Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The simple life

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (December 2005)

"Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child".
- Cicero

Standing in front of a New Orleans cathedral stage-lit to resemble one of Disney's magic castles, President George W. Bush on the evening of Thursday, September 15, told the country a fairy tale. His administration, he said, would do "what it takes", spare no expense to make good the losses inflicted two weeks earlier by Hurricane Katrina on the good people of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The stock market knew what was meant - some of the people, not all of the people; the preferred few as distinct from the hapless many - and in the next Monday's trading, prices moved comfortably up for companies positioned to find in the wreckage the saving grace of a no-bid government contract. Already on September 8, Congress had appropriated $62.3 billion for the relief and reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, the money up and running from the drainpipes on Capitol Hill at the rate of $300 million a day, but here was the President promising an even greater flood of deliverance (for Vice President Dick Cheney's duck-shooting companions at Halliburton if not for the once-upon-a-time residents of Gulfport and Biloxi), and by Wednesday, September 21, every well-placed receptacle in Washington was expecting the eventual cash flow to crest at a high-water mark somewhere in the vicinity of $200 billion.

Agreed as to the amount of silver in the lining of the cloud, the interested parties also were unanimous in their prediction that much of it would underwrite a Category 5 deluge of fraud, graft, corrupt self-dealing, and outright theft as awe-inspiring as the hurricane. Given the character and disposition of the political operatives currently in control of the government in Washington, how or why would it be otherwise? We have a majority leader in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay (R, Texas), indicted on September 28 and again on October 3 on felony charges of conspiracy and money-laundering, a majority leader in the Senate, Bill Frist (R, Tennessee), currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possibly crooked dealings in the stock market, the President's senior adviser, Karl Rove, recalled for a fourth time to testify before a federal grand jury about the White House's troubles with the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Add to the list of boldfaced names the instances of criminal misrule that appear routinely in every morning's newspaper, and it's fair to say that in Washington at the moment we have a government owned and operated by a rapacious oligarchy that seeks to privatize - that is, appropriate or destroy - the public infrastructure (schools, roads, air, water, power plants, bridges, levees, hospitals, forests, broadcast frequencies, wetlands, birds ) that provides the country with the foundations of its common enterprise. In line with the well-established policy of enlightened selfishness, why not therefore privatize the salvage of the Gulf Coast, look upon the venture as a game of faro aboard a Mississippi gambling boat in which the odds favor the gentlemen at the table with the marked cards and the stacked deck?

As early as the first week in October the house rules were clearly posted on the front pages of both the American and the European press.

* The Republican majority in the House of Representatives choosing to conduct a futile investigation (that is, without the grant of subpoena power to the Democratic minority) into the government's murderously incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina.

* Within a month of the hurricane's making windfall across 250 miles of shoreline, the award of contracts worth $1.5 billion (for clearing away wreckage, supplying temporary shelter) to corporations (among them Halliburton; Bechtel; Kellogg, Brown and Root) notorious for their profiteering (in amounts as high as $10.5 billion) in the ruins of Iraq.

* Suspension of the rule that requires employers to pay the minimum wage to workers hired on to federally financed construction projects; the waiving of clean-air standards for gasoline in all fifty states; government subcontractors excused from the obligation to submit an affirmative action plan.

* Among the corps of friends and lobbyists seeking favors on behalf of KBR and The Shaw Group, the presence of Joe M Allbaugh, President Bush's political campaign manager in 2000, appointed director of FEMA in 2001. On departing the agency in 2003, Allbaugh was replaced by Michael Brown, his deputy and college room mate, until 2001 the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association.

* The prices for home inspection services reported by the New York Times to be ranging from $15 to $81 per home in accordance with the avarice of the inspector; so also the cost of ships and ferries deployed for temporary housing-in some circumstances, $13 million for six months; in other circumstances, $70 million. Carnival Cruise Lines hired to house evacuees and government relief workers on three ships docked in New Orleans at the weekly rate of $1,400 per guest as opposed to the $499 charged to passengers at sea for a week's tour of the western Caribbean.

