"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
JACK CHAMBLESS, ECONOMICS PROFESSOR, VALENCIA COMMUNITY COLLEGE: Well, if we look at Article One, Section Eight of the United States Constitution — and I encourage all Americans to look at that before we start opening up our tax coffers to pay for all of this — we have every obligation to provide for New Orleans in terms of charity, private charity from one person to the other.
But the founding fathers never intended, Article One, section Eight of the Constitution, never intended to provide one dollar of taxpayer dollars to pay for any disaster or anything that we might call charity. What we now have is the law of unintended consequences taking place, where FEMA has come into New Orleans, a place where, ecologically, it makes no sense to have levees keeping the Mississippi River from flooding into New Orleans, like it naturally should.
Now with FEMA bailing out Louisiana, bailing out Florida and lowering the overall cost of living in these places, we have people with no incentive to leave. And the law of unintended consequences means that more people are dying with every one of these storms. They're becoming more and more expensive, more and more property loss, just because the federal government has violated the Constitution to provide for these funds.
Gee, I hate to argue with one who has achieved the lofty status of professor at Valencia Community College, but - bollocks.
First, on a practical and moral level, Prof. Chambless seems to think that (a) what happens in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast is of no immediate concern to the rest of the country, and (b) there is something about this particular part of the country that makes it uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters. Disposing of the second point first, it is of course true that the Gulf Coast is especially likely to suffer the effects of a hurricane - just as it is especially likely that Southern California will suffer a major earthquake, or Colorado will suffer a drought, or Iowa will suffer tornadoes, or ... well, you get the picture. It's all well and good to say that people should avoid living in the path of hurricanes, but the alternative is simply to trade the risk of hurricanes for the risk of some other natural disaster. And besides, there are often good reasons for people to live in endangered areas. No one likes floods, for instance, but everyone likes agriculture - which just happens to be most productive when conducted on flood plains.
Which gets to Prof. Chambless' first point - if people stopped living on flood plains, which is to say if people stopped farming, the effects would be felt by all of us. Likewise, the impact of Katrina will extend well beyond the Gulf Coast, and in fact will affect every American. Consider this, from Information Clearing House by way of MyDD:
The Port of Southern Louisiana is the fifth-largest port in the world in terms of tonnage, and the largest port in the United States. The only global ports larger are Singapore, Rotterdam, Shanghai and Hong Kong. It is bigger than Houston, Chiba and Nagoya, Antwerp and New York/New Jersey. It is a key link in U.S. imports and exports and critical to the global economy. The Port of Southern Louisiana stretches up and down the Mississippi River for about 50 miles, running north and south of New Orleans from St. James to St. Charles Parish. It is the key port for the export of grains to the rest of the world -- corn, soybeans, wheat and animal feed. Midwestern farmers and global consumers depend on those exports. The United States imports crude oil, petrochemicals, steel, fertilizers and ores through the port. Fifteen percent of all U.S. exports by value go through the port. Nearly half of the exports go to Europe. The Port of Southern Louisiana is a river port. It depends on the navigability of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi is notorious for changing its course, and in southern Louisiana -- indeed along much of its length -- levees both protect the land from its water and maintain its course and navigability. Dredging and other maintenance are constant and necessary to maintain its navigability. It is fragile. If New Orleans is hit, the Port of Southern Louisiana, by definition, also will be hit. No one can predict the precise course of the storm or its consequences. However, if we speculate on worse-case scenarios the following consequences jump out: The port might become in whole or part unusable if levees burst. If the damage to the river and port facilities could not be repaired within 30 days when the U.S. harvests are at their peak, the effect on global agricultural prices could be substantial. There is a large refinery at Belle Chasse. It is the only refinery that is seriously threatened by the storm, but if it were to be inundated, 250,000 barrels per day would go off line. Moreover, the threat of environmental danger would be substantial. About 2 percent of world crude production and roughly 25 percent of U.S.-produced crude comes from the Gulf of Mexico and already is affected by Katrina.
Thus - and this should be obvious to anyone except perhaps a professor of economics at Valencia Community College - rebuilding New Orleans and environs is not an act of charity, but an act of self-preservation for anyone who eats food, burns gasoline, works in an industry that relies upon imports or exports, &c. It is not unreasonable to expect those of us who depend on Gulf Coast infrastructure to help rebuild that infrastructure.
But morality and pragmatism aside, what of Prof. Chambless' constitutional argument (because, as we know, the Constitution is divorced and separate from morality or pragmatism)? Well, I'm afraid that - how shall I put this delicately? - the good professor is talking out of his ass. Article I, section 8, provides that Congress shall be empowered to "provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States;" to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States;" and to "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States." Even a strict constructionist reading of this language ought to suffice to justify Congress' funding of disaster relief efforts through FEMA.
I guess we now know why Prof. Chambless teaches economics, rather than constitutional law, at Valencia Community College. What we don't know is why anyone would give this blithering twit airtime.