Saturday, December 02, 2006

Times Are (Still) Not Good Here

"Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio."

-- Lafcadio Hearn

Will our leaders hear the clarion call of the new poll out of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center, in which a third of area residents say they may leave the area, and take decisive action to address our most pressing problems, or will this get lost in the whirl of holidays and Mardi Gras and be tossed aside like a newspaper we were too busy to read, not knowing it contained the ad for the new job we have been hoping for?

The poll reports a disturbing 32% of residents of both Orleans and Jefferson Parishes say they are likely or somewhat likely to leave the area in the next two years. The issues cited in Orleans Parish (which contains the entire City of New Orleans) include crime, action from government, fixing the levees and infrastructure (streets and the like). Without a baseline it's hard to interpret that result. Given the difficulties the city faced before the storm, I have to wonder how many people would have given a similar answer to the same question two or three years ago, even if only to vent to an anonymous pollster?

It takes a tremendous effort to get back home, and I have to wonder how quickly people are going to toss that effort aside and surrender. You can certainly hear that sort of chatter online, about whether those who are home are going to make it, are going to be able to stay. The obstacles are so clear--fix the levees, squash crime, do something about property insurance rates and the schools--that I am amazed that the city is not swarming with bright-eyed technocrats tackling these problems.

In another era, that would have happened. People believed in government as their agent of good, in each other abstractly as fellow Americans, and so such things were made to happen. After a generation of political climate based on fear of the Other and a concerted effort to tear down and even sabotage the effectiveness of government, we are no longer the people or the nation that defeated the Axis or put men on the moon. Behind the jovial faces of Reagan and the Bushes was a concerted effort to put an end to effective government, to return to a laissez-faire economy in which only the market would decide the tasks at hand.

The invisible hand has passed over us, and marked like the doors of the Israelites what it would save. Oil-and-gas production is restored. The port and the interstates are open. Everything that is necessary to commerce has been done. What remains are the needs of individuals, consumers and workers that in the current model are interchangeable and if necessary disposable.

As the blogger Ashley Morris constantly reminds us, we are on our own. Sinn Fein.

I missed the discussion on local talk radio yesterday, but I can't imagine anyone would be surprised by these findings. In a time of crisis decisive action is needed. Instead we get the usual slow pace of government. After the excitement of an election in which the districts with a large returned population replaced the incumbents, City Hall has largely lapsed back into its pre-Federal Flood torpor, our formerly reformist mayor crafting secret contracts that vastly increase costs to the benefits of shady operators. In Washington, the response to the nation's largest natural disaster in a century is treated as if it were a debate on the subsidies for the export of soybeans.

Poll number like these ought to be a wakeup call to local politicians that the pace of recovery is unacceptable, that there is only so much people are willing to bear. Unfortunately, leaders like Mayor Ray Nagin have been hit by news like this so many times they are punch drunk, wobbly clinching in the corner with no manager there to throw in the towel. The governor isn't much better, scrambling to find the magic combination of half-measures that will enable her re-election without upsetting the political status quo.

The political status quo has failed us. We just completed an election cycle in which not a single fiery reform candidate mounted a challenge for Insurance Commissioner, in which the one candidate who made the response to Katrina central to their candidacy ran for Congress in New Hampshire. The conventional political parties both appear incapable of addressing our needs: at home, in Baton Rouge or in Washington. We are on our own. Sinn Fein.

The invisible hand has what it needs and unless those needs are disrupted we will see little more from our government. Yes the oil-and-gas is flowing, but through pipelines critical to the offshore industry that were built for another coast, one that has vanished into open water. Can these pipelines continue to be operated safely in the new geography? Where is the candidate for governor who will close them until we can make that determination? I will cheerfully pay three, four or five dollars a gallon if that is the cost of getting the nation's attention.

The insurance industry is retreating, effectively shutting off commerce on the coast. A commenter on an earlier post pointed out to me that when California faced a similar problem, they simply cut off the lucrative markets for auto insurance to those who offered property and casualty elsewhere but not in California. Problem solved. Where is our insurance commissioner? Pleading on his knees? Be a man for christ sake.

Yes the port is open, but it is clear that the levees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are not to be trusted. Come the spring flood, we should do what they did in 1927 and inform all shipping that they must operate at bare steerage way while they pass through our state. This should slow things down a bit. If they don't listen, we can adopt the enforcement mechanism of '27 and inform all ships they should carry two pilots, because the state will post snipers that will shoot any pilot that doesn't follow the rule.

