Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Milton Friedman's Neoliberal Legacy in New Orleans

For those who don't know, Milton Friedman was a professor at the University of Chicago and the most influential champion of unfettered "free market" capitalism for the past few decades. He and his economist cronies, later dubbed the "Chicago School," envisioned a world of extreme government deregulation of social services -- such as health care, public schooling and public housing -- in favor of a corporate bonanza of mass privatization.

Because most don't wish to see their lives and communities put to the service of increasing the wealth of a concentrated elite, however, the means by which the Chicago School put their grand ideas into being required some less-than-voluntary measures: they utilized, with the help of power-hungry leaders, a methodology known as the "shock doctrine" -- first tested in the mid 1970s in the formerly Socialist country of Chile after the rise of bloody dictator Augusto Pinochet. Thus, while the Chilean people were still processing the removal of their elected president Salvador Allende and the instituting of a military dictatorship virtually overnight, Friedman and his team worked feverishly to write a new economic program for Pinochet's Chile which included the privatizing of all state-run enterprises such as the mining, water, and electricity industries. The Friedman philosophy was that "only a crisis -- either actual or perceived -- produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions taken depend upon the ideas that are lying around. our primary function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." In other words, while a nation or city is still reeling from the shock of a crisis -- be it a natural disaster or a U.S.-backed government coup d'etat -- Friedman and his disciples swiftly descend and institute severe economic slashes -- known as " economic shock therapy" -- that better suit multinational corporations.

 Alas, much of Friedman's vision, especially for those of us here in New Orleans (what is regarded as the primary domestic "laboratory" for the Friedmanites' experiment in sweeping privatization), has sadly come to pass.

In an op-ed for the The Wall Street Journal three weeks following Hurricane Katrina, Milton Friedman wrote: "Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who attended them. The children are scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system."

In the wake of a hurricane leaving most New Orleans public schools inoperable, the way Friedman and his followers saw fit to "reform" the educational blight entailed firing thousands of teachers and giving vouchers to parents for their children to attend charter schools. Within these publicly funded and privately run institutions -- which are often run at a profit as well -- the curriculum is considerably influenced by those entities running it, and many black residents in the city have expressed concern that these markedly polarizing institutions are a setback to the gains of the Civil Rights movement that granted all children -- at least in theory -- the same standard of education. This conversion to charter schools was just one of the 32 policies drafted by the Heritage Foundation -- a conservative thinktank of Friedmanism -- on September 13th 2005 (just two weeks after the storm) during a meeting with Republican lawmakers to devise the future of our destroyed city. The list of policies came straight from the Chicago School shock therapy rubric and was entitled "Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices," which was announced publicly by President Bush later that week.  Major contracts were awarded to corporations like Halliburton to rebuild military bases along the Gulf Coast; to the mercenary police force Blackwater to provide security for FEMA employees; to Kenyon, a division of a large funeral conglomerate and Bush campaign backer, to collect the remains of those who'd been abandoned by their government; as well as to other private entities fresh from disaster profiteering in the war-torn nation of Iraq. Mere scraps of the tens of billions of dollars allocated for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast went to the region's actual residents and much of it disappeared, presumably, into the bank accounts of rich businessmen; worse still, in November of 2005, Congress offset the expense of these massive contracts and corporate tax breaks by cutting $40 billion from the federal budget -- among these, Medicaid, student loans, and food stamps. The Heritage Foundation also appealed to Congress to repeal environmental regulations on the Coast to make way for more intensive oil drilling. In essence, while the desperate residents of the Gulf South struggled to salvage their lives, corporate vultures swooped in and siphoned all they could, in the process drastically remaking the city to suit their own interests at the expense of those affected by this disaster.

Here we are, six years later, and the majority of New Orleans' public schools sit forlornly in varying states of abandonment and disrepair; low-income public housing has been torn down on the orders of despicable developers like Joe Canizaro and Pres Kabacoff to make way for more lucrative rental properties (and further push black residents out); and Charity Hospital languishes in vacancy as LSU paves over the historic neighborhood of Lower Midcity to erect a private medical complex and housing for wealthy doctors.

The more we understand the ways in which our world is being insidiously colonized and consumed by those in power and the demands of a system that prioritizes money over human life, the more prepared we will be to combat this system that is exploiting us. Scientists have linked the intensity and frequency of natural disasters to widespread industrialization and the emission of greenhouse gases that raise the temperature of the seas. Though it is unpleasant and even despairing to consider, as the forces of global capitalism continue to wreak havoc upon our world with even fewer restrictions, we can thus expect more and more catastrophes to come our way. And if it is as Friedman proposed -- that only crises produce change, and what the world looks like after the smoke clears or the floodwaters recede depends upon the alternatives available -- then perhaps creating and sustaining anarchist infrastructure should be one of our greatest tasks. Instead of watching helplessly the perpetuation of another disaster apartheid, in which those with more can buy their survival from the private "disaster relief" companies while the rest grovel desperately, we can begin to build stronger communities and perhaps even create our own support networks for when such a day comes once again. After all, we can't rely on the government to do it for us. It may be an incredible stretch, but as we plummet further and further toward the privations and upheavals that signal the end of an empire, maybe the "politically impossible" aim of a world based upon mutual aid and freedom, rather than selfishness and ever-greater policing, can become "politically inevitable."

For a more detailed account of Milton Friedman's misdeeds, as well as a sobering study of the rise of disaster capitalism at home and abroad, check out The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.


  1. After Katrina they "fired" every unionized teacher and hired some of them back as non-unionized workers. Friedman's blood soaked hand-prints were all over that one, and now teachers in New Orleans don't have health care or pensions like they used to.
    We are guinea pigs in an economic experiment in which every previous patient has died.

  2. This is interesting, but also realize that the welfare state and things like government-run schools are there to serve the ruling class. Friedman's ideas are simply moving everything from one set of masters to another. The attacks on unions are disgusting though.

  3. Privitization works in a very insidious way:
    1) First, the public service is de-funded (public housing, public schools, etc...), and naturally, it gets really crappy.
    2) Then,the government and private companies use the poor quality as the excuse for the private sector taking over.
    3) Lastly, the government and the private sector hold up the shining examples of the privately run services that have gotten better to show how well privatization works. Unfortunately, services only get better for about 1/3 of the people who were using the original public service. For the other 2/3, they stay just as bad, get worse, or cease to exist at all.

    Blasting the myths of the success of privatization away requires someone looking at the effect on EVERYONE, not just looking at success stories the people profitting from privatization point to. That is something that is harder to do, and journalism has less and less money to do such things, so it doesn't happen as much as it should. But when it is looked at, by academics or journalists, the evidence is consistent and obvious: privatization creates bigger class divides in quality of services, and excludes whole sectors of the public from previously public services, which were usually public because they were considered things that were PUBLIC GOODS.

    What will it mean when whole parts of the public are no longer benefiting from those public goods? It means our society will become a worse place.

    This article on the LJI blog talks about how mostly students of color are pushed out of school at alarming rates, and pushed into the "school to prison pipeline." Maybe that's what's happening to alot of the kids not benefiting from school privatization schemes: they are going to prison or juvy hall. I wouldn't be surprised.