Monday, September 05, 2005

Signs of the Economic Apocalypse 9-5-05

From Signs of the Times 9-5-05:

The price of oil closed at 67.57 dollars a barrel, up 2.2% from last Friday's close of $66.13. The U.S. dollar closed at 0.7954 euros, down 2.3% from 0.8140 euros a week earlier, continuing a negative trend for the dollar. The euro, then, would buy 1.2573 dollars at Friday's close, up from $1.2285 the week before. The price of oil in euros was virtually unchanged at 53.74 euros a barrel compared to 53.83 euros a barrel the previous Friday (down 0.2%). Gold closed at 447.80 dollars an ounce, up 1.4% from last week's close of $441.80. Gold in euros would be 356.16 euros an ounce, down 1% from last week's close of 359.63 euros an ounce. The gold/oil (the number of barrels of oil an ounce of gold would buy) ratio closed at 6.63 down 0.8% from 6.68 a week earlier. In the U.S. stock market, the Dow closed at 10,447.37 up 0.4% from the previous week's close of 10,406.20. The NASDAQ closed at 2141.07 on Friday, up 0.8% from the previous Friday's close of 2123.99. The yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note closed at 4.03 percent, down 15 basis points 4.18 the week before.

Hurricane Katrina, of course, dwarfed all other news last week, and for good reason. The political, economic and human repercussions of this event may prove decisive in the months and years to come.

Economically, the disaster struck the United States at a time when its economy was teetering on the brink of collapse. Oil prices were already rising sharply, the citizens and governments of the United States were already drowning in debt, and consumer spending was threatening to fall from the debt and higher energy prices. The immediate effect of Katrina for U.S. citizens was more than a dollar a gallon rise in the price of gasoline. The previous rises in the price of gasoline were blamed on too few refineries. Then Katrina took four more refineries off-line. Add to that the damage to 20 oil rigs and platforms and the importance of the port of New Orleans for oil supertanker shipping and you have an energy crisis in the United States which has shaken the confidence of the citizenry. Steven Lagavulin of the Deconsumption blog sees high inflation and economic collapse as likely results:

[8/31/05] Katrina is looking more and more like the kind of "outside" event that could set the whole house of cards tumbling down on us. The (not really) Federal Reserve's damage control team was out in force yesterday hammering gold and supporting the dollar. The reports on the disruptions to the oil industry--drilling, import-shipping, refining--just look worse and worse. The Port of Louisiana is effectively closed, halting all import / export traffic up the Mississippi. And the insurance industry, which has been hammered almost every year since 9/11, is going to get hit with another doozy of a bill...I can't even guess how it will survive this (oh, wait, yes I can--the public will foot the bill for their underfunded policies...).


"Katrina is no 9/11. It may be much worse."

Good piece in Slate about the inflationary aspects of the Katrina tragedy beyond just oil & gas prices. Here's the gist:

"Economically speaking, Katrina is no 9/11. It may be much worse. In the months after 9/11, stocks rallied. The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates, unleashing a wave of liquidity and paving the way for economy-boosting gimmicks like zero-percent financing. The airlines suffered a grievous blow. But prices didn't jump; there were no shortages of anything. Looking back, the catastrophe of 9/11 had a relatively minor impact on the broad economy.

"And the consensus thus far seems to be that Katrina will be much the same....But because of the nature of the damage, the industries it affected, the role the Gulf Coast plays in the national economy, and the place we're at in the business cycle, Katrina could prove to be inflationary. And as a result, the damage it causes could ripple far beyond the Mississippi Delta."

"The problem is that New Orleans lies at the heavily trafficked intersection of the Old and New Economies. The region's economy is based on agriculture, water transport, and natural resources. But moving and selling goods requires an intricate web of supply chains, pipelines, and commercial arteries that connect producers to consumers. The networked economy isn't just about bytes and fiber-optic cable, it's about oil, grain, and sugar. And when the infrastructure of these networks gets damaged, it can't be replaced easily or cheaply.

"If New Orleans were pure Old Economy - if, for example, it simply grew wheat - its devastation would not cost that much, because other wheat and grain growers would replace it. If it were pure New Economy, like Wall Street, it could bounce back instantly, because its real assets (information and people) would not be irretrievably lost. But because it's right in the middle, the damage will be enormous."

