Sunday, December 11, 2005

This Train they Call the City

The New York Times has run 2 good editorials about the fate of New Orleans, where I went to high school and where I have been for the past 4 weeks. Both of them say the right things, but with a ring of defeatism and fatalism that I find extremely hard to accept. I write this post from a cafe packed with (local) customers on a beautiful December day. A core of this city has already come alive, and I believe it MUST be saved.

Editorial today
We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum.

The rumbling from Washington that the proposed cost of better levees is too much has grown louder. Pretending we are going to do the necessary work eventually, while stalling until the next hurricane season is upon us, is dishonest and cowardly. Unless some clear, quick commitments are made, the displaced will have no choice but to sink roots in the alien communities where they landed.

The price tag for protection against a Category 5 hurricane, which would involve not just stronger and higher levees but also new drainage canals and environmental restoration, would very likely run to well over $32 billion. That is a lot of money. But that starting point represents just 1.2 percent of this year's estimated $2.6 trillion in federal spending, which actually overstates the case, since the cost would be spread over many years. And it is barely one-third the cost of the $95 billion in tax cuts passed just last week by the House of Representatives.

Total allocations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have topped $300 billion. All that money has been appropriated as the cost of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. But what was the worst possible case we fought to prevent?

Losing a major American city.

Krugman on Friday:

Now we're losing another window of opportunity for reconstruction. But this time it's at home.

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush made an elaborately staged appearance in New Orleans, where he promised big things. "The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region," he said, "will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

Such an effort would be the right thing to do. We can argue about details - about which levees should be restored and how strong to make them - but it's clearly in the nation's interests as well as local residents' to rebuild much of the regional economy.
the private sector can't rebuild the region on its own. The reason goes beyond the need for flood protection and basic infrastructure, which only the government can provide. Rebuilding is also blocked by a vicious circle of uncertainty. Business owners are reluctant to return to the gulf region because they aren't sure whether their customers and workers will return, too. And families are reluctant to return because they aren't sure whether businesses will be there to provide jobs and basic amenities.

A credible reconstruction plan could turn that vicious circle into a virtuous circle, in which everyone expects a regional recovery and, by acting on that expectation, helps that recovery come to pass. But as the months go by with no plan and no money, businesses and families will make permanent decisions to relocate elsewhere, and the loss of faith in a gulf region recovery will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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