Saturday, October 08, 2005

What Does it Mean to Rebuild New Orleans?


Suppose your home and the surrounding area were wiped out in a flood. The federal government agrees to restore the status quo ante, provided it is shown that your area is crucial to the economic health of the entire United States. The job of proving this proposition is given to you. How could you accomplish this? Perhaps you would start by feverishly combing through economic statistics, searching for the right figures that would show your hometown contributes something unique to the U.S. At the end of the day, however, you might grow nervous about whether you could show that your hometown is truly special. And perhaps you would begin to question the premises of the task. Isn’t it enough that you and your neighbors are citizens of the United States and the victims of a natural disaster? Isn’t that a valid claim on the resources of your government?

These questions have been occurring to me as I have been reading through the few extended commentaries (as opposed to reporting or op-eds) on Hurricane Katrina. George Friedman, a “strategic forecaster,” has written one that has been distributed on the web. James Stoner, a political scientist at Louisiana State University and an able student of American constitutionalism, has published one in The Weekly Standard (September 26, 2005). To put matters a bit crudely, these articles suggest that what is important about New Orleans is its port. No one can deny that the Port of New Orleans has substantial economic value. But I think many residents of the city and surrounding area would be surprised by the idea that the main justification for rebuilding New Orleans is to preserve its port. This first suggests that the only justifications that matter are economic, which is surely not right. But the surprise would be also that the port is only one piece of a larger economic picture.

Let’s stay with the economic perspective for a moment. Besides the port, what does New Orleans do? There’s tourism, of course, which tends to be written off as a fountain of low-wage dead-end jobs. That’s a bit simplistic, because tourism itself is a vital source of entrepreneurship in the local economy, although the self-starters here are chefs, musicians, and hoteliers. But that constitutes economic activity nonetheless. The largest private employer in New Orleans is Tulane University, where I teach. New Orleans will never be described as a college town, but there are a significant number of knowledge producing institutions here including Tulane, Loyola, Dillard, Xavier, the public University of New Orleans, a branch of Southern University, and the medical school of Louisiana State University. Locals know that New Orleans has two medical schools (LSU and Tulane) that engage in scientific research and a lot of hospitals, including the enormous Charity Hospital that was hard hit by the storm. So education and medicine must be added to the lists that always include the port and tourism. This suggests that rebuilding New Orleans will be a matter of jump-starting many different economies at once, and all deserve attention from the federal government.

Before I become a complete booster, I want to step back and ask whether this sort of inquiry is really necessary. All cities have some economic rationale. There are only a few in twentieth century U.S. history that have been faced with the realistic prospect of disappearing (East St. Louis, Illinois and Camden, New Jersey come to mind). Perhaps economic value should be presumed, and we should analyze this issue from the perspective of equal citizenship. Surely part of the reason we rebuild cities and regions after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina is that we would want the same done for us. We acknowledge a mutuality of concern, a reciprocity of benefit (dare I say equal concern and respect?) among our fellow citizens.

So I come to the main question – how should New Orleans be rebuilt? I do not think it will be surprising to say that some public institutions should not have their terrible status quo ante restored. There were public housing projects that should have been rebuilt years ago and even more aged schools where the best thing to do is just raze them and start over. New Orleans should not be rebuilt – it must be reconstructed. The public will only get value for the taxpayer dollars spent if New Orleans becomes a different place, with better housing and better schools. But can we make New Orleans a vital commercial center as well? Stoner is hopeful. He says that once the city is made secure from the threat of future storms, “there is no reason that New Orleans should not find a niche in the growing information economy, which values personality and thrives on human interest as well as technical proficiency.” Here I have some serious doubts.

It is useful in this respect to consider the lessons of John Barry’s widely read book, Rising Tide (concerning the Mississippi flood of 1927). According to news reports, Barry participated on a task force summoned by Louisiana senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter to design legislation to rebuild New Orleans and southern Louisiana generally. I wonder what he told them. Barry’s book has been cited for the proposition that the federal government long ago assumed responsibility for preventing floods along the Mississippi and is therefore ultimately responsible for the failure of the levees around New Orleans. But Barry argues also that the 1927 flood led to (or at least was part of the story of) the decline of New Orleans as a commercial city. Barry comments that New Orleans had never been open to new people, to immigrants. “New Orleans had been exclusive from the first” and “After the flood the city grew ever more insular.” (p. 410) He continues:

“The social conservatism intertwined with the financial conservatism; the one magnified the effect of the other. In the 1970s, a local economic study concluded: ‘[The] social system excludes executives recently transferred to New Orleans and discourages their participation in community issues. . . .A narrow circle of wealth-holders . . . represent a closed society whose aims are to preserve their wealth rather than incur risks in an effort to expand it. . . . This development has reduced the opportunities.’ At the same time, Eads Poitevent, a bank president and Boston Club member, conceded: ‘The long-established New Orleans financial community has often been accused of being a conservative aristocracy that was tight-fisted and wanted to keep things as they have always been. To some extent, that is absolutely true.’ As a result, business in the city did not expand; it shrank. Local companies found it more difficult to grow. Large companies looking for headquarters, or even a regional headquarters, put their operations in Houston or Atlanta. Only one Fortune 500 company, Freeport McMoran, has its headquarters in New Orleans.” (p. 411)

The public cannot get value for its money unless New Orleans is reconstructed, not rebuilt. But reconstruction cannot occur without addressing what might be called the question of the social. Do you want to spend billions to allow New Orleans to keep Mardi Gras? I don’t mean the colorful parades, but the social exclusiveness that has traditionally operated to the detriment of the city’s commercial prospects. Contrary to Stoner, there are many overlapping reasons why New Orleans cannot participate in the information economy. The Mardi Gras mentality, social exclusivity, not to mention public schools with a dreadful reputation, all stand in the way. If the rest of the U.S. wants things to be different, they must set conditions on the rebuilding of New Orleans. At the moment, conditions having to do with possible corruption are receiving all the attention. But the conditions that matter are those that would change and possibly transform Louisiana politics and society.


I get your point. I think it's a slippery slope that we go down if we start asking about the economic value of a municipality.

By this rationalization I suppose we should not rebuild an area in the mid-west if a major tornado were to come by and destroy it?

Again this is just the thinking of Norquist conservatism running wild.


You wrote:

"I suppose we should not rebuild an area in the mid-west if a major tornado were to come by and destroy it?"

We don't. Check the results of the Plainfield Tornado. We also didn't rebuild the flooded areas after the Mississippi River flood in 1993. Those who carried flood insurance were compensated. And there was a movement to condemn areas in the flood plain.

East St. Louis is in Illinois, not Missouri.

The first and foremost question, it seems to me, is what will benefit the former residents of New Orleans most? New Orleans is the only major city in the South that has lost population since 1960 and it has lost jobs since 1990. It was a city in decline before Katrina. I believe the the evacuees will be better off in a city in which there is greater opportunity and there's no obligation to return them to poverty or to subsidize it.

The port employs roughly 2,500 people. Another roughly 85,000 are employed in tourism and hospitality. That's a large proportion of the jobs in NOLA. The next largest employer is Tulane. Even including children and barbers, policemen, teachers, etc. that support the people that's not a city of a half million.

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