After Ron Paul complained that the news media wasn’t taking him seriously, he seized an opportunity over the weekend to demonstrate exactly why that is. He went on a Hurricane Irene-inspired mini-rant, explaining that when it comes to disaster management, “we should be like 1900,” a reference to the great hurricane that destroyed Galveston.
In almost every way, Paul wants to take America back to an earlier time – no later than 1865, really. His 1900 comment can be seen as a concession.
So, let’s take Paul seriously for a moment. Should we respond to disasters in the way Galvestonians were forced to do at the turn of the prior century, or is there a more successful way?
At the end of the 19th century, the most vibrant port on the Gulf was Galveston. It was the main entry point for new immigrants to the South, and Texas’ greatest economic driver. The city was rich, with mansions covering the East End built on commercial fortunes. Galveston was poised to challenge New York for global commerce in the new century; then it was struck by a devastating hurricane in 1900 that killed thousands of people and wrecked the island.
Ron Paul has pointed out that as there was no meaningful federal recovery agency in 1900, Galvestonians were forced to rebuild entirely on their own. Paul implies that that’s a great thing, and a model for how America should work.
In fact, there was some modest Federal assistance on the island, but generally, he’s right. Galveston struggled largely on its own for decades. Though hampered by a crippling lack of capital and few undamaged resources, residents managed to preserve the city’s existence with hard work and determination.
But the neighboring city of Houston responded to the hurricane in a very different way. Its results say a lot about the merits of Paul’s idea.
Across the bay, Galveston’s grimy cousin wasn’t waiting. Houston, awkwardly-positioned on a too-shallow bayou surrounded by a fetid fever-swamp, saw an opportunity. Houston’s business leaders worked to obtain federal grants to build a port. Private industry had already failed to accomplish this goal, as is typical with big infrastructure projects, but Houston wasn’t giving up.
It was an audacious concept. Houston was thirty miles from the Gulf with no deepwater access. Galveston, on the other hand, featured a well-developed natural port on the protected north side of the island that was far more convenient to open water. For ships to even get to a port in Houston would require the construction of a massive, man-made channel of incredible distance through which they would cruise past the most obvious location for anchorage.
Unlike Galveston, Houston didn’t try to get its critical infrastructure project accomplished with purely private or local investment. Houston Congressman Thomas Ball, who one must assume was a Communist, secured a federal grant in 1902 to jumpstart construction of the port with public financing. The rest of the money came from federal grants and local bonds in 1909. The port was finished in 1914.
How well did Galveston recover? Basically, it didn’t. Despite valiant effort and inspired sacrifice, the decades of recovery dropped the city out of commercial leadership permanently.
Houston took advantage of federal financing to build the infrastructure the markets demanded and leapfrog Galveston. Houston developed into an economic powerhouse, the fourth-largest city in America today- and still gaining ground.
Galveston became a place where middle-class Houstonians spend their weekends. Galveston’s grand old mansions are now museums. Its once-vibrant business district is home to souvenir shops and restaurants.
Ron Paul describes Galveston as his model for how disaster recovery, and America in general, should operate. We should hear that message loud and clear. He is being startlingly honest about what he and the Tea Party will do for America.
Houston is Houston because of a federal infrastructure project. But like our Confederate ancestors, Paul is suspicious of public infrastructure, and everything about the global capitalist order. He wants states and localities to be on their own, as they were before the nasty Yankees destroyed my great-grandparents’ Antebellum dreams.
The Paul boys and the Tea Party will build an America that looks like post-hurricane Galveston, infrastructure-starved, and left behind by the demands of modern capitalism – a nice place to visit…
What do you want?