February 3, 2006


Just how much does common sense cost?

by Patrick Dobson

One thing Americans never hear is an argument against rebuilding New Orleans. It goes like this:

In New Orleans, human beings knew they had put themselves at risk. To play a hurricane as if it were a random event that human controls could stem was absolute folly. Those controls — flood walls, levees, riverbed dredging and channeling, canal building, not to mention planning and building largely ineffective emergency measures — cost hundreds of millions (billions) of dollars, and the result was just as we knew it would be. The Big One (about the fifth in the last century) came and put human muscle to shame. To rebuild the same structures, as well as billions in capital infrastructure, is to put hundreds of thousands of people in harm's way. Again.

Hurricanes are part of the southern coast ecology. A mix of warm water, weather and land make hurricanes regular events. People, at least those who think they are as smart as Americans think they are, should know better than to put human lives and taxpayer funds at such risk.

There is a serious problem here. The local government will do what it can to make sure it stays in existence. It and the state government depend on the millions in tax revenues from the businesses the feds subsidize with floodwalls, levees, etc. The boys at the head of the federal government will do what they can to look like good guys. Americans themselves come to the trough expecting a bailout.

The shame of it all is that the people who will be bailed out will not be the people of the Ninth Ward. If relief comes to the Ninth Ward, it will be to insure what the Ninth Ward did before Katrina — provide a stock of cheap labor upon which manufacturing and tourism depend.

What is the solution? Starting with Katrina, the federal government could decide to stop funding and encouraging people to move into areas where weather, water and land trump human intelligence. For decades, the federal government has literally funded natural disaster with flood insurance, disaster relief and long-term infrastructure building.

1. By sinking federal dollars into building flood walls, levees and canals, the feds have encouraged the settlement of the bowl we call New Orleans by creating a seemingly safe environment for American life.
2. By damming, leveeing and channeling the Missouri and Mississippi river basins, it has created an environmental disaster that extends from Appalachia to the Rockies, from the Canadian plains to the Gulf of Mexico.
3. With federally backed flood insurance (which lowers premiums to customers and decreases insurance company risk, increasing profits), it has moved risk of building in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast from the people who should bear the burden — the people who decide to live, work and make their money in these areas — to the American public.

Imagine for a moment how far the estimated $200 billion it will take to rebuild (a conservative estimate) could go in providing infrastructure and aid to people in other places.

In a way, Katrina cleared out the capitally inefficient elements, particularly people and architecture that capital interests no longer found productive. Capitalism depends on the demise of older infrastructures and ways of making money to keep itself dynamic. Creating new products, and the markets for them, is why, for instance, we have the toaster oven. Obviously, the broiler wasn't good enough.

But even more efficient is to have your capital infrastructure destroyed either by war or by storm, flood, avalanche or earthquake. Nature acting on capital infrastructure that people knowingly build in its way provides a convenient mechanism. Government, in a sort of Marshall Plan for the Gulf Coast, will not only renew the means of making and moving money with new roads, buildings and confidence for the business of business. It will also perpetuate the pernicious human hierarchies that hurt the poor and powerless.

Anyone who thinks we are getting a newer, better New Orleans out of the deal is easily duped by the ideology of capital.

The solution? As mentioned, the $200 billion the government is going to spend to keep the Gulf Coast economically viable will have greater returns in renewing the residential and capital infrastructure of existing cities, from Houston and Atlanta to Seattle and Albany. Moreover, the bill will actually get closer to a third of a trillion-money better spent making sure people, Americans themselves, are cared for, that their education allows them to pursue lives independent of their upbringing and corporate designs, and that their work has meaning and contributes to community.

The billions should go to public welfare rather than corporate well being. The funds taken from Americans across the nation would be better spent on creating a better, more democratic nation than on a New Orleans and Gulf Coast likely to be more corporate, more stratified, and less interesting and diverse than the city that was there before the storm.

If some of this sounds harsh, it is only because holding people more important than making money goes against the American way. Corporate and capital interests will use history, culture and tourist markers to justify spreading the risk of building a new Gulf Coast, and, in particular, New Orleans, across the American public. But these are creations and interpretations of a tourism industry anxious to continue shifting public resources from the public to private bottom lines.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at


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