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Not More Spending, Better Spending

(cross-posted on tpmcafe.com)

This article from the Washington Post this morning makes an important point: Underfunding the Army Corps of Engineers was not the problem that caused flooding in New Orleans. The problem was that the Army Corps of Engineers spends money on the wrong things, pushed by members of Congress and its own inclinations.

"Liberal bloggers, Democratic politicians and some GOP defenders of the Corps have linked the catastrophe to the underfunding of the agency," the Post notes.

But the article points out that the Army Corps was already in the middle of a $748 million construction project right on the Industrial Canal where the most devastating breach occurred. Unfortunately, the project involved building a new lock on the canal, which had nothing to do with flood control and was justified by a prediction that barge traffic would increase, which has not occurred.

According to this study from the bipartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which is the best source for info on waste in the Army Corps and in big projects, the lock-replacement, the most expensive in U.S. history, would (or would have) caused horrible environmental damage to the same low-income neighborhoods that have been washed out by the storm. The report also notes that the major beneficiary of the new lock would be Bollinger Shipyards, Inc., "the only shipyard on the north side of the lock."

Incidentally, a quick search for Bollinger Shipyards on the Center for Responsive Politics site reveals that the company and the family that runs it are quite apolitical and seem to focus on their business.

Just kidding! -- the company and seven members of the Bollinger family have given $562,000 to candidates and political committees since 1998, 99% of it to local and out-of-state Republicans. The Bollingers were the fifth biggest contributor to Sen. David Vitter, identified in the Taxpayers for Common Sense report as a major advocate for the lock project.

But campaign graft is not the only thing going on here. The other part of the story is simply that the Army Corps likes to build big things. If you've ever read Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, which I think is one of the five or ten best books ever written about American politics, you'll be familiar with the tales of the Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation and their obsession with building big dams wherever they could. The book mostly deals with places where water is scarce, so it's not directly applicable to New Orleans, but my guess is that the same dynamic applies. Building up the levees and flood walls are mundane, long projects with no immediate payoff to anyone. Building a new lock, or a new dam, is what real men do.

According to the Post, Bush has increased appropriations for Louisiana Army Corps projects somewhat over the Clinton years, which isn't surprising. But much of this is a dynamic that goes on year after year, and the last President who really tried to break the power of the Army Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation, and their congressional backers was Jimmy Carter, one of his biggest mistakes.

It's very important that the liberal message here is not just "spend more money." Whether the issue is the Department of Homeland Security or the Army Corps, the point should be to spend the money have smartly, efficiently, in the public interest, and with the kind of cost-benefit analysis that puts the right value on disaster-prevention.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 8, 2005 | Permalink


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An excellent survey of the Army Corps's history in the Mississippi River delta is in John McPhee's book, The Control of Nature. Prescient.

Posted by: Nilda | Sep 9, 2005 4:51:05 PM

I'll tell you what is relevant to the Corps' efforts in New Orleans -- Orrin Pilkey's book The Corps and the Shore. Pilkey is James Duke Professor of Geology at Duke University and has written extensively for 40 years on our mismanagement of our shorelines.

Posted by: Paul J. Camp | Sep 10, 2005 1:58:49 AM

I think there's a different angle on the Cadillac Desert connection, Mark, and the history of Western water projects:

Many pundits and pols alike have raised the question of whether we should even bother rebuilding New Orleans given its precarious geography. One of the take home points of Reisner's book is that in fact much if not most of the western U.S. would be uninhabitable were it not for the massive reshaping of the physical landscape by the Corps et al. through their dams, aqueducts and other water projects.

So - if folks are really going to argue that we shouldn't have cities like New Orleans in the first place, what do we do with Las Vegas and most of the desert southwest? And what about virtually the entire agricultural industries of California, eastern Washington and Oregon, etc.?

Of course, at one level these are serious questions: as people who have worked on Western water issues for so long (or, for that matter, anyone who's seen "Chinatown") know, the water to sustain the populations and industries (not to mention all those golf courses, destination resorts, etc.) has to come from somewhere - but daming the rivers and siphoning it off can have dire consequences as well, like the extinction of western salmon runs or the drying up (or flooding behind dams) of communities where the rivers used to flow.

Your reference to the Canal project may be what really draws these two threads together. This isn't my area of expertise - but I've heard that one of the effects of that project was to hasten destruction of the coastal wetlands that could have protected New Orleans by allowing salt water from the Gulf to flow in: the shipping & transportation interests trumped the others.

