George Bush’s two speeches in New Orleans yesterday and the National Cathedral today show that his speechwriters can write and he can deliver moving, powerful and empathic words when he’s moved to do so. And make no mistake, he said in those two speeches more about racial and economic injustice in them than during his entire presidency and perhaps his entire political career. When a politician wants to make amends for past deficiencies (though Bush didn’t explicit admit to any), we should give him the benefit of the doubt just as in Jewish tradition when a sinner wishes to turn from his sin you must take him at face value and not question his sincerity. So let’s welcome Mr. Bush late to the party on America’s abject failure to include the African-American underclass in the American dream. At least he’s here now.
But the question isn’t so much whether or not Bush is sincere in the sentiments he expressed; it’s whether he will follow up the words with solid deeds. Let’s look at the “deeds” he’s proposed:
1. worker recovery accounts: these $5,000 accounts are supposed to help retrain refugee workers who’ve lost their jobs and subsidize child care costs so they can go out and find work. This is a good start and perhaps will help a good number of people who already have marketable skills. But it will do nothing or at least very little for the typical underemployed, low skilled worker. How will you retrain this type of person when they don’t have many marketable skills to begin with?
2. Urban Homesteading Act: this sounds good and it might actually help a good number of people secure the land they need to build new homes. But first we’ve got to ask a few fundamental questions. When Bush says:
…We will identify property in the region owned by the federal government and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery. In return, they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity.
What type of property is the federal government willing to provide for this project? Is the land in areas that are habitable and safe in the event of future disasters like Katrina? Will the area have infrastructure like stores, schools and hospitals in order to support communities that might arise from the program? Finally, how does he expect poor people to get mortgages from banks? Will banks provide loans to such people who might present a credit risk? Do we expect that Habitat for Humanity can build these tens or hundreds of thousands of new homes by itself?
My problem with this proposal and much of the rest of what Bush proposed was that it left out a key player: the federal government. Bush says the Churches and Habitat for Humanity will jump in to help. But that’s an old saw we’ve heard so many times before from him and conservatives. They want to foreclose federal involvement so they suggest that the needy turn to the private or non-profit sector. With a disaster of this magnitude, neither one can make the kind of dent that the U.S. government can. And if the government isn’t willing to get more involved then I’m afraid that New Orleans’ redevelopment will founder.
At one point in his speech Bush said:
When one resident of this city who lost his home was asked by a reporter if he would relocate, he said, “Naw, I will rebuild – but I’ll build higher.” That is our vision for the future, in this city and beyond: we’ll not just rebuild, we’ll build higher and better.
I have a major problem with this attitude. First, higher or bigger is not always better. Second, it presumes that every part of New Orleans will be rebuilt. It denies the fact that perhaps some of the hardest hit areas should not be rebuilt “higher and better.” This statement reflects that typical Bush sunny American optimism that for every problem there’s a simple affirmative answer. In this case, the Gulf region has some very hard choices to make. I predict (especially in this age of global warming which portends many more storms of Katrina’s magnitude) that if local, state and federal officials do not take into account the environmental lessons to be learned from this tragedy (return the Mississippi to a more natural flow, build a more sophisticated set of water barriers, preserve and add to the barrier islands on the coast) it will happen again in almost precisely the same way. Some neighborhoods should not be rebuilt. They should return to a more natural state so they can protect the less vulnerable parts of the city from future storms. Building a higher building in a flood-prone neighborhood is no answer. You have to build smarter not higher.
In his speech at the National Cathedral Bush did what he typically does. When things go awfully wrong as they have after Katrina, try to turn attention away from the failure and those responsible and toward what went right:
In this hour of suffering, our nation is thankful. We have been inspired by acts of courage and goodness: Coastguardsmen and military personnel reaching out of helicopters and lifting victims from rooftops; firefighters wading through mud and debris to search for victims and survivors; doctors and nurses defying dangers so their patients might live.
That just won’t cut it anymore, Mr. Bush. Those “Coastguardmen” (were there no women involved, Mr. President?) and military personnel you laud should have been there from the get go. The fact that they weren’t rescuing people on Day 2 is your fault and you still have only “taken responsibility” for it, but neither apologized nor admitted a mistake, which is shamefully deficient.
I am also troubled by the news today that Bush will not seek new taxes to raise the estimated $200-billion that it may take to complete the redevelopment effort. He won’t even agree to defer his tax cut plan (which was dead in the water before and now is even deader). Instead he proposes to cut the budget. This is the very same budget which for five previous years he’s refused to cut. Why should we assume he’s going to get religion all of a sudden and become a deficit hawk? And even if he does cut the budget, what will be cut? Certainly not his beloved (and bloated) military budget. Will it come out of precisely the types of social and economic programs that the poor of New Orleans need to help them recover? Will it come on the backs of education, health and human services, food stamps, Medicare, etc.?
When Harry Truman proposed the Marshall Plan, he and Congress raised taxes to do it. If it worked for the Marshall Plan it’d work for the Gulf Coast.
Another serious stumbling block lies in conservative Republicans like trogdolyte Tom Coburn who see Bush’s vision as a boondoggle:
“I don’t believe that everything that should happen in Louisiana should be paid for by the rest of the country. I believe there are certain responsibilities that are due the people of Louisiana.”
Well sure–I bet the inhabitants of Louisiana should have no problem coming up with that $200-billion. Just snap their fingers. But the serious point here is even if Bush is sincere and follows through on the plans he’s proposed his party’s right wing may prove a strong drag on his ability to act forcefully especially in the weakened state he now finds himself.