The Time for Inaction Tour

Isaiah J. Poole

The conservative war against the war on poverty continues today as Arizona Sen. John McCain goes to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. From what we’ve seen so far, McCain is coming to the still-devastated city with nothing that will actually address the compounded conservative failures of not protecting the city from the flood and failing afterward to rebuild.

He calls his tour of communities where the failures of conservatism have had their most graphic impact the “It’s Time for Action Tour.” But the only real action on this tour is on behalf of wealthy people and corporations, whose tax rates are more worthy of government attention than the plight of working people who can’t pay their bills. For the latter, it’s the same old, same old: Just as thousands of New Orleans residents were left to fend for themselves in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, you’re going to be left on your own in today’s rising waters of looming economic catastrophe.

McCain’s speeches recall the “benign neglect” approach toward race and urban decay in the 1970s, where platitudes replaced the active engagement of the federal government in making sure that poor people of all races had a clear route up the economic ladder. As an unholy alliance of conservatives and week-kneed Democrats did then, McCain presents false choices between a robust government role to foster opportunity and personal initiative. Note what McCain said Wednesday in Inez, Kentucky:

I have no doubt President Johnson was serious and had the very best of intentions when he declared the war on poverty in America. But the army he enlisted was mostly drawn from the ranks of government bureaucracies. Government has a role to play in helping people who through no fault of their own are having a hard time. But government can’t create good and lasting jobs outside of government. It can’t pay lost wages. It can’t dig coal from the earth. It can’t buy you a house or send all your kids to college. It can’t do your work for you. And you’ve never asked it to.

No, we’ve never asked government to “do our work for us.” But it is wrong to suggest that government policy can’t make a difference in what jobs are available, what consequences society suffers from digging coal from the earth, the business practices that affect our ability to buy and keep our homes, or whether college is affordable.

If government used its resources to move the country away from fossil-fuel dependency, as Democrats in Congress have been pushing to do, literally millions of green-collar jobs would be created in both the private and public sector. And government could jump-start this effort with just the money it is currently losing as a result of tax breaks to oil companies.

With a fraction of the money it is spending on the war in Iraq, the government could embark on a national program to rebuild its aging infrastructure of roads, bridges and sewers, as well as schools and other essential public facilities. Instead, McCain is pushing for a gas-tax holiday that will place such an effort further out of reach, while not addressing the fundamental economic problems, such as the fallen dollar, that are behind the rise in gas prices.

Perhaps most importantly, given the scope of the fundamental damage done to the economy over the past seven years, government has to do its job as referee and guardian of the public interest. It is not too much to ask government to protect our food from contamination or our mortgage agreements from deception. That’s not government doing our work for us. It’s government enabling us to do our work in a safe and just environment.

There are hundreds of policy choices the person who sits in the Oval Office can make with regard to how government should, or should not, address poverty and opportunity, and they all boil down to this: Will a government that is at its root “of the people, by the people and for the people” work on the people’s behalf to foster economic opportunity, or will it work on behalf of the few?

For the people of Inez, Ky., and people throughout the country below or barely above the poverty line, the conservative answer, delivered so kindly and gently by McCain, is to show “a decent concern for your hard work” and then walk away. And, to be blunt about it, that’s all that conservatives can do as long as they insist on spending $341 million a day on the war in Iraq while aiming to make President Bush’s disastrous 2003 tax cuts permanent, ignoring the fact that the tax cuts did not boost the fortunes of middle-class families during the anemic economic recovery prior to 2007 and have had no appreciable effect on preventing the current recession. The math simply doesn’t add up, just as it hasn’t under President Bush.

McCain arrives at a New Orleans that is still reeling in part because little has been done to rebuild the stock of low-income housing that was lost during the hurricane. That was one of the chief crimes of ex-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonse Jackson, one of the conservative apostles who in practice embraced the old benign neglect theory that the best urban policy is none at all. As a consequence, the availability of affordable housing is a crisis not only in New Orleans but in urban areas nationwide. Meanwhile, what the Bush administration did push—home ownership in a deregulated, Wild West financial market—has brought the economy to the brink of collapse.

(UPDATE: Jonathan Stein in Mother Jones looks at McCain’s own response to Hurricane Katrina and says the record “suggests that he was part of the problem, not the solution.” The article concludes:” McCain may talk sympathetically about New Orleans’ recovery this week, but the record shows that when it mattered most, McCain failed to act. His passion for fiscal conservatism blinded him to a city and a region in need, and his Time for Action is simply too late.”)

McCain is getting credit for going where his conservative friends would not dare show their faces. But he faces a stark choice. The conservative ideology he embraces includes a disdain for government, and ultimately a disdain for the people who clearly want government to be empowered to work on their behalf instead of merely on behalf of the wealthy. Unless he makes a clean break with that ideology, he can’t claim to have a “decent concern” for the struggles of poor and middle-class Americans.

Click here for more
on the continuing conservative failure behind Hurricane Katrina.

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