Posted by: Dan Petegorsky | Sep 10, 2005 5:56:43 PM


The Destruction By The Neo-Cons Of All That Was Held Dear By Conservatives Has A Growing Number Joining The Ranks Of Independents

by Samuel A Stanson

Here is an excerpt from a recent e-mail we received from a long-time conservative:

"Being (a) lifelong Tory approaching 70 yrs (I am) appalled to see conservative leaders mortgaging social infrastructure trying to balance annual budgets. Conservatives in (the) past were patriarchs until corrupted by political correctness."

Many of you may not be familiar with the "Tory" label. The Conservative Party in great Britain was a successor to the earlier Tory party. In other words, this man is so conservative he even sticks with the tradition of calling conservatives Tories, which dates back centuries.

The term "conservative" is used by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to describe themselves. It is used by Bush supporters to define themselves. But what really is conservatism, and why are so many true conservatives disgusted by this new breed of Bush/Limbaugh Republicans?

The Conservative Party in England is characterized by moderate progressivism. In other words, look at the quote from the gentleman above: he is "appalled to see conservative leaders mortgaging infrastructure to balance annual budgets." That is not the, "Screw all social programs," that we get from FOX News-brand "conservatives." Exactly the opposite, actually. This gentleman, being a lifelong conservative, is dealing with actual conservatism, not the bastardized, dishonest form the neo-cons in America preach.

"Patriarchs," the gentleman talks about. What does he mean by that?

Well, now you get the jumping off point that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the rest of them use to attract actual conservatives as listeners, before trashing the rest of conservative ideals with their destructive, hate- and lie-spewing rhetoric.

Notice the phrase the gentleman uses in his e-mail: "political correctness." Rush Limbaugh began his rise to power attacking "political correctness." His assaults on "femi-Nazis" and others who stood against the traditional male-dominated (i.e. patriarchal) structure of society surely appealed to conservatives such as the gentleman who sent the e-mail above. The old conservative ideal was that of the wise father figure who was charged with the power in society and would do the right thing for his national family. This did not mean gutting infrastructure and slashing and burning the nation to disfunctionality. It meant to act as the wise moderator, balancing the "family's" needs with the means of the nation.

Yes, conservatives were the moderators, not the extremists. They were not radicals who sought to take the nation and launch it this way or that. Exactly the opposite, they sought to "conserve" the traditional institutions and social structure. Actions should be taken to fix things as needed, but minimally. Don't create drastic new programs, but don't drastically trash the existing ones either. Just because a family's (i.e. nation's) financial situation goes down a bit, you don't stop feeding the baby and let the roof leak through.

Now the feminist era, the free-love era, many of these social upheavals did not sit well with these old, wise father type conservatives. They wanted to maintain the traditional "family values" (beginning to sound familiar?) and social order.

Insert Rush Limbaugh and the elder Bush. They proclaimed the Republicans the party of "family values." They took on the "femi-Nazis" who threatened the traditional patriarchal structure. They took on gays, free-lovers, all non-traditional social types. And in doing so, they appealed to the many conservatives who were out there feeling voiceless, frustrated, and unrepresented (much as many liberals and moderates do today.)

So, now you have all these traditional-minded, mainly white male conservatives with someone out there giving voice to the thoughts that had been labeled unspeakable. Hearing Rush and Bush, Sr. must have been like being able to exhale for the first time after decades of being forced to hold their breath.

However, this being the common ground, the direction Limbaugh, Hannity, Bush, Jr., et. al have attempted to steer these true conservatives does not sit well with those who truly are conservatives - especially those old and wise enough to know what conservatism is (i.e. the patriarchs of the conservative movement.) Yes, they are spoken for socially, but then there was a bait and switch, and politically, they are being misrepresented and their movement hijacked by leaders who are, "appall"ingly, according to true conservatives like the gentleman above, "mortgaging social infrastructure trying to balance annual budgets."

Until now, the idea of accepting some coldness towards the family's needs in return for regaining their voice and power was enough to get these conservatives to play along. But now, President Bush and his brand of neo-conservative has taken the coldness or their slash and burn social agenda so far that these good patriarchs are now having to distance themselves, step away from the Limabugh's, Hannity's, and Bushes and ask themselves what sort of good father would let their house and family be so trashed in the name of "balanc(ing) annual budgets," especially when it is clear the only reason annual budgets are so unbalanced is because of overly excessive tax cutting.

