Meyerson: America Hates the Poor

Harold Meyerson thinks America is a very, very bad place.

The ‘Stuff Happens’ Presidency (WaPo, Sep. 7, A25)

We’re not number one. We’re not even close. By which measures, precisely, do we lead the world? Caring for our countrymen? You jest. A first-class physical infrastructure? Tell that to New Orleans. Throwing so much money at the rich that we’ve got nothing left over to promote the general welfare? Now you’re talking.

The problem goes beyond the fact that we can’t count on our government to be there for us in catastrophes. It’s that a can’t-do spirit, a shouldn’t-do spirit, guides the men who run the nation.


As a matter of social policy, the catastrophic lack of response in New Orleans is exceptional only in its scale and immediacy. When it comes to caring for our fellow countrymen, we all know that America has never ranked very high. We are, of course, the only democracy in the developed world that doesn’t offer health care to its citizens as a matter of right. We rank 34th among nations in infant mortality rates, behind such rival superpowers as Cyprus, Andorra and Brunei.

But these are chronic conditions, and even many of us who argue for universal health coverage have grown inured to that distinctly American indifference to the common good, to our radical lack of solidarity with our fellow citizens. Besides, the poor generally have the decency to die discreetly, and discretely — not conspicuously, not in droves. Come rain or come shine, we leave millions of beleaguered Americans to fend for themselves on a daily basis. It’s just a lot more noticeable in a horrific rain, and when the ordinary lack of access to medical care is augmented by an extraordinary lack of access to emergency services.


Even now, with bedraggled rescuers pulling decomposed bodies from the muck of New Orleans, Bill Frist, the moral cretin who runs the U.S. Senate, wanted its first order of business this week to be the permanent repeal of the estate tax, until the public outcry persuaded him to change course. The Republicans profess belief in trickle-down, but what they’ve given us is the Flood.

The world looks on in stunned amazement, unable to understand how a once great nation has grown so indifferent not just to its poor and its blacks but even to the most rudimentary self-preservation. Some of it is institutional racism, but the primary culprit is the economic libertarianism that the president still espouses whenever he sells his Social Security snake oil. It’s that libertarianism, more than anything else, that has transformed a great city into an immense morgue.

What’s bizarre about all this is that the premise–that the United States is a libertarian nation vehemently opposed to government programs–has been untrue for seventy years or more. Even under the current Administration and a Republican Congress, we’ve spent hundreds of billions creating or expanding entitlement programs. The Era of Big Government is not only not over, it’s growing.

What countries do better dealing with a Category 5 hurricane hitting a coastal city that’s well below sea level? Or with major natural disasters, period? Aside from some major earthquakes in Japan–which revealed an infrastructure that could not sustain major earthquakes–I can’t even think of a comparable disaster striking a major economic power in recent years.

The infant mortality canard has been around forever and is widely understood to be an artifact of more stringent reporting on our part.

International comparisons of infant mortality are compromised by a lack of standardization with regard to birth registration practices. Studies have documented wide variation in the rate at which extremely small babies at the borderline of viability (e.g., < 500 g) are registered in different countries.7,8 In fact, recent secular trends and interprovincial comparisons of infant mortality within Canada are also affected by such differences in birth registration [Original Research].9 As a potential solution, the World Health Organization has recommended that international comparisons of infant mortality be restricted to live births in which the newborn weighs 1000 g or more.10 Such a restriction would eliminate a substantial proportion of neonatal deaths from the infant mortality counts of most industrialized countries, however. This and other challenges inherent in birth- weight-specific comparisons mean that international infant mortality rankings will continue to be based on crude rates and will favour industrialized countries, which tend not to register extremely small live births.

This is compounded by the fact that only the most developed countries prioritize the keeping of careful statistics on such matters and that autocracies are much less loathe than democracies to fudge statistics to make themselves look better.

Finally, the idea that the catastrophe in New Orleans and the Gulf region is somehow a function of Bush era tax cuts for the rich is laughable. Would New Orleans have withstood a Category 5 hurricane better during the Clinton or Carter administrations? Of course not.

The United States is a huge country that stretches across a continent with sparse population density over most of that span. Most of our states are bigger than entire European countries but with a fraction of the population density. We can’t reasonably make every road, bridge, and dam able to withstand once-in-a-century disasters.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    Wow. The socialist speaks.
    I suppose by “throwing money at the rich” he means that many Americans buy luxuries they cannot afford, then blame the entrepreneur for HIS success.

    So tax the rich. Instead of expanding their companies and hiring people to earn their own living, they can sit on the couch all day and take handouts from the Federal Teat. We haven’t seen the results of that at all in New Orleans.

    …and universal health coverage? He means taxing those who take care of themselves, to pay for those who abuse food, alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, and who also do not work or contribute in any way.

    Infrastructure? The Democrats shoot down these “pork-barrel” projects. After all, they have a lot of mouths to feed.

    Saying the “world is stunned” over our supposed “indifference” is quite a stretch. Our great country contirbutes more to the world’s needy than any other.

    I’ll take social security “snake-oil” over the Democrats arsenic any day.

    Economic libertarianism? I thought we called that free trade. Very amusing though, how the Democrats, the party of the people, the ACLU and others, seem to have so much contempt for liberty.

    I don’t mean to sound cold, but whatever happened to American ingenuity, personal responsibility, doing for oneself and one’s neighbors?

    We should help those willing to help themselves. Now aren’t faith-based initiatives a crazy idea?

  2. Meezer says:

    “Tax the rich,
    Feed the poor,
    ‘Til there are no rich no more.” Ten Years After

    Then what? ’cause –

    “…the poor ye will always have with you.” Jesus

  3. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘It’s that libertarianism, more than anything else, that has transformed a great city into an immense morgue.’

    Actually it was the lack of libertarianism and the long time presence of big gov’t paternalism that created a city with more than double the national poverty rate, one of the highest murder rates in the country and a completely dysfunctional and corrupt city gov’t that was completely incapable of dealing with any aspect of the disaster.

  4. Frank says:

    Meyerson…this guy is unbelievable, filthy schweinhund…Send this guy to France, or better, give him a time machine and send him to the French summer a few years back. Of course, take away his air conditioning, give him a deabilitating illness and see how his new government treats him

  5. Brett says:

    James: It’s a question of baselines; whether we’ve expanded entitlement programs is no answer to the question of whether we have a government that does enough to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. The second refers to an absolute amount, not a trend.

    Even more fundamentally, no one is saying we should secure every bridge. But when one of the top three or four disaster scenarios that everyone predicts – pace Bush – finally happens, shouldn’t we expect to have government capacity to respond efficiently? You don’t have to be a partisan hack to believe that this administration habitually fails in planning and in response to events. It’s partly a failure of leadership.

  6. Barry says:

    A political scientist might want to approach the analysis of the federal response to Katrina in a poli sci mode. Make a comparison with recent efforts within the same nation, such as to hurricanes in Florida in 2004.

    One good keyword in one’s seach would be “pre-positioned”. As in getting federal help ready ahead of time.

    Of course, this might lead to conclusions about swing states in election years, but a good political scientist isn’t afraid to go there.