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Wednesday, September 07, 2005


If you don’t have enough irony in your life try ingesting the irony of the last 30 years of conservative anti-government rhetoric. In a nutshell, the University of Chicago school of economics sold America on the idea of reducing the federal government, lowering taxes, and allowing the private sector more control in matters that were once the realm of government. Private industry was said to be more efficient than the public sector. It is tough even to begin a critique of this reasoning as it has more breaches than the New Orleans levees.

I have never understood Americans' disdain for government. Who is the government in a democracy? Have we forgotten the whole “We the People” thing? I suppose it has something to do with America’s almost inherent terror of socialism. Cold War prejudices die hard, socialism wasn’t just an alternative form of governing; it was the enemy. I think it is about time than we become a little more sophisticated about our understanding of the role of government.

Europe had a lot more at stake in the Cold War than America, yet most countries in Western Europe have embraced a fairly healthy dose of socialism in their approach to public services and works. Very little of Europe’s rail network is privatized. Here in America we expect trains to be self-sufficient, although we heavily subsidize roads and airports, so you could say that our interstate highway network is socialized. Government health care is guaranteed across most of Europe, and while they have their problems, they are not on the precipice of a catastrophe as we are with health care in American. In my lifetime, Ireland and Spain have gone from almost third world status to examples of what America should be. Spain’s rail network is an absolute marvel, and Ireland’s commitment to provide all of its citizens the best education possible should have Americans wondering where our system went wrong.

Our almost pathological fear of socialism is ridiculous. Although we don’t call them socialized, we have a socialized military, police forces, and fire prevention. We rely on the aid of our democratically elected government to deal with many issues that the private sector either cannot be trusted with or cannot handle. Public safety and security are two such issues. We would not expect the private sector to provide for our security, so we have created a series of government-controlled defenses. As we are now seeing in New Orleans, these defenses were not adequately maintained and public safety paid the price.

Although the actual hurricane caused considerable damage, most of the destruction in New Orleans was the result of human error. It seems that we took a calculated risk in not providing the sort of flood protection needed for the severest storms. We are taking the same risk with public safety here in Seattle. Everyone knows that the double-decker Alaskan Way viaduct (a structure similar to the San Francisco bridge that pancaked in the 1988 quake) will not survive another major earthquake, yet we will not replace it because it is too expensive. I wonder if local politicians have calculated some sort of macabre formula for not fixing the viaduct. The formula takes into account the acceptable number of deaths in the event of a disaster and the political fallout that will result.

These sorts of infrastructure problems are now rapidly becoming major issues because of the anti-government, anti-tax rhetoric of the past few decades. Conservatives can’t seem to find a single tax they can live with. Washington State recently passed an incredibly modest increase in the gasoline tax to address the issue of crumbling road infrastructure. There is already a call by Republicans to repeal the tax. The price of gas has gone up almost a dollar a gallon this year. A price hike is a sort of corporate tax hike yet I have heard few people calling for a repeal of this tax.

George Bush and the Republicans have campaigned on a platform of streamlining the government to make it more efficient and handing over responsibility to the private sector for many things that were the job of government. With the disaster relief in Louisiana we are witnessing the most incredibly inefficient government in my lifetime. This is a failure of this administration and a bigger failure of the gurus of privatization.

The catastrophe in New Orleans is almost entirely the result of human neglect. Our president is either stupid or lying or probably both when he says that no one could have known that the levees would give way. Like with the Alaskan Way viaduct here in Seattle, everyone knew about the inadequacy of the levees in New Orleans, that they weren’t sufficient to protect the city from a storm of this magnitude.

Every time a politician talks about cutting taxes, you should hear it as cutting services. Tax relief under this administration has meant relieving the ultra-rich of any responsibility to contribute to the well-being of our society. These tax breaks were supposed to cut through the inefficiency of the government to free up resources for the private sector. There is plenty of evidence that the wealthiest 1% of Americans has seen a dramatic rise in their incomes, the legions of our poor increase dramatically every year, and vital public works projects go under-funded.

The question is what will be the next catastrophe to befall this nation. I would say that our health care industry is in worse shape than the New Orleans levees or the Alaskan Way viaduct. Everyone knows that a disaster is on the horizon, yet we do absolutely nothing. Public education is in pretty bad shape as far as many inner-city areas are concerned. The ever-increasing number of poor Americans may soon be a major issue of national security. Our trade imbalance with China seems to be the concern of most American economists. This nation’s almost complete reliance on the automobile and our insistence in driving inefficient vehicles will almost certainly come back to bite us on the ass in the very near future.

I don’t often offer up answers to problems as I feel we have too many people with all the answers but asking the wrong questions. What I propose is that the leadership in this country begin asking Americans for something in the way of personal sacrifice to come to grips with some of these huge problems. We are fighting a disastrous war in Iraq and never once has Bush called on the American people to make a sacrifice. Most people don’t give a shit about Iraq because they aren’t effected, even indirectly. The war is being fought by “volunteers” so why should middle and upper class Americans worry? In fact, the war is mostly being fought by economic conscripts who have little else in the way of opportunity.

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