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September 16, 2005

Cleaning up NOLA.

There’s going to be a lot of this in the coming weeks. Cat fights over which is the best method. Right and Left, red and blue corners, all of us arguing from our preconceived positions.

Signs of recovery were everywhere to be seen in New Orleans yesterday as the mayor announced that its famous French Quarter would reopen this weekend.

Those who ventured back to Jefferson parish, to the west, yesterday found roads cleared, power lines reconnected and shops open along its main thoroughfare.

The military had carried out the initial repair work but, increasingly, small businessmen were taking responsibility for cleaning up their stores, streets and homes.

This, say residents, is how the rest of New Orleans will be rebuilt: from the bottom up by dedicated locals determined not to wait for the government's approval.

Many of the newly-functioning stores cater for the relief effort: petrol stations, industrial cleaners, electricians. But a hairdresser's and bakery are also open for business.

Those who returned paid for repairs from their own funds or through hastily arranged bank loans, reflecting their impatience to get on with it.

"If I waited for government to help I'd still be living in a hotel in Oklahoma," said Ken Bernstein, 36, who runs his family's car repair business.

Curry Holifield, 61, the head of an employment agency, has not been able to drum up much work since he opened on Tuesday, partly because he has no power and no phone.

"The big companies are bussing in workers everyday but I don't have the money to do that," he said.

He normally employs people to clean offices and work in factories. But, as he ruefully pointed out, he has been doing a lot of such work himself of late, all of it unpaid.

"You know what I did last night. My neighbour got a tree through her roof, and a colony of raccoons had moved into her bedroom," he said. "We shifted them out, cut down the tree, and patched up her roof.

"There's going to be an awful lot more of that sort of thing in the days to come."

My take, as you would expect, is that it’s going to be the private sector that makes the city whatever it does become. A thriving place, once again, a dead museum, whatever. Clearly, no I don’t think that the neighbourhood watch with a few shovels are going to deal with the levees, nor with the washed out bridges. Equally clearly I think that anything planned by the bureaucracy on the small scale, (and I do mean any of it, from parish councillor via Nagin and the Governor to GWB himself) will be an expensive time wasting nightmare. At that small scale it’s obviously better to simply stand back and let people get on with it. As people are.

Which leaves those things in the middle. There are public works that need to be done, things that cannot (or in the relevant timescale cannot) be done by the citizenry on their own. Call me a boring old cynic but I worry that what won’t be done is the best solution. Simply get the causeways and bridges back up, get the transportation system working, so that the citizenry are indeed able to work on that small scale. If that means no bid contracts (and please, as someone who has worked through the Federal bidding process, I know that this process creates incredible delays) then so be it. If it means getting the Army Corps of Engineers to lay a pontoon bridge, whatever, just get on with it.

Even if it is all Halliburton that gets the money (KBR is the company with all the expertise in this area anyway) whatever they make in profit or rip offs (which you call it will, no doubt, depend on your previous political views) will be less than the money saved to the wider economy by getting the work done quickly.

We’ve already seen intimations of how this could play out with the President’s suspension of the Davis Bacon Act. The cries from the left (Including the NY Times, they even stating that lower wages inevitably means lower productivity....fools.) show that they don’t quite understand the larger issues. It really doesn’t matter who gets the contracts for a billion here and a billion there, it doesn’t matter if a few hundred million are wasted or pocketed here and there (No, I’m not saying that this is what KBR do, I’m just saying that even if they do it doesn’t matter.), all that matters is that the basic infrastructure things are done quickly.

For only once they are done can the tens of billions of dollars, hundreds even, of the local economy start to work again. Simply ignore then entire political appropriations process, with its crowd of rent seekers, ignore all those cries for diversity in hiring, for minority owned businesses to have access, for the politicians to decide who gets the goodies, get the basic work done and then leave it alone.

We can come back to the traditional Southern cronyism a little later, when it doesn’t matter so much.

Oh, and if the French Quarter is open again this weekend then one damn good way to help rebuild the place is to pop down for a drink or two. Just as after the tsunami, in the medium term the problem is going to be rebuilding the economy and just as SE Asia depended on tourism so does NOLA.

Or, if you prefer, in the cliche of the Jazz funeral, we’ve already played St James’ Infirmary and now it’s time for When the Saints go Marching in.

Update. Strangely, on at least one point, Paul Krugman agrees with me.

Turning the funds over to state and local governments isn't the answer, either. F.D.R. actually made a point of taking control away from local politicians; then as now, patronage played a big role in local politics.

And our sympathy for the people of Mississippi and Louisiana shouldn't blind us to the realities of their states' political cultures. Last year the newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter ranked the states according to the number of federal public-corruption convictions per capita. Mississippi came in first, and Louisiana came in third.

Although I have to admit, while I agree that local politics in these areas is rather more corrupt than is general across the US, I find his use of the conviction figures a little odd. For when looking at FDR he says:

How did that happen? The answer is that the New Deal made almost a fetish out of policing its own programs against potential corruption. In particular, F.D.R. created a powerful "division of progress investigation" to look into complaints of malfeasance in the W.P.A. That division proved so effective that a later Congressional investigation couldn't find a single serious irregularity it had missed.

So on the one hand a discovery and conviction rate (FDR’s) is evidence of good oversight and on the other a high conviction rate is a sign of  the high level of basic corruption. As I say, I think he’s probably correct, it’s just curious logic.

So what is the solution?

Is there any way Mr. Bush could ensure an honest recovery program? Yes - he could insulate decisions about reconstruction spending from politics by placing them in the hands of an autonomous agency headed by a political independent, or, if no such person can be found, a Democrat (as a sign of good faith).

To take the politics out of the spending. Well, quite, just what I said. I am, after all, a small government type. I just find it a little odd coming from one who seems to think that more government spending is the answer to almost all ills. If politics has to be taken out of the process to make spending effective then doesn’t this rather damage the idea that spending should be determined by politics? Like, umm,  really quite damage the very idea of large government itself?

September 16, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink


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