Want to Understand Politics, the Economy, Everything? Follow the Levees.

Categories: Get Off My Lawn

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Figured it out. I can tell you why the Republicans keep assassinating their own nominees. It all goes back to the Trinity River levees. What? You think I can't connect those dots? Stand back.

Right now the GOP rivals are reducing Newt Gingrich to road-kill in Iowa with Super-PAC attack ads on television, none more brutal than those paid for by Rick Perry supporters: "NEWT GOT RICH, MADE MILLIONS OFF OF FREDDIE MAC."

It's true. He did. So what's my problem? It's not so much the attacks on Gingrich. He's built an entire career on demonization, so it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. It's the whole right-wing neo-legend of what wrecked the economy: The Protocols of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

Joe Nocera has a great op-ed in The New York Times today pointing out that Fannie and Freddie, quasi-private agencies that guaranteed mortgages in order to encourage lending, followed Wall Street into sub-prime lending. They didn't lead the way there. If you read Gretchen Morgensen's Reckless Endangerment, you know that Fannie and Freddie are dripping with culpability in the nation's mortgage mess. But to say they caused it? Puhleeze.

Nocera points out that in 2010 the default rate on Fannie/Freddie-guaranteed mortgages was 5.9 percent, versus 9.11 for the nation. Those numbers make Fannie and Freddie way less irresponsible than Wall Street and the banks.

Ponder that 9.11 thing. That's almost one in 10 borrowers flaking on their notes. Just thinking about stuff like that always puts me in mind of my Depression-era, church-mouse-modest, minister father when I asked for help with the down payment on my first mortgage.

I could see the telltale squint forming between the eyes that presaged a piercing question. I thought it might be the one tormenting my own mind. Why I had failed to negotiate a smaller down payment? Instead, he asked: "So, in order to buy this house, you have to borrow money?"

Seems like something out of the Jurassic Era now. How we have progressed, eh?

Trinity River levees? Sure. I'll get there. But let's talk some more about me, first. I'm one of those 99/1-percent guys. I love that stuff. Blame it on the 1 percent.

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But, wait, Schutze. What did the 1 percent do to you? They got rich. How is that wrong? They rob you? Hey, Schutze, most of the people you know who got rich have at least a few ulcers and ex-spouses to show for it. It's not like it was easy. While they were out making money, you were canoeing. We all make choices.

So why do I want to demonize the 1 percent? Why does Rick Perry want to demonize Freddie Mac? Why do the Republican candidates all want to demonize each other? I'm telling, you: It's the Trinity River levees.

Dallas City Hall wants to demonize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the incredible mess we're in over flood protection. For a long time the corps told us our levees were good. Now they say they're bad. Darn it! Flood control just isn't fair.

Demonizing the corps comes naturally to us. It's what New Orleans has done ever since Hurricane Katrina. And the corps is like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It's big and grim and federal, and its hands are not clean. But let's look around the scene a little bit. Anybody else got dirty hands?

The relationship between the corps and local communities has always been a kind of very messy marriage, by law, by politics, by money. The corps gets money only when Congress green-lights its projects. Flood control in this country is almost entirely a matter of earmarks.

In the complicated relationship between the corps and the local communities where dams and levees are built, the upper hand almost always lies with the local congressional delegations. With a congressional thumbs up, a project is a go. Thumbs down, it doesn't happen.

The corps is a construction company. The bigger and more robust the project, the stronger the corps' bottom line. But on the community side, the most powerful and concerted actors are always the real estate development interests. It is usually in the interest of the developers to keep local cost-share down, to get the most so-called flood protection on paper, allowing them to sell the most land, for the smallest outlay in capital.

Given that basic structure of interests, how likely do you think it is that the Corps of Engineers comes in with its big Army boots and forces communities to accept cheap shoddy dams and levees? I'm just asking.

Here is where the dots connect. It probably isn't possible to endow a people with more personal liberty or democratic hegemony over their lives than what we have going in this country. If there's a way we could be more free or have more ability to shape our own destinies, tell me what it is.

But freedom carries personal moral accountability. You can't blame it on that son of a bitch, the king, if there is no king. If we use our freedom to make crappy sleazy decisions about our own communities and our own lives, then we bear the brunt of the blame when those decisions come back to bite us. Dirty hands? Oh, here they are! On the ends of our arms.

Sign a mortgage to buy a house that you know damn well is four times the house a guy like you can afford? And then, lo and behold, you can't afford it? Please, don't come tell me Fannie Mae made you do it.

