Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Irony of American History

The announcer on Marketplace this morning almost casually mentioned that disaster has a way of realigning national priorities. He referred to Katrina, in America, and then the earthquake in Pakistan and India, which is making those countries reconsider cutting corners on buildings that could easily be made strong enough to survive a quake, but weren't, resulting in what this morning was announced to be an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 deaths.

My first thought was of the irony of George W. Bush, rising to power not with his election, but with the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, and falling as rapidly from power with the destruction of the city of New Orleans. I say New Orleans becase, lets be honest, had New Orleans been spared, Katrina would be largely a political footnote by now. despite the destruction in southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Case in point:

"We've had a stunning reversal in just a few weeks," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "We've gone from a situation in which we might have a long-overdue debate on deep poverty to the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that low-income people will be asked to bear the costs. I would find it unimaginable if it wasn't actually happening."

Mr. Greenstein's comments were echoed by Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut: "Poor people are going to get the short end of the stick, despite all the public sympathy. That's a great irony."

But many conservatives see logic, not irony, at work. If the storm exposed great poverty, they say, it also exposed the problems of the very policies that liberals have supported.

"This is not the time to expand the programs that were failing anyway," said Stuart M. Butler, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and advocacy group influential on Capitol Hill.

While the right has proposed alternatives including tax-free zones for businesses and school vouchers for students, Mr. Butler said, "the left has just talked up the old paradigm: 'let's expand what's failed before.' "

Doubt about the effectiveness of some programs is only one factor shaping the current antipoverty debate. Another is political muscle: poor people do not make campaign contributions. Many do not even vote.

A third factor is the federal deficit, which leaves little money for new initiatives. And a fourth is the continuing support for tax cuts, including those aimed at the wealthiest Americans, which further limits spending on social programs.

Indeed, even as he was calling for deep spending cuts last week, Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, who leads the conservative caucus, called tax reductions for the prosperous a key to fighting poverty.

"Raising taxes in the wake of a national catastrophe would imperil the very economic growth we need to bring the Gulf Coast back," Mr. Pence said. "I'm mindful of what a pipe fitter once said to President Reagan: 'I've never been hired by a poor man.' A growing economy is in the interest of every working American, regardless of their income."
This is, of course, the hair of the dog solution; but whose dog? Were "liberal" policies doing all that much for the Lower Ninth Ward? And yet, does anyone really believe that more tax cuts for the wealthy going to "trickle down" to water the ghettos of New Orleans and bring a flowering of new life there?

As usual in America we are looking at two camps talking past each other. The "liberals" quoted here wanted a debate. The "conservatives," who, after all, are still in power, wave that away with a dismissive: "Been there. Done that." Well, we've been through your response, too. It was called the Great Depression; and it was largely due to FDR that we didn't face social revolution. Ironically, in fact, some of the very levees that protected New Orleans were built by the WPA.

This is almost precisely the "Irony of American History" Niebuhr noted: the conflict between our high ideals, and our base actions, our abandonment of the Christian idea of human ambiguity. Perhaps this is why we can't have this kind of discussion in America. Maybe it's simply a harsh reality that all discussions about the public weal revolve around political power: who has it, and who doesn't it.

Which would be why only the destitute are innocent.

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