Disaster Relief Privatization (08/29/06)

The cartoon is by editorial cartoonist Ted Rall (bio, email).  He’s hard-hitting enough that Time  Magazine killed publication of  his commissioned illustration of the naming of Reagan National Airport.  You can find his graphic novels and collections at  Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing, 
 

The Toronto-based journalist Naomi Klein has a new article posted yesterday at Commondreams.org, “Pay to be saved: the future of disaster response”    More of her writings  can be found at her website, NoLogo.org.

 

“Where has all the money gone?” ask desperate people from Baghdad to New Orleans, from Kabul to tsunami-struck Sri Lanka. One place a great deal of it has gone is into major capital expenditures for these private contractors. Largely under the public radar, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on the construction of a privatized disaster-response infrastructure: the Shaw Group’s new state-of-the-art Baton Rouge headquarters, Bechtel’s battalions of earthmoving equipment, Blackwater USA’s 6,000-acre campus in North Carolina (complete with paramilitary training camp and 6,000-foot runway).

I call it the Disaster Capitalism Complex. Whatever you might need in a serious crunch, these contractors can provide it: generators, water tanks, cots, port-a-potties, mobile homes, communications systems, helicopters, medicine, men with guns.

This state-within-a-state has been built almost exclusively with money from public contracts, including the training of its staff (overwhelmingly former civil servants, politicians and soldiers). Yet it is all privately owned; taxpayers have absolutely no control over it or claim to it. So far, that reality hasn’t sunk in because when these companies are getting their bills paid by government contracts, the Disaster Capitalism Complex provides its services to the public free of charge.

But here’s the catch: The U.S. government is going broke, in no small part thanks to this kind of loony spending. The national debt is $8-trillion; the federal budget deficit is at least $260-billion. That means that sooner rather than later, the contracts are going to dry up. And no one knows this better than the companies themselves. Ralph Sheridan, chief executive of Good Harbor Partners, one of hundreds of new counter-terrorism companies, explains that “expenditures by governments are episodic and come in bubbles.” Insiders call it the “homeland security bubble.”

When it bursts, firms such as Bechtel, Fluor and Blackwater will lose their primary revenue stream. They will still have all their high-tech gear giving them the ability to respond to disasters — while the government will have let that precious skill whither away — but now they will rent back the tax-funded infrastructure at whatever price they choose.

Here’s a snapshot of what could be in store in the not-too-distant future: helicopter rides off of rooftops in flooded cities ($5,000 a pop, $7,000 for families, pets included), bottled water and “meals ready to eat” ($50 per person, steep, but that’s supply and demand) and a cot in a shelter with a portable shower (show us your biometric ID — developed on a lucrative Homeland Security contract — and we’ll track you down later with the bill. Don’t worry, we have ways: spying has been outsourced too).

The model, of course, is the U.S. healthcare system, in which the wealthy can access best-in-class treatment in spa-like environments while 46-million Americans lack health insurance. As emergency-response, the model is already at work in the global AIDS pandemic: private-sector prowess helped produce

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