The optimist in me would like to believe that we learn from our tragedies. However, it is a struggle to keep this optimism from being trumped by a healthy pessimism that comes from watching day-to-day events in Washington.
What, after all, should we be walking away from the Katrina tragedy with other than a deep skepticism about government? Yet we’re just hearing more about getting government more involved.
Lt. General Carl Strock, chief of engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reconfirmed recently that the risk that New Orleans was exposed to as result of the limited flood protection capabilities of its levees had been known and written about for years. As recently as 2001, FEMA listed a major storm in New Orleans among the top three most serious threats facing the country.
Yet investigations going back at least 10 years show a combination of both cutbacks in federal funding that could have been available to do improvements and that show local authorities not utilizing federal funds that were available to do the required upgrading work.
And when the disaster finally happened plans in place for dealing with it were ignored. Government and politicians failed at every possible juncture to act in a prudent and responsible fashion.
Now that we have the mess to clean up, for some reason we think that turning back to government is the answer.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are now being spent daily on Katrina-related contracts and grants and reports of fraud and abuse are already flowing.
The Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task force is now being set up in Baton Rouge, already staffed with 350 federal investigators and another 170 investigators expected to join them in coming weeks.
The message is clear. The only way to solve problems and minimize funding abuses is to minimize government involvement.
When the news of Katrina first broke, I wrote about my cousins from New Orleans who lost everything. Since then, they have moved to North Carolina and are building new lives for themselves. They are working for the same telemarketing firm that they worked for in New Orleans. A local church provided them temporary housing while they got resettled and is providing day care for their youngest child. The two oldest children are back in school, the parents are back at work and a new chapter in their life has begun.
They had the foresight to have purchased renters insurance; now they have funds to make their first home purchase.
The only government involvement in the whole process was the $2,000 check from FEMA.
Americans, white and black, rich and poor, can take care of themselves. We don’t need politicians using our personal tragedies as an excuse to spend money that isn’t theirs in the first place to try and buy votes and popularity.
I wonder how many fellow citizens can appreciate that the debacle we just experienced on the attempted reform of Social Security is a carbon copy of what we have just witnessed in New Orleans.
Just as the substandard levees in New Orleans were widely reported but ignored, so our bankrupt Social System is widely reported and ignored.
The system’s own trustees report shows that in fewer than 15 years more funds will be going out each year than coming in. Simple arithmetic shows that the system is a bad deal for everyone and that the only way to keep things going as they are is to take a bad deal and make it worse by raising taxes and cutting benefits.
Yet, our politicians cannot find it within themselves to be straightforward with the very people who elect them and provide leadership toward a new and workable retirement paradigm for Americans based on ownership.
As in New Orleans, those who bear the brunt of the neglect are the poor. When Katrina was approaching, those with resources had mobility to flee. With our Social Security system, those with resources have alternative means for building wealth and a retirement nest egg.
Meanwhile, the poor must continue to take what might have been saved from their paycheck and pay payroll taxes into a bankrupt system that has no prospect of giving a justifiable return on investment. When these folks retire in dire straights, we’ll hear that it is because of racism.
(Star Parker is author of “Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America’s Poor and What We Can Do about It” and president of CURE, Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, www.urbancure.org.)