Friday, September 02, 2005

The Collapse of Government

Continuing with the theme of my last post, let’s take a look at some of the news from just one newspaper: the September 1 issue of the New York Times.

The main story, of course, is the New Orleans flood, almost surely the worst natural disaster in American history. While sensational footage of flooded neighborhoods and armed police dominates TV screens, word is emerging that the Bush Administration has systematically been cutting appropriations for shoring up the New Orleans flood control system for several years, willfully ignoring the obvious threat of a category 4 or 5 hurricane for which the existing system was known to be inadequate. The Washington Monthly is running a brief history of FEMA since 2001, during which time it has had two new managers, neither with any experience in disaster management, and proclaimed that expectations for its role had grown too high. The New Orleans Times Picayune had in fact, published a series on the funding cuts for the Army Corps of Engineers for New Orleans quite recently. Congress had always appropriated somewhat more money than the Bush Administration had asked for, but far less, in every year, than what Louisiana officials described as necessary.

Others are asking whether the Department of Homeland Security, focused on terrorism, will be able to handle the job. That Department is, in fact, a living contradiction—created to help the Bush Administration cripple the federal government. The Administration resisted its creation for about a year, until some one—probably Grover Norquist or Karl Rove—came up with a brilliant idea—to insist that the employees of the Department be stripped of civil service protection. That, to begin with, stuck a foot in the door to the elimination of civil service protection for all federal employees. The Pentagon is currently struggling, in the face of union opposition and court suits, to implement a similar set of rules, which will make promotion and retention the prerogative of political appointees, and the Bush Administration wants to extend the same system to the whole federal service. In addition, because Democrats opposed this provision, Republicans in the 2002 elections accused Democrats like triple-amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland of being unpatriotic—and took control of the Senate, allowing them to push their anti-government agenda ahead on all fronts and put through another round of tax cuts.

Meanwhile, Bob Herbert reports that in Tennessee, the Governor, a Democrat, has decided to meet a Medicaid funding crisis by cutting tens of thousands of recipients from the rolls. A great many of these people are very seriously ill and require medications which they cannot afford. A good many of them, obviously, will die.

Meanwhile, Dr. Susan Wood of the FDA’s office of women’s health has resigned because her Commissioner, Lester Crawford, overruled all the recommendations of staff and advisory boards and refused to allow the sale of the morning after contraceptive RU-438, reputedly because it would be impossible to avoid selling it to women under 18 (although why one should want to avoid doing so is quite beyond me), but actually, everyone agrees, to appease the Bush Administration’s political base. It turns out that Crawford was confirmed by the Senate only after he pledged that the FDA would make a decision on over-the-counter sales by September 1. Now that he has been confirmed, a decision not to decide has been announced.

In California, four former inmates of a California state prison have been indicted for hatching a terrorist plot based upon radical Islamic tenets which they propagated while behind bars. One of them is a Pakistani, the other three are Americans. For the past 40 years our prison system has been one of the few government programs to grow in funding, both absolutely and relatively. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, among other things, have diverted attention from our own gulag at home, where our prison population dwarfs that of any other industrial nation. This news, while only one straw in the wind, suggests that our criminal justice policies may now start to have serious political consequences.

Gas prices have hit $3.55 for mid-grade at my local convenience store, and everyone expects them to rise much, much more thanks to Hurricane Katrina and the continuing worldwide shortage.

All these stories, in one way or another, reflect the most important political development of the last forty years: the attack on taxation and government which actually has continued uninterrupted from the New Deal until this day. Although hardly anyone still knows it, the United States in the much-lamented 1950s had marginal income tax rates of 90%--yet our economy thrived, in complete contradiction to what is now accepted economic theory. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, ironically, started the ball rolling downhill in 1962-4, when they proposed a tax cut centered on those brackets—although even under their proposal as passed in 1964, the top rate remained above 70%, and it was still 50% in the late 1970s. Then came Proposition 2 in California, gutting the property tax base and starting a precipitous decline in public services in what had been one of the country’s most progressive states, and the invention of “supply-side economics,” whose founder, Jude Wanninski, coincidentally died this week. Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, and the rest, as we know, is history. Meanwhile the bulk of the GI generation—those Americans born from 1905 or so to 1925, whom the federal government provided generous opportunities and benefits for the whole of their lives—have now died, and a majority of voters, probably, no longer even remembers the days in which the American people trusted their government.

The Republicans who have built up the apparently unstoppable momentum for these changes believe deeply that federal and state bureaucrats are wasteful, greedy slackers preying off the productive members of society—and they have done an extraordinary job of intimidating anyone likely to disagree. Those of us who live in the blue states, where as I pointed out last fall taxes and expenditures are higher and society is healthier by almost any indicator, have not taken what they are doing seriously. All this could only have one outcome, and it is here: a series of economic and social catastrophes that adequate public services could have eased or prevented. We have now experienced the destruction of a major American city and the loss, almost certainly of far more lives than we suffered on September 11, 2001. Widespread deaths for lack of medical care, more pressure on infrastructure, and a long-term energy crisis are not far behind.

The younger generation—those born since 1982 in particular—have spent their lives solving problems and, as always in history, will we glad to cast aside their parents’ assumptions when the need arises. Perhaps, as one catastrophe follows another, they will be able to rebuild some spirit of shared responsibility and shared sacrifice, and put the United States to work, as FDR said, rebuilding itself, its institutions, and our mutual trust. But that process has not yet begun, and things will surely get quite a bit worse before they get better. Nor will the anti-government ideologues ever change. Those born before 1960 still have to show some leadership at something other than destruction.

1 comment:

Patricia Collins said...

I would like to tell you how much I enjoy your insightful blog. I just wish it came out more often. :-)

Regarding this post, I want to say that I was born in 1974 and strongly, one could say religiously, believe that a strong government that provides services to enrich all of its citizens lives, is the government that can best promote peace, prosperity and health.

I am very frustrated by the fact that the "greatest generation" who benefited so much from "helping" governmental policies managed to raise a generation so hell-bent on shrinking the government and eliminate anything that helps anyone.

I would love to see a return to the strong belief in civic duty. Unfortunately, with the attitude so many people have today, they might as well spell it "civic doody"