"Energy isn't the only valuable commodity that flows through New Orleans. As the Wall Street Journal notes, New Orleans ports "handle roughly half of the corn, wheat and soybeans exported from the U.S., much of which reaches the city on barges traveling on the Mississippi River."

Katrina has already screwed up the vital supply chains that funnel goods from the Midwest to global markets and from global markets to the Midwest. Farmers have been floating grain to external markets on river barges since the 18th century not because it offers speed, but because it is the most economically efficient means of doing so. As the Associated Press notes, "The Mississippi River is the cheapest route for shipping many crops and other commodities destined for overseas markets." So, farmers looking to get their goods to market will now have to rely on more expensive modes of transport. And importers will either have to eat higher costs or pass them along to consumers. Until yesterday, about 25 percent of Chiquita's banana imports arrived in the United States at the company's Gulfport, Miss., facility. No longer. The company, and many others, will have to scramble to find alternate (and likely, more expensive) arrangements.

Finally, consider the agricultural staples that are produced in huge volume in the Gulf Coast region and that are used in a wide range of products in the United States and overseas: oysters, chickens, cotton, and sugar, to name a few. Katrina will have the effect of making them more expensive and setting off a scramble among the companies that need steady supplies to find new sources. The shortages will drive up prices here and make our exports more expensive - and less competitive - abroad.

Beyond the immediate economic consequences, the confidence of Americans and the confidence of the rest of the world in the United States has been broken, perhaps beyond repair. The value of the dollar was propped up for decades by the world's basic confidence in the competence of the United States as symbolized by U.S. Treasury bonds. Even after the $6 billion a month disaster of the Iraq War, many people still thought the United States was "the sole remaining superpower." Now it is clear that that power was little more than an empty shell. The Iraq War has stretched governmental resources so thin that it could not provide the most basic relief services in the aftermath of the hurricane. Decades of looting the resources of the republic, the "common thing," for the benefit of the super-rich and well-connected has finally caught up with the United States in an embarrassingly public way. Here are the editors of the World Socialist Web Site:

Hurricane Katrina's aftermath: from natural disaster to national humiliation

2 September 2005

The catastrophe that is unfolding in New Orleans and on the Gulf coast of Mississippi has been transformed into a national humiliation without parallel in the history of the United States.

The scenes of intense human suffering, hopelessness, squalor, and neglect amidst the wreckage of what was once New Orleans have exposed the rotten core of American capitalist society before the eyes of the entire world - and, most significantly, before those of its own stunned people.

The reactionary mythology of America as the "Greatest Country in the World" has suffered a shattering blow.

Hurricane Katrina has laid bare the awful truths of contemporary America - a country torn by the most intense class divisions, ruled by a corrupt plutocracy that possesses no sense either of social reality or public responsibility, in which millions of its citizens are deemed expendable and cannot depend on any social safety net or public assistance if disaster, in whatever form, strikes.

Washington's response to this human tragedy has been one of gross incompetence and criminal indifference. People have been left to literally die in the streets of a major American city without any assistance for four days. Images of suffering and degradation that resemble the conditions in the most impoverished Third World countries are broadcast daily with virtually no visible response from the government of a country that concentrates the greatest share of wealth in the world.

The storm that breached the levees of New Orleans has also revealed all of the horrific implications of 25 years' worth of uninterrupted social and political reaction. The real results of the destruction of essential social services, the dismantling of government agencies entrusted with alleviating poverty and coping with disasters, and the ceaseless nostrums about the "free market" magically resolving the problems of modern society have been exposed before millions.

With at least 100,000 people trapped in a city without power, water or food and threatened with the spread of disease and death, the government has proven incapable of establishing the most elementary framework of logistical organization. It has failed to even evacuate the critically ill from public hospitals, much less provide basic medical assistance to the many thousands placed in harm's way by the disaster.

What was the government's response to the natural catastrophe that threatened New Orleans? It amounted to betting that the storm would go the other way, followed by a policy of "every man for himself." Residents of the city were told to evacuate, while the tens of thousands without transportation or too poor to travel were left to their fate.

Now crowds of thousands of hungry and homeless people have been reduced to chanting "we need help" as bodies accumulate in the streets. Washington's inability to mount and coordinate basic rescue operations will unquestionably add to a death toll that is already estimated in the thousands.

The government's callous disregard for the human suffering, its negligence in failing to prepare for this disaster and, above all, its utter incompetence have staggered even the compliant American media.

