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Triage won't save us

We're drowning in river silt and debt



Those who have experience in combat or emergency services know the term "triage." Basically, when you're faced with an overwhelming number of injuries, triage means you prioritize your efforts to save the maximum number of injured, even if it means letting the worst cases expire. It's never kind or easy—just the opposite, in fact. Now, thanks to a couple of perfect storms on both the climatic and financial fronts, our nation is in full-on triage mode.

As the news reports roll in of billions of dollars in damages from the flooding Mississippi River, it's obvious that the lowlands of Missouri and Louisiana and their inhabitants are being sacrificed to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans from a disaster predicted to be much worse than Hurricane Katrina. Those urban areas are also home to scores of oil refineries and chemical plants that would cause tremendous pollution for both the river delta and the already battered Gulf of Mexico should they be destroyed by flooding.

This case of modern triage entails some of the most drastic actions ever taken by the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that controls the levees along the river, including intentionally blowing holes in Missouri's levees and opening floodgates to submerge huge areas of Louisiana.

Following the floods of 1927, the Corps began construction on a series of floodgates that would, in a dire emergency, be opened to allow the mighty river to flood low-lying areas that are now inhabited by thousands of families. For the first time in 40 years, the Corps opened those floodgates this week, pouring millions of gallons of river water over farms, fields, homes, and businesses. To deal with the swollen Mississippi, officials from the Corps estimate some areas may wind up under 25 feet or more of water, mud, and debris.

"We're using every flood control tool we have in the system," the Corps' Major General Michael Walsh told reporters this week, just before opening the floodgates on the Morganza spillway to inundate the surrounding countryside. That the Corps opened three flood-control systems at once illustrates the magnitude of the crisis and the necessity for the triage in which our federal government sacrifices the homes and livelihoods of some citizens so that others may be spared.

Meanwhile, an entirely different form of triage is taking place in Washington, D.C., where Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is facing what is now being called an "increasingly probable" default by the U.S. government. After hitting the $14,294,000,000,000 debt ceiling this week—that would be 14 TRILLION, 294 BILLION dollars—our government can no longer borrow money to stay afloat unless and until Congress agrees to raise its debt limit.

But here's the rub: America's debt has climbed almost unimaginably in the last decade, nearly tripling from just over $5 trillion in 2001, and now amounts to nearly $50,000 of debt for each man, woman, and child in the U.S. That astounding number—and the fact that we borrow more than 40 percent of our funds from China—has begun to sink in for members of Congress and the citizens they represent.

In a recent Gallup poll, 47 percent of respondents said their Congressional representatives should not vote to raise the debt ceiling any higher while only 19 percent thought they should. As most folks know, the Tea Party and the Republicans have made serious inroads against what was once Democratic control of both Congress and the White House by highlighting the mounting federal debt and the free-spending habits of Congress. That Congress will vote to raise the debt ceiling, plunging all Americans even further in debt, is far from certain. In fact, it has become and will undoubtedly continue to be one of the hottest political issues.

Treasury Secretary Geithner says he is invoking a number of what he called "extraordinary" accounting measures to stretch the nation's fiscal credibility until August 2. As part of that, the triage already employed is to stop paying into two federal pension funds as of this week. But since it would take a reduction of $125 billion per month in federal spending to get the U.S. by for the rest of the fiscal year without borrowing more money, Geithner's triage is unlikely to succeed should Congress not vote to raise the debt ceiling.

Should the U.S. government default, early projections are that the impact would plunge the nation into a double-dip recession as investors question America's capability to repay its loans. Interest rates would likely rise, there could be runs on money-market funds, and the value of the dollar would plunge. A report released this week by a D.C. think tank estimates 700,000 jobs would be lost and the average 401(k) account would lose almost $9,000.

While our country turns to triage in its crises, perhaps it's time to ask how these disasters came to be. The flooding is not just a natural phenomenon. Predictions have been made for years of the effect global climate change would have on America. Increased precipitation in the Midwest is one of those predicted changes. Our own scientists told us this was coming and we ignored them. Now we pay the price–or at least some of us do. In the fiscal crisis, the signals have been even more obvious and subject to far less skepticism than climate change. And likewise, we have ignored them.

Our nation is now against the wall. We're going broke and drowning in our own pollution-caused floods. Somewhere soon we'd best find those with the political courage to make the necessary changes, because this time, triage won't save us.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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