Voices

Getting a bit carried away?

It's risky to question the wisdom of government aid in the face of disaster, but it's even riskier not to

Issue: "New Orleans: Starting over," Sept. 24, 2005

Those roaring, splashing, gurgling sounds you hear are the giant diesel engines in New Orleans pumping not just water but a grisly mix of lead, benzene, and fecal bacteria up a few feet into Lake Pontchartrain. The lake's beaches were to be opened to the public next summer. But all that is off, of course. Instead of bathing suits, look for three-piece business suits, worn by class-action lawyers.

All of which may or may not have been figured into the current estimates that Hurricane Katrina's final invoice will exceed $100 billion, making it-by a factor of three or four-the worst natural disaster ever inflicted on the United States. But no one really has the foggiest idea what the real cost will be. The imponderables, like lawsuits, are way too unwieldy.

That, in turn, calls to mind Jesus' words in Luke 14:28, where He warns about the folly of taking on a project without counting the cost. I think Jesus didn't mean just to count, but to analyze, to weigh, and to evaluate. And especially so when you're talking about spending $100 billion.

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Keep in mind that $100 billion is one-eighteenth of the federal government's whole operating budget this year. It is what we have been spending each year on the entire Iraqi war effort. It is roughly twice as much as America spends each year to operate all its colleges and universities. It is more than the total passenger revenue of all the major airlines in the United States. This year. It is a staggeringly huge amount of money.

"Don't come to Washington this week," a friend called to warn me a few days ago. "It's a madhouse. Everybody's trying to be the first in line to send your money to Louisiana and Mississippi. The pork barrels are spinning like I've never seen before."

So at the risk of sounding like a September spoilsport, or like Scrooge coming three months before Christmas, let me raise a few "counting the cost" questions:

  • Is the crisis portrayed in a way that helps the public respond as thoughtfully as it should? There were reasons last week to wonder. What does it mean when thousands of offers for housing were going unclaimed? What forces were at work when a friend of mine went to ground zero with a chain saw and a generator, and had people all but tell him to go away. They could take care of their own problems, thank you very much. What was the problem when a relief truck got to the Gulf area only to find no place to go with its cargo?

None of those incidents diminishes the reality or scope of the suffering that has occurred. But the solutions that are needed are far more complex and nuanced than those glibly provided by opportunistic politicians and media folks. Be wary when either of them starts scaring you with reports of 10,000 corpses, and when you hear them filling their endless hours with stories of homeless pets. Have they both gotten a little too frantic for a story?

  • Why add six feet to an uphill climb? It's one thing to care for the immediate humanitarian issues of genuinely needy people. It's something else to make a mindless commitment to build new housing for half a million people six feet below sea level. Why make the same mistake twice-and why pay for the second mistake with public money?
  • Why use such leaky hoses? Whether those hoses are draining polluted water on its way out or bringing fresh water for drinking and for cleaning, the sorry reputation of public officials in Louisiana suggests that they'll siphon off more than their share of any federal funding heading that way. The public in the rest of the country needs to be reassured that such corruption won't be tolerated. And asking just about any politician anywhere to give such an assurance is way too much like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.
  • Why not let the free market work? I gasped when a friend told me last week that a large construction company had just signed a contract with the federal government to build 240,000 homes in the area devastated by Katrina. Even if every damaged house in those regions were never again to be inhabited and had to be replaced-something that clearly isn't the case-there's no public housing czar or private corporate specialist who can begin to know what people will want and where they will want it. Such mega-solutions are almost by definition bad solutions.

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