* Debris-removal contracts for approximately $1 billion awarded to AshBritt Inc, a Florida corporation happily associated with Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

* On credit cards issued to government agencies bringing relief from the storm, the spending limit raised from $15,000 to $250,000.

* The blocking by the Republican majority in the Senate of a legislative initiative intended to provide health care under Medicaid to all low income victims of the hurricane. The White House unwilling to provide rent vouchers for poor people made homeless by the storm, suggesting in stead that they be herded into trailer parks. The House of Representatives steadfastly refusing to amend its punitive new bankruptcy law to alleviate the degree of loss and suffering forced on the good people of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

* During the first eighteen days after Katrina's arrival, the writing of guidelines for storm-related contracts placed in the care of David Safavian, chief of federal-procurement policy for the Office of Management and Budget. His work was rudely interrupted on September 19, when he was arrested on charges of lying to federal investigators about his involvement in an influence-peddling scheme that took place in 2002, while he was serving as chief of staff for the General Services Administration.

* On the night of August 30, and again on the morning of August 31, the Southern Pines Electric Power Association in Taylorsville, Mississippi, received phone messages from Vice President Dick Cheney's office in Washington that dictated the order of priority for the restoration of the region's electricity - first to a privately owned pipeline, then to public hospitals.

* A full-page ad in the New York Times on September 29, jointly funded by the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force and the US Postal Inspection Service, alerting readers to the strong likelihood of disaster-related federal crimes. In 36-point type the message read, "DON'T LET THESE GUYS TAKE IT AWAY".

So obvious was the nature of the work in progress everywhere on the Gulf Coast, so many corporate bagmen taking it away in eighteen-wheel trucks, that some of the Republican pit bosses in Washington worried about the keeping up of respectable appearances. Mike Pence (R, Indiana), a prominent conservative in the House of Representatives, hedged his misgivings in fiscally responsible platitudes about Congress's doing its best to "insure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children". Richard Skinner, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, was slightly more forthright in his language: "We are very apprehensive about what we are seeing". So were the country's newspaper columnists, many of them appalled by the thievery taking place in broad daylight but at a loss for words with which to depict the scale of the operation or express the magnitude of their disgust. I appreciate the difficulty; when describing the proceedings in Washington over the last five years, I've often been forced back on the vocabulary of historical precedent - masked outlaws holding up stagecoaches on the old Santa Fe Trail, nineteenth-century robber barons rigging the New York stock market, the hit men loyal to the Gambino and Colombo crime families.

On further acquaintance with the modus operandi of the Bush Administration, I've come to think that the attributions of a competent criminal intelligence miss the point. They give credit where no credit is due, and they fail to account for both the increasingly evident childishness of American culture and the corollary attitudes of entitlement that over the last thirty years have infected ever larger sectors of the country's equestrian class. President Bush and his friends bear comparison not to Jesse James or Commodore Vanderbilt but to a clique of spoiled trust-fund kids. Certain of their superiority by virtue of their wealth (whether derived from corporate salary, family inheritance, or a sweetheart real estate investment), they fit the profile of wised-up teenagers who don't want to hear it from anybody telling them what to do - which shoes to wear, how to behave in a dance club, when to speak to the caddie or the French ambassador, why it might not be a good idea to wreck the Social Security system, redirect the flow of the Missouri River, or invade Iraq. Smug in their cynicism, proud of their selfishness, pre-Copernican in the sense that they know it is the sun that revolves around them, not they who revolve around the sun, fortune's children interpret corrections as insult, amendments as impertinence - old news, uncool.

