Behold, the Incompetent Empire

More evidence comes every day. The United States cannot finance its own budget, without making itself beholden to communist lenders. Nor can it defeat a handful of backward fanatics in Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush. Nor can it still the wind or water…nor even succor its own citizens who slip beneath the waves.

U.S. markets were closed yesterday for Labor Day. Gas prices rose over $3 nationwide. Prices as high as $4 were reported.

Of most interest to the media continues to be the remarkable story from the Big Easy.

We turn to the English press for illumination and entertainment:

“Dead Calm,” is how the Daily Mirror describes the situation yesterday, with a photo of a body floating face down in the street. More than 10,000 bodies might be discovered, says the paper, as the relief effort continues. “A Sea of Bodies in New Orleans,” says a headline, perhaps exaggerating.

The Independent graces its front-page with a photo of a makeshift grave. “Here Lies Vera,” says the handwritten marker, “God Help Us.”

“She was an ordinary woman who, like thousands of her neighbors, died because she was poor,” explains The Independent. “Abandoned to her fate as the waters rose around her, Vera’s tragedy symbolizes the great divide in America today.” (Further reading reveals that Vera was not a victim of the rising water, but of a hit and run driver…nor did she die because she was poor, but because she lived in a town rich enough to have automobiles.)

The Daily Express, meanwhile, focuses neither on the morbid nor the sentimental:

“I saved my daughter from rape by looters,” a British professor tells the paper. (Further reading suggests that the man may have exaggerated his own heroism. Gangs only shouted “sexual abuse” at his daughter and “racial abuse” at the family. They were not attacked.)

Thus does the British news media see things in the Deep South, not too differently from the way the American media sees them: the government should have done more to help the poor who, as we all know, can be vicious, slobbering animals if they don’t get handouts and billyclubs when they need them.

In yesterday’s International Herald Tribune, liberal columnists howled over the handling of the crisis by the Bush administration. (The word “incompetence” was used more frequently than a teenager uses the word “like.”) Maureen Dowd went so far as to call Bush’s head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) a “blithering idiot.” Here, we feel compelled to rush to his defense. He may be an idiot, but we see no reason to think he blithers any more than any other federal official.

There is a foul stench to the whole discussion. The gist of the liberal position is that if the Bush administration had not been so incompetent at killing poor people in Iraq, it might have saved some poor democratic voters in Louisiana.

The gist of the conservative position is that lawlessness in Iraq represents a threat to our way of life; besides, our way of life is one in which people look out for themselves, unless they represent a significant voting block.

Neither political party, nor ideology, disputes the major principle of Late Empire: the imperial government should provide bread and circuses at home (including protection from flood, storm, pestilence, and famine)…and seek to improve the world by engaging in almost constant wars all around the periphery.

The argument is only about which bunch of incompetents will do a better job of it.

Had Katrina struck during the reign of William J. Clinton, rather than that of George W. Bush, we doubt that there would be one single fewer body floating face down in New Orleans. On the other hand, by so openly and proudly taking on imagined enemies overseas, Mr. Bush has raised expectations. He has offered to make the world a better place than the place people make of it on their own. He showed himself ready to send troops wherever he thought they were needed. He made it clear that no sparrow could fall anywhere in the world without it being a cause of concern to the snoops and world-improvers in Washington.

If the all-knowing, all caring authorities in Washington would notice the falling of a sparrow between the Tigris and the Euphrates, wouldn’t they also see when a taxpayer drops along the Mississippi? If the Pentagon could send troops to Iraq on a whim, wouldn’t they rush them to the Gulf Coast on a worry?

By intervening so readily with guns in Baghdad, the citizens of Biloxi were encouraged to hope for more butter. When they didn’t get it, they turned a little sour.

• “Housing boom may continue experts say,” a New York Times headline tells us. The LA Times tells us that people are still eager to ruin themselves to get onto the great housing bubble before it is too late. Many households now spend 30% of their pretax income, says the paper, just to cover their mortgage payments. Some spend as much as 50%.

But it’s worth it, say delusional buyers. “We’ll have to struggle for a while, but it is worth it for the house,” said one young homeowner. The man had just committed himself to pay $500,000 that he didn’t have for a house he didn’t need. He got it with 100% financing. In other words, to call him a “homeowner” is a stretch. He is a speculator. What he has is something akin to an option to buy a house for a half million dollars. If the house rises in price, he will exercise the option. If it falls, he will walk away — with certain penalties.

Another buyer said he bought a house but had no money for furnishings. “I ate dinner in my car,” he says. “I made house-buying a goal. It’s worth it knowing I have a home.”

• Here in London, house prices are falling — slowly, almost imperceptibly, but the statistics say prices are coming down.

They have a long way to go. Elizabeth is house hunting. We are camped in your editor’s bachelor pad…until a suitable rental can be found.

“There are many places to see,” Elizabeth reports. “You can pay as little as 1,000 pounds per week for a three-bedroom house in South Kensington to 3,000 and beyond. The expensive ones have better bathrooms and decorations…but they’re not that different.”

“Wait a minute. Who would pay 3,000 pounds per week for a rather ordinary house? That’s more than $250,000 a year!”

“Well, if you want to live in central London, it’s going to cost a lot of money. There’s no way to get around it. There are so many people with so much money to spend. It is really amazing.”

• The boys began school yesterday. They are going to the French lycee in London, so they will be able to continue in the same system when we return to Paris.

“How did it go?” we asked.


“Could you give us more details?”

“Well, we had to take a test in English. They wanted to see how good we were in English so they’d know what section to put us in.”

“Shouldn’t you be in the bilingual section? English is your native language.”

“They have a special section where they teach in English and French equally,” Elizabeth explained. “But it’s not open to bilingual students. The boys will be in the section where they learn English as a foreign language.”

“Hmmm…does that make any sense? Well, you boys should have done very well on the English test, so at least you’ll be in the most advanced section.”

“I didn’t do very well,” Edward, 11, admitted.

“Why not?”

“I figured that if I didn’t do well they’d put me in an easy class.”

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.