Want to Understand Politics, the Economy, Everything? Follow the Levees.

Figured it out. I can tell you why the Republicans keep assassinating their own nominees. It all goes back to the Trinity River levees. What? You think I can't connect those dots? Stand back.

Right now the GOP rivals are reducing Newt Gingrich to road-kill in Iowa with Super-PAC attack ads on television, none more brutal than those paid for by Rick Perry supporters: "NEWT GOT RICH, MADE MILLIONS OFF OF FREDDIE MAC."

It's true. He did. So what's my problem? It's not so much the attacks on Gingrich. He's built an entire career on demonization, so it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. It's the whole right-wing neo-legend of what wrecked the economy: The Protocols of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

Joe Nocera has a great op-ed in The New York Times today pointing out that Fannie and Freddie, quasi-private agencies that guaranteed mortgages in order to encourage lending, followed Wall Street into sub-prime lending. They didn't lead the way there. If you read Gretchen Morgensen's Reckless Endangerment, you know that Fannie and Freddie are dripping with culpability in the nation's mortgage mess. But to say they caused it? Puhleeze.

Nocera points out that in 2010 the default rate on Fannie/Freddie-guaranteed mortgages was 5.9 percent, versus 9.11 for the nation. Those numbers make Fannie and Freddie way less irresponsible than Wall Street and the banks.

Ponder that 9.11 thing. That's almost one in 10 borrowers flaking on their notes. Just thinking about stuff like that always puts me in mind of my Depression-era, church-mouse-modest, minister father when I asked for help with the down payment on my first mortgage.

I could see the telltale squint forming between the eyes that presaged a piercing question. I thought it might be the one tormenting my own mind. Why I had failed to negotiate a smaller down payment? Instead, he asked: "So, in order to buy this house, you have to borrow money?"

Seems like something out of the Jurassic Era now. How we have progressed, eh?

Trinity River levees? Sure. I'll get there. But let's talk some more about me, first. I'm one of those 99/1-percent guys. I love that stuff. Blame it on the 1 percent.

But, wait, Schutze. What did the 1 percent do to you? They got rich. How is that wrong? They rob you? Hey, Schutze, most of the people you know who got rich have at least a few ulcers and ex-spouses to show for it. It's not like it was easy. While they were out making money, you were canoeing. We all make choices.

So why do I want to demonize the 1 percent? Why does Rick Perry want to demonize Freddie Mac? Why do the Republican candidates all want to demonize each other? I'm telling, you: It's the Trinity River levees.

Dallas City Hall wants to demonize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the incredible mess we're in over flood protection. For a long time the corps told us our levees were good. Now they say they're bad. Darn it! Flood control just isn't fair.

Demonizing the corps comes naturally to us. It's what New Orleans has done ever since Hurricane Katrina. And the corps is like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It's big and grim and federal, and its hands are not clean. But let's look around the scene a little bit. Anybody else got dirty hands?

The relationship between the corps and local communities has always been a kind of very messy marriage, by law, by politics, by money. The corps gets money only when Congress green-lights its projects. Flood control in this country is almost entirely a matter of earmarks.

In the complicated relationship between the corps and the local communities where dams and levees are built, the upper hand almost always lies with the local congressional delegations. With a congressional thumbs up, a project is a go. Thumbs down, it doesn't happen.

The corps is a construction company. The bigger and more robust the project, the stronger the corps' bottom line. But on the community side, the most powerful and concerted actors are always the real estate development interests. It is usually in the interest of the developers to keep local cost-share down, to get the most so-called flood protection on paper, allowing them to sell the most land, for the smallest outlay in capital.

Given that basic structure of interests, how likely do you think it is that the Corps of Engineers comes in with its big Army boots and forces communities to accept cheap shoddy dams and levees? I'm just asking.

Here is where the dots connect. It probably isn't possible to endow a people with more personal liberty or democratic hegemony over their lives than what we have going in this country. If there's a way we could be more free or have more ability to shape our own destinies, tell me what it is.

But freedom carries personal moral accountability. You can't blame it on that son of a bitch, the king, if there is no king. If we use our freedom to make crappy sleazy decisions about our own communities and our own lives, then we bear the brunt of the blame when those decisions come back to bite us. Dirty hands? Oh, here they are! On the ends of our arms.

Sign a mortgage to buy a house that you know damn well is four times the house a guy like you can afford? And then, lo and behold, you can't afford it? Please, don't come tell me Fannie Mae made you do it.

And, Schutze, don't tell people the 1 percent made you do it either. What loads of crap, both stories. All of you, go get a cheap apartment and keep your mouths shut.

Spend 15 years trying to build a totally unneeded highway out in the middle of the flood control zone, ignoring the condition of the levees that protect your city from disaster, so you can make a ton of money on some new real estate development? Try to cover the whole thing up with Calatrava bling? And then, when the Corps of Engineers finally tells you your levees are junk, it's their fault?

Are you telling me that we are utterly passive vassals to big gray national bureaucracies in this country? We can't ever stick up for ourselves or do the right thing? If that scenario is what you believe in, then what you do not believe in is the American democratic experiment.

It's the same syndrome we are seeing in the demonizing search for "purity" in the Republican Party. The Republican candidates are not offering purity. They're offering what their smart guys tell them the voters really want -- scapegoats.

Here is where the dots connect for all of us. We got into this mess because of bling culture and personal irresponsibility. We did this together. Rich people didn't do it to poor people. Poor people didn't do it to rich people. Rich, poor and middle class: We have a whole lot more in common morally than we think we do in this country.

Some of it is morally good, politically courageous, brilliantly inventive and wonderfully humane. Some of the rest of it is not much to brag about.

The worst thing we share is a powerful disinclination to take responsibility for our own behavior, expressed in what seems to be a growing national passion for scapegoating. That's what connects the Trinity levees with the Republicans in Iowa with all the rest of us.

The devil made me sign that mortgage. The devil made me build that bad levee. The devil took my money. How else was I supposed to pay for a house? By saving money? (Well, I still think that one was crazy.)

We have to hope the smart guys are wrong. On vote day, we're not going to vote for the best scapegoater. But we also have to remember that this country is still an experiment.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze