No one was prepared for the storm when it hit. The levees meant to protect us had long since been breached and key officials had already left town. The well-to-do were assured of rescue, but for everyone else trapped inside the Superdome in a fast-flooding region, there was no evacuation plan in sight. The Bush administration, of course, claimed that it was in control and the President was already assuring his key officials that they were doing a heck of a job.
No, I’m not talking about post-Katrina New Orleans. That was so then. I’m talking about the housing and credit crunches, as well as the Bear Stearns bailout, that have given the term "bear market" new meaning.
Now, don’t get me wrong — when it comes to the arcane science of economics, like most Americans, I’d benefit from an "Economics for Dummies" course. What I do know something about, though, is history, a subject that hasn’t been on the Bush administration’s course curriculum since the President turned out not to be Winston Churchill and conquered Iraq refused to morph into occupied Germany ‘n Japan 1945.
History may not repeat itself, but the administration’s repetitive acts these past seven years make an assessment of our economic situation possible, even if you are an economics dummy.
Just consider the record: Administration officials proved incapable of rebuilding two countries that their military occupied and damaged. In Afghanistan and Iraq, while talking up the President’s "freedom agenda," they were the equivalent of a natural disaster, a whirlwind of destruction.
In the case of Iraq, in disbanding its military, its government, and even its economy, they were literal nation-wreckers. On taking Baghdad, their first act of omission was to let the capital be looted. ("Stuff happens," commented Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the time.) Soon after, the administration’s new viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, promptly plunged the country into the equivalent of the Great Depression — without a Bear Stearns bailout in sight.
In the case of Afghanistan, only a staggering boom in opiate growing — the country now supplies an estimated 93% of the global market in illegal opiates, bringing about four billion dollars into the country — has slightly offset the disaster of "liberation." By just about any other measure, Afghanistan is a wreck.
In the case of New Orleans, the Bush administration not only couldn’t rebuild an American city that nature (and the Army Corps of Engineers) damaged, but turned a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe that has yet to end.
Despite a reputation for being the most disciplined, tough, and focused administration in memory, Bush’s men and women couldn’t even secure their fondest inside-the-Beltway dream: constructing a generation-long Pax Republicana in Washington. In fact, it looks suspiciously as if Republicans in the House and Senate, fleeing Congress as if it were New Orleans — it’s politely called "retirement," not cutting and running — could even be swept into minority status for a generation.
And now, with a mere ten "lame duck" months to go, comes the American economy…
You don’t faintly need to understand economics to grasp the immediate danger. The people overseeing the handling of this crisis have done little these last years but hand money over to the rich, while running American power into the dirt.
Let me review our history lesson for a moment: No to nation-rebuilding, no to city-rebuilding, no to Congressional majority-building…
Who dares imagine that the people who brought you Iraq, the war, could begin the rebuilding of an economy, or even successfully caulk the cracks in the levees of a system that, in its complexity, puts Iraq’s feeble economy to shame?
In some ways, an administration — whatever its periodic changes of personnel — can be compared to an individual. At a certain age, its urges become predictable, its habits set, its limits largely known. While change may be possible, you wouldn’t want to bet your house on it.
So what exactly has the Bush administration proven itself good at? The twin skills of destruction and looting would stand at the top of any list. Perhaps that’s because it chose to put its "eggs" in only two baskets — those of the U.S. military and crony corporations.
Awed by the shock-and-awe force of forces that fell into their hands, administration officials moved to transfer as many powers of civil governance as possible to the Pentagon. From diplomacy to disaster relief, nation-building to intelligence gathering, an organization built only to destroy was designated as the go-to outfit for activities normally associated with those who have building in mind.
At the same time, the government was being staffed, top-to-bottom, with ill-prepared political pals, while a small set of crony corporations, of which Halliburton is certainly the best known, was given the nod in every rebuilding situation. It really didn’t matter where you looked, they were the ones camped out, making money, on the landscape of destruction. With their no-bid, cost-plus contracts, these companies ran up the hours and then tended to jump ship when the going got bad. The same corporations that had essentially looted Iraq — it was labeled "reconstruction" — were the first ones called in when New Orleans went down. (Of the initial six contracts the Bush administration offered for the reconstruction of the city, five went to companies previously involved in Iraq’s reconstruction program.)
Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration has proved serially incapable of building anything, even — in the long run — their own machine. And, from the Enron moment to the Bear Stearns one, whenever it looked like the Titanic might have hit an iceberg, it was a lock that those passengers assigned to the limited places in the lifeboats wouldn’t be from steerage (or be weighed down with subprime mortgages).
So rebuilding. No. Saving people who aren’t already friends. No. Doing a heck of a job in a crisis. No. Now, our latest and greatest crisis is upon us, the sort that, in a matter of weeks, has sent media commentators and pundits from reluctant discussions of whether we might be heading into a recession straight to references to the "d" word, "1929," and the Great Depression. And they’re not alone. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that a startling 59% of Americans already believe we’re heading for a long-term depression, not a recession (and 79% are worried about the possibility). Leave the definitional details to the experts. Most Americans have undoubtedly assessed the Bush administration’s proven incapacity in perilous times and drawn the logical conclusions.
Ten months is a long, long time when only their hands are near the pilot’s wheel of the ship of state and water’s already seeping through the hull. It’s an eon for an administration capable of sinking New Orleans in a matter of days, and Iraq in little more than months. Or, thought of another way, it’s plenty of time if your expertise happens to lie in deconstruction. After all, barring a miracle, you’re talking about the little administration that couldn’t, no matter how hard Ben Bernanke may try.
So, even if you, like me, know next to nothing about economics, you already know enough to be afraid, very afraid.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.