Volume 5, Number 132
10 September 2005

Hurricane Katrina, Part 2:

What I Would Do If I Were President

by Jack Powelson

Dear Friends,

What would I do if I were President?

We have all heard how governments (federal, state, and local) have failed us in New Orleans. I have a different perspective. By its very nature, any government would fail its people under similar circumstances. Over the decades, we the people have failed ourselves. With a few exceptions, government, like presidents of corporations and many others, is interested mainly in its own power.

Government power was boosted with the Act for Interstate Commerce of 1887 and the Sherman Anti-Trust Law of 1890. Each brought some good. But no law is all good; we must balance the goods and the harms.

The movement toward government-dependency splurged again with the Roosevelt era. In all these decades, we have been transferring to the government the personal responsibilities that belong to ourselves.

My Libertarian friends have been saying that if the poor of New Orleans had not spent their money on lottery tickets, drugs, and smoking, they could have had saved enough to organize buses themselves. Perhaps this will be so in 500 years, but it is not now.

What would I have done had I been president? Considering the situation we are all in, I would have sent buses. But I would have opposed mandated evacuation. I read of one family whose house was again dry, who had enough food and water, and who refused to leave their possessions to looters and their pets to die. Yet the police ordered them out.

The president should also make sure that all people knew the possible consequences if they stayed.

As many now say, we should have begun preparations long ago. But my "long ago" would have been different. Relieving people of the necessity to take care of themselves, through social security, unemployment insurance, and other welfare items, have put us into a spirit of dependency on government.

I have long proposed a negative income tax (the rich pay, the poor receive) and let the poor spend the proceeds as they will, just like the rest of us. Given proper encouragement, education, and indeed a whole new culture, they would learn by experience to care for themselves. This is the culture I have described in The Moral Economy, published by the University of Michigan Press in 1998. (Hardback copies are sold out, but it is still available in paperback.) As soon as it is out of print, I will put it on the web, as I already have with my lifetime magnum opus, A History of Wealth and Poverty.

A letter by Bradshaw and Slonsky on the inhumanity of the police has been widely circulated by email. When it reached me, I found it riveting. It is confirmed by Gardiner Harris in the New York Times, page A13, on Monday, September 10. I strongly recommend that you read that article.

On September 3, I celebrated my 85th birthday, with two festivities bringing a total of 150 guests. I did not know I had so many friends. I have promised Loren I would write one more TQE, on interest and discount, but I expect that to be my last. My memory is too far gone to permit me fairly to teach students next spring, so I have finally "retired." I am now turning my attention away from world affairs, and more to my own affairs, which I am trying to put in order.

Related TQE Letters
131: Preparing for Disaster
133: Thanks, Germany!

Thank you for all you have meant to me.

Sincerely yours,

Jack Powelson

P.S. Immediately below is a useful chronology:

FEMA and flood control projects in New Orleans

Professor Henry Breitrose
Department of Communication
Stanford University

CHRONOLOGY.... Here's a timeline that outlines the fate of both FEMA and flood control projects in New Orleans under the Bush administration. Read it and weep:

January 2001: Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh, a crony from Texas, as head of FEMA. Allbaugh has no previous experience in disaster management.

April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces the Bush administration's goal of privatizing much of FEMA's work. In May, Allbaugh confirms that FEMA will be downsized: "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program...." he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

2001: FEMA designates a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country."

December 2002: After less than two years at FEMA, Allbaugh announces he is leaving to start up a consulting firm that advises companies seeking to do business in Iraq. He is succeeded by his deputy, Michael Brown, who, like Allbaugh, has no previous experience in disaster management.

March 2003: FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting acts of terrorism.

2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.

Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. Says Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: "You would think we would get maximum consideration....This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it."

June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri comments: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay."

June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes.

August 2005: While New Orleans is undergoing a slow motion catastrophe, Bush mugs for the cameras, cuts a cake for John McCain, plays the guitar for Mark Wills, delivers an address about V-J day, and continues with his vacation. When he finally gets around to acknowledging the scope of the unfolding disaster, he delivers only a photo op on Air Force One and a flat, defensive, laundry list speech in the Rose Garden.

A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA. Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration's conservative agenda to reduce the role of government. After DHS was created, FEMA's preparation and planning functions were taken away.

— Henry Breitrose

Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It's the Bush administration in a nutshell.

— Jack Powelson


The Quaker Economist announces with pride and pleasure the online publication of A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why Some Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by Jack Powelson.

Originally published in 1994 by the University of Michigan Press as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, this new electronic edition is now available to the public at no cost. Click here to see the Table of Contents.

Traducimos esta obra en español, abajo del titulo Historia de Riqueza y Probreza. Esperamos la finalización en enero de 2006.

Readers' Comments:

Note: Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer!

Our email address is "tqe-comment" followed by "@quaker.org". All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

Belated congratulations on your birthday...I only wish I could be as cogent as you are when I'm 85 (in 7 years from now), but I doubt it. I hope you live to be 100, and when you do, I'll wish you many more. Warm regards,

— Tom Selldorf.

