Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Grover Norquist - The Most Dangerous Man in America. Part 1 - Privatize this, Grover?

John McPhee

This weekend I read an article about Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, an ultra-right wing advocacy group, and an old 1987 article by John McPhee about the junction of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers.  The articles seemed to be connected in a way I will explain over this and my next post. Let's start with McPhee's article.

John McPhee is one of the great U.S. writers of our generation.  He is a master of creative non-fiction.  He won  the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World,  his book on the geological history of North America.  My favorites of his thirty books are Looking for a Ship (about the U.S. Merchant Marine) and Uncommon Carriers (about many modes of commercial transportation).  He writes from a turret sticking up from the geology building at Princeton University where he teaches writing.  Among his former students are  a Pulitzer Prize winner, Editors-in-Chief and Managing Editors of  The New Yorker, Time, the New Republic and Slate, and Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation.

In 1987, McPhee wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled The Control of Nature - Atchafalaya. ( It is one of several dozen articles he's had published by The New Yorker since 1965.) The article describes the efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the Mississippi River flowing in its current channel through Baton Rouge, Louisiana, past New Orleans, and out through the Mississippi Delta into the Gulf.  Here is part of his article, later included in his 1989 book, Control of Nature:
Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium.
. . . .
Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it. By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was a hundred and forty-five miles—well under half the length of the route of the master stream.
. . . .
For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina—with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places—it was often called “the American Ruhr.” The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.
McPhee's article describes the elaborate lock and dams complex that was built where the Atchafalaya River turned to the south-west away from the Mississippi in Concordia Parish, Louisiana. As he notes above, had the dams and water release mechanisms not been built, the Mississippi River's main channel would have eventually shifted its flow into the Atchafalaya, bypassing Baton Rouge and New Orleans and leaving them to silt up and disappear as commercial ports.

 Here's a picture of the dam complex where the Atchafalaya branches off the Mississippi:

(Picture from Dr. Jeff Master's Wonderblog.)

You can see the barges on the Mississippi to the upper left.  The three channels leading into 
the Atchafalaya River are all controlled by dams that are visible across the channels.

In Life on the Mississippi, Twain once wrote of the river:
Ten thousand river commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or define it, cannot say to it "Go here," or "Go there," and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.
The physical evidence to date supports that Twain under-estimated man's ability to control the river. The control structures in the picture above cost the United States Army Corps of Engineers over $300,000,000 in current dollars to construct.  The Corps of Engineers proposes in its 2012 budget (page 23) to spend over $75,000,000 in fiscal year 2012 to operate and maintain the structures that are pictured above, and other structures running down from Baton Rouge to the Delta, to keep the Mississippi in its banks and on its current course.  As John McPhee describes it, the "American Ruhr" industrial complex is dependent on it.  Baton Rouge is dependent on it. The Crescent City is dependent on it. Grain growers in our section of the upper Midwest are dependent on it.  It has been estimated that if the Old River Control Structure were to fail and the Mississippi diverted its main channel to the south along the "Atch," the commercial costs to the United States would end up being on the order of $295,000,000 per day

Grover Norquist is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform.  In many ways, for Republican politicians, he may be the most feared man in America because of the famous "no tax increase" pledge that he has secured from so many of them.  In March of 2008, Norquist was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and said that he favored having all but the most essential services transferred from the government to private enterprise. When asked to describe what was included by "essential services" he said that he was OK with the police to keep "bad guys from taking our property from us," and the military to keep "bad guys from coming shooting at us from overseas."  That was about it. (You can judge for yourself his position, the Daily Show clip is at the end of this post.)  I question whether he would include keeping the Mississippi in its current banks an essential government service.  Perhaps he is prepared to have the Mississippi River control structures taken over under lease arrangements by companies intent on keeping their costs low and profits high.

In my next post I will talk about Grover Norquist and why he should be feared not only by Republican politicians, but by all of us.

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