The Financial Times gets the big picture. Katrina is more than just a one-time outrage and a slow-to-move government. It exemplifies what happens when small government policies are put into place:
….For the past quarter century in Washington, since the Republican Ronald Reagan rode a conservative backlash all the way to the presidency, US politics has been dominated by the conviction that what was wrong with America would be solved by getting government off the people’s backs.
In Washington, the Republican orthodoxy that reigns at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue has dictated that taxes can go down but never up. Federal tax revenues as a percentage of the economy have dropped to the lowest levels since the early 1950s….
But that is little comfort to the tens of thousands stranded in primitive conditions in New Orleans who are begging for government help, and will face months and years of rebuilding their lives even after it comes.
There are at least three reasons why the hurricane may mark a turning point in the US debate over the role of government. First, the deep tax cuts enacted in 2001 – which President George W. Bush now wants extended permanently – left no room for government initiatives that might have prevented the catastrophe and increased capacity to respond.
The Louisiana Army Corps of Engineers had identified some $18bn (£9.8bn) in projects to shore up the levees and improve flood control in New Orleans after last year’s vicious hurricane season. Despite warnings from local emergency officials that New Orleans would face disastrous flooding even with a category 3 hurricane (Katrina landed as a category 4), none of those projects was funded. Instead, Army Corps funds in the region have fallen by nearly half since 2001, and the Bush administration has proposed a further 20 per cent cut next year. Hurricane prevention was among dozens of domestic programmes that have been chronically underfunded as taxes have fallen and scarce revenues have been diverted to the war on terrorism.
Second, despite huge increases in spending to fight the war in Iraq, the hurricane revealed how thinly the US military has been stretched. National Guard units, under the control of state governments, are supposed to be the front line for rescuing people and maintaining law and order in natural disasters. But 3,000 of Louisiana’s guard troops are in Iraq, as are 4,000 from Mississippi, and many of those back home have recently finished gruelling tours in Baghdad. The hurricane forced local authorities to seek help from guard troops in nearby states, but aid has been far too slow in coming for many of those stranded….
Pico, a network of faith-based community organisations, says: "We are watching catastrophic failure by public officials to respond to those who are most vulnerable." The criticism is ironic – as Washington has scaled down taxpayer-funded public services, it has encouraged such faith-based charities to step into the breach. The Salvation Army was the first group to get aid into the ravaged Mississippi Gulf coast, well before any government help arrived.
With the New Deal in the 1930s, helping those who could not help themselves became a mission that spawned a vast expansion of government’s role. After a generation of determined effort the conservative movement has succeeded in squelching that mission. In the aftermath of Katrina, its success appears to have come at high cost.
A big government is not a bad thing, as long as it is not wasteful. It’s time we realize that government is a place where people come together.