Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
My children love money. They get an allowance from their regular jobs — the 8-year-old does the weekly recycling and takes out the trash, the 10-year-old baby-sits the younger ones — but it’s never enough. Over the last year or so they’ve taken to supplementing their allowances with a variety of commercial enterprises. They regularly set up a stand along our local shopping strip and sell baked goods along with, depending on the weather, either lemonade or hot chocolate. Once, in homage to Charles Schulz, they even offered good advice for a quarter. They encouraged one customer to keep her job, at least until she found other work, and another to go into the office despite the fine weather — unless he was sure his boss would understand his need for a day off. (All their advice, romantic and employment-related, was similarly prudent, proving my theory that children are inherently conservative creatures.)
A couple of weeks ago, they spent the morning baking brownies and chocolate chip cookies and set up shop as usual. But this time they weren’t raising money to buy Manga and Z-cards. The poster they painted read, “Bake Sale for Katrina Relief.” They even hauled out the big guns: their very blond, very cute 4-year-old sister. She stood next to the poster and batted her eyelashes.
They were sold out within an hour and cleared $155 dollars. In addition to the cash the kids made that day, they emptied out their piggy banks and handed me their pile. They watched carefully while I made an online donation to the Red Cross. Inherently suspicious people who understand how someone’s head can be turned by a hefty wad of cash, they wanted to make sure the dough ended up where it was supposed to.
I’m thinking of subcontracting them out to the government to run the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort.
Current estimates for the reconstruction are about $200 billion. And that’s rebuilding, not relief. There’s been so much money flowing down the Mississippi, one can’t help wondering if it will all make it there, or if it will be siphoned off along the way, into the jars and buckets of the hordes already lining up with their no-bid contracts. My children don’t trust their own mother not to steal their $155 and set off on a shoe-buying spree, yet the president expects us to trust Karl Rove, the man who may have violated federal law by leaking the identity of a working CIA operative, to oversee the rebuilding in the Gulf?
But what I find truly depressing here is not the inevitability of graft, or even the sight of corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel and the Shaw Group bellying up to the trough. What saddens me is what Bush and his cronies seem utterly unable to comprehend but what my children understood reflexively: that the magnitude of the Katrina disaster demands sacrifice. Despite the fact that my kids are greedy people who adore cash as deeply as do the CEOs of Tyco and Enron, who have been known to bury their noses in their Hello Kitty and Lone Ranger wallets and comment dreamily on the heady fragrance of a wad of crisp new dollar bills, they easily comprehended that they could not indulge their passion for stuff and their good hearts at the same time. In the face of the Katrina disaster, they realized that this horror obliged them to put aside their selfishness.
The message, alas, seems lost on our commander in chief.
President Bush has made clear his opposition to the very notion of sacrifice. On his “National Day of Prayer,” amid a flurry of rhetoric about the legacy of inequality in this country, Bush reassured the nation that no one, except perhaps the poor themselves, would have to suffer in rectifying this inequality. “Unnecessary spending” will be cut, but taxes will not be raised. The best-off Americans, that richest 1 percent with incomes over $1.5 million per year, will continue to enjoy their $580 billion tax cut. As Robert McIntyre, the director of Citizens for Tax Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and advocacy organization dedicated to fair taxation, put it, Katrina has once again proved that for this president, “There are many, many problems, but there is only one answer: cut taxes for the rich.”
Why am I surprised that President Bush and his cronies, rather than reaching into their piggy banks and shaking loose their change, are using the disaster as another excuse to cut taxes for corporations and the rich? Now in the Gulf, oil companies, casinos and hotels, all of which are corporations well insulated by insurance, will be even further secured by tax write-offs. Prevailing wage requirements have been suspended for government contracts to protect corporate earnings. The earnings of the poor, many of whom could not afford insurance to begin with, are granted no such protection. Other items under discussions are the suspension of environmental and clean air regulations, school voucher plans, capital gains tax elimination. The list goes on.
I’m not the first to notice that Bush and his deputies seem to be using as a playbook the special report on rebuilding the Gulf crafted by the Heritage Foundation, “From Tragedy to Triumph: Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities.” My favorite part suggests the repeal of the estate tax for Katrina victims in order to prevent their heirs from being “hounded by the IRS.” All those floating bodies in the Ninth Ward and in the grim untended nursing homes with their multimillion-dollar estates.
Forgive me for feeling like my children could do this better. Forgive me for feeling that even the 4-year-old has a more realistic sense of the scope of the disaster and the actual needs of its victims. I imagine that once Rove et al. have finished skimming and siphoning, once they have finished using the occasion of this misery as an excuse to further their agenda of callousness and wealth-hoarding, the kids will need to dig deep once again. There’s not much left in their banks, but they’re happy to give what they can.
Ayelet Waldman is the author of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," "Daughter's Keeper" and of the Mommy-Track mystery series. She lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children.More Ayelet Waldman.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
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