The Guardian 7 September, 2005
The free market killed New Orleans
The free market played a crucial role in the destruction of New Orleans and the death of thousands of its residents. Armed with advanced warning that a momentous (force 5) hurricane was going to hit that city and surrounding areas, what did officials do? They played the free market. They announced that everyone should evacuate. Everyone was expected to devise their own way out of the disaster area by private means, just as the free market dictates, just like people do when disaster hits free-market Third World countries.
It is a beautiful thing this free market in which every individual pursues his or her own personal interests and thereby effects an optimal outcome for the entire society. This is the way the invisible hand works its wonders.
There would be none of the collectivistic regimented evacuation as occurred in Cuba. When an especially powerful hurricane hit that island last year, the Castro government, abetted by neighbourhood citizen committees and local Communist party cadres, evacuated 1.3 million people, more than 10 percent of the country’s population, with not a single life lost, a heartening feat that went largely unmentioned in the US press.
On day one of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, it was already clear that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American lives had been lost in New Orleans. Many people had "refused" to evacuate, media reporters explained, because they were just plain "stubborn".
It was not until day three that the relatively affluent telecasters began to realise that tens of thousands of people had failed to flee because they had nowhere to go and no means of getting there. With hardly any cash at hand or no motor vehicle to call their own, they had to sit tight and hope for the best. In the end, the free market did not work so well for them.
Many of these people were low-income African Americans, along with fewer numbers of poor whites. It should be remembered that most of them had jobs before Katrina’s lethal visit. That’s what most poor people do in this country: they work, usually quite hard at dismally paying jobs, sometimes more than one job at a time. They are poor not because they’re lazy but because they have a hard time surviving on poverty wages while burdened by high prices, high rents, and regressive taxes.
The free market played a role in other ways. Bush’s agenda is to cut government services to the bone and make people rely on the private sector for the things they might need. So he sliced $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44 percent reduction. Plans to fortify New Orleans levees and upgrade the system of pumping out water had to be shelved.
Bush took to the airways and said that no one could have foreseen this disaster. Just another lie tumbling from his lips. All sorts of people had been predicting disaster for New Orleans, pointing to the need to strengthen the levees and the pumps, and fortify the coastlands.
In their campaign to starve out the public sector, the Bushite reactionaries also allowed developers to drain vast areas of wetlands. Again, that old invisible hand of the free market would take care of things. The developers, pursuing their own private profit, would devise outcomes that would benefit us all.
But wetlands served as a natural absorbent and barrier between New Orleans and the storms riding in from across the sea. And for some years now, the wetlands have been disappearing at a frightening pace on the Gulf coast. All this was of no concern to the reactionaries in the White House.
As for the rescue operation, the free-marketeers like to say that relief to the more unfortunate among us should be left to private charity. It was a favourite preachment of President Ronald Reagan that "private charity can do the job". And for the first few days that indeed seemed to be the policy with the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The federal government was nowhere in sight but the Red Cross went into action. Its message: "Don’t send food or blankets; send money". Meanwhile Pat Robertson and the Christian Broadcasting Network — taking a moment off from God’s work of pushing John Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court — called for donations and announced "Operation Blessing" which consisted of a highly-publicised but totally inadequate shipment of canned goods and bibles.
By Day Three even the myopic media began to realise the immense failure of the rescue operation. People were dying because relief had not arrived. The authorities seemed more concerned with the looting than with rescuing people. It was property before people, just like the free marketeers always want.
But questions arose that the free market did not seem capable of answering: Who was in charge of the rescue operation? Why so few helicopters and just a scattering of Coast Guard rescuers? Why did it take helicopters five hours to get six people out of one hospital? When would the rescue operation gather some steam? Where were the feds? The state troopers? The National Guard? Where were the buses and trucks? The shelters and portable toilets? The medical supplies and water?
Where was Homeland Security? What has Homeland Security done with the US$33.8 billions allocated to it in fiscal 2005? Even ABC-TV evening news (September 1, 2005) quoted local officials as saying that "the federal government’s response has been a national disgrace".
In a moment of delicious (and perhaps mischievous) irony, offers of foreign aid were tendered by France, Germany and several other nations. Russia offered to send two plane loads of food and other materials for the victims. Predictably, all these proposals were quickly refused by the White House. America the Beautiful and Powerful, America the Supreme Rescuer and World Leader, America the Purveyor of Global Prosperity could not accept foreign aid from others. That would be a most deflating and insulting role reversal. Were the French looking for another punch in the nose?
Besides, to have accepted foreign aid would have been to admit the truth — that the Bushite reactionaries had neither the desire nor the decency to provide for ordinary citizens, not even those in the most extreme straits. Next thing you know, people would start thinking that George W Bush was really nothing more than a full-time agent of Corporate America.
Michael Parenti’s recent books include Superpatriotism (City Lights) and The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), both available in paperback. His forthcoming The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories Press) will be published in the fall. For more information visit: http://www.michaelparenti.org