Thursday, June 01, 2006

Democracy vs. the Market in New Orleans

Stephen Griffin

New Orleans recently held a mayoral election and, to the surprise of many, the incumbent, Ray Nagin, was reelected. Nagin’s reputation is probably low nationwide, but in New Orleans he gradually won people back by persevering through the long months since Katrina and establishing ties with black voters. In general, however, the election showed you can’t beat someone by not offering an alternative. On most issues, Nagin’s opponent Mitch Landrieu, the Lt. Governor of Louisiana, did not disagree with Nagin. This also made it difficult for the election to serve as a referendum on what should be done about the many issues facing the city. Major issues, such as the ability of the city to provide services to all areas inhabited pre-Katrina and the parlous state of the criminal justice system, were not discussed. In the absence of substantial policy discussion, many agreed the election was about leadership.

The inability of the New Orleans mayoral election to focus on policy should sound familiar. The kind of policy discussion that occurs during American elections is rarely satisfying to policy wonks, academics, and the more responsible media commentators. Candidates are reluctant to engage in the kind of specific policy advocacy that could offend some voters. So they temporize, avoid detailed discussions, and emphasize the positive. Decisions are not made through the election, they are put off until after the election.

Perhaps there is a deeper reason why the election seemed to stay on the surface. People in New Orleans have been led to believe that they live in a sort of populist democracy. Who will determine how New Orleans will be rebuilt? Why, the people of New Orleans. From this perspective, all of the major decisions will be determined democratically. There is no doubt that civic participation is up post-Katrina. People search everything their elected officials say for signs and portents of the future. They expect their officials to solve the problems of the city. But perhaps as a decider of the future, democracy is a relatively poor cousin of the market. Many in the New Orleans area have already voted with their feet – they moved across Lake Pontchartrain to higher ground. Home insurance is difficult to obtain – the major insurance companies are pulling back from the coast. The tourist industry is having difficulty restarting.

At this point, for every challenge there is still a solution. The full weight of the coming federal homeowner bailout, for example, will not be felt until late summer or the fall. People will of course feel more confident about the future if no hurricane troubles the city by November. But the market will eventually make its own judgment on New Orleans, perhaps to the deep disappointment of many residents.

One final point about the mayor of New Orleans, who is being inaugurated for his second term today. Perhaps he was hurt somewhat by the account of Katrina in Douglas Brinkley’s recent book Deluge. Brinkley is a historian at Tulane, but this book is a work of journalism. If you want a good overview of Katrina, it is worth reading, but Brinkley’s view of Nagin is so negative that it is perceived here as over the top. According to Brinkley, Nagin’s performance during Katrina was the product of a nervous breakdown and the cold calculation of a political hack. It’s hard to see how both could be the case (and I’ve left out the part where Nagin might be a demon in human form). But Brinkley could have just left it with Nagin’s own testimony before Congress where he admitted a number of substantial mistakes. And if he did admit mistakes, how was he reelected? Perhaps because New Orleans voters saw even less competence during Katrina from their Governor and President.


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