Patriotic blather about the country coming together to deal with the crisis combined with efforts to poison public opinion by vilifying those without food or water for "looting" have fallen flat in face of the undeniable and monumental debacle that constitutes the official response to the disaster.

Reporters sent into the devastated region have been reduced to tears by the masses of people crying out for help with no response. Television announcers cannot help but wonder aloud why the authorities have failed so miserably to alleviate such massive human suffering.

The presidency, the Congress and both the Republican and Democratic parties - all have displayed an astounding lack of concern for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been shattered and who face the most daunting and uncertain future, not to mention the tens of millions more who will be hard hit by the economic aftershocks of Katrina.

In the figure of the president, George W. Bush, the incompetence, stupidity, and sheer inhumanity that characterize so much of America's money-mad corporate elite find their quintessentially repulsive expression.

As the hurricane developed over two weeks in the Caribbean and slowly approached the coast of New Orleans and Mississippi, Bush amused himself at his ranch retreat in Crawford, Texas. It is now clear that his administration made no serious preparations to deal with the dangers posed by the approaching storm.

In an interview Thursday on the "Good Morning America" television program, Bush reprised his miserable performance of the previous day, adding to Wednesday's banalities the declaration that there would be "zero tolerance" for looters.

The president blanched when ABC interviewer Dianne Sawyer asked about a suggestion that the major oil companies be forced to cede a share of the immense windfall profits they have reaped from rising prices over the past six months to fund disaster relief. He responded by counseling the American people to "send cash" to charitable organizations.

In other words, there will be no serious financial commitment from the government to save lives, care for the sick and needy, and help the displaced and bereft restore their lives. Nor will there be any national, centrally financed and organized program to rebuild one of the country's most important cities - a city that is uniquely associated with some of the most critical cultural achievements in music and the arts of the American people.

Above all, the suffering of millions will not be allowed to impinge on the profit interests of a tiny elite of multi-millionaires whose interests the government defends.

Later in the day, Bush described the aftermath of the flood as a "temporary disturbance."

The ruthless attitude of those in power toward the average poor and working class residents of New Orleans was summed up Thursday by Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who declared "it doesn't make sense" to spend tax dollars to rebuild New Orleans. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," he said.

While Hastert was forced to backtrack from these chilling remarks, they have a definite political logic. To rebuild the lives that have been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina would require mounting a massive government effort that would run counter to the entire thrust of a national policy based upon privatization and the transfer of wealth to the rich that has for decades been pursued by both major parties.

Can anyone truly believe that the current administration and its Democratic accomplices in Congress are going to launch a serious program to construct low-cost housing, rebuild schools and provide jobs for the hundreds of thousands left unemployed by the destruction?

Congress has been virtually silent on the catastrophe in the south. It has nothing to say, having voted to support Bush's extreme right-wing agenda of massive tax cuts for the rich, huge outlays for war in Iraq and Afghanistan and an ever-expanding Pentagon budget, and billions to finance the Homeland Security Department.

The millionaires club in the Capitol is well aware that it voted to slash funding for elementary infrastructure needs - including urgently recommended improvements in outmoded and inadequate Gulf Coast anti-hurricane and anti-flood systems.

The Democratic Party has, as always, offered no opposition. Indeed, the president was gratified to be able to announce that former Democratic president Bill Clinton would resume his road show with the president's father, the former Republican president, touring the stricken regions and drumming up support for charitable donations. In this way the Democratic Party has signaled its solidarity with the White House and the Republican policy against any serious federal financial commitment to help the victims and rebuild the devastated regions.

The decisive components of the present tragedy are social and political, not natural. The American ruling elite has for the past three decades been dismantling whatever forms of government regulation and social welfare had been instituted in the preceding period. The present catastrophe is the terrible product of this social and political retrogression.

The lessons derived from past natural and economic calamities - from the deadly floods of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the dust bowl and Depression of the 1930s - have been repudiated and derided by a ruling elite driven by the crisis of its profit system to subordinate ever more ruthlessly all social concerns to the extraction of profit and accumulation of personal wealth.

Franklin Roosevelt - an astute and relatively far-sighted representative of his class - had to drag the American ruling elite as a whole kicking and screaming behind a program of social reforms whose basic purpose was to save the capitalist system from the threat of social revolution. Even during his presidency, the large-scale projects in government-funded and controlled social development, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, never became a model for broader measures to alleviate poverty and social inequality. The contradictions and requirements of an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and production for profit resulted in any further projects being shelved.

