The neocons’ bathtub

New Orleans shows what the radical oligarchs have in store for the rest of us

Photo Illustration by Don Button

The warm, filthy water currently being pumped out of New Orleans may look more like a cesspool than a bathtub, but it’s easy enough to drown in. For the past few weeks, the images coming from New Orleans and Mississippi have been both enraging and sickening. The complete breakdown of systems to protect the most vulnerable is maddening, and it’s certainly satisfying to think of heads rolling—at least in a figurative sense—for the series of failures.

But a failure of this magnitude—long-term lack of preparedness, complacency, disorganization and misallocation of resources—can’t possibly be the fault of any one man, or even of any one party. It is, instead, a failure of an ideology.

One of the major proponents of this ideology is Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who is also one of the chief strategists behind President Bush’s tax plan. Norquist is most famously known for saying that his goal was to cut the federal government down “to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” The response, or lack thereof, by federal agencies and officials to the crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina is proof that the plan is working. This is Grover Norquist’s bathtub: full of sewage, toxic waste and the bodies of our citizens. There’s not a rubber ducky in sight.

Norquist’s desire to destroy the federal government is manifest in the ideology of those we’ve come to call conservative Republicans; in reality, these people are as far from true conservatism as it is possible to get. It would be far more accurate to call them radical oligarchs or neoconservatives. For the sake of brevity, “neocons” will work.

The last time flooding caused this sort of catastrophic, region-wide chaos was during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which devastated the Mississippi Valley. The consequences of that devastation led to a national commitment to flood control through federally funded infrastructure; the idea was that what would benefit this one region in the heart of the United States ultimately would benefit the entire nation. We built dams with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Army Corps of Engineers went to work on locks, levees and flood walls. It was the sort of decision that seemed both reasonable and necessary because we shared the belief that the wisest use of our common wealth—our tax dollars and natural resources—was for the common good. Simply put, we believed that government existed to serve the people.

But there remains a faction in the United States that has never ascribed to that belief; instead, these people believe that government exists to serve business—preferably their business. They are still pissed off about the New Deal, 70 years later—a long time to hold a grudge, any way you look at it. As opposed to the traditional American attitude—the “We’re all in this together” attitude that leads us to cooperate on institutions from barn-raisings to public schools—these radicals take an attitude of “I’ve got mine; the rest of you are on your own.” Sometimes they wish us luck, but not always.

In order to get the federal government weak enough to drown, they’ve been “starving” it: cutting funding for programs to such a point that the programs cease to be effective or “reforming” the programs until they’re useless for their original intent. The neocons even have a name for it; they call it “starving the beast,” which makes clear that they don’t see government as a tool to serve the people, but rather as a monster to be destroyed.

How does this have anything to do with the problems following Katrina’s landfall? Let’s start with federal plans to protect and expand the wetlands in the Louisiana delta, which would have helped to soften Katrina’s impact: funding cut under the Bush administration. And what about the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans to strengthen the levee and flood protection around New Orleans? Funding cut by 40 percent in the last two Bush administration budgets. Then there’s the slow response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Once a Cabinet-level organization focused on disaster management, FEMA has been criticized before for slow responses, notably during Hurricane Andrew. But it was Johnny-on-the-spot on 9/11. It’s only after making FEMA an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, changing its focus to terrorism response and appointing political cronies with no experience in disaster response and emergency management that FEMA became incompetent.

Then there’s the problem of the large number of people who were unable to evacuate from New Orleans. Most of them were poor, and many were elderly, sick or disabled. No, neoconservative ideology doesn’t cause poverty, but it sure doesn’t make it any better; recently reported studies show that poverty has increased under the Bush administration. And it is the ideology of neoconservatism that gives us the blame-the-victim crap we’ve heard from talk-radio hosts like Mark Williams and Rush Limbaugh, as well as from the former head of FEMA, Michael Brown, who all made comments to the effect that it was New Orleans residents’ own fault if they didn’t evacuate. Neoconservatism fosters the lack of empathy that can’t comprehend people too poor to have a car, too sick to drive or too close to the financial edge to have a credit card they can use to rent a motel room. It’s a mindset that just can’t figure out why all those folks sitting on rooftops didn’t hop in their SUVs and evacuate to their summer homes, where they could use their laptops to fill out their FEMA and insurance forms in comfort.

A joke currently making the rounds on the Internet is a simple one-liner: “Republicans don’t believe government can work, so they get elected and prove it.” Somewhere along the line, true conservatism—a belief that government exists to serve the people in a fiscally responsible manner—was transformed into the warped notion that the only reason to have a government is to keep business safe from regulation and taxes.

Kanye West, the rapper who caused a bit of a brouhaha by saying that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is more correct than many of us would like to believe. But it’s not just black people; it’s the poor, working and middle classes—anyone who doesn’t fit into what the people on top perceive as the norm. For all President Bush’s “folksy” manner, he’s the epitome of the neoconservative viewpoint. Anyone who can’t afford to buy a seat at the table not only doesn’t get to eat; it’s as if he doesn’t exist. And, since the president apparently can’t turn on a television and watch the news like the rest of us, he’ll never see anything to contradict that view.

The neocons—including State Department spin-meister Karen Hughes, who thought that images from New Orleans were making the United States look bad abroad—define “looting” as “taking stuff you can’t afford to pay for.” In New Orleans, that was food, water, diapers, shoes and, yes, a few television sets and DVD players. But with the neocon plan in place to starve federal programs of funding, that definition also includes health care, education and retirement in addition to food and water. If you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t have it.

But no-bid contracts, federal subsidies and huge tax breaks for big business don’t count as “looting”; Halliburton had gotten the go-ahead to do $500 million worth of repair work to naval installations in the area before the people trapped in the Superdome had been rescued. As more than one wag has pointed out, the real looting in New Orleans and Mississippi will start when the contracts to rebuild are handed out. None of that will “trickle down” to the working folks, since the minimum- and prevailing-wage laws have been suspended for the disaster.

The neoconservative ideology—and it’s not really fair to call it Republican ideology, because true Republicans (for example, Dwight Eisenhower, who had a big distrust for corporate power) would run screaming from it—says that anyone who wants to do so can rely on their own discipline and initiative. Therefore, it’s their own fault if they’re poor. It demands that we eliminate the role of government in everything from planning for retirement to planning for disasters, and they’ve made a lot of progress at putting this ideology to work. Most of the changes planned and brought about by these neocons, from so-called Social Security “reform” to permanent tax cuts for the wealthy to the ever-growing deficit to the economy- and soldier-bleeding war in Iraq, eventually will lead to average Americans finding themselves sitting on rooftops, whether figurative or literal, and praying for rescue.

And the toll is going to be in bodies.

The difference between the gutting of FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers and destruction of the social safety net first inaugurated in the New Deal is that, when Social Security and Medicare are worthless, the bodies will arrive at the morgue one by one instead of in refrigerated tractor-trailers, so the media will be less likely to notice.

Let’s not forget that only part of this disaster was natural. The rest of it was purely human. As we pick up the pieces, pump out the water and move into whatever the future holds, let’s pay attention to what elected officials are really saying when they tell us that we need to rely on ourselves instead of the federal government. The translation is: When the shit hits the fan and the hurricane comes, don’t expect a hand. Or a bottle of water. You’re on your own, pal. Good luck.