And, Schutze, don't tell people the 1 percent made you do it either. What loads of crap, both stories. All of you, go get a cheap apartment and keep your mouths shut.

Spend 15 years trying to build a totally unneeded highway out in the middle of the flood control zone, ignoring the condition of the levees that protect your city from disaster, so you can make a ton of money on some new real estate development? Try to cover the whole thing up with Calatrava bling? And then, when the Corps of Engineers finally tells you your levees are junk, it's their fault?

Are you telling me that we are utterly passive vassals to big gray national bureaucracies in this country? We can't ever stick up for ourselves or do the right thing? If that scenario is what you believe in, then what you do not believe in is the American democratic experiment.

It's the same syndrome we are seeing in the demonizing search for "purity" in the Republican Party. The Republican candidates are not offering purity. They're offering what their smart guys tell them the voters really want -- scapegoats.

Here is where the dots connect for all of us. We got into this mess because of bling culture and personal irresponsibility. We did this together. Rich people didn't do it to poor people. Poor people didn't do it to rich people. Rich, poor and middle class: We have a whole lot more in common morally than we think we do in this country.

Some of it is morally good, politically courageous, brilliantly inventive and wonderfully humane. Some of the rest of it is not much to brag about.

The worst thing we share is a powerful disinclination to take responsibility for our own behavior, expressed in what seems to be a growing national passion for scapegoating. That's what connects the Trinity levees with the Republicans in Iowa with all the rest of us.

The devil made me sign that mortgage. The devil made me build that bad levee. The devil took my money. How else was I supposed to pay for a house? By saving money? (Well, I still think that one was crazy.)

We have to hope the smart guys are wrong. On vote day, we're not going to vote for the best scapegoater. But we also have to remember that this country is still an experiment.

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22 comments
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Victor Long
Victor Long

This makes a lot of sense dude.www.Total-Privacy dot US

PlanoDave
PlanoDave

Jim,

You couldn't be farther off base.

Please go read "Confidence Men" and then reevaluate this article.

JimS
JimS

Not counting mayoral elections in which it was an issue, the people of Dallas have voted twice for the Trinity River Toll Road -- in 1998 and again in 2007, after a very competent and full public discourse on the issues. So how is this mess not the voters' fault? Are you telling me people can't vote right? If so, I guess we need time-travel back to Lexington Green in 1775 and ask that guy not to fire the shot heard 'round the world after all. I don't think so. I think stuff like this is a civic I.Q. test, and Dallas is a town that needs a tutor -- bad. 

RTGolden
RTGolden

I know I've hit you with this before, and sorry for beating a dead horse, but this is a rant you've partly brought upon yourself Jim.  You, and other far left liberals, want to rant and rave about how government is responsible for all the bad in the world, and responsible for curing all the bad in the world, and people should just rise up and demand the government come in and fix their poverty, fix their potholes, fix corporations, fix fix fix and get the crabgrass out of their lawns.Now you want to flip the script and tell people it's their own fault?  You can't have it both ways.

Ray Broussard
Ray Broussard

Schutze,I too believe in taking responsibility for my behavior, but only when appropriate. Please give this whole thing more time before you decide demonizing the Corps is wrong. Keep paying attention and you will come to understand the Corps is not controlled by Congress or the White House or you and me. The Corps does what the Corps wants to do the way they want to do it when they want and when they don't deliver that for which your community paid there is no due process. The Corps always only does what is in their best interest.

scottindallas
scottindallas

ultimately, we're a democracy.  We choose to be hoodwinked.  We can choose to demand answers and responsive gov't.

Levees.org
Levees.org

We sure can, though you would be surprised at how difficult that can be.  Many people give up because they are exhausted and/or the expense.  Many are threatened.  In 2007, the American Society of Civil Engineers threatened our group with lawsuit simply for creating and uploading a 60-minute video spoofing its cozy relationship with the Corps of Engineers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...  

JimS
JimS

I'm open to suggestion.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder
Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

Hehehe. Hell, Jim, you're doing as good a job knocking on the Corps' door as any of us in New Orleans.

Guest
Guest

The worst thing we share is a powerful disinclination to take responsibility for our own behavior

I blame the media for this.

Paul
Paul

If you want to blame someone, blame Leslie Stemmons and his son John.  Leslie built the first levees prior to the Depression.  After WWII, the Corp said that they were not acceptable and rebuilt them.

