What Greenspan Can’t See


September 8, 2005


Browse in Commons Diseconomy Environment

The President’s response to his administration’s ineptitude regarding Katrina has been to distance himself from it.  He’s calling for an “investigation,” as though someone other than himself was in charge. His helpers meanwhile are mounting an attack on his critics and shifting the blame to local officials – red letter moves from the Karl Rove playbook.

I’m not sure it will fly.  The story has gone pretty far beyond the White House spin.  When the President appeared in staged photo-ops with his arms around children of color, it just reminded people of how little he has done. Then again, the Washington media is both obedient and gullible.  Plus, the President’s critics haven’t done a great job of framing the issue either.

We’ve heard mainly about two things – global warming, and the invasion of Iraq.  The Iraq connection is real, but also remote.  A half-competent FEMA, and a President who genuinely cared, could have done a great deal, even with the occupation of Iraq, and the diversion of attention and funds it represents.  The connection to global warming appears real as well. Warmer oceans do stir up worse storms.

But it too is remote. A disaster such as this could have happened even without warming.  To harp on it could come across as polemical opportunism.  The issue does have to be raised.  But I think other points come first.

For one thing, Katrina alters fundamentally the subtext of American politics, or could at least.  “Government is not the answer,” Ronald Reagan declared famously in 1980.  “Government is the problem.”  Those words still echo a quarter century later.  They continue to define the playing field on which national politics is fought.  The market knows best. If government does anything it will just make matters worse. That’s not hospitable terrain for addressing global warming, or anything else.

You’d be hard pressed to find a member of Congress, in either party, who would repeat Reagan’s words publicly today.  Instead they are talking about government doing more – doing more and spending more – to help Americans in distress. The President has asked for over $50 billion already, and that’s just a first installment.  Where 9/11 played to the Right by inviting the atmospherics of the bellicose and authoritarian state, Katrina plays to the Left by invoking government as a locus of joint foresight and help.

Where 9/11 led to nation-building, moreover, Katrina will lead to city-building.  If New Orleans does get rebuilt, it will be an opportunity of staggering proportions to design a city to work with the economy of nature rather than against it; and there will be an irrefutable necessity to do so.   9/11 produced a real estate deal qua monument at the former World Trade Center site.  Katrina could produce a whole new force field in thinking about human settlement and how best to design it.

The era of blaming government could be over.  Not only that, the era of portraying environmental concerns as the self-indulgence of tree-hugger elites is over too.  If Katrina proved nothing else, it is that this thing called the “environment” isn’t a matter of sentimentality and aesthetics.  It is about life support, and economics in the most elemental sense  – that is, the mustering of available resources to meet urgent human need.

Alan Greenspan and his fellow divines have been hunched over their calculators trying to work out the consequences of Katrina to what they call “the economy.”  Their computations are warped from the git-go, and not a little sick.  They fixate on the part of life that is transacted through money.  Thus anything that increases the slosh of dollar bills – or of some other currency — is by definition “good for the economy.”

Where this thinking leads was apparent in a recent article on Forbes.com entitled (I’m not kidding) “Katrina’s Silver Lining.” Here’s the key passage.

“When a hurricane comes, count on large-cap investors to snap up stocks of not only home improvement companies, but also discount retailers (everyone’s running for flashlights and other supplies and will be replacing losses from flood damage), home builders (all those houses need to be rebuilt) and oil companies (damage to refineries down in the Gulf sparks supply worries and kicks up prices).

“That’s probably why shares of Wal-Mart Stores (nyse: WMT – news – people ), Target (nyse: TGT – news – people ), Chevron (nyse: CVX – news – people ) and Halliburton Holding (nyse: HAL – news – people ) were all trading higher.”

The New York Times quoted a hedge fund manager in an office tower in Houston. “Houston is positioned for a boom,”  he said.

The worse things are the better they are, so long as someone is making money from the distress. In this way of thinking, obesity, stress, car crashes and divorce also are great for “the economy” because they occasion the expenditure of a great deal of money.  Toxics in the air and water are a double gain: once when the corporation makes money by producing them, and then when people have to spend additional amounts on cancer treatments and the like.  (By the way, what does it say about Vice President Cheney that  Haliburton, his former company, ends up cashing on both the disasters of the Bush years – Katrina and 9/11.  Just a coincidence I guess.)

As I said it’s a little sick.  And myopic too.  Greenspan et al are staring at an economic failure of epic proportions, and they can’t even see it because it’s beyond the focal plane of money.  I’m talking about the economy of nature, the natural life support system that is no less important than the monetized economy and – as Katrina has shown – often is much more important.

Katrina was a man-made disaster even more than a natural one.  It was not the hurricane alone that caused the devastation in New Orleans.  It was the hurricane plus the absence of the wetlands that should have buffered the city from the storm.  Every 2.7 miles of wetlands reduces a storm surge by about one foot. Louisiana has been losing wetlands equal to the size of Manhattan every year.  You don’t need a slide rule to see where that calculus leads.

It’s not malls and vacation homes that are destroying these wetlands, as in other parts of the country.  In Louisiana it’s largely oil.  Offshore drilling has required the dredging of large canals, which enable salt water to flow into the marshes and cause land to sink.   The other culprit is the extensive system of levees built to protect New Orleans from the Mississippi floods.  These floods used to carry sediment into the marshlands which nourished and replenished them.

No floods means no replenishment.  What used to be a buffer zone is now just open water, and a clear shot for the hurricane that experts have been warning of for years.

If destruction of this magnitude had occurred in the market economy there would be no end of recriminations.  Journalists would have declared a coastal Rust Belt. Mr. Greenspan and the Wall Street Journal editorial page would have issued dire pronouncements about killing the golden goose. But because the economic collapse was in the natural support system, rather than in the market’s money system,  it was off the books,  and therefore ignored in the high offices of the land.

It can be ignored no longer, and not just in Louisiana.  The specter of Katrina now will hover over a host of environmental debates.  The economy of nature – that is, the economy of the commons – will become part and parcel of economic thinking,  and not just a a luxury we get to when the “real” economics is done.  It won’t happen immediately.  But there’s no going back.  The insurance industry and the federal government are doling out hundreds of billions of dollars because of past stupidity, There will be new pressures to be stupid no longer.

This includes the stupidity in the way the nation measures “growth”  — ie the GDP.  How can they say the economy is “growing”, if it is cannibalizing the commons economy upon which our very lives depend?  When the oil industry destroys wetlands, shouldn’t that be a subtraction from growth rather than an addition?  When it takes billions of dollars to dig out from a man-made disaster – a growth-made disaster – then should those expenditures count towards growth at all?

Critics have been raising that question for decades.  Now, finally, even the Greenspans might not be able to dismiss them.  Katrina has provided an object lesson that rises to the level of parable, or at least an Aesop’s Fable.  The activities of the oil industry, directly and irrefutably, have abetted the kind of catastrophe of which environmentalists have been warning.  The efforts to contain a river have had the unintended consequence of inviting a worse flood than the kind they were meant to prevent.

Once those points are established, and imbedded in the national consciousness, the prospects for action on global warming become somewhat more promising.