Has Katrina exposed a government for the few at the expense of the many?
September 16, 2005
A survivor of Hurricane Katrina, his voice cracking from sheer fright, told a reporter why he didn’t evacuate his family before the storm landed. “I work. We live from paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t have $40 to gas up my car so that we could get out of here,” this poor man cried.I wept, too. A hurricane of embarrassing emotions raged within. Mostly the poor had to absorb Katrina’s deadly anger and endure her wrath. I am not surprised when I see reports from overseas of Nature’s grim destruction. TV shows bloated bodies, infants lacking milk, stray pets and lost children roaming, corpses littering streets. How shocking to see this happening in the United States. On Congress’s fall agenda, now postponed because of soaring costs after Katrina’s devastation, is relief from alleged onerous burdens the estate tax places upon those at the top of the heap. They are winners in the game called economic Darwinism, costing the government more than $70 billion as the wealthiest 1 percent of U. S. households benefit from repealing an estate tax. The financially fittest survive while the poor get poorer. President Theodore Roosevelt came from a patrician, privileged Manhattan family. His father taught him that democracy in America grows strong when its leaders make money the old-fashioned way: They earn it. Moreover, young Theodore learned from his dad, who put a sizeable portion of his assets in service to the poor and raised up cultural facilities for all income levels, that money the wealthy earned is not their own. It is a gift from God to be distributed to those in need. Jesus recognized those like the fella who couldn’t afford a tank of gas. “You always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them … ,” Mark 14: 7.Roosevelt believed democracy didn’t flourish when our nation groomed an elite class, as European countries did with their royalty. He didn’t want the Paris Hiltons to inherit so much cash that they frittered away their lives in banal pursuits and idle chatter. Roosevelt and GOP Progressives sponsored the estate tax so that society would not be controlled by the leisured few in gated communities, lacking a vibrant and broad middle class.President George W. Bush sounded overly chipper the first time he visited the Gulf Coast. Trying to rally hope amid despair, he couldn’t pull it off. New Orleans had sunk too low. Words alone could not buoy it up. I don’t want to fault the president’s rhetoric too harshly. When I look into the distraught, vacant eyes of that man who didn’t have money to fill his car’s tank and save his family, I am able to say little that makes sense. What worries me is how presidential policy works against this fellow without a full tank of gas, favoring the redistribution of America’s wealth upward. Harry Truman dubbed the GOP the “guardians of privilege.” The current administration believes democracy thrives when the wealthy are not excessively taxed. Their mantra is “no capital gains tax, no dividend tax, no estate tax, no tax on interest.” The black man who suffered Hurricane Katrina’s havoc is left to pay the bills. The guy who survives from paycheck to paycheck is the poor stiff in the administration’s scheme who doesn’t get tax relief.At a white-tie gala President Bush joked about the “haves” and the “have-mores.” Cute wordplay, isn’t it? “Some people call you the elite,” he smirked. “I call you my base.” The poor soul on the Gulf Coast whose car would not move for lack of gas wouldn’t consider funny the president’s quip.Bill Moyers, in “Moyers on America: a Journalist and His Times,” writes how Bush’s tilt toward the wealthy propelled him into the White House for a second term. Some pundits tell us James Dobson’s legions voted the president in because of the traditional values he espoused. Others say the deciding election factor was Bush’s forceful leadership in perilous times. He knows where he is going with the nation and is convinced he will get us there. In war, citizens don’t vote for indecisive candidates.Moyers reminds us of another twist on how the presidential victor Bush collected spoils. “We are talking here of the spoils of class warfare,” warns Moyers, once a Baptist preacher from East Texas. “Rick Perlstein reminds us that it was not moral values that put Bush over the top last November. (He didn’t do any better among strong churchgoers or rural voters than he did in 2000.)”Writes Perlstein: ‘It’s the wealth, stupid.’ He quotes the political scientist Phil Klinkner on how Bush’s only significant improvement over his performance fours years ago came from rich people, whose portion of the electorate went from 15 percent in 2000 to 18 percent. Support for Bush among these richest Americans, who got the biggest windfall from his tax cuts, went from 54 percent to 58 percent.”Is this why our nation’s military rescued four days late the man who didn’t have 40 bucks in his pocket for gas? Is this a clear-cut sign our government is for the few at the expense of the many? Do we have less of a democracy embracing the many and more of an oligarchy favoring a few who own the most?In 1960, the wealth gap between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent was 30 times more. Leap ahead 40 years and the gap turns into a chasm of 75 times more. Democracy’s levees bust when among the few income streams flow like a mighty torrent. Our democracy has always raised financial titans whose success allowed the rest of society to benefit proportionately. Hard work plus opportunity often equaled financial success. This equation no longer adds up. The poor Gulf Coast black man finds it difficult to jump to a higher level, both when floods rage and the few like President Bush prosper. Our democracy, like the waters polluting New Orleans, has become inundated with unhealthy traits that favor the few and forget the many. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available at local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Daily