From the 1970s onward, as the crisis of American capitalism has deepened, the US ruling elite has attacked the entire concept of social reform and dismantled the previously established restrictions on corporate activities.

The result has been a non-stop process of social plunder, producing an unprecedented concentration of wealth at the apex of society and a level of social inequality exceeding that which prevailed in the days of the Robber Barons.

Fraud, the worst forms of speculation and criminality have become pervasive within the upper echelons of American society. This is the underlying reality that has suddenly revealed itself, precipitated by a hurricane, in the form of a collapse of the most elementary forms of social life.

The political establishment and the corporate elite have been exposed as bankrupt, together with their ceaseless insistence that the unfettered development of capitalism is the solution to all of society's problems.The catastrophe unleashed by Katrina has unmistakably revealed that America is two countries, one for the wealthy and privileged and another in which the vast majority of working people stand on the edge of a social precipice.

All of the claims that the war on Iraq, the "global war on terrorism" and the supposed concern for "homeland security" are aimed at protecting the American people stand revealed as lies. The utter failure to protect the residents of New Orleans exposes all of these claims as propaganda designed to mask the criminality of the American ruling elite and the diversion of resources away from the most essential needs of the people.

Here's Cynthia Bogard on why so many people "chose" to remain behind and not evacuate the city before the hurricane hit:

With a horrible decisiveness, Hurricane Katrina has sheared off the front of the American doll house, leaving our decimated national infrastructure for all the world to see. It's not a pretty sight, especially given the current administration's propensity to bluster about America as "the greatest nation on earth" and the "world's superpower."

The consequences of a generation of looting the funding for public works projects, anti-poverty programs, and local and national administrative capacity coupled with rollbacks of federal energy and environmental regulation have been revealed in all their stark reality by this epic storm. Relentless Republican-led but Democratic Leadership Council-supported attacks on "big government" (by which they meant programs of no immediate use to global corporations) in the past two decades have been remarkably successful. "The era of big government," as DLC poster boy Bill Clinton famously declared in the mid 1990s, "is over."

He was talking about what other wealthy democratic nations refer to as their "welfare state"--that constellation of tax-financed regulations and services that provide citizen security on "quality of life" issues such as housing, education, healthcare, safety, a healthy environment and economic stability in times of unemployment. Included also in other nation's welfare states is public infrastructure that can be counted on in such areas as transportation, communication, electricity, and clean water. In other wealthy democracies, that's what government is largely for; these are the kinds of citizen protections those living in poor nations dream about.

Now that Katrina's come to town, it's become all too apparent how far down the road to the wholesale giveaway of America's collective wealth to its wealthy we have traveled. And the consequences of purposely destroying our modest welfare state have become devastatingly clear--well, at least to some.

A few days ago, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco ordered the evacuation of New Orleans, an event which proceeded, according to many accounts, in a remarkably orderly fashion. As it turned out, however, about 20% of residents did not "choose" to leave town--a fact that the governor publicly grumbled about after the levees were compromised, the city inundated and those "left behind" put at risk for their lives in the floodwaters and sweltering heat.

One observant commentator noted that the evacuation was indeed very efficiently run "if you had a car." Those left behind were drawn disproportionately from the 30% of the city's residents who are chronically poor. They had no cars, Governor.
An astute downtown New Orleans attorney interviewed on National Public Radio noted from the safety of a friend's house a safe distance from town that Katrina had happened at the end of the month, "when many of the poor have run out of funds." Put these facts of no cars and no cash together with some typical coping strategies for surviving chronic poverty and gaping holes in public services and infrastructure and it becomes all too clear why many impoverished and disproportionately Black citizens of New Orleans didn't "choose" to evacuate.

It's harrowing enough to leave town in one's reliable vehicle armed with luggage, credit cards and cash, bound for some well-heeled friend or relative who lives at a higher elevation. It's quite another thing to leave with no cash, no car, no credit and no out of town relatives with room to spare. Poor people without employment typically depend on very local resources for their survival, especially when money and food stamps run out. Even in the most generous northern states, public assistance checks usually run out in the middle of the third week of the month no matter how good at budgeting a mother may be. The last ten days of the month are spent trading what resources you have for what you need, calling on those who owe you a favor, asking for leniency in paying for necessities and pawning the few worthy possessions you own. And waiting for the check.

