Columns » Ernest Dumas

Empty promises

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In three weeks, we have seen the terrible consequences of having a government that could not prepare for an onrushing disaster or cope with it. It will take longer, a couple of years maybe, but we will see the terrible consequences of a government that is not good at rebuilding either. The consequences will not be as graphic as the abandoned corpses, the haunting faces of the dispossessed hordes or the physical wreckage, but they will be just as lethal to the country’s well-being. It will be manifested in unimaginable budget deficits that will produce a foreign debt of unprecedented risk, rising poverty, shrinking opportunities, and fraud, waste and cronyism that will eat at the nation’s spirit. You’re right. That can only be supposition and blind distrust at this point because the Bush administration has not been given a chance. But all of the past ought to make convincing prologue for this team, and the president so far has not given us much reason to believe that its future performance will be better. The president is widely celebrated for his last speech on the disaster in Jackson Square, in which he accepted responsibility for the government’s monumental failings and promised a federal reconstruction of Rooseveltian and Truman proportions. The speech, like the other coastal appearances, had the unmistakable hint of charade and empty bombast, starting with the vast effort to provide a backlit cathedral and nice skin tones for the president in the otherwise darkened city. The larger question, raised by the president’s past solemn pledges of aid, is whether his administration ever fulfills the promises. The few hints of specifics coming out of the White House about the reconstruction are not heartening. They suggest that he will apply the same right-wing ideas that have failed in the past: tax cuts for the wealthy and business; massive borrowing from the Central Bank of China and other foreign investors to finance it all; development incentives like the old enterprise zones that were supposed to revitalize depressed communities (tried in Arkansas and many other states with virtually no record of success); rolling back environmental safeguards and wage protections for workers; even private school vouchers for the dispersed children. New Orleans will provide one more laboratory to see if any of them will work. If they don’t, well, it’s an ill wind that blows no man good. Corporate friends of the administration will fare nicely. Subsidiaries of Halliburton and Bechtel are already nailing down no-bid contracts for rehabilitation. Bush warned Americans that vast sums would be needed to rebuild the region, but he said it would be financed by borrowing and by cutting existing programs. Republicans immediately suggested postponing or scrapping the Medicare drug program. Taxes to support the war and the Gulf reconstruction are out of the question. A windfall profits tax that took only one third of the unanticipated profits of the big oil companies flowing from the war and Hurricane Katrina would produce well over $10 billion a year to offset Katrina’s costs, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Exxon Mobil alone will enjoy an estimated $10 billion in profits in this quarter alone owing to the recent shortage of crude oil and refined products and the run-up in prices. The president thinks Exxon’s taxes, not its profits, are too high. The history of Bush’s great reconstruction projects, Afghanistan, Iraq and 9/11, is of many billions pledged and fewer billions spent, those largely ineffectually. In Iraq, where the United States has spent only $10 billion of promised reconstruction aid, fraud and waste are so rampant that a few U.S. officials despair, without attribution, of course. Master contracts for rebuilding the war-damaged infrastructure are passed out to foreign or American corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel and Fluor, which take a profit and farm the work to Iraqis, who rarely finish the job. There is virtually no accounting. Let’s be fair. Holding anybody accountable might be hard in Afghanistan and Iraq. But what about in our own country, after 9/11? The Associated Press, reporting last week on audits of the Small Business Administration’s 9/11 loan programs, said much of the money appropriated to get businesses hurt by the attacks back on their feet went to companies that were not even inconvenienced. SBA was appropriated $5 billion. Most of the money was given to banks with a hands-off guarantee by the SBA. Nine out of every 10 dollars went to businesses outside New York and Washington and much of it to thousands of businesses that were entirely unaffected by 9/11 or were not even formed by then — a motorcycle dealer in Utah, a sandwich shop in Ohio, a perfume shop in the Virgin Islands, a car lube shop in Rogers, Ark., a bar in Tampa. Businessmen contacted by the AP were shocked that their money came from the 9/11 fund. Bankers said they were told by the administration to give the money to businessmen and if they could not think of any link to 9/11 themselves to call the SBA. David Hale, who got in trouble along with his buddies in the 1990s for foisting SBA loan money on his Arkansas cronies in the first Bush administration, must be thinking that he was born too soon. He needed to be operating in the second Bush administration. These people know how to run a recovery.

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