Now we have new standards and a vastly different watershed from when the Trinity Floodway was first built.  And guess what, they need to be reinforced yet again.

Many people are not aware of this, but more dirt was moved to build the Trinity Floodway than to build the Panama Canal.

Just remember, they are levees, not dams.

Boogeyman
Boogeyman

"Our"??? "We"???

Speaking as one of the few who saves and pays cash, I have little proposition for the bankers, financiers, hacks, and everybody else who wants to lay the collective guilt trip: you cut off the 99% from the debt sugar tit, then load up the train cars, open the concentration camps, and turn on the showers when the SHTF, m'kay? I'll stand idly by and watch.

Except you WONT. You never do. Instead you talk this shat about how "we're" gonna have to pay for this and "we're" gonna tighten our belts and all the while it's just an excuse for you to steal more and get more people in debt and take more property for yourself. If you were serious, the traincars would roll. But you're NOT serious, you're just using this collective guilt trip to further implement your scams under the color of law and the few remaining independent people KNOW IT and that is why you are scared beanless of them.

The problem with "our" and "we" is that it presupposes that the debt masters have achieved their endgame and there is no independent, thinking counterforce not making investments in floodplains, not maxing out their credit cards, not drawing relativistic equivalency between all crimes. In turn that false assumption is used to pillage the remaining people who oppose the system.

RTGolden
RTGolden

Number one solution to the problem: Education.  Not what passes for education these days; giving credit for 'writing' regardless of spelling, grammar, or factual basis (would help in journalism as well), coddling kids through school, lowering standards to the lowest common denominator instead of bringing up the struggling kids.  and for god's sake, TEACH MATH.  A simple way to avoid the idiotic mortgage mess was to take the damn paperwork home and run the numbers.  I did it, and reluctantly passed on buying two homes in the last 10 years because, using my math, the numbers did not work out.

As for the political theories in JS's article, O'Rourke beat you to it around 19 years ago.  "Every form of government is a parliament of whores.  The problem is, in a democracy, the whores are us."

Renegade
Renegade

The concept of math and budgeting is out the window at all levels, it seems. 

When I was in elementary school, my limited stash of coins bought only a certain number of tickets at the Halloween carnival.  Along with every other kid, I made a recon pass through the whole place and identified the best chances of spending a ticket and actually winning a coveted plastic toy made in an exotic locale, Taiwan.  One of many early lessons in budgeting and not getting everything you wanted immediately. 

I was stunned when my oldest daughter got the flyer for her elementary school's carnival.  Instead of buying $1 tickets, you could spend $20 and get a wristband that allowed you unlimited access to every game.  That, in turn, allowed you to walk away with unlimited pieces of plastic crap from China.  No budgeting necessary, and none taught.  The only kids who learned anything that day were the very few whose parents weren't able to just hand them a crisp Andrew Jackson.   

We need to stop giving politicians the unlimited access wristband, let them learn how to recon the carnival, and suck it up when the dart doesn't pop the balloon and they walk away empty-handed to save up money for next year.   

JimS
JimS

I can't do math by myself, so, when my friend the mortgage guy called and said it was time to re-fi, I found a little thing on-line where you could plug in the  numbers. I called him back and said this damn on-line thing must be wrong. It shows me paying you a bunch of fees and winding up with increased total interest payments and slower equity growth. He said, "Fine, just forget it." So I did.  

Levees.org
Levees.org

"...Demonizing the corps comes naturally to us. It's what New Orleans has done ever since Hurricane Katrina...."

Actually, a lot more than New Orleans has demonized the corps since Katrina.  Every independent investigation, and even the corps' own study (IPET) placed responsibility for the failure of the floodwalls squarely on the USACE.  It just took about 2 plus years for all that data to get researched and published.

Beck
Beck

Co-sign

Many actors, acting in their own self-interest, had a role in where we are now.  We all need to take a look in the mirror before pointing fingers.

Phelps
Phelps

The problem is, the long-term solution is to let them foreclose and flood.

I don't think you are willing to pull that trigger yet.

TimCov
TimCov

The problem with that is, some people still won't learn their lesson. I've seen people who, after their homes got foreclosed, try to blame anyone but themselves (What do you mean I have to pay for this. I didn't read what I signed.). And, I've seen people who live in flood areas blame the government when their homes were flooded (Why didn't they do more to protect my home?). And, they scream when they found out their insurance does not cover water damage (Why didn't someone make me buy flood insurance?).

A large number of people have a hard time accepting the consequences of their bad decisions.

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