Last week, I ran into a friend I worked with twenty years ago at a senior
center. Lately, he's been working on emergency preparedness--helping Seattle
retrofit its homes, businesses, and schools to withstand major earthquakes.
Supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's $25-million Project
Impact, my friend has been developing and promoting inexpensive solutions,
and training homeowners, builders and contractors.
"What a great program," I said, "because sooner or later, the big one's
going to hit!" Unfortunately, a few days after our conversation, President
Bush targeted Project Impact to be eliminated -- to help him give $70 billion
in tax cuts to the richest 1% of Americans.
Later that same day-Wednesday -- a major earthquake hit Seattle. My cat fled,
an instant before, and stayed hidden beneath the couch for the afternoon. I
grabbed my swaying computer and pushed back sliding file drawers. Pictures
fell off bookshelves, shattering their glass. But otherwise my family was
completely unharmed. And the city as a whole emerged relatively unscathed.
We saved priceless lives and untold dollars in part because this was a deep
quake, less damaging than "the big one" still possible, but also because
Seattle has been steadily retrofitting vulnerable buildings, bridges, and
highways through public programs like Project Impact.
The earthquake -- and Bush's same-day proposed elimination of the very program
that helped us prepare for it -- underscores the folly of believing Margaret
Thatcher's pronouncement that "There is no such thing as society -- there are
only individual families." Invest in our infrastructure, and it will stay
mostly solid, even while the ground shakes, rattles, and rolls beneath it.
Invest in all our children, and they'll grow up healthy and strong. Invest
in our communities, and ordinary citizens will feel hopeful. Invest in
technologies like wind power, compact-fluorescent light bulbs, and efficient
mass transit, and we won't have to choose between rationing electricity and
despoiling our environment.
Instead, despite recent prosperous times, we've continued to accentuate what
John Kenneth Galbraith once called "private affluence and public squalor."
Even before the earthquake, the state of Washington (whose
disproportionately plentiful billionaires enjoy one of the most regressive
local tax systems in the nation) was planning to slash $200 million from the
budgets for mental health services, subsidized dental care, and other
programs serving the poorest and most vulnerable. Nationwide, nearly 50
million Americans lack health insurance. Our new recession threatens more
unemployment -- and disaster for those hitting welfare term limits. Now, after
losing by more than a half million votes and being handed the election by
his friends in high places, our President is proposing the most regressive
tax cut in twenty years.
We'd all welcome a "refund" from the feds, but the earthquake reminded me
that neglecting to invest in our common future undermines the foundation of
our society. I'd love to see real tax reform, so that as a self-employed
person averaging $30,000 a year and paying both income and social security
taxes, I'd no longer pay at a higher rate than Bill Gates does when selling
a billion dollars of Microsoft stock. But this proposal gives the bulk of
its benefits to that tiny minority of Americans who already control the vast
share of our national wealth. It slashes the resources available to address
America's real crises, and to build for our future.
As former Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Berkeley) once said, you learn a lot more
about the state of a nation's soul by looking at its budgets than by heeding
the words of its politicians. It's nice that President Bush sends Seattle
his prayers. But hard commitment goes further than easy compassion, not only
for "the big ones" still looming, but also for the largely invisible
disasters that so many of our citizens face day after day.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction
in a Cynical Time (St Martin's Press) Visit www.soulofacitizen.org for more