We may just have witnessed the day of which we will say in ten or twenty years, “That was the day, Aug. 31, 2005, the day America began to visibly collapse.” By collapse I’m referring to Joseph Tainter’s use of the term in ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’. i.e. Collapse as a non-pejorative term for what occurs when a society’s reach exceeds its grasp and it is forced for whatever reason- be it environmental, fiscal, military or political- to simplify and adapt to reduced circumstances and hence to a society of reduced complexity.
If this intuition turns out to be as accurate then as it feels certain now then my city paper The Toronto Star will have done itself proud as it was perhaps unique in North America in featuring with equal prominence on its September 1 front page the two events of August 31 that served as the tipping point. The top half of the page dedicated to the devastation that Katrina has wrought on New Orleans, the bottom half dedicated to a picture of the sea of slippers left behind by those fleeing in panic from a possible suicide bomb attack. A stampede that led to approximately 1000 dead in Baghdad on August 31. “An hour ago the death toll was 816 killed, but we expect it to hit 1,000,”- Dr Jaseb Latif Ali of Iraq’s Health Ministry as quoted in the Khaleej Times.
Katrina and Baghdad worlds apart and yet every day seems to bring yet another story bringing them together. One a ‘natural’ disaster whose destructive power was aided and abetted by the follies of a free market dogma that recognizes no natural limits and a bankrupt government that recognizes no fiscal or moral ones. The other a man made tragedy in the middle of a religious march where nerves stretched to the snapping point broke to lethal effect. The first of these horrors is becoming increasingly easy to lay at the feet of an administration that once again ignored the advice of its own experts and rolled the dice gambling that their luck would hold and the disaster would wait for the next guys watch to strike. This time however they lost and they lost big or to be more precise they lost the Big Easy. As to who is at fault for the second calamity all that really needs be said is that in its ten thousand year history Baghdad had never known a single suicide bombing before America put itself in charge. Now as a direct result of the near complete collapse of security 1000 people are dead because of the panic caused by the mere threat of one. Pottery Barn rule indeed.
My instincts tell me that this is a one two punch that will bury not only this administrations imperial ambitions but will also spell the beginning of the end for the American public’s tolerance for the expense of foreign adventures. For Katrina has finally exposed to America its shocking shortage of resources both fiscally and in terms of manpower and how many will not link this fact to the expensive failure in Iraq? A failure whose nadir we can only hope was reached on the day a thousand died. And if my gut proves prophetic then it is from this very day that we will date the zenith of America’s reach and the start of its contraction. It is from here we will begin the chart that chronicles America’s long slide from its position as consumer of 25% of the world’s energy and resources; from its position as the world’s “lone remaining superpower”; and towards a vastly changed geopolitical and economic reality for herself and hence the world.
Natural disasters have a long history of interrupting the best laid plans of mice, men and even emperors. One of the most devastating examples of this in Western history was the earthquake in 1755 in Portugal which led to so much death and misery that it caused even the most devout of theists to begin to question what their authorities were telling them about the nature of their God, his world, and the supposed legitimacy he conferred on those that governed. The smashing of Lisbon by quake, tsunami and fire forced Portugal to abandon its colonial empire aspirations. Now it is true to say that Katrina’s damage to New Orleans is not as catastrophic as the quake was to Lisbon, nor of course is New Orleans as important to the U.S. as was Lisbon to Portugal. Furthermore had Katrina passed through say at the end of Clinton’s term she very likely would have been a storm the status quo would have weathered . But coming as she does when America’s balance sheet is in such a precarious position* is sure to pique the interest of those very influential members of the elite that concern themselves with such mundane matters as how things get paid for. When this is added to the administration’s culpability in weakening New Orleans defenses, and America’s ability to come to the aid of its own citizens in times of a national emergency, it is very likely to shake the faith of even the most devout members of the BAU parties. (BAU: business as usual)
*This analysis assumes that America is particularly vulnerable at this time because its debt-to-asset and debt-to-GDP ratios as well as its national debt, the percentage of its national debt that is foreign held, its budgetary deficit and capital accounts deficit are all at their highest levels in American history. Furthermore they are also higher than the levels experienced by countries that have subsequently crashed such as Argentina in 2001, Russia in 1991 and America in 1929.
In a word Katrina is going to be expensive: in human costs, environmentally, politically, and financially. Hugh B. Kaufman of the EPA in the Washington Post on September 1 put it this way, “This is the worst case…. There’s not enough money in the Gross National Product of the United States to dispose of the amount of hazardous material in this area.” Andrew Gumbel and Rupert Cornwell in the Independent on September 7 described the problem of ‘remedying’ the situation this way. “Toxicologists and public health experts warned yesterday that pumping billions of gallons of contaminated water from the streets of New Orleans back into the Gulf of Mexico – the only viable option if the city is ever to return to even a semblance of its former self -would have a crippling effect on marine and animal life, compromise the wetlands that form the first line of resistance to future hurricanes, and carry deleterious consequences for human health throughout the region.” And as reported in Anthony Lappe’s blog on GNN there are two huge oil containment tankers leaking oil South of New Orleans causing an oil slick that may end up dwarfing the Exxon Valdez spill.
