Katrina blows away Bush's defences

It has been axiomatic in some polite circles, including those on the British centre left, to sing the praises of the American approach to enterprise and governance. The freewheeling US market is the example zealously copied across much of the developed and developing world, particularly when set against the "over-regulated" and "burdensome" model of Old Europe. American con-sultants, and others schooled in the American way, have reaped rich returns for advising Armenians and Koreans and Estonians on the way ahead. They lecture on how small government and low taxation provide the key to success and contentment. Supposedly intelligent thinkers are falling for their latest wheeze, the flat tax, whose flaws Nick Pearce explains on page 19.

Hurricane Katrina has shattered the myths. The New Statesman makes this point not out of schadenfreude or anti-Americanism. After all, the victims of this horrific act of nature and horrific act of political and economic neglect were already victims of a way of life that has run to excess.

Ignore, if you can, issues of morality and equity. Focus purely, as boardroom executives might suggest, on efficiency. In his essay, on page 10, Andrew Stephen explains the underlying causes of the New Orleans disaster. Across the US, the relationship between the private sector and the public sector (where it exists) is dysfunctional. The relationship between federal, state and local levels is, as Katrina has demonstra- ted, confused. For all the talk of deregulation, monopolistic practices dominate corporate life, from multinationals to the US department of defence. The greatest restrictive practice of all, however, has been the extreme ideology that took root under Ronald Reagan and found its apogee, or nadir, under George W Bush. A political system that denigrates the role of the public sector (except the military) will ultimately pay the price, both socially and economically. The White House saved tens of millions of dollars by refusing repeated requests for assistance from Louisiana and other state governments in recent years. Those sums were small in overall budgetary terms; they will be an equally small fraction of the cost of rebuilding an area as large as the British mainland. Anarchy and civil strife make bad long-term economics.

Possibly, just possibly, something good might emerge from the calamity. For the first time since Bush came to office, the usually supine US media - which some sections of the British press had fashionably praised for their "objectivity" - have begun to criticise the president and his entourage. They have begun to ask those very questions that we in Europe have never tired of asking. Is the president not merely ideologically blinkered but incompetent, too? How much damage is he inflicting on his own people, let alone those abroad?

Mainstream journalists have even been challenging the extremes of the US version of the market. Nicholas Kristof showed in the New York Times that, according to several indices of quality of life and standards of civilisation, the US lags behind. Infant mortality is twice as high in Washington, DC as it is in Beijing. Some 1.1 million more Americans were living in poverty in 2004 than the previous year. The proportion has risen 17 per cent under Bush. Kristof concludes that not only were funds for protecting New Orleans diverted towards Bush's Iraq debacle, but money earmarked for vaccinations for children went towards tax cuts for the wealthy.

America is lumbered with one of the most dangerous presidents in its history. The only consolation from the devastation of the past days is that, finally, voters in that country may be realising why.

No academies for bigots

When 96 per cent of readers responding to our online vote (page 37) endorse the proposition that Tony Blair should end his support for faith schools, it is an indication, to put it no higher, of general agreement. Few of the arguments put forward by those readers could be called extreme: religion is a personal matter and not one in which the state should meddle; tax receipts should not subsidise the promotion of any religion; children deserve the broadest access possible to ideas. Further, faith schools may have a tendency to "ghettoise" communities, and they may teach as fact notions with no foundation in science or history, without supplying the equipment to evaluate those notions critically.

The government, which is to announce its plans in the next few weeks, has already turned its back on these arguments. Though this is regrettable and baffling, it is also the case that even if ministers embraced such principles their hands are tied. Subsidised faith schools have been around for 60 years and more, and to do away with them would require an upheaval that only overwhelming public demand would justify. Such demand does not yet exist, however much we might wish it did. It is also the case that many of the faith schools eager to join the state system are Muslim schools, and to slam the door on them now, when Christian and Jewish schools have had public money for many years, would be an act of religious discrimination.

The pass has been sold, but all principle need not be sacrificed. We are entitled to insist that toleration and citizenship be taught well in these schools and that pupils be exposed to ideas beyond the confines of religious dogma. No pupil taught at state expense, for example, should be left in ignorance of evolution and its scientific basis. This government is besotted with Ofsted. Very well, let Ofsted be deployed with unprecedented vigour to ensure that faith schools, if they must have our money, are never academies for bigots.