Yesterday I started thinking about John Newton’s 1779 Hymm Amazing Grace. Somehow, the word Pork - as in federal funds – got substituted for Grace.
And Pork my fears postponed.
How precious did that Pork appear,
the hour I first believed.
I owe apologies to John Newton, for my paraphrasing of his magnificent 1779 hymn.
The suffering resulting from Katrina was a result of natural forces. I don’t believe that it was God’s punishment for the sins of New Orleans or of the nation. However, it does seem that the scale of the suffering was the result of sins of omission –failure to prepare – on the part of local, state and federal officials. The tragedy is that hundreds of thousands of citizens suffered for the omissions of a few.
The reason for this failure is simple. Our politicians are addicted to pork.
Because of pork we postponed our fears of a direct hit on New Orleans. Funds were available to prevent, or at least alleviate the worst results of the flood. However, they were spent in ways that provided immediate gratification.
By now, journalists have come to realize and report a number of instances in which federal money intended for disaster relief was spent elsewhere. Here is an extract from a John Tierney column on the role of pork:
Overall spending hasn't declined since the Clinton years, and there has been a fairly sharp increase in money for flood-control construction projects in New Orleans.
The problem is that the bulk of the Corps's budget goes for projects far less important than preventing floods in New Orleans. And if the investigators want to find who's responsible, they don't have to leave Capitol Hill.
Most of the Corps's budget consists of what are lovingly known on appropriations committees as earmarks: money allocated specifically for members' pet projects. Many of these projects flunk the Corps's own cost-benefit analysis or haven't been analyzed at all. Many are jobs that Corps officials don't even consider part of their mission, like building sewage plants, purifying drinking water or maintaining lakeside picnic tables.
The Corps is giving grants to improve New York City's drinking water. In Massachusetts, the Corps offers BMX-style bike jumps at a lake near Worcester and runs a theater next to the Cape Cod Canal showing a video of "Canal Critters."
In rural Nevada, an area not known for hurricanes or shipping channels, the Corps has been given $20 million for construction projects. When I asked an official why so much was being spent in Nevada, he said that the money was paying for wastewater treatment and mentioned the name of Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat's leader in the Senate.
(I’d love to give the link to the whole column. You can get it only if you are a New York Times Select subscriber.)
Pork becomes addictive. It enables the politicians to give constituents jobs and immediate economic benefits. In return, constituents give the politician’s votes –and power. Eventually a disaster comes. People suffer. Katrina laid bare the results of Pork for all to see.
We can hope that the Pork taught our hearts to fear. We can learn that more federal and local spending -for real needs - will morph into more Pork. If that is the case, our fears will only be postponed. The desperation induced by postponement will only make the pork seem more precious than the hour we first believed.
The problem, of course, is that federal pork is hard to turn down, even for the very politicians who recognize its corrosive effects. As WaPo reporter Shailagh Murray writes
DeLay's Houston district collected nearly $440 million for local projects, while the leader of the House conservatives, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), netted $16 million to fund special projects in his district.
The addiction to Pork is not individual; it is systemic. Tip O’Neil recognized this in his aphorism: “All politics is local.” This aphorism provides a key to understanding the systemic nature of the addiction facing us.
Maybe we need to turn back to the words of Newton’s hymn and figure out how entire social systems can discern genuine needs from that oh-so-satisfying pork. If, as a people, we could sing that we “once ... were blind but now we see”, we would be prepared for the next disaster. There are large numbers of potential disasters. Everyone is crying wolf. Our challenge is to discern which warnings are real and merit our attention. Otherwise we get “wolf-warning weariness” and fail to prepare.
How do we develop a political system that can do this? I have no idea, other than to suggest that we need to take the Ignatian teaching on discernment and apply it at the corporate level.
It’s hard enough at the individual level. A meditation on Newton’s text will help.