All of these coping strategies require that poor people remain in close proximity to those on whom they must depend for survival. Katrina caught New Orleans' poor just in the most desperate phase of this depressing monthly struggle for survival. As someone who has spent a dozen years listening to the stories of people who have become homeless in less dramatic fashion than the citizens of New Orleans just did, it was no surprise to me that the poor mostly remained home or made their way to the local shelter--the Superdome. Where was the government before the levees broke with buses and trains, assurances about shelters far away, food and cash vouchers for necessities? For many poor people the risk of leaving far outweighed the risk of staying--at least until the levees broke and water poured into their neighborhoods. And by then it was too late.

I've seen footage of people huddled on their rooftops, waving sheets and homemade "help us" posters. I saw hundreds, elderly folks and babies included, left to bake in the ninety degree sun on an unprotected overpass. Where was the evacuation plan and resources to help those who couldn't help themselves?

Some of these people will die. Indeed, some already have, from nothing more than the neglect made more likely because the emergency services infrastructure in many local communities never existed in the first place or has been scaled back due to falling tax revenues and "no big government" attitudes.

The last line of protection in disasters such as this is the National Guard. Only two thirds of these public servants were in the local area and available for deployment. The rest are in Iraq. The communities hit by Katrina, especially the larger, more urban, more impoverished communities simply lacked adequate numbers of trained and ready personnel and equipment to do the job.

In the past few years, an increasingly bold Congress has made matters even worse. Funding for the crucial public works project that could have prevented the loss of New Orleans--the improvement of the levee system--was drastically cut. Wetlands, a natural barrier to storm surges that once characterized the Mississippi Delta, have been given over to developers to fill in and build on. Global warming deniers have also muffled any national conversation about how we should live differently now that dramatic weather events will become more common. In perhaps the most callous example of what occurs when government becomes the tool of capitalism rather than the servant of the citizens, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin now has ordered the police force to abandon their search and rescue mission in favor of halting looters. In other words, police officers are being told they're in the business of protecting property instead of people.

In a disaster of these proportions, there's always the tendency to look for someone to blame. This time we're all to blame, for allowing our collective system of protection, our government, to be hijacked by corporate interests and their politician lackeys. Katrina will take the lives of many. Some of those deaths "big government" could have saved.

Many are arguing that the neglect of public services and infrastructure was deliberate, that the right-wing power structure in the United States wanted to make the public feel abandoned.

A Can't-Do Government
Paul Krugman

September 2, 2005

Before 9/11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. "The New Orleans hurricane scenario," The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001, "may be the deadliest of all." It described a potential catastrophe very much like the one now happening.

So why were New Orleans and the nation so unprepared? After 9/11, hard questions were deferred in the name of national unity, then buried under a thick coat of whitewash. This time, we need accountability.

First question: Why have aid and security taken so long to arrive? Katrina hit five days ago - and it was already clear by last Friday that Katrina could do immense damage along the Gulf Coast. Yet the response you'd expect from an advanced country never happened. Thousands of Americans are dead or dying, not because they refused to evacuate, but because they were too poor or too sick to get out without help - and help wasn't provided. Many have yet to receive any help at all.

There will and should be many questions about the response of state and local governments; in particular, couldn't they have done more to help the poor and sick escape? But the evidence points, above all, to a stunning lack of both preparation and urgency in the federal government's response.

Even military resources in the right place weren't ordered into action. "On Wednesday," said an editorial in The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., "reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!"

Maybe administration officials believed that the local National Guard could keep order and deliver relief. But many members of the National Guard and much of its equipment - including high-water vehicles - are in Iraq. "The National Guard needs that equipment back home to support the homeland security mission," a Louisiana Guard officer told reporters several weeks ago.

Second question: Why wasn't more preventive action taken? After 2003 the Army Corps of Engineers sharply slowed its flood-control work, including work on sinking levees. "The corps," an Editor and Publisher article says, citing a series of articles in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, "never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security - coming at the same time as federal tax cuts - was the reason for the strain."

In 2002 the corps' chief resigned, reportedly under threat of being fired, after he criticized the administration's proposed cuts in the corps' budget, including flood-control spending.

