, not a buck-passer.

Or at least some do. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll this week found that 42 percent of Amercicans in this country believe the president did a bad or terrible job of responding to the hurricane. I can only wonder what's up with the other 58 percent.

This is a man whose modus operandi for five years has been to reward the rich and dismantle support systems for everyone else. He's the man who appointed the failed head of the International Arabian Horse Association to head the agency most vital to national recovery from a catastrophe. And after that man, Michael Brown, told the press he had no clue that perhaps 20,000 people were trapped at the New Orleans Convention Center three days after the storm, an assertion that defies comprehension or credibility, President Bush flew to the decimated Gulf to tell him, "Brownie, you're doin' a heck of a job."

Blame game?

Then there was the performance of the president himself. As Hurricane Katrina zeroed in on New Orleans, he stayed on vacation in Crawford, Texas. When it crashed ashore with 20-foot- plus storm surges, flattening whole communities, he headed to the West Coast to drum up more support for his disastrous war in Iraq. When the levees broke and the water began to rise in New Orleans, he gave a speech -- comparing himself to a great Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during World War II. When, two days after the storm's devastation he finally decided he should go back to Washington, he looked down from the heights of Air Force One rather than stopping on the ground. And when it was time to duck and cover, he began with the statement that no one expected New Orleans' levees to break, a bald-faced lie.

That was the run-up to the President's Friday tour of the damage and his ignorant, ill-timed and outrageous comment praising Michael Brown. And since then? Has the president made amends by opening his home in Crawford to a family in need of shelter? Has this compassionate conservative set an example by writing a sizable relief check on national TV? Has he spent a single day feeding the sick, the homeless, the numb as they try to make sense of shattered lives? No, no, and no.

But he did trot out his press secretary to spin the "blame game" defense. White House spokesman Scott McClellan used "blame game" 15 times in the course of two press conferences, according to news reports. And while he was shaking his finger at critics, mom, former First Lady Barbara Bush, seemed to be chiding the survivors themselves.This Monday at Houston's Astrodome, she announced, according to USA Today, that some evacuees there "were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Oh really.

The newspaper kindly dismissed the comment as an example of a "Yankee reserve" that sometimes restrained the president as well. But it sounded a lot more like bigotry to me, or at least ignorance, which some might consider the same thing.

In the end, of course, it is the president's own behavior that counts. For a guy who spends a lot of time swaggering and sneering, he has yet to learn a president's job is to lead. Leadership means getting in front of a situation, not figuring out how to distract people from the damage once it's done.

And so, Mr. President, I'd say this: If anyone is playing games, it's you. But the public is catching on. This time, as you once again wrap yourself in an oversized American flag, more of us see that from behind it you are spitting at the people it represents.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Too many questions


My television screen filled with deeply disturbing images Thursday night.

At the New Orleans Convention Center, a woman died in her wheelchair waiting to be rescued. Thousands of people remain there, waiting in fear. Most don’t have food. They don’t have water. They’re being preyed upon by packs of hoodlums roaming the streets. A CNN reporter documented all this by mid-afternoon.
But five hours later, at 8:30 p.m., no one had come to the rescue. No one. Instead, police told the reporter, Chris Lawrence, that it was too dangerous for him to stay on the ground.
Still, CNN’s Paula Zahn managed to interview a woman at the Convention Center by phone. The woman told the network that six corpses lay around her. All the people had died that day. The living are starving, dehydrated, suffering, she said. Yet she told Zahn that no police were patrolling the building. No National Guard had arrived. No Army. No Marines. No food or water had been dropped. No buses or trucks sent in. Why?
Five days have passed since Katrina devastated New Orleans. Many citizen volunteers, Coast Guard rescue teams, local police have performed heroically in the chaos. But where is the coordination, the organization, the resources? Who is in charge on the ground? It took two days for President Bush to leave his vacation in Crawford, Texas. It took a third before he spoke to the nation. He visited some of the stricken area today, but not New Orleans. No. He was scheduled to see that from the air. Does he have a tin ear or does he simply not care?
How can a nation that has spent hundreds of billions of dollars invading Iraq and stationing 138,000 soldiers, Marines and guardsmen there fail so miserably in responding rapidly to a disaster within its borders? Could it be because two-fifths of the Louisiana National Guard is in Iraq? How can we fail so completely to airlift in food and water and to drop enough troops to make sure that food and water is not stolen from the old, the young, the poor and the disabled, suffering and dying outside the New Orleans Convention Center?
It is one thing for people to die in the savagery of a vicious storm or in the silence of their flooded homes. It is another for them to die a slow death four and five days after the storm has passed when they're in plain sight for the TV cameras.
And many, perhaps most, never should have been there. Hurricane Katrina was no secret. It headed toward shore as a catastrophic Category 5 storm and New Orlean’s mayor issued a mandatory evacuation order. But why then didn’t the city and state and federal government back up that order by sending in buses and Army trucks and trains to take people, free of charge, to safety before the storm hit? Everyone knew New Orleans lies below sea level. Everyone knew something horrible was about to unfold. It was just a matter of degree. And if some of the 200,000 estimated to have stayed behind did so out of love of their homes, foolishness, or simple ignorance, plenty didn't leave because they just couldn't. They had no car. They had no money. They had no help.
Would it have been more expensive to get them out beforehand than it is now? Of course not. And, dare I ask, would we still be watching this heart-wrenching story at the Convention Center unfold on television if these people were white and well off instead of black and poor?
I doubt it.