Monday, February 06, 2006

"They're tryin' to wash us away..."

I'm not sure if there is a realistic understanding of what's going on in Baghdad behind this simile, but still, it's from a professor of economics and director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, so it has some imprimatur behind it:

MUCH OF the discussion of the planned rebuilding of New Orleans has been mired in nostalgia and unrealistic expectations, and we are in danger of doing a far worse job rebuilding New Orleans than rebuilding Baghdad.
Without a detailed knowledge of the situation in New Orleans, it's hard to judge the fitness of any recovery plan, but put this way, the plan so far does sound like a boondoggle:

The weakest elements of the report are its actual spending recommendations. The largest line item in the report is $12 billion for buying housing in New Orleans. Since the report strongly supports the Baker bill, I assume that this money is to be used along the lines suggested by that bill, which advocates federal spending that could top $50 billion in a poorly conceived scheme involving buying and rebuilding homes in the region.

The vision of the bill sponsored by Representative Richard Baker, a Baton Rouge Republican, is that houses will first be bought, then rehabilitated at federal expense, then sold back to the original residents or potentially someone else. Decades of public housing projects should have taught us that the federal government is not a good real estate developer.

Moreover, the bill does nothing to take care of renters who predominated in neighborhoods Katrina hit hardest. If this law is passed, billions will be spent on outlays that will create only the slightest benefit to those Katrina hurt most. Federal purchases of homes only makes sense in areas that are not going to be rebuilt, as a means of keeping owners whole.
After all, whatever Washington decides to do, it is brought to us by the people who tell us how well the situation in Iraq is proceeding.

In other words, people you wouldn't buy a new car from.

Problems abound. The people from New Orleans who were resettled in Houston are not uniformly "fitting in." Why? Individual issues, mostly, but some of the students from the New Orleans schools are functionally, if not actually, illiterate. This is a fault of the school system they came from, not them. But having lived in abject poverty of the kind only America seems capable of producing (the argument that the rest of the country shouldn't pay to rebuild New Orleans has been made to me by people from southern Louisiana recently, as an example; after all, it's their problem, not ours), their attitude is basically: "How're you gonna make me?"

Think about that a minute. Children who know their future is bright, cooperate in school, or at least try to. Children who know they have nothing to look forward to except the poverty their parents bore them into, soon decide there is no point in trying, and how are you going to motivate them? Everything you try will easily turn negative. Without hope: "How're you gonna make me?"

Eventually, the system makes them conform to its requirements; or they drop out, and the system effectively "disposes" of them. I'm beginning to think that's what the country had done, and is doing, to New Orleans. Aside from Mardi Gras and the French Quarter and the Garden District, who cared?

Who cares now? And if we care enough to make some of the people who grew up in the worst parts of that beleagured city improve: "How're you gonna make me?" And that's a spiritual question, and a spiritual problem.

We don't have an institution that deals with those.

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