Third question: Did the Bush administration destroy FEMA's effectiveness? The administration has, by all accounts, treated the emergency management agency like an unwanted stepchild, leading to a mass exodus of experienced professionals.

Last year James Lee Witt, who won bipartisan praise for his leadership of the agency during the Clinton years, said at a Congressional hearing: "I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded. I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared."

I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence. The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor.

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.

Yesterday Mr. Bush made an utterly fantastic claim: that nobody expected the breach of the levees. In fact, there had been repeated warnings about exactly that risk.

So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can't-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job. And while it makes those excuses, Americans are dying.

Chris Floyd:

Where were the resources - the money, manpower, materiel, transport - that could have removed all those forced to stay behind, and given them someplace safe and sustaining to take shelter? Where, indeed, were the resources that could have bolstered the city's defenses and shored up its levees? Where were the National Guard troops that could have secured the streets and directed survivors to food and aid? Where were the public resources - the physical manifestation of the citizenry's commitment to the common good - that could have greatly mitigated the brutal effects of this natural disaster?

"President Coolidge came down here in a railroad train,

With a little fat man with a notebook in his hand.

The president say, "Little fat man, isn't it a shame

What the river has done to this poor cracker's land?"

Well, we all know what happened to those vital resources. They had been cut back, stripped down, gutted, pilfered - looted - to pay for a war of aggression, to pay for a tax cut for the wealthiest, safest, most protected Americans, to gorge the coffers of a small number of private and corporate fortunes, while letting the public sector - the common good - wither and die on the vine. These were all specific actions of the Bush Administration - including the devastating budget cuts on projects specifically designed to bolster New Orleans' defenses against a catastrophic hurricane. Bush even cut money for strengthening the very levees that broke and delivered the deathblow to the city. All this, in the face of specific warnings of what would happen if these measures were neglected: the city would go down "under 20 feet of water," one expert predicted just a few weeks ago.

But Bush said there was no money for this kind of folderol anymore. The federal budget had been busted by his tax cuts and his war. And this was a deliberate policy: as Bush's mentor Grover Norquist famously put it, the whole Bushist ethos was to starve the federal government of funds, shrinking it down so "we can drown it in the bathtub." As it turned out, the bathtub wasn't quite big enough -- so they drowned it in the streets of New Orleans instead.

But as culpable, criminal and loathsome as the Bush Administration is, it is only the apotheosis of an overarching trend in American society that has been gathering force for decades: the destruction of the idea of a common good, a public sector whose benefits and responsibilities are shared by all, and directed by the consent of the governed. For more than 30 years, the corporate Right has waged a relentless and highly focused campaign against the common good, seeking to atomize individuals into isolated "consumer units" whose political energies - kept deliberately underinformed by the ubiquitous corporate media - can be diverted into emotionalized "hot button" issues (gay marriage, school prayer, intelligent design, flag burning, welfare queens, drugs, porn, abortion, teen sex, commie subversion, terrorist threats, etc., etc.) that never threaten Big Money's bottom line.

Again deliberately, with smear, spin and sham, they have sought - and succeeded - in poisoning the well of the democratic process, turning it into a tabloid melee where only "character counts" while the rapacious policies of Big Money's bought-and-sold candidates are completely ignored. As Big Money solidified its ascendancy over government, pouring billions - over and under the table - into campaign coffers, politicians could ignore larger and larger swathes of the people. If you can't hook yourself up to a well-funded, coffer-filling interest group, if you can't hire a big-time Beltway player to lobby your cause and get you "a seat at the table," then your voice goes unheard, your concerns are shunted aside. (Apart from a few cynical gestures around election-time, of course.) The poor, the sick, the weak, the vulnerable have become invisible - in the media, in the corporate boardroom, "at the table" of the power players in national, state and local governments. The increasingly marginalized and unstable middle class is also fading from the consciousness of the rulers, whose servicing of the elite goes more brazen and frantic all the time.

When unbridled commercial development of delicately balanced environments like the Mississippi Delta is bruited "at the table," whose voice is heard? Not the poor, who, as we have seen this week, will overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the overstressed environment. And not the middle class, who might opt for the security of safer, saner development policies to protect their hard-won homes and businesses. No, the only voice that matters is that of the developers themselves, and the elite investors who stand behind them.

The only hope is that the United States may be able finally to face reality – but I would not bet on it.


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