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Michael Parenti, "How the Free Market Killed New Orleans"

How the Free Market Killed New Orleans

Michael Parenti, ZMag

The free market played a crucial role in the
destruction of New Orleans and the death of thousands
of its residents. Armed with advanced warning that a
momentous (force 5) hurricane was going to hit that
city and surrounding areas, what did officials do?
They played the free market.

They announced that everyone should evacuate. Everyone
was expected to devise their own way out of the
disaster area by private means, just as the free
market dictates, just like people do when disaster
hits free-market Third World countries.

It is a beautiful thing this free market in which
every individual pursues his or her own personal
interests and thereby effects an optimal outcome for
the entire society. This is the way the invisible hand
works its wonders.There would be none of the collectivistic regimented
evacuation as occurred in Cuba. When an especially
powerful hurricane hit that island last year, the
Castro government, abetted by neighborhood citizen
committees and local Communist party cadres, evacuated
1.3 million people, more than 10 percent of the
country's population, with not a single life lost, a
heartening feat that went largely unmentioned in the
U.S. press.

On Day One of the disaster caused by Hurricane
Katrina, it was already clear that hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of American lives had been lost in New
Orleans. Many people had "refused" to evacuate, media
reporters explained, because they were just plain

It was not until Day Three that the relatively
affluent telecasters began to realize that tens of
thousands of people had failed to flee because they
had nowhere to go and no means of getting there. With
hardly any cash at hand or no motor vehicle to call
their own, they had to sit tight and hope for the
best. In the end, the free market did not work so well
for them.

Many of these people were low-income African
Americans, along with fewer numbers of poor whites. It
should be remembered that most of them had jobs before
Katrina's lethal visit. That's what most poor people
do in this country: they work, usually quite hard at
dismally paying jobs, sometimes more than one job at a
time. They are poor not because they're lazy but
because they have a hard time surviving on poverty
wages while burdened by high prices, high rents, and
regressive taxes.

The free market played a role in other ways. Bush's
agenda is to cut government services to the bone and
make people rely on the private sector for the things
they might need. So he sliced $71.2 million from the
budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44
percent reduction. Plans to fortify New Orleans levees
and upgrade the system of pumping out water had to be

Bush took to the airways and said that no one could
have foreseen this disaster. Just another lie tumbling
from his lips. All sorts of people had been predicting
disaster for New Orleans, pointing to the need to
strengthen the levees and the pumps, and fortify the

In their campaign to starve out the public sector, the
Bushite reactionaries also allowed developers to drain
vast areas of wetlands. Again, that old invisible hand
of the free market would take care of things. The
developers, pursuing their own private profit, would
devise outcomes that would benefit us all.

But wetlands served as a natural absorbent and barrier
between New Orleans and the storms riding in from
across the sea. And for some years now, the wetlands
have been disappearing at a frightening pace on the
Gulf? coast. All this was of no concern to the
reactionaries in the White House.

As for the rescue operation, the free-marketeers like
to say that relief to the more unfortunate among us
should be left to private charity. It was a favorite
preachment of President Ronald Reagan that "private
charity can do the job." And for the first few days
that indeed seemed to be the policy with the disaster
caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The federal government was nowhere in sight but the
Red Cross went into action. Its message: "Don't send
food or blankets; send money." Meanwhile Pat Robertson
and the Christian Broadcasting Network — taking a
moment off from God's work of pushing John Roberts
nomination to the Supreme Court — called for donations
and announced "Operation Blessing" which consisted of
a highly-publicized but totally inadequate shipment of
canned goods and bibles.

By Day Three even the myopic media began to realize
the immense failure of the rescue operation. People
were dying because relief had not arrived. The
authorities seemed more concerned with the looting
than with rescuing people. It was property before
people, just like the free marketeers always want.

But questions arose that the free market did not seem
capable of answering: Who was in charge of the rescue
operation? Why so few helicopters and just a
scattering of Coast Guard rescuers? Why did it take
helicopters five hours to get six people out of one
hospital? When would the rescue operation gather some
steam? Where were the feds? The state troopers? The
National Guard? Where were the buses and trucks? the
shelters and portable toilets? The medical supplies
and water?

Where was Homeland Security? What has Homeland
Security done with the $33.8 billions allocated to it
in fiscal 2005? Even ABC-TV evening news (September 1,
2005) quoted local officials as saying that "the
federal government's response has been a national

In a moment of delicious (and perhaps mischievous)
irony, offers of foreign aid were tendered by France,
Germany and several other nations. Russia offered to
send two plane loads of food and other materials for
the victims. Predictably, all these proposals were
quickly refused by the White House. America the
Beautiful and Powerful, America the Supreme Rescuer
and World Leader, America the Purveyor of Global
Prosperity could not accept foreign aid from others.
That would be a most deflating and insulting role
reversal. Were the French looking for another punch in
the nose?

Besides, to have accepted foreign aid would have been
to admit the truth — that the Bushite reactionaries
had neither the desire nor the decency to provide for
ordinary citizens, not even those in the most extreme
straits. Next thing you know, people would start
thinking that George W. Bush was really nothing more
than a fulltime agent of Corporate America.

[Michael Parenti's recent books include
Superpatriotism (City Lights) and The Assassination of
Julius Caesar
(New Press), both available in
paperback. His forthcoming The Culture Struggle (Seven
Stories Press) will be published in the fall.]
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