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(Mourning the 10th anniversary of a natural catastrophe that turned itself into a man-engineered disaster – Hurricane Katrina)

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milton-president-reagan

Milton Friedman (1912-2006), Nobel laureate, economic advisor to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, seen here with Ronald Reagan. I have renamed him Milton Friedkook.

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Katrina has meant different things to different folks.

In the immediate aftermath, the hyenas (mostly Libertarian-Republican hyenas) stepped in with proposals –

‘Make Louisiana a free-enterprise-no-tax zone, it’ll boost job growth and therefore the recovery,’ they carped. ‘Depreciate all property and assets’ they crowed, their avarice gaining momentum. ‘Make overseas income tax-exempt,’ they sang, now unstoppable.

Here are some of the other initiatives that the elite propounded…..

Repeal or waive all environmental legislation and become more business friendly

Reduce, suspend or eliminate tariffs on everything 

Big oil did not want to miss the gravy train either and here’s what they wanted –

Streamline the environmental hurdles to building new oil refineries.

Throw open offshore oil drilling with business-friendly environmental legislation.

Allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Temporarily suspend the gas tax, or better still, permanently reduce the gas tax.

Quite soon after Katrina, it became apparent that the real victims, the poor blacks, had neither property nor overseas income and no businesses, factories or investments in the oil sector. Nothing that the hyenas proposed would ever benefit them.

On and on the elite went, greed blinding them, their rapacity carefully guised to look like an effort to help the poor rebuild their lives after the hurricane.

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Nobel laureate and economist Milton Friedman, a rabid frothing-in-the-mouth champion of Libertarian thought, saw an opportunity in Katrina – one that he excelled in preaching to kings and Presidents as well as his students at the Chicago School of Economics – Disaster Capitalism.

Disaster capitalism, sometimes even known as Misery Capitalism, is a simple and straightforward Libertarian philosophy, based upon the ‘oh, the market will correct itself’ approach that preaches complete deregulation and absence of governmental legislation and controls.

This is how Disaster Capitalism works –

In the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, the general populace is usually still groggy and punch-drunk, unable to think for themselves, desperately seeking help to rebuild their lives, clutching at straws to survive. That is the time to strike the proverbial hot iron and step in with ‘reforms’ –

Bring in free-enterprise-friendly market reforms across the board. Shut down government agencies and privatise them. Uproot welfare and social services – schools, garbage collection, infrastructure services – everything. Hand them over to the private sector. And charge, charge, charge – for every service provided. Nothing should be free.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Milton Friedman wrote an eloquent piece in the right wing mouthpiece, the Wall Street Journal, an article that George Bush thought was ‘brilliant’ but to me looked as kooky as a cross between Dr. Strangelove and Frankenstein, in the context of economics. It is then that I decided to rename Milton Friedman – Milton Friedkook.

In his piece, Friedkook noted that Louisiana schools had been corrupt and inefficient before the hurricane and now that they had all been destroyed, they needed to be rebuilt and privatised. And since, when in the hands of the private sector, they would automatically be better in quality of education and services, the newly reopened schools could no longer be free.

‘Sorry’, he told the poor blacks, ‘you want education, you have to pay for it. At least now you’ll stop being lazy and start earning your living’. Oh yes, it is an overwhelming majority of white folks in America who actually believe that black folks have lazy genes.

And as for unions – Louisiana didn’t need unions anymore, Friedman exhorted. If workers worked hard, businesses would thrive and so would the employees and there would be no need for unions. (No guesses on what the Bush-Cheney axis of evil thought about Milton Friedman’s proposals, of course).

Hang on, do you feel like puking here? I’ll stop and wait till you get back from throwing up. Better still, always try to read Friedman’s harangues on an empty stomach.

Given how the dice was always loaded against them, what chances of recovery and survival did the average folk of Louisiana really have after Katrina struck? None.

Katrina stands out as one of the most shameless examples of disaster capitalism and it’s attempt to exploit the disastrous flooding of New Orleans to close down that city’s public housing projects, some of the only affordable units in the city. Most of the buildings sustained minimal flood damage, but they happen to occupy valuable land that had the potential for perfect condo developments and hotels.