It's amazing! What you've said dovetails into David Ignatius column in today's (9/9) Washington Post. He speaks of the Party of Performance, as suggested by Newt Gingrich. We will now need to find a broad consensus, not over morality, but performance. Get beyond defenses, charges, and countercharges, which only lead to the breakdown in public life before Katrina. Gingrich says America faces an "extreme disaster," and I, sitting here in southwestern DC, have felt that for some time, and that both political parties are hopeless. I am ready to sign up for the Party of Performance. It's either that, or try to "escape" somehow.

— Maurice Boyd, Friends Meeting of Washington, DC.

Just before a trip I made to Antarctica in 2000, the New York Times printed a full page article in the Science Section describing the small but definite possibility that the Antarctic ice mass, which is moving at the rate of 35 feet per year, may suddenly move en masse into the ocean. This would raise the level of all the world's oceans by 17 feet. Isn't it time that governments begin to find ways to decrease population at the first 17 feet above sea level? In the absence of an event, the beauty of the ocean-land transition would begin to be reclaimed for the enjoyment of humans.

— Will Rutt, Oak Park Friends Meeting.

Jack, by next June I will be 85 also. I am looking forward to our 60th Harvard reunion, and the possibility of talking with you. The negative income tax was once brought up in a presidential campaign, I think by McGovern. It would probably pay for itself by eliminating most of the elements of our welfare outlays, including most of HHS.

On the subject of Katrina: this administration has been consistent. Bush et al. screw up every enterprise in which they engage. Fiscal affairs: messed up. Terrorism: bin Laden and al Qaida remain. In Iraq we fail to supply items like body armor and armored humvees to our troops. I dont know how to instill democracy in the middle east, but no one in the administration does either. Katrina and FEMA we handled as the memo outlines — all in the line of a consistent foulup. Sadly, the Rove group handles all failures in the same way — promote or reward the failing party, and never fire anybody.

Keep on teaching and writing. Hope to see you next year.

— Dick Wolf.

It looks like the pigeons have come home to roost. FEMA has always been a hotbed of political appointees with little or no experience in emergency management. George Bush seems to have one thing on his mind: Iraq. It is no wonder things have been a fiasco on the Gulf Coast.

However, is any credit being given to the fact that the death toll now appears to be much less than originally anticipated? Should this be properly attributed to good planning? Is the president being given any credit for declaring  a state of emergency two days before the storm hit — the first time in history a state of emergency was declared before the fact? What role does the states' preparedness play? Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama all fought on the same side during the War Between The States, for states' rights. Along with rights come responsibilities. Above all, could anyone have fully prepared for such a catastrophic storm? My point is, it's not all on Bush.

— David Roche.

Happy Birthday, Jack. Thanks for all your interesting letters. Enjoy retirement.

— Liz Bryan, Oundle Meeting, UK.

Dear Jack, I am your age, but it would appear that you have forgotten the troubled times of the thirties. Or perhaps you were one of  the fortunate that did not have to worry about the source of the next meal. My father was the hardest working man I have ever known. He had little education and received very little pay for his efforts. All do not have equal opertunities. Thanks to my father and mother I had many advantages that others did not have. I can find nothing wrong with working through govenment, churches and other organizations to assist those who were  less fortunate than I.

I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, but changed to Northern (American) Baptist after WWII, when I went to the University of California, Berkeley, for graduate studies. There were no American Baptists in Stillwater so we helped start a Friends Meeting here. I became a Friend because I saw them as a group that was interested in helping the less fortunate. It would appear from your essay you do not think this a good idea.

I find many of your ideas to be opposed to what I  have come to see as many of the Quaker concerns.

Had it not been for government assistance I would  have never been able to gain the education and standard of living I have obtained. In undergraduate school it was government work programs at 25 cents per hour. Not much, but it enabled me to pay for my room and board. After WWII the GI bill put me through graduate school. This has enabled me to spend 35 years teaching chemistry at the university level, ten years as a scout master and an opportunity to devote many hours helping in service projects that helped others who did not have the advantages I have had.

I do not resent one penny of taxes I have paid. I have not been pleased with the way some of our government officials have spent these taxes, but for this I blame us, the voters. As a citizen it is my responsibility to help elect people who will use our money properly. Social security as a minimum income on retirement, national health insurance, unemployment benefits, and other human services are not "Give-aways," but the actions of responsible government. If these benefits are misused it is our responsibility to help educate people, but we do not kill the programs.

— Clarence M. Cunningham, Stillwater, OK.

Reply: Dear Clarence, I remember the thirties well. My father had bought many stocks on margin, worked hard to pay off his debts, caught pneumonia in 1933 and died within a week. My mother was left with only our house, but she went to work as a nurse (R.N.) and, with the aid of scholarships, saw her daughter through Wellesley and her two sons (me being the second) through prep school at Andover and college at Harvard. When I had to choose between staying at Penn to get my PhD or returning to Harvard, my mother said she would "back you to the limit of my pocketbook." Knowing that her pocketbook was slim but her courage inspiring, I decided on Harvard, got a teaching fellowship and a job in one of the dorms, and my income was sufficient to get me to the PhD.

No government help at any point along the way.

