Magazine article The New Yorker

REBUILDING; COMMENT Series: 1/4

Magazine article The New Yorker

REBUILDING; COMMENT Series: 1/4

Article excerpt

The prospect of rebuilding New Orleans is turning into a Rorschach test that reveals more about people's preconceptions and predilections than about what will make the city work again. When President Bush strode across a klieg-lit Jackson Square to make his televised speech about rebuilding the city, he was obviously trying to rebuild his own reputation as well, and he was at pains to appear at once commanding, empathetic, tough-minded, and generous. Conservatives and deficit hawks went into shock over the amount he was proposing to spend--$51.8 billion--and liberals were momentarily placated because he had finally signalled that he sees evidence of race and class problems in the disaster, and had taken compassionate-conservative rhetoric out of the basement storage bin where it has been for the past few years (he even used the term "wounded healers"). It was as if his actual ideas--Republican bromides about tax relief, giving federal land away to individuals, and promoting private charity--were beside the point. What mattered were his feelings.

Maybe the President is right that in the long run the genius of individual enterprise will bring New Orleans back, but in the short run the city needs things that only government can provide, like public health and safety. Even Calvin Coolidge sent somebody to take charge of New Orleans when it was flooded. Bush, however, evidently feels that directing water through, under, and around cities--a kingly function since ancient times--is best left to the locals. Not everyone agrees, of course: while New Orleans went back under water, the country was conducting a seminar.

Louisiana's Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, proposed a Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act (her fellow Louisiana senator, David Vitter, a Republican, is a co-sponsor), which is intended to show up Bush's plan as pathetically inadequate. It would spend $250 billion, in ways that would fulfill the dreams of just about everybody in Louisiana who receives (or would like to receive) federal funding. It's as much a Democratic vision as Bush's plan is a Republican one--a No Service Provider Left Behind bill. There's $400 million for mental-health and substance-abuse services, $750 million for "incentive funds" for teachers, $600 million for early-childhood programs, $650 million for first responders, $600 million for Small Business Administration disaster loans, $500 million for farming infrastructure, and, to move beyond the small-ticket items, $50 billion for Community Development Block Grants, $40 billion for hurricane protection, and billions more for restitution payments.

Outside government, the debate has the same quality of reversion to form, as opposed to engagement with the problem. The Heritage Foundation has called upon the federal government to keep a distance, but insists that reconstruction can't work unless it involves school vouchers and capital-gains tax cuts. The American Enterprise Institute's online magazine has an article called "The Katrina Lesson," whose finding seems to be that moralizing public comments from entertainment-industry figures like Sean Penn and Celine Dion are annoying. MoveOn.org wants an independent investigating commission and restraints on budget cuts. A sense of political opportunity in Washington, rather than urgent need in Louisiana, pervades the discussion.

Reconstruction is a vast, daunting, and expensive project. The first set of problems, however, is much simpler and more urgent than all the pet theories would lead you to believe. …

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