It is a classic example of the “triple shock” formula at the core of Friedman’s economic doctrine…..

– First came the shock of the original disaster – the flood and the traumatic evacuation.

– Next followed the economic shock therapy – using the window of opportunity opened up by the first shock, to push through a rapid-fire attack on the city’s public services and spaces, most notably it’s homes, schools and hospitals.

– Third and most important was the brutal suppression of dissent. As residents of New Orleans reeled, traumatised, the few who gathered the courage to protest the lack of relief and the rash of privatisations, were bludgeoned with police batons and tasers.

Richard Baker, a prominent Republican Congressman from the state capital, Baton Rouge, was heard telling a group of lobbyists with a smirk, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans’ wealthiest real estate developers, expressed a similar sentiment, “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had been crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities – reconstruction contracts, lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers and a ‘smaller, safer city’, which in practice meant plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos.

Hearing all the talk of ‘fresh starts’ and ‘clean sheets’, you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway.

Immediately after Katrina, a strange thing happened – a Green Zone phenomenon, unique to the war in Iraq, appeared. This was the zone where the New Orleans elite (mostly white) lived. Green zones are typical of disaster capitalism, with the same stark partitions between the included and the excluded, the protected and the damned.

And so it happened in New Orleans too. After the flood, an already divided city turned into a battleground between gated green zones and festering raging red zones, the result not of water damage but of the ‘free-market solutions’ postulated by Milton Friedman and embraced by President Bush.

The core theme of the Friedman school of thought was the windfall that inevitably follows disasters – in reconstruction contracts. We have seen this in Afghanistan and we have watched this in Iraq. Unlike those two unfortunate nations, Katrina wasn’t man-made and therefore the flippant remark by Republican Congressman Richard Baker about how ‘God cleaned up New Orleans’.

Disaster Capitalism goes back a long way, in America. When spring thaws in 1927 combined with heavy downpours swelled up the tributaries of the great Mississippi River, it breached levees, funnelling a wall of water thirty feet high into a 27000 sq.mile area, in a catastrophe now known as the Great Flood. Even in a region that was accustomed to seasonal floods, it wrought unfathomable devastation.

The Empress of Blues, Bessie Smith, etched the memory of the disaster with ‘Backwater Blues’ – a song she wrote that turbulent season –

When it thunders and lightnin’

and the wind begins to blow

There’s thousands of people

ain’t got no place to go…

The flood waters coursed through a South that was defined by the still-all pervasive viciousness of the Confederacy and the plantation labor, sharecroppers, debt and bondage. The path that the surging swathe followed appeared to have been designed to cut right through land that was disproportionately black-inhabited and black-tilled. Parcels distributed by the Red Cross, ended up in the hands of the landlords, not their wretched black sharecroppers.

With the region’s only labor force – the blacks – already diminished in number by the late 19th Century Great Migration northward, the US Government’s main concern was to ensure that blacks would not use the flood as an excuse to ‘flee’ north. Black families who had been displaced by the flood were forced into encampments, concentration camp-like enclosures with barbed wire fences, that sprang up all across the region, ostensibly for the blacks’ own safety and security. These camps were so filthy that they could barely be called relief camps.

Imagine, this is 1927 we are talking about, not the 1800s. The American narrative of race and social worth saw a tragic milestone in the Great Flood. The flood might have been a natural catastrophe but what followed was definitely a man-made disaster.

This time too, white residents of outlying communities of New Orleans, like St. Bernard Parish, blocked the roads in order to prevent black New Orleanians fleeing the city (whom all major media outlets had begun referring to as ‘refugees’) from passing through their community, and in doing so in fact, played a role that brought back the memories of the so-called encampments of 1927 which refused to let blacks leave.

Post-Katrina polls showed stark disparities in how blacks and whites viewed the federal government’s tardy response to the Katrina crisis and the role that race played in it. 67% of blacks said that the response was slow but only about twelve per cent of whites concurred.

Were the black folks polled imagining things? Maybe, but when one watches race relations as they exist in America today, it is hard to not believe otherwise.