KING OF THE JUNGLE

Okay, so the hippo didn’t eat the dwarf. On the other hand, which do you think is the most dangerous animal in Africa? According to this (notes faithful reader Stewart Dean): ‘Surprisingly, it is not the ferocious lion or fearsome crocodile. In fact, more people are killed by the hippopotamus than any other wild animal, either by being trampled to death or having their boat capsized. These giant herbivores can weigh up to 3200 kilos.”

☞ Rhymes with: wouldn’t want it to sit atop of us.

GRAND TIME

From Sunday’s New York Times: ‘In coming weeks, the Internal Revenue Service plans to start siccing private debt collectors on people with up to $25,000 in unpaid income taxes – and laying off nearly half of the auditors who examine estate tax returns of the wealthiest taxpayers.’

☞ Truly, it is a grand time to be rich and powerful in America. And if you had any doubt:

GRAND TIME II

From Monday’s New York Times: ‘The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity . . . has risen steadily over the same period.’

Workers are producing more per hour and getting paid less. We shareholders should be thrilled! (The long-term implications are terrible – a declining middle class is one more way America has become weaker in the last six years. But who says you have to anchor your yacht in an American port?)

The Times continues:

‘ . . . wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s.’

Isn’t that great?

‘UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as ‘the golden era of profitability.”

I am loving it!

And as long as the current party rules, I think we need not worry. Republicans stand true to their core principles – as when, a few weeks ago, they refused for the tenth year running to hike the minimum wage (‘The buying power of the minimum wage is at a 50-year low,’ reports the Times) unless we completely eliminated the estate tax on billionheirs.

If any of this strikes you as cruel, you have not been listening. This is compassionate conservatism.

The president believes in a humble foreign policy. He and his allies in Congress are uniters, not dividers. And, most important to those of us who care about money . . . ‘by far, the vast majority of the help [from the tax cuts] goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.’

More good news from the same Times story: In 2004, the top 1 percent of earners got 11.2% of all the wage income, up from 6% three decades ago.

RECONSTRUCTION

And while we’re at it, there’s Paul Krugman’s devastating column from yesterday’s paper.

(But wait – isn’t it time you subscribed to New York Times Select – both because it’s great, and because the world needs a healthy New York Times? You can start with a free trial; you can give subscriptions as gifts; if you’re a student or faculty member, you can get it even cheaper. Click!)

So here is Paul Krugman:

Last September President Bush stood in New Orleans, where the lights had just come on for the first time since Katrina struck, and promised ‘one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.’ Then he left, and the lights went out again.

What happened next was a replay of what happened after Mr. Bush asked Congress to allocate $18 billion for Iraqi reconstruction. In the months that followed, congressmen who visited Iraq returned with glowing accounts of all the wonderful things we were doing there, like repainting schools and, um, repainting schools.

But when the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was running Iraq, closed up shop nine months later, it turned out that only 2 percent of the $18 billion had been spent, and only a handful of the projects that were supposed to have been financed with that money had even been started. In the end, America failed to deliver even the most basic repair of Iraq’s infrastructure; today, Baghdad gets less than seven hours of electricity a day.

And so it is along our own Gulf Coast. The Bush administration likes to talk about all the money it has allocated to the region, and it plans a public relations blitz to persuade America that it’s doing a heck of a job aiding Katrina’s victims. But as the Iraqis learned, allocating money and actually using it for reconstruction are two different things, and so far the administration has done almost nothing to make good on last year’s promises.

It’s true that tens of billions have been spent on emergency relief and cleanup. But even the cleanup remains incomplete: almost a third of the hurricane debris in New Orleans has yet to be removed. And the process of going beyond cleanup to actual reconstruction has barely begun.

For example, although Congress allocated $17 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for Katrina relief, primarily to provide cash assistance to homeowners, as of last week the department had spent only $100 million. The first Louisiana homeowners finally received checks under a federally financed program just three days ago. Mississippi, which has a similar program, has sent out only about two dozen checks so far.

Local governments, which were promised aid in rebuilding facilities such as fire stations and sewer systems, have fared little better in actually getting that aid. A recent article in The National Journal describes a Kafkaesque situation in which devastated towns and parishes seeking federal funds have been told to jump through complex hoops, spending time and money they don’t have on things like proving that felled trees were actually knocked down by Katrina, only to face demands for even more paperwork.

Apologists for the administration will doubtless claim that blame for the lack of progress rests not with Mr. Bush, but with the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracies. That’s the great thing about being an antigovernment conservative: even when you fail at the task of governing, you can claim vindication for your ideology.

But bureaucracies don’t have to be this inefficient. The failure to get moving on reconstruction reflects lack of leadership at the top.

Mr. Bush could have moved quickly to turn his promises of reconstruction into reality. But he didn’t. As months dragged by with little sign of White House action, all urgency about developing a plan for reconstruction ebbed away.

Mr. Bush could have appointed someone visible and energetic to oversee the Gulf Coast’s recovery, someone who could act as an advocate for families and local governments in need of help. But he didn’t. How many people can even name the supposed reconstruction ‘czar’?

Mr. Bush could have tried to fix FEMA, the agency whose effectiveness he destroyed through cronyism and privatization. But he didn’t. FEMA remains a demoralized organization, unable to replenish its ranks: it currently has fewer than 84 percent of its authorized personnel.

Maybe the aid promised to the gulf region will actually arrive some day. But by then it will probably be too late. Many former residents and small-business owners, tired of waiting for help that never comes, will have permanently relocated elsewhere; those businesses that stayed open, or reopened after the storm, will have gone under for lack of customers. In America as in Iraq, reconstruction delayed is reconstruction denied – and Mr. Bush has, once again, broken a promise.

 

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