The Levees Around Us


September 2, 2005


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I don’t go along with the view that the devastation of New Orleans was God’s punishment for the moral failings of some of the people there. I say that not because I don’t take scripture seriously but because I do. Jesus tried over and over to shake his disciples from the Old Testament belief that misfortunes in the external world betoken the hand of a wrathful God. The disciples wanted to know for example whether a particular man was blind because of his own sins or those of his parents.

But Jesus wasn’t into blame. He said, in effect, “That’s irrelevant. Shut up and heal him.” Another time, and more to the present point, he asked them whether they thought the people who died when a tower fell in Siloam “were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem.” Jesus answered his own question. “Nay,” he said. “But, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”

The question was not what somewhat else might have done. It was what they — the disciples — were going to do. Get the beam out of your own eye. A Christian is known in how he or she responds to misfortune, not in how he assigns blame for it.

At the other end of the political spectrum, people are projecting upon New Orleans their own version of the apocalypse in the form of global warming. This seems plausible,; though I’m not sure it helps to appear eager to score points in the face of so much suffering. But it does at least point to a solution. And there is no denying the poetic — if not divine — justice, in that New Orleans has the nation’s only supertanker port, and thus is the conduit through which foreign oil flows into our gas tanks and from there into our skies.

Which goes to sin of another sort — greed — and to the essentially theological nature of our politics, on the Left no less than on the Right. The Right rails against lust and winks at greed, while the Left does the opposite. (The former Soviet Union stood for a strict Puritanism in regards to money and profit, with all the cynicism and hypocrisy that Puritanism generally breeds.) You could call it a politics of pants. The Right wants to regulate the front of the pants — the zipper. The Left wants to regulate the wallet in the back. For those who care, Jesus said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and Caesar’s image is found in the money in our wallets, not in…..well, you get the point.

Myself, I’d say greed is the bigger problem right now. Along that line I’d like to offer a more mundane observation on the disaster in New Orleans — mundane in the literal sense. It concerns the nature of property, and the sources of its value. Our friends on the Right regard property as more sacred than the Creator itself. And they regard the value of property as due solely to the owner. If the rest of us impose restrictions on the use of property for the common good, then we should have to pay the owner for the hypothetical value of which that owner has hypothetically been deprived.

The earth may belong to the Lord, and the fullness thereof. (Ps. 24:1) But property belongs to a bunch of grasping little mortals, and the entire value of it is owing to them. That’s regardless of the contributions of others, let alone the Creator.

Let’s see how that view — the property rights fundamentalist view — plays out in the case of New Orleans. Hurricanes and floods are not exactly new to that city. No sooner had the first version been built in 1723 than a fierce hurricane wiped it out. The residents had to start from scratch. This turned out to be a blessing because now there was a chance to plan, as opposed to the previous laissez-faire.

The flooding of the Mississippi was a constant problem too. Trenches were dug along the sides of the streets in an effort to contain the waters . (The Creole word for city square is “islet,” a small island.) Eventually, the city had to build an elaborate system of pumps and levees to keep the water at bay, as it were. In recent decades these had fallen into disrepair. The Bush Administration had rejected pleas from its Corps of Engineers for more money, in order to fund its tax cuts and the occupation of Iraq.

But my point here is property. Every owner in the city of New Orleans was dependent upon a massive government project. Their property would have been worthless without it — that is, without the investment of taxpayers not just within the city, but from the entire nation. That includes millions who never have set foot in New Orleans, and never will. Would you buy a lot in New Orleans right now? If you would it would be largely on the promise of politicians to rebuild the city, which is precisely the point.

In this New Orleans is not exceptional. It is emblematic. For almost every alleged “taking,” there has been a giving of often greater magnitude. Take the cases that the Bush Justice Department threw to California cotton growers earlier this year. During a drought in the early 1990s, the State of California had to divert some scarce water to help keep fish alive. The cotton farmers didn’t get all the water to which they felt entitled. They cherry-picked a friendly forum — the U.S. Court of Claims — and sued.

The U.S. Justice Department is supposed to stand up for us taxpayers.  But the Bush Administration settled the claims for $17 million in taxpayer dollars, even though the law was on the taxpayers’ side. It turned out, moreover, that the growers in question had received almost a quarter of a billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies from 1995-2003 alone. So who took what from whom?

That case too is emblematic. All property is a co-production between an owner, society and nature. With land, the bulk of the contributions generally come from the latter two. What makes a vacant lot in Manhattan worth more than one of equivalent size in Bridgeport, Connecticut? It is not the efforts of the owner, which may well be an overseas investment firm that hasn’t even seen the property. It is the efforts of the entire society — government and private owners both. The levees that surround New Orleans in a sense surround all of us. The problem is that some want to pretend that the levees aren’t there, and that they keep the water away by their own enterprise and virtue.

As one writer once put it, landowners “love to reap where they never sowed.” That wasn’t Karl Marx. It was Adam Smith.

The strange part is, the property rights crowd knows this, even though they won’t admit it. Have you noticed who is crying loudest for government help these days? It’s President Bush, and his fellow Sunbelt Republicans. It’s the people who tell us government is evil, on other days. (Except that is when they are clamoring for agribusiness subsidies, and federal insurance for people who build on fragile coastal areas.)

“Government is not the answer,” Ronald Reagan said famously. “Government is the problem.” Oh yeah? So where’s the market when you really need it? Where are all the Reaganites now?