Compared to the human and environmental costs the financial ones pale but are nonetheless worth a look. Katrina managed to knock out for a week about 3.5 million barrels per day from the U.S. oil supply, 880,000 of which will not be on line for months, as well as ending for the foreseeable future the economic life of one of America’s top tourist destinations. There is also the not inconsiderable human and financial costs that will continue for years if not decades from the severely reduced circumstances and futures of so many of the former residents of this region. Finally, the least talked about bit of economic devastation caused by Katrina’s passage is the damage to the navigability of the Mississippi and to shipping to the Southern Louisiana port. The Mississippi is essential to America’s largest port, the fifth largest port in the world. Sure there will be a boost that will occur as a result of the rebuilding process but this is an artificial kind of boost on the order of the kind of boost that the GDP received as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill. Yes cleaning up must be done and yes it does create economic activity that gets added to the overall numbers in the same way as do upgrades to public transit or the creation of new schools but only because our economic indicator system is so radically flawed that it is incapable of useful distinctions. A flaw so profound that it would for example add to the GDP the activity of digging a hole and filling it in and digging a hole and filling it in ad infinitum the same as it would any other economic activity as long as the hole digger/filler was being paid by someone even if that someone is the state. Just as one can build thousands upon thousands of nuclear bombs and cruise missiles and spend a few hundred billion or more on “space shields” and “rods from god” and it will be counted as a boost to economic activity. (I would however like to note here for the record that if one is in a position to choose between which of these activities to fund the former is by far the more benign and socially useful activity of the two.)
On the other hand what neither of these activities can do is make use of investment capital in such a way as to add to capital stock and to create infrastructure that will act as an economic multiplier for decades to come. They are instead money pits and once that money is spent apart from the enrichment that it gave to those involved in the contract they have at best a miniscule multiplier effect and at worse they leave behind mountains of extraordinarily dangerous enablers of hubris and aggression. Even worse yet is that these mountains can become so large that they cause politicians, military men and ‘think tanks’ to get it in their minds that this mountain really should be put to use lest the previous ‘investment’ come to be seen by those that cannot be fooled all of the time as a waste of what is after all their money.
Now from a purely personal perspective the reason I say “even worse yet” is because of the death and misery that the use of weapons of mass destruction brings. I say it because I believe it a proven fact that mankind’s technological abilities have oerleaped our political ones and that all nations must become non-aggressive if any of us are going to see many more tomorrows or grandchildren. I say it because philosophically I am a humanist and politically I am an internationalist. But even if one is an “America firster” and a devout adherent to American exceptionalism even then one should see this result as the worst possible outcome if only for its effect on America’s wealth and freedoms. Because when politicians involve themselves in the moving of these mountains they multiply the original profound waste to devastating effect. In the case of America this has become true to the point that as diverse a group of thinkers as Seymour Melman, Paul Krugman, Chalmers Johnson, Gore Vidal, Paul Craig Roberts, Greg Palast, and Joe Stiglitz are led by the data to state with a certainty rare for professionals that the U.S. economy in the mid to near term is in for an unavoidable ‘correction’ as significant as any it has ever experienced.
Katrina and the war in Iraq have already been intimately tied together by the media and we are only in week one. With each new story a new fact is added to the catalogue: 7,000 reservists that could have been called to the area are instead in Iraq. Equipment that could have been used to save American lives is instead in Iraq. The man made protection for New Orleans was weakened when the Bush administration cut $71.2 million (over 50%) from the budget of the protectors of the levees, the New Orleans branch of the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers. Mother Nature’s protection on the other hand was eliminated when the federal regulations that were in place to protect the wetlands that serve as storm protection for New Orleans were rolled back to benefit developers and ‘free’ enterprise. In a just world these developers would now be forced to pay damages and assist with reconstruction. Still the degree to which any of this had a direct impact on exacerbating the scope of the disaster is not what will do the most damage to this and future administrations. What will do the most damage to them is the reason behind these budget cuts. This administration did not cut levee spending because they hoped to see New Orleans turned into the worlds largest toxic bayou. The reason that this crucial budget was being cut in a year when the hurricane season started earlier and more violently than almost any other on record and only one year after the clearest possible scientific warning about the disaster facing New Orleans is because America’s financial resources are no longer sufficient to all the tasks she has set herself. And while Iraq may only be the straw that broke the camel’s back to bring a Mesopotamian metaphor home it is what America’s people are going to “fix their intelligence around” as a way to begin solving their problems at home. The people of Iraq will be only too happy to concur with this program and help usher the American Army home. It is this confluence that I see us viewing in retrospect as the ‘perfect storm’ of factors that precipitated the surge that swamped the system as it is currently constituted in the U.S.
On the Baghdad side of the equation the enormous tragedy of the 1000 dead will very likely lead to an escalation of the cycle of violence that now seems as unbreakable as the one that consumed Lebanon and Ireland for decades. This will make the U.S. position there as completely untenable as the IDF’s was in Lebanon or the British Army’s was in Ireland or more appositely the Soviet Army’s was in Afghanistan. To date the U.S. have been able to create the ‘right’ conditions for a Negroponte inspired and directed Salvadorian style solution to Iraq’s desperate bid for post-Saddam independence. But just as the oil wealth of Venezuela has allowed Chavez the maneuvering room necessary to escape from the iron grip of neo-liberal corporatism so too will Iraq’s oil wealth allow it the kind of geopolitical and economic heft necessary to wresting itself from the iron lung that Iraq’s sovereignty has been put into by Bremer’s legalese and Negroponte’s mayhem. Another thing that this tragedy will do is ensure that the loyalty of the Iraqi forces to their U.S. commanders is never more than a sham of convenience, one that they will turn on at the earliest opportunity. Something that the leaders of Iraq are sure to take notice of and follow in order to gain the necessary supporters/fighters/security personnel needed to rule or even participate in the political process as it is currently constituted. Iraqi power brokers know all too well that only those who control a militia will be given a seat once battle fatigue finally sets in and the bargaining table is finally wheeled out. This dynamic being perhaps the only bottom up democratic principle at work today in this tragically fractured and toxically irradiated country.
So remember my friends August 31, 2005, the day when the bell that tolls eventually for each and every one of us began tolling for America’s use of force abroad and the day that New Orleans showed America the problem with her soul.
JEFF BERG lives in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org