Friday, September 08, 2006

Greed trumps public good every time

Greed trumps public good every time
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times
September 8, 2006

The anniversary of hurricane Katrina last week reminded me of how difficult it is for this large, pluralistic and cumbersome country to accomplish goals that most of its people agree on, more or less. Resources and support must be mobilized for any major project at every level of our polity for any major project to proceed. Thus $50 billion is in the government pipeline for Katrina, but that money moves through the pipeline like half-frozen mud because at every level there are "authorizations" that must be made. Even if the federal government has every reason for transferring the money to those who are entitled to it, the pipeline is still clogged.

For 30 years the United States has tried to conserve the use of gasoline both to curtail pollution and to avoid dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Yet the country is as dependent on Arab oil as it was three decades ago and indeed more dependent. There is always some new energy source just down the road, but the length of the road never seems to diminish.

Virtually everyone agrees that all Americans should have access to high quality health care. Yet the poorest and powerless in American society do not have even today the minimum health care safety that people in many countries take for granted -- though in some countries only after a long wait.

Everyone agrees that gerrymandered voting districts is undemocratic. Legislation is passed, the courts make decisions (often apparently contradictory), politicians demand reform. Yet every 10 years (and in Texas more recently), new skinny districts, fat districts, surrealistic districts emerge in glorious confusion that would delight Elbridge Gerry.

Similarly all right-thinking Americans, led by righteous editorial writers, demand campaign finance reform. Yet even when coalitions are built that slip legislation through Congress, either the courts reduce their effectiveness or candidates and their supporters find ways around them. The amount of money that goes down the drain each year for attack ads that contaminate American politics (even though they are great entertainment) is a national scandal.

Nor can this rich and powerful nation avoid getting involved in small wars that cannot be won. Nor when the war has clearly failed can we mobilize support for getting out. Similarly, Americans have yet to channel the nation's resources and creativity to find ways to escape the worst effects of natural disasters or to rescue those caught up in disasters.

Everyone who paid any attention has known for several decades that New Orleans was a national disaster waiting to happen. Yet nothing was done to prepare for the disaster, and the various responses to it were predictably inadequate and incompetent. There are some folks who wouldn't mind if New Orleans became a white city again and Louisiana a red state. What serious preparations and plans are ready for San Francisco when the "big one" hits?

Somehow the government has not been able to develop systems for protecting passengers in major airports, most of which have been "penetrated" by the government's own inspectors. Nor has it learned how protect aircraft in the sky. Steel doors and air marshals are some help, but the bomb checked through in the belly of the plane might still be there. Moreover, the FAA has yet to hire enough air traffic controllers so that enough wide-awake personnel are covering all flights.

Why are the paths to such achievable goals blocked? There are many reasons, some inherent to government anywhere, like internecine conflicts among bureaucratic agencies. However, one of the major obstacles is greed. Big pharma, big oil, big auto, big insurance, big air -- and their agents in the K Street big lobbies and the Congress -- don't want them to happen because such reforms would interfere with "stockholder wealth." The common good just doesn't matter when big business is running the country -- into the ground.


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