What hath Katrina wrought? Perhaps the truest picture of the destruction visited upon the Gulf Coast is reflected in the fact that with each passing day, the realization grows that no one really knows how bad things are. How many dead, how many houses ruined, how much dislocation. The financial world's preferred measure for relating to natural disasters how much the mess will cost to clear up has broken down completely. After marching up from 10 or so billion to tens of billions, the estimate has soared through triple-digit billions and gone off the chart.
One fairly simple but highly disturbing way of trying to get to grips with the mind-boggling extent of this disaster is to review it from its inception. Just browse through the archive of any major on-line news source, beginning at the last weekend of August, the days before the hurricane hit. Follow the headlines regarding the key parameters scale of destruction, casualty estimates, damage assessments and watch how they all follow the same basic pattern. They start from an attitude of "yeah, this is a serious natural disaster of the kind we have experienced often, so we can assume more or less what will happen," to "this is much worse than anything we've experienced, but it's still a matter of degree," to "this is out of control" and finally to "we are trying to figure out what's happened, but we really don't know" which is about where we're up to.
This sense of gradual loss of control is being paralleled by a steady loss of self-confidence at all levels, which in turn stems from the realization that the human factor has been more responsible for the death and destruction than the natural forces that were the primary cause. The long-term failures of preparation and prevention before the event, coupled with the total collapse of command and control ("leadership") after the event, are generating new tidal waves, but these are emotional and man-made, not natural. One of them is of anger on the part of the victims of these failures and, less intense but more widespread, on the part of Americans generally. Another is of angst: The blame game, the soul-searching, the sense of national shame and disgrace are all part of this.
Many commentators are now considering the idea that the impact of this event will prove to be so great that it will a) effectively end the Bush presidency and, even more fundamentally, will b) trigger a change in the tide of American political thought and thus in social and economic policy, away from Republican capitalism and back toward a more European/social-democratic form of socio-economic structure. In a word although in the circumstances, using it would be a distasteful pun the claim is that Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans represent a watershed event in American political history.
That's a big claim and requires convincing proof, which will be difficult to provide at least any time soon. Even if the Republicans suffer a sharp defeat in next year's mid-term elections, indeed even if they lose the White House in 2008, that will be insufficient proof of so fundamental a shift. Only actual policy measures that roll back at least the majority of the Bush tax breaks and reorder the spending priorities of the federal and state budgets can represent the kind of proof needed.
But the many people in the US and around the world rejoicing at the prospective demise of George W. Bush and his policies and looking forward to a reversal of the ideology that Bush represents have some tough problems facing them. Let's assume that Bush's policies have done severe damage to the American economy. How is this damage to be repaired? Let's assume you want to fundamentally change the prospects facing poor Americans generally, and African-Americans in particular. Where's the money going to come from?
The basic problem is that the American economy is a busted flush, whose bluff has now been exposed to all the other players. Who in their right minds is going to lend more to the world's biggest debtor, whose entire economy at both the macro and household levels is drowning in debt? The counterargument, presumably, will be that there is neither need nor justification to borrow from others. Instead, the wealth accumulated by the American oligarchy over the last 10-20 years should be redistributed. Two weeks ago, that idea would have been unthinkable, because redistribution is an antiquated term and an obsolete ideology. Positively antediluvian, when you think about it.