Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Eternal Exodus

Since as early as I can remember, there was much talk among politicians as well as in family conversations about Louisiana’s ongoing problem with its own citizens leaving the state for good. Louisiana is one of the few if only state in the union that has lost population in the last ten years, with little increase due to the national economic prosperity of the late nineties. The exodus has been a constant issue in statewide elections, with last year’s gubernatorial election portraying Kathleen Blanco’s opponent, Bobby Jindal as the embodiment of this phenomenon. Born to Indian immigrants who came to Baton Rouge for a job at the University, the Baton Rouge High graduate went to an Ivy League school, then to Oxford, and then worked for the current Bush administration. As brilliant a man that he is, he was aware of how many of his talented cohorts left their state to thrive elsewhere and to never expect them to return. It was one of the cornerstones of his campaign which resonated with me personally. I consider myself part of this ongoing exodus, as my father had made the decision to move to Texas after six years of living in the Pelican State.

And it was not that easy for me to leave. At the time I was attending Jindal’s alma mater high school in Baton Rouge, a truly exceptional institution. A magnet school established to attain high academic standards while forced to implement affirmative action enrollment policies (50% White/50% Minority), Baton Rouge High School truly felt more like a college campus than just a high school, and was populated by the ‘crème de la crème’ of local students in Lousiana’s capital city. The school benefited from the children of families employed by Lousiana State University, the chemical plants and refineries that hired talented engineers and researchers, as well as the children high-ranking state government bureaucrats. The result was that almost all of the top ten students would end up in Ivy League universities, and those in the top quarter would end up at other respectable private universities and colleges around the country. LSU would desperately woo BRHS graduates however they could in order to raise their own profile.

As in any locale, Louisiana could lay claim to some of the brightest young minds in the country, but looking at its current politics, economic development (or lack thereof) the obvious question becomes: where did they go? Following his close defeat to Blanco for the job of governor, Jindal won a seat in the U.S. congress by an overwhelming majority. At the age of 34, voters may have seen him as too young for the job of running the state. He was definitely outside the state’s mainstream of political tradition. He was incorruptible, a policy wonk, possessing lots of intellectual brainpower and definitely not a ‘good ol’ boy’. Louisiana politics is notorious for its corruption, its promotion of family dynasties, and its ethnic patron-client system. It is no wonder that Louisiana has been dubbed by some political scientists as America’s “banana republic”. Its longest serving governor, Edwin Edwards, was convicted for the illegal selling of gambling licenses and the family New Orleans’ longest-serving mayor, Mark Morial, have been legally indicted. Statewide elections consistently reveal ethnic divisions that favor the reelection of corrupt Democrats. Edwards used his Cajun base and the black voters of New Orleans to win six terms, while Senator Mary Landrieu has used the same strategy to barely stay in the senate, employing arguably fraudulent tactics to maximize the number of votes from New Orleans voters. Up until the 1990s, Louisiana was an overwhelmingly Democrat-dominated state. The opposition party consisted of a small coterie of Republicans, unable to cultivate a pool of electable candidates. Extremists would in turn come out ahead, such as David Duke’s candidacy for senator and governor and Woody Jenkins for senator. The most symbolic example of the hopeless state of affairs in Louisiana politics was the election for governor between David Duke and Edwin Edwards. The slogan for that race was “vote for the crook, it’s important”.

So this young, brainy, Indian and highly conservative yet accomplished man is a definitely different breed of politician for Louisiana, and he is also key to understanding why the state’s best and brightest have continued to leave. To effect meaningful change that would expand opportunities and attract outside investment was almost impossible given the state’s stultifying political hierarchy. The shameful neglect of the state’s public schools, its infrastructure and its poor are evidence that the political class answers to powerful families from agriculture like sugar, oil and gas and special retail businesses. Entrepreneurship has been saddled with needless regulations, and the priority placed on agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy has cultivated and expanded a large blue-collar population while minimizing the clout of the professional class. When bright and dynamic youths look around them, states like Texas look awfully good. In part due to its relatively small government whose legislature meets only every other year, the Lone Star state facilitates free enterprise and embraces outsiders easily, a world away from Louisiana’s intrinsic parochialism.

I suspect that many of the Louisianans that have now been displaced by Hurricane Katrina will also notice the opportunities that surround them in Texas and other states that offer them refuge. Not only is the business climate more favorable in almost every other state, but the school systems outside of Louisiana would likely be an improvement over those that were abandoned. It's pretty clear that the kids in "Reliant City" (the complex of shelters in Houston) are getting a better education than what they were subjected to in the failing New Orleans districts. In my home town of Dallas, refugees are already transfering into the local school district, which though far from perfect, are far more functional. Although many of those who fled will return to the Crescent City out of genuine love for the place, I predict there will be a sizeable minority who will permanently stay in their adoptive states, realizing that the job market and social services work better. Although the sheer mass of people filling the shelters will overwhelm any state's capacity to give them all that they need, they at least provide an environment where they can start over in more favorable conditions. What was at first a constant trickle out of Louisiana in the form of a brain drain has now become a flood of evacuees, many of them very poor who will now have to prove to everyone that they will not be a burden to those hosting them.

I do share some concern over this migration of the underclass. As I've mentioned in a previous post, the state of the underclass in New Orleans has always been awful. Rampant crime, drugs, illegitimacy, and the generations of families purely dependent on government assistance prevent these poor people from making a productive economic contribution of any kind. Resourcefulness and gumption are traits that have long disappeared from these communities, and the belief that government will answer all your needs guides all of their decisions. What looting and calls for help was reported by national media outlets as evidence of racism was from my point of view the disastrous result of decades of Democratic policies of welfare expansion and school neglect. The underclass is such partly because they are unable to help themselves, since they have been raised to rely on the government. Once they have absolved responsibility of their own lives, they have little regard for order and discipline. Efforts of self-help are scorned, and those who choose to lift their own prospects have no choice but to leave their troubled community. I was listening one morning on NPR some woman commenting on the implied racism of the relief efforts, and how it served as a mirror to the inherent injustices of American society. My instant reaction to her argument was: No, it's not a mirror of Americans as they always have been, but the utter failure of socialist-inspired government policies enacted since the sixties that have created an entire class of pitifully helpless victims who could never muster any communal resources to ensure their own evacuation and safety. It is also a class that is quick to blame others, an impulse natural to those who have shed responsibility, as well as embracing conspiracies that explain their terrible plight. As refugees and recipients of generous amounts of aid and compassion, will the social diseases that affect the underclass be treated? Will a new start in a new city be the beginning of a moral renewal they desperately need? If not, will they drain other states' resources with no end in sight?

The following articles more specifically sight the differences between what the evacuees have left and where they are now. New Orleans is often compared to Houston, as the latter has siphoned off much of the former's businesses and industries and has grown to ten times the population.

  • Urban sociologist Joel Kotkin details New Orleans' many problems and points to opportunities to rebuild the city in a novel way.

  • Noemie Emery answers those shocked that the breakdown of law and order in New Orleans could happen in America: New Orleans is the one city in America that resembles more a Carribean dictatorship than a truly American city.

  • David Hill explains further the tradition of Texas taking in outsiders, many of whom are disaffected Louisianans.

  • And finally Alice Miles argues in the Times of London that her own city would have dealt no better to a comparable storm, and that the social stratification in London is as severe and as big a threat to order than in New Orleans.

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