I’ve tried to stay on top of the federal government’s response to natural disasters here at Acton. I’ve written a number of commentaries, blog posts, and a story in Religion & Liberty covering the issue. “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill” specifically addressed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For extensive background on this short clip of Bobby Jindal at CPAC 2012, see my post “Bobby Jindal on Centralized Disaster Response.”
In my commentary this week, I used Louisiana as one of the backdrops to shine the light on government greed. I first became fascinated with the political scene in the Pelican State when I moved down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
I stayed up late one night in 1996 watching C-Span2 while Woody Jenkins, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, appeared to have his election stolen. I was hooked from that point on.
Former Louisiana governor Earl Long once remarked, “When I die I want to be buried in Louisiana so I can stay active in politics.” Former Congressman Billy Tauzin said of his state: “One half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment.” Former governor Edwin Edwards, who is mentioned in the commentary, has a fascinating book profiling his antics and political corruption in The Last Hayride.
Louisiana has undergone a remarkable transformation and it is covered superbly by Jim Geraghty at National Review in “The Storm Calmer.” The transformation provides wisdom for the nation today. My commentary is printed below.
Government Greed Needs an ‘Occupation’ Too
When it comes to political crookedness and graft, Louisiana is infamous. The New York Times just profiled Edwin Edwards, whose reputation earned him the nickname “Fast Eddie.” The former governor of the Pelican State recently released after a 10-year prison sentence for racketeering naturally wants back in the political ring. A resident displayed the love many still have for the former lawmaker, telling the Times, “We all knew he was going to steal, but he told us he was going to do it.”
Edwards serves as one of the most flagrant examples of government greed, enriching countless cronies along with himself. But he is not alone. The Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on “corporate greed,” but the public sector variety, though it draws less media attention, is equally reprehensible.
Eminent domain abuse, bloated public pensions, deficit spending—which simply generate calls for future tax increases—and a tax code that discourages saving and investing, are just a few examples of government greed. The 19th century British preacher and evangelist Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.’ You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”
His audience was the individual. But Spurgeon’s warning applies to a government demanding more wealth that should remain private and more of the public trust. Government excess and the way in which it mercilessly suctions revenue away from Main Street are alarming indeed. According to The World Bank’s annual Doing Business report, the United States no longer ranks as a top 10 country for starting a business; Rwanda is higher on the list. Half a century ago, business rapidly mobilized to help launch the greatest army of liberation in world history; now the nation’s private sector faces an uncertain future.
Today the Occupy Wall Street movement and its echo chamber in the media denounce corporate America. But a smaller headline in Bloomberg News about Washington edging out San Jose, Calif., as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area raised eyebrows, too. The total compensation package for a federal employee in the beltway now exceeds $126,000. There are many hard working and patriotic federal employees, but as the federal government payroll increasingly coincides with a diminishing private sector, government employees are rapidly moving closer to the 1 percent.
More disturbing perhaps is a quote from the president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who declared, “Wall Street has moved to K Street.” The mammoth increase in federal laws and regulation has generated an upsurge in the number of lobbyists and lawyers to manage the federal government’s far-reaching bureaucratic tentacles.
Greed of all sorts should be denounced. Unique to neither business nor government, its perennial presence illuminates the unchanged heart of humankind. For that reason the Founders understood that the power of government must be limited and virtue magnified. During the benediction at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner last week, Rev. Ren Broekhuizen offered this rightly famous quote from Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” He implored the assembled to mount their own righteous “occupation” of Wall Street, the government, business, and all of society.
Just last week, the 84-year-old former governor Edwin Edwards joked with well wishers and basked in the limelight at a parade during the International Rice Festival in Crowley, La. That same day Gov. Bobby Jindal coasted to reelection against a crowded field with nearly 66 percent of the vote. Jindal’s approval in part stems from sweeping reforms to antiquated laws that bred government greed and corruption. After Katrina and the BP oil spill, it was all the more apparent to Louisianans that the old way of doing things was toxic. Greed and corruption intensify suffering in a time of crisis.
As America faces its current economic crisis, Louisiana’s experience is instructive. Solutions can be found not in centralized power and burdensome regulation, which facilitate and reward government greed, but in framing sensible laws and reinvigorating a culture of virtue in business and government alike.
Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal received high praise for his handling of the BP disaster in the Gulf in 2010. Even political foes like Democratic strategist and Louisiana native James Carville called Jindal’s leadership in times of crisis as “competent,” “honest,” and “personable.” Jindal was a powerful image of leading by example and presence as cameras followed him around the Gulf, marshes, and bayous. The media spent days and nights on the water with a governor who declared the cleanup up was a war “to protect our way of life.”
In the summer of 2010, I published a commentary on the disaster in the Gulf titled “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill.” Along with the vast connection the waters hold to the heritage and way of life of those on the Gulf Coast, I addressed some of the disillusionment of the elected leaders in the state with the federal response:
Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”
In his 2010 book Leadership and Crisis, Jindal declared of the local initiative,
If the oil spill crisis teaches us one thing, it is that a distant, central command and control model simply didn’t work with the fast-moving and ever-changing crisis that was unfolding. Frankly, some of the best leadership and advice we got was from local leaders, like the parish presidents and fishermen. As far as I can tell, none of them has yet to win a Nobel Prize, but they know these waters. And some of the best ideas for cleanup came from locals.
Because the federal government was failing to provide the boom we needed, we came up with creative ideas – Tiger dams, Hesco Baskets, sand-drop operations, and freshwater diversions. It was local initiative that gave us one of the best techniques for cleaning up: vacuum trucks. The federal government was having workers clean up the marsh grasses with the equivelant of paper towels. We thought of the bright idea of putting a large vacuum truck, like the kind that they use to clean Port-a-Potties, on top of a National Guard pontoon boat. They were highly effective in sucking up the oil. (p. 12, 13).
Local initiative, local government, and especially church based charities and agencies are proving to be the best tools for assisting and leading in a crisis. For an overview of how Christian charities served during the 2011 tornado disasters in the South and in Joplin, Missouri, take a look at “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” in Religion & Liberty.