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From the Los Angeles Times, 3/3/2001


Public Squalor Betrays Our Nation's Soul


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 for more information.