Thursday, September 22, 2005

A moral imperative to rebuilt New Orleans? Hardly

With Katrina now gone and not much of New Orleans left in her wake, we should seriously ask if we should rebuild the city at all. Oh, it’s not politically correct, and many charge that the American spirit needs to be put on display to bring healing to a nation proven to be so vulnerable.

But I wonder if this is merely the attempt of a nation to pat itself on the back instead of facing some hard realities. First, before Katrina ever hit, now infamous Gov. Blanco was to ask President Bush for billions of dollars to restore the coastland of South Louisiana, which has withered away over the years to almost nothing. Second, the city will always be under sea level and subject to similar hurricanes (including Rita) for years to come. Third, the population will likely never get back to where it was, leaving gaps in business and social services for those that do want to go back. And all of this is on top of the fact that New Orleans has been a lackluster economic city for decades, to say the least. While Atlanta, Houston and Birmingham have experienced growth, New Orleans has relied on its past, and sold-out the French Quarter to seedy tourist traps and pornography in the process.

Being from northern Louisiana and having family affected by Katrina, I don’t want to come off as uncaring, or as someone from a far-removed locale. No, Louisiana is a very dear place to me as almost all of my family lives there. And if people want to live there and rebuild, I say great. But I don’t know that federal tax dollars should subsidize it. If New Orleans is such a great place, the market will figure it out, cash in on cheap land and housing, make a profit there, and rebuild the city. But that would certainly contradict the logic of the last 40 years, a time in which the market has clearly decided New Orleans is indeed not such a great place.

I don’t know that any federal money was used to rebuild Chicago after it’s Great Fire of 1871. And the fire was great. According to, “Property valued at $192,000,000 was destroyed, 100,000 people were left homeless, and 300 people lost their lives.” Even if federal money was used to rebuild Chicago, it would have made more sense. Chicago was a city with a good chance of success given its railroads, proximity to farmland and entrepreneurial zeal. America needed Chicago. I don’t know that that’s the case with New Orleans. True, it has a few industries crucial to our economy as a whole, including oil refineries and its port, neither of which are going anywhere anytime soon. Is it possible for those to be preserved while the majority of New Orleans’ residents move on to other cities?

Ultimately, the aid should be in helping people move on before restoring neighborhoods federal money hasn’t help anytime recently. Help people move, help people reestablish and train for new jobs, help people educate their children in new places, but don’t spend $200 billion on a city whose past indicates a lackluster future. Don’t spend $200 billion on a city that physically is not in an ideal spot for a million people to live. And certainly don’t spend $200 billion on a city only to allow it to again become a cesspool of poverty, crime, and nostalgic tourism based on a time that never really was.

In a capitalistic society, federal aid should help people adapt to the creative destruction that is a result of the market, not to keep the destruction from ever happening. The moral imperative is to help those who have lost everything move on, not to snap the city like a rubber band back to where it was before Katrina.

And if anything, the Bush administration has gone from doing to little, to far too much. Brendan Miniter of the Wall Street Journal writes that the GOP has become the party of big government, in part for proposing a total rebuilding of New Orleans.
And what we're seeing is that Katrina is swamping every goal conservatives have, from limiting government to cutting taxes to reforming entitlement programs. Katrina spending has already imperiled plans to repeal the death tax, and Congress is already $60 billion into a spending binge. Handing out $2,000 debit cards was just the beginning. The conservative Congress has brought back the welfare state.

Even Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the NFL, voiced the concerns people had about New Orleans in discussions as to where my beloved Saints would play in 2006.
"I haven't gotten beyond worrying about 2005," Tagliabue was quoted as saying in the Daily News. "Obviously the biggest issues in New Orleans now are the ones the president spoke about, which their elected leadership is beginning to discuss with their business community: How do they rebuild the city? What's the shape of the city? What kind of businesses do they want there? What kind of a population base do they want there?"
Since when is population base a non-organic concern? Is mass social engineering in the plans?

Maybe I’m a naysayer, but why is it so hard for us to admit something is broken? Before Katrina, environmentalists said South Louisiana was a swamp in danger of the polar ice caps putting it under. Now we know hurricanes can do just as well. Instead of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I wonder if the truth about post-Katrina New Orleans is, “If it can’t be unbroken, don’t fix it.” Either way, it’s time for either a bold new idea about building a city based on decidedly non-welfare state ideas, or to scrap the place and use the billions to help those now homeless to make new homes.

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