You seem not to have gotten my point. I am in favor of the poor being helped, but I do not want to coerce anyone else to do it. —Jack Powelson.

And thank you, Jack Powelson, for all you have meant to me. I am sad that you won't be there to join in the fray online, but am really glad that you intend to take care of yourself and Robin. Free and I both will hold you two in the Light of the Holy Spirit and pray fervently that you are able to live comfortably for a long time to come. With our best wishes and Love,

— Janet and Free.

A natural disaster of the magnitude of Katrina rises above any political or economic philosophy. I doubt if the disaster could have been managed much better than it was given its size, nature and our country's inexperience at this sort of thing. Much of what our politicians said publicly was regretable.

I agree with your position that the evacuations should have been voluntary and the means therefor provided.

— Joseph Mills, Kalamazoo (MI) Friends Meeting.

Hello Jack — 85 YEARS YOUNG! I wish Frances and I could have been there to help celebrate your 85th. Glad that J.D. and 149 other guests were there to help you do it right.

I want you to know that "Centuries," which J.D. sent to me in, I think, the sumer of 2000, was a real "tipping point" for me in my thinking about how the world works. I was well versed in the Fraser and Heritage Indexes of Economic Freedom, the writings of Hernando de Soto, and Lord Acton's dictum that power tends to corrupt — but you put it all together.

I also want to pass on to you that one of my nieces, now living in the UK, asked me to tell you that your TQE has been for her the best reading that comes in to her. She said it has meant a great deal to her and she will miss your wise words!

Know that Frances and I are cheering for you back here in Virginia and wish you all the best as you focus on your new endeavors! Most sincerely,

— Gordon Johnson.

I do not agree that government failed us at all levels in New Orleans after Katrina. People who remained in the city received care and support within five days, that is a good standard for emergency preparedness response in our country. Only in the richest and most productive economy the world has ever known could such an effective response have been even imagined, much less carried out. Yes, confusion, and much stupid bluster from senior leaders. But much heriosm and good work on the ground. (both by volunteers and by government responders).

With respect to policy, however, the question remains: Did the government encourage this problem? Well, this is big, and so there are many complex influences. As an insurance agent (among many other things), here is a bit of nuance from one of my professions. In certified flood-plains in the USA, lenders will generally not authorize a mortgage on a building or property unless there is a Federal Flood insurance policy. (Essentially no-one else sells this insurance. Just providing it provides a subsidy to those who own buildings in the flood plains. But is also subsidizes the taxpayer in rebuilding when there is a flood).

New Orleans is all a flood plain. So every house with a mortgage should have flood insurance, you might think. But no, the federal regulations have a waiver that does not permit the lender to require flood insurance if the flood-plain in question is protected by a US Army Corps of Engineers certified levy. The Corps of Engineers certified the levies around New Orleans, even though they clearly recognized that the storm surge from a Category 4 or 5 Hurricane would likely top or breach the levies. (This is exactly what happened: levees were both topped and breached). So, lenders could not require flood insurance, and many of the homeowners chose to do without.

It appears that the government encouraged the building in flood plains in general by providing a subsidized insurance program. Then, the same government encouraged those living in a known flood plains not to buy flood insurance by having the Corps of Engineers certify the levies even when they knew the levies would not hold.

Government actions can be extremely pernicious, even with the best of intentions. Personal responsibility and preparedness are well lit with the Inner Light of God. Government policy is socially very important, but it is not spiritually important compared to the individual's choices and actions taken in the Light.

— Christopher Viavant, Salt Lake Monthly Meeting.

Jack, we sincerely hope that Libertarians would be as ready as anyone else to respond to an emergency, regardless of the lifestyles and values of any who suffer. After all, a main premise is choice and respect for choice to the extent it does not burden others.

Libertarian concerns include efficient use of resources of all kinds, which we believe occurs most naturally when power is diffused, people have choices and markets are competitive. These are concerns that you have explained so well.

In this regard, we ponder public sector responses and the use of government authority as witnessed in New Orleans. We criticize our governments for providing inadequate levees, false assurances of help, and insurance which invites people to live in the path of predictable flooding. We attempt to suggest how government can be made more accountable and how private initiative can be made more effective than government efforts.

We believe, as you do, that our government has removed the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, and undermined incentives for self-help, self-reliance, and self-fulfillment.

— Your Libertarian friends: Jerry van Sickle and J.D. von Pischke.

I am surprised that my close friends Jerry van Sickle and J.D. von Pischke should misquote me. Here are the exact words I used: "My Libertarian friends have been saying that if the poor of New Orleans had not spent their money on lottery tickets, drugs, and smoking, they could have had saved enough to organize buses themselves. Perhaps this will be so in 500 years, but it is not now." This is exactly what Libertarian friends were saying at my breakfast discussion group. It is far different from saying that Libertarians do not care for the poor.

— Jack Powelson.

Editor's Note: I have asked Jerry van Sickle and J.D. von Pischke to contribute a future TQE letter that explains in full the Libertarian point of view on the Katrina disaster and the government's response. — Loren Cobb.

More Responses on Flood Insurance

The ongoing conversation on flood insurance is continued in next week's TQE. Click here to go directly to this area. — ed.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2005 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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