SHAKY GROUND


Paul Loeb

Last

week, I ran into a friend I worked with twenty years ago at a senior center.

Lately, he’s been working on emergency preparedness–helping Seattle retrofit

its homes, businesses, and schools to withstand major earthquakes. Supported by

the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s $25-million Project Impact, my friend

has been developing and promoting inexpensive solutions, and training

homeowners, builders and contractors.

"What

a great program," I said, "because sooner or later, the big one’s

going to hit!" Unfortunately, a few days after our conversation, President

Bush targeted Project Impact to be eliminated–to help him give $70 billion in

tax cuts to the richest 1% of Americans.

Later

that same day-Wednesday–a major earthquake hit Seattle. My cat fled, an instant

before, and stayed hidden beneath the couch for the afternoon. I grabbed my

swaying computer and pushed back sliding file drawers. Pictures fell off

bookshelves, shattering their glass. But otherwise my family was completely

unharmed. And the city as a whole emerged relatively unscathed. We saved

priceless lives and untold dollars in part because this was a deep quake, less

damaging than "the big one" still possible, but also because Seattle

has been steadily retrofitting vulnerable buildings, bridges, and highways

through public programs like Project Impact.

The

earthquake–and Bush’s same-day proposed elimination of the very program that

helped us prepare for it–underscores the folly of believing Margaret Thatcher’s

pronouncement that "There is no such thing as society–there are only

individual families." Invest in our infrastructure, and it will stay mostly

solid, even while the ground shakes, rattles, and rolls beneath it. Invest in

all our children, and they’ll grow up healthy and strong. Invest in our

communities, and ordinary citizens will feel hopeful. Invest in technologies

like wind power, compact-fluorescent light bulbs, and efficient mass transit,

and we won’t have to choose between rationing electricity and despoiling our

environment.

Instead,

despite recent prosperous times, we’ve continued to accentuate what John Kenneth

Galbraith once called "private affluence and public squalor." Even

before the earthquake, the state of Washington (whose disproportionately

plentiful billionaires enjoy one of the most regressive local tax systems in the

nation) was planning to slash $200 million from the budgets for mental health

services, subsidized dental care, and other programs serving the poorest and

most vulnerable. Nationwide, nearly 50 million Americans lack health insurance.

Our new recession threatens more unemployment–and disaster for those hitting

welfare term limits. Now, after losing by more than a half million votes and

being handed the election by his friends in high places, our President is

proposing the most regressive tax cut in twenty years.

We’d

all welcome a "refund" from the feds, but the earthquake reminded me

that neglecting to invest in our common future undermines the foundation of our

society. I’d love to see real tax reform, so that as a self-employed person

averaging $30,000 a year and paying both income and social security taxes, I’d

no longer pay at a higher rate than Bill Gates does when selling a billion

dollars of Microsoft stock. But this proposal gives the bulk of its benefits to

that tiny minority of Americans who already control the vast share of our

national wealth. It slashes the resources available to address America’s real

crises, and to build for our future.

As

former Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Berkeley) once said, you learn a lot more about the

state of a nation’s soul by looking at its budgets than by heeding the words of

its politicians. It’s nice that President Bush sends Seattle his prayers. But

hard commitment goes further than easy compassion, not only for "the big

ones" still looming, but also for the largely invisible disasters that so

many of our citizens face day after day.

Paul

Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a

Cynical Time (St Martin’s Press) Visit www.soulofacitizen.org for more

information.

 

 

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