For Want of a Nail
September 3, 2005
every seemingly simple calamity, there is a complex chain of events
leading up to it. In the case of Katrina, the hurricane which has
ruined much of the Gulf Coast, left many of its inhabitants homeless
and taken the lives of many others, it will be a long time before
that chain of events will be known.
There will be calls for investigations, by Congress, by the legislatures
of the affected Southern states; perhaps, grudgingly, there even
will be a Presidential commission to recommend ways to prevent such
a disaster in the future.
Make no mistake - this is a disaster of near-incalculable proportions.
What will these investigations and commissions find? That it was
a disaster, and maybe little more than that.
The obvious reasons have already been discussed in the media, even
as bodies drift aimlessly through the waterlogged streets of New
Orleans - cuts in the budget for levee improvements in New Orleans,
National Guard troops stationed half a world away instead of waiting
in readiness to respond to emergencies in their own states, scientific
studies on hurricane defenses abandoned for lack of money, budget
cuts to the agencies responsible for preparedness and first response,
shortages of personnel and the means to move them effectively to
where they are needed.
All these things and more will be discussed in minutae, dissected
into their component parts, voluminous reports will be written and
then those reports will be discussed and dissected, without ever
getting to the fundamentals of the problem. One of those fundamentals
is prized by the Bush administration as a major policy, though it
is carefully hidden from public view.
Its roots go back to the days when stevedores unloaded ships on
Mississippi docks by hand and mule-drawn wagons carried those goods
away, the so-called Gilded Age, when robber barons believed it was
their due to have government work for them, and all the taxes they
were willing to pay for the privilege were the bribes they paid
to the likes of Mark Hanna.
Eventually, Franklin Roosevelt brought about the New Deal, and
the robber barons were, if not forced into penury, at least brought
under control. Then, Ronald Reagan found his way to the Presidency,
and opened the doors of government to a new generation of robber
barons. Reagan's only maxim was that "government can't solve problems
- it is the problem." By that, he meant that it cost too much and
it interfered with what they call "bidness" in Texas. He wanted
big tax cuts for the wealthy and a reduction in not only regulation
of business, but government oversight of business as well.
In return, Reagan left us with his White House running secret,
illegal armies overseas, a near-tripling of the national debt in
eight years, the blossoming savings and loan debacle, along with
the largest defense procurement scandal in the country's history.
Reagan also left the country with the belief that old-fashioned
self-reliance was a virtue (unless one was a corporation in need
of government relief). By the time Reagan left office, a huge cottage
industry of right-wing think tanks and media pundits were in place,
extolling Saint Ronnie's virtues and furthering the aims of the
very wealthy, corporate and individual, in this country, all the
while using the government to promote their ideas and policies.
The Bush administration, advised by these same Rasputins, has taken
this attitude to a new level of disdain for government. It has been
making a determined effort, through funding cuts, through mismanagement
and cronyism, to actually make the government incapable of functioning
Let's look at Bush's record in this regard. On the morning of
September 11th, 2001, the most extensive, sophisticated and most
expensive air defense system in the world - funded and operated
entirely by taxpayer support - failed utterly. It did not just work
imperfectly. It failed to operate at all.
When, in the days following those attacks on New York City, the
EPA discovered that the health hazards were enormous, it was not
allowed to operate as intended. Its findings were suppressed and
its actions to protect public health were effectively halted.
In the run-up to Bush's desired war against Iraq, the country's
combined intelligence services were thwarted in their attempt to
provide accurate information to the White House and Congress. These
services, including the CIA, the NSA and the DIA, were completely
undone by a few civilians deep inside those agencies determined
to publicize the false information provided by someone with the
horrendously accurate codename, "Curveball." Every justification
for the war was false and misleading, and through the efforts of
a few Bush people, the intelligence services were rendered impotent,
inoperative and bereft of public trust. Yet another essential of
government now does not function as intended.
Now, in the past week, FEMA is bound inside the bureaucratic tangle
of the Department of Homeland Security and is being administered
by a political appointee, Michael Brown. Of Brown, Paul Begala said
on Crossfire on Aug. 16, 2004:
Speaking about the president, the head of the federal emergency
management agency today said that it could take weeks to search
through all the debris and find all the victims of Hurricane Charley
in Florida. Of course, one of President Bush's first moves as
president was to fire James Lee Witt, the disaster relief professional
who had turned FEMA from a basket case to showcase.
Mr. Witt was replaced by George W. Bush's campaign manager, Joe
Allbaugh, who was in turn replaced by another political hack,
Michael Brown, whose prior experience with disasters consisted
of serving as a Republican staffer in the disaster of the Oklahoma
FEMA is not operating as it might because it, like other parts
of government under Bush, is designed not to work properly. The
intent is to make the government not work on behalf of the
This seeming incompetence is designed into the government Bush
built. It is an intrinsic part of a plan to alienate the public
from the government, to set the public against its government and
justify further cuts in all budgets of government except defense
spending, and to shovel the country's collective misery into the
too-small hands of private charities - as was the case in the Gilded
When it comes time to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and to restore the
birthplace of America's only native musical genre, there will be
national relief for insurance companies. There will be national
relief (in the country's interest, of course) for the oil companies'
losses in production and refining capacity. There will be money
appropriated or loaned to real estate developers. There will be
a little money sent to Bush's favored "faith-based" charities.
But, the poor will still be poor - and homeless and jobless. There
will be no national call to raise the minimum wage. There will be
no national outcry for a government effort to train the most disadvantaged
in the region for work doing the tasks of clean-up, environmental
hazard mitigation and the reconstruction of destroyed cities and
towns. That would be too much like FDR's WPA and CCC programs. That
would be too much like the government helping the citizens it represents.
What George W. Bush might consider now is that nail. Before Hurricane
Katrina, the nail was the few millions required for levee protection,
disaster planning, etc. Now, that nail is the way in which his government
deals with the people most in need.
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, the horse was lost, the
battle was lost and the king was lost, as well. One would think
the imperially-inclined George Bush, the Yale history major with
the low-C average, might still be mindful of that deceptively insignificant
punpirate is a New Mexico writer with a pocket full of nails.