Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Values and Priorities

Grand oratory and eloquent paeans to the American character notwithstanding, if you want to know what a government stands for, follow the money. Governments cost money- lots and lots of money. Even under the most Grover Norquist-esque, small enough to drown in a bathtub, that which governs best governs least scenario, the federal government will raise and spend trillions of dollars every year.

If the pool of money were absolutely limitless, no politician would ever say no to any program of even arguable merit. Feed the poor? Absolutely. Missile defense? Of course. Healthcare? Yup. Bigger prisons? Check.

We simply can't do that, however. Trillions of dollars is still limited- enormous, but finite. We have to pick and choose what we fund and how much we fund it. The fight over the relative amount is the stuff of politics- while no Republican wants children to starve and no Democrat want to dismantle the military, they might disagree as to how much a program deserves. A government's funding priorities reflect its values.

The current administration made a conscious choice to fund Iraq and defund levee repair and construction. Now we have no choice but to spend billions more to rebuild a city older by far than the country itself. We could have. But we didn't.

Those are Bush priorities- Bush values.

While Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the President was in Arizona, giving a speech to a pre-screened group of seniors (i.e. Republicans) or strumming a guitar. While the Mississippi surged over its earthen walls, ill suited to the task, Condoleeza was in New York, paying more for a pair of Ferragamos than I've paid for of the cars I've owned. While the Mayor and Governor made the best of their situations, the former head of the agency ultimately responsible for the relief effort drafted a memo calling it a "near catastrophe." And if Newsweek is to be believed, the President hadn't even watched a news story on the disaster until after it was already done.

The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One.

How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.

A national disgrace, indeed.

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