A paternalist wouldn't care more about corporate profit than his child getting asthma or wife getting emphysema. A paternalist wouldn't agree to a war for oil. A paternalist wouldn't thrash the school system for tax cuts for the wealthy.

When this new breed of Limbaugh conservative came on the scene, as we said, the conservatives were ecstatic to finally have a voice. So in droves they helped create "The Republican Revolution" that propelled Gingrich and company to power in 1994.

It didn't take long though for true conservatives to see that this new breed of fake conservative was just a wolf in conservative clothing. Gingrich's name became anathema to good American conservatives and the Republicans not only stopped gaining, but lost seats in each of the next two elections.

Betrayed, the true conservatives were then left with a choice between a heartless, greed-driven Republican Party and a Democratic Party that fully embraced the American brand of table-turning feminism, that had been emasculated by the "femi-Nazis." The question for good conservatives became what would happen first, would the Republicans get a heart or would the Democrats get balls.

Well, the Democrats weren't about to have any candidate who stood up and said, "Let men be men and women be women," or, "American 'feminism' is very anti-feminine; why can't men be men and women be women while we all have equal rights and protections?" It wasn't about to happen, and, in fact, didn't.

On the other side of things, the new-Limbaugh breed of Republicans found their solution. Having found their following the first time by lying upon lying upon lying, pretending to be good conservatives when they were truly just hateful greed-mongers playing on conservative disaffection with the social upheaval of the 60's and 70's, the Limbaugh conservatives once again found their lie line. The conservatives were upset with them because they had no heart? Ok, let's say we have a heart.

And so, deciding to simply pay dishonest lip service to their base's true concerns, they started calling themselves "compassionate conservatives." And it worked well enough to get the base to trust them once again. The Bush/Limbaugh Republicans rejoiced, thinking they had found their solution. Simply tell the people you are kind, and it calms their concerns, tell the people you are compassionate, that you are doing the right thing, and it allows them to feel better.

Once in office, President Bush continued in this vein. The question wasn't what would the best policy be, it was (and is,) "What do the people want to hear?" He won't change his forest bill that opens things up to industry, he will simply give it a name that will calm the good conservatives of his base who demand their government has a heart. He will call it the "Healthy Forests" bill. He will call his air quality rollback the "Clear Skies" act.

Only one problem. Conservatives are not stupid - in fact, they are very vigilant in keeping an eye on their government, which they have a predisposition not to trust.

And so, the conservatives are falling off in droves and droves, recognizing that President Bush is in no way a true conservative, in no way is he a compassionate paternalist like real conservatives are. They see this new breed of conservative as greedy, destructive wolves once again in conservative clothing. The are "appalled" to see them "mortgaging social infrastructure trying to balance annual budgets."

Which leaves poor, decent, true conservatives without a home again. Until the Democrats get their balls and find a place for good, white, heterosexual males who believe in traditional roles for men and women, conservatives can't feel at home in their party. And until the Republicans really get a heart - in policies, not just in words - they can not be a part of their party.

Like other good Americans who care only about two things, truth and what is best for America, these good, true conservatives of the nation feel unspoken for. Where can they go to commiserate about how they have been duped and taken advantage of, yet again, by President Bush and the fiscally irresponsible to the point of being utterly destructive Republican neo-cons, without ending up turning to a group that bashes them for wanting to be manly men who are the dominant ones in their families? Where can conservatives turn to hear a voice that bashes the Republicans for breaking their social contract with their American family, but still be respected and find other people who prefer old school family setups and values, who understand about going to church? Where can good white conservative males turn where they can have both respect and a heart?

No, not to the Democrats. And no, obviously not to the current Bush/Limbaugh-dominated Republican Party. But there is a place where all party-less orphans do come, where they are always welcome and treated with respect, and where the basic tenets of our contract with our country are that we care only about two thing: the truth, and what is best for America.

Welcome to The Moderate Independent, serving good conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between, who are intent on keeping the faith with the rest of their American family.

Posted by: True Conservative | Sep 10, 2005 8:27:38 PM

Just Kidding!? Mark, that's getting into Atrios-level snark territory.

Posted by: Rob W | Sep 12, 2005 1:23:42 AM