The attitude shows plainly in nearly every expression that wanders across the President's schoolboy face - the sly smirk, the cute smile, the petulant frown. At home on the range with his chainsaw in Crawford, Texas, he looks to be making a guest appearance for Paris Hilton on The Simple Life; at a White House podium threatening Arab terrorists or standing tall in his opposition to universal health insurance, he strikes the pose of a rich boy anarchist wishing to frighten the faculty at Yale. Three years ago on Earth Day the news photographs showed the President setting off into the forest with an axe over his shoulder, glancing back at the camera with a hint of malicious mischief, as if to say, "You liberal media guys think that the environment is sacred? Let me show you how we deal with trees."

It is with acts of vandalism that juvenile delinquents proclaim their manhood, and what else is the Bush Administration's record over the last five years if not a testimony to its talent for breaking things - the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, the loss of respect for America nearly everywhere in the world, a $236 billion budget surplus in 2000 scrapped for a $412 billion deficit in 2004, the country's economic future consigned to foreign creditors, the ever accelerating dissolution of the American political union into separatist factions of race, religion, gender, and social caste.

Endowed with the same temperament as Billy Carter and Roger Clinton but luckier in the sum of their allowances, President Bush and his clique came to power in Washington with little else in their well-groomed heads except the one big idea central to two generations of Republican speechmaking: that government is by definition a homeless shelter. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and for the last twenty years a rabid voice of radical Republicanism, simplified the political science for the listeners of NPR's Morning Edition in May 2001: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Just so, and with language added by Norquist's admiring friend and ally, Karl Rove, the Bush Administration speaks for the kind of people who assign no value even to the idea of government, find no use for such a thing as an American res publica. Why should they? What's to learn? Everybody who is anybody in Houston or Palm Beach knows that government is a trailer park for deadbeats who can't afford to hire their own servants, furnish their own police protection, hire cheap Chinese labor, pay their taxes in Bermuda. Government is worth owning for the same reasons that one might own a gambling casino or a brothel, a financially rewarding enterprise staffed with quick-witted pimps and can-do waiters. If government is undeserving of respect, worthless except as a means of money laundering, then why go to the trouble of hiring well-qualified people to collect the taxes and sit in the chairs? What needs to be done that can't be done by one's college roommate, tennis partner, brother-in-law, former secretary, personal lawyer, or golfing buddy!

Adults spoil the fun. They remind the young heirs that government is a matter of long-term maintenance, a learning how to see, know, and care for other people. The lesson follows from the recognition that the national security doesn't consist in a handsome collection of military uniforms but in the health, well-being, and intelligence of a democratic citizenry. The jeunesse doree don't stoop to maintenance; they find it tedious and boring, not glamorous, apt to take time away from thinking about one's hair. Adults also give offense by not picking up on the importance of teenage loyalties (in the club or out, with us or against us); also by reason of their sometimes trying to tell the truth, which in the Bush Administration is a cause for summary dismissal - former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill cashiered for having had the effrontery to inform Mr Bush that money doesn't grow on trees, General Eric K Shinseki, former chief of staff of the US Army, promptly retired because he told Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that his video-game war in Iraq would require the participation of several hundred thousand American troops, Bunnatine Greenhouse, competition advocate for the US Army Corp of Engineers, reduced in rank for saying that the KBR oil swindle in Iraq was "the most blatant improper contract abuse I have witnessed in the course of my professional career".

Understand "government" as a synonym for "adult", and what we have now in Washington is the sovereignty of the state in the careless and resentful grasp of teenage anarchists. The historical precedents are legion, among them the reign of the adolescent Roman Emperor Nero; more often than not the story doesn't lead to a happy or romantic ending, but maybe I'm unduly pessimistic, and possibly what we have before us is the dawn of a new and golden age. If so, at least some of the credit is deserved by all the good people in the fashion, news, banking, and entertainment industries who have made America great. If Vice President Cheney and his business associates don't know how to think or read, they owe their peace of mind to an educational system that teaches by television clip and film montage; if President Bush and his companions in arms delight in all things shallow, derivative, and dumb, they take their sense of ease and comfort from the assurances of a consumer market and a popular culture that place a high value on those qualities. Who can say that the President doesn't embody the American dream come true?

Bill Totten


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