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Message Randolph Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. — President Bush did something this week that he rarely ever does. He took responsibility for one of his failures.
Confronted with rotting corpses and widespread devastation in one of America's greatest cities, not to mention his own plummeting approval rating, Bush had no choice but to say that he takes full responsibility for the federal government's failure to deal effectively with Hurricane Katrina.
But his words will do nothing to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast destroyed by the hurricane. If Bush really wants to take responsibility and show that he cares, perhaps he can start by rejecting what has been as an article of faith for conservatives for decades — that government cannot do anything right, while the market can do no wrong.
Spending on social welfare programs has been in steady decline because conservatives believe that giving money to the poor saps their initiative. At the same time, they fervently believe that tax cuts for the rich and corporations spurs creativity, creates more jobs and is good for the economy.
Conservatives believe spending money on public works is wasteful, unless it's for the military. They believe that the private sector can do things more efficiently than government and that public ownership of anything is akin to socialism.
The denigration of government and the exaltation of the market over the last three decades has been by design — the design being conservative activist Grover Norquist's most famous quote: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce to the size where I can drag into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
As conservatives gradually took over all three branches of the federal government, governance in the traditional sense has been drowned in the bathtub.
The principle of government enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" — has been trampled by people who no longer believe in government, except for maintaining a military and law enforcement.
Establish justice? Not when the courts are stacked in favor of corporate power and the national security state.
Insure domestic tranquility? Provide for the common defense? Promote the general welfare? The scenes from New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina mocked those principles.
Government is the problem, not the solution, the conservatives always say. Except as a way to reward your friends, government is bad and spending to promote the general welfare is wasteful and wrong.
It took a strong wind to blow all this nonsense away and expose conservative ideology as greedy, heartless and brain-dead. Will President Bush take responsibility for running this nation into the ground through his repudiation of the bedrock principles of governance? He should, or else the voters will do it for him.
Since the president isn't a student of his history, someone needs to remind him that cataclysms such as massive natural disasters or economic collapses remind Americans that a government that acts in the public interest is a good thing.
The 1927 Mississippi flood, a disaster even larger that Katrina, showed the limits of private charity. The Great Depression a couple of years later hammered that point home with greater force. Recovery from both these disasters quickly overwhelmed the private sector. It took an activist government to eventually clean up the mess.
It will take an activist government to help the Gulf Coast recover from Katrina. The private sector isn't going to do it. As we watch Haliburton and other corporations descend upon New Orleans, dollar signs in their eyes, we know that whatever reconstruction plans they have in mind don't include the thousands of poor families displaced by the flooding.
It will take public spending, and lots of it, to rebuild the infrastructure of New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and other cities. It will take public spending, and lots of it, to insure that every family will have a chance to rebuild their lives and perhaps be better off in the process. The private sector is looking only to make a quick buck. Only government can assure that everyone benefits equally.
This is the message that needs to get through to Americans — only a well-funded, functional federal government operating in the public interest can ensure the safety and economic health of the nation.
Decades of demonizing government won't be erased overnight. That's why the story of what happened in New Orleans should never be forgotten. It should be used as Exhibit A the next time you hear some blowhard complaining about the evils of big government.
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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at
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