If you find that approach rather too strong, I have another suggestion. The state licenses and sets the fees of pilots. It is within our power to close the port of necessary. Come the spring flood, we should at least have a open discussion on the point, and watch the bushel price of crops plummet in the mercantile markets. That would get the attention of everyone in the drainage basin of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio.

We have to recognize that we are in the position of Lincoln in the depths of the civil war. We are in a battle for our very existence as we conceive ourselves, and the old generals are failing us, are leading us through timidity and incompetence to defeat. We need new generals, who will treat the rest of the nation as Grant and Sherman treated the south, as ruthlessly as necessary to get the job done.

It would sadden me to learn that people were forced to evacuate North Dakota, my home of ten years, because they could not sustain their (heavily subsidized) agricultural economy there at seven dollar a gallon and seventy cents a bushel, but it would not trouble me as much as having to abandon New Orleans.

It will be easy to lose the anger, especially as we slip into the Xmas holidays and then into Mardi Gras, but it won't go away. I find it hard to sustain that anger, as the frequency of posts here trails off under the demands of raising two children, a new job, etc. Still, the feeling this poll has tapped will simply simmer underneath the holiday wrapping and paper mache trappings of the season.

Whether it wraps itself in that cocoon of festivity and emerges as frustration and resignation that packs its bags and leaves, or becomes a real movement to demand compensation from the Feds from the flood they caused and honest officials who will use that money wisely remains to be seen. It is not beyond us. As I wrote last February, we are still those people who get up and go to work, who do our part to cross the invisible hand with what it demands. We built this city over the last three hundred years, and can preserve it for another 300 if we don't give up hope.

I believe the people of New Orleans haven't given up hope because we had so little of it to begin with. The venality of politicians, the inefficiency of government, the vicissitudes of weather and termites, of social and economic decay, all of these breed a certain sense of fatalism, an "if Allah wills it" quality that is alien to most Americans. We have a sense that New Orleans, without those burdens, would no longer be the place we love. We cherish a notion of ourselves as the equivalent of a nineteenth century sailor's Shanghai, a colonial outpost of sensuality and corruption and decay. We don't want to be 21st century Singapore, a model of totalitarian efficiency and cleanliness. It just ain't who we are.

And yet, the insha'Allah and the ennui are a mask, one we wear not just on a certain winter Tuesday, but most days of the year. Behind that mask are the people who get up five days a week and haul their kids to school, then go to work. They get up on a sweltering Saturday and overcome their tropical torpor to mow the grass. Later that night, they go out to try that new restaurant.

They get up on Sunday and hope that, this time, the Saints might win. Somewhere today in New Orleans (or Houston or Baton Rouge or Atlanta), someone will put down their beer, and talk about how wild it will be in the Quarter the year the Saints win the Super Bowl. At some level, and as much as we might not want to admit it, we are a hopeful people. Hedged in by levees that may or may not hold, beset Formosan termites and feckless politicians at every level, it would be impossible to live here without it.

Its a funny kind of hope, as old as Abraham. When you expect the worst around every corner, as often as not you will turn that corner and find some small thing that gives you a tremendous lift. That's where we find hope, like a glinting half dollar on the broken sidewalk as you walk from a bad day at the track to Liuzza's, the little mystical sign that maybe today or at least tomorrow is going to turn out all right.

As we stare at a new year that promises an endless series of challenges its important that we not give up hope, that we not let the anger that is righteous anger dissipate and become despair. Like Lincoln in his darkest moment, we need to get up from the darkened room and go out and find the generals who can win this war and stand beside them as they fight it. We the 200,000 who have fought our way home can not give up or the ten generations of our forebearers who built this city will have labored in vain.

Sinn Fein.

You know, Mark, for the first time in the 30 years I have lived and worked in New Orleans, I am seriously considering leaving to move back to my hometown of Crowley. It isn't something I want to do; I could never have the quality of life there that I once enjoyed here, but I would have more control over my daily life, and I could afford it. Again, let me say it isn't something I want to do; but the option has inevitably reared its head.
I'm not rushing to judge anybody who leaves. I sure as hell understand the motivation. I'm unencumbered by the baggage of loss of all my worldly possesions, so I have an unfair leg up over many.

My big fear is precisely that the holidays and carnival will gloss over real needs for action in the very short term, and people will wake up one morning in February and go, well, we tried but it didn't work out.
Goodness gracious, Mark. You didn't just hit this one out of the park, as you so often do. You hit it into the next freakin' state. Great post.

I have wondered if the college students are counted among the 200,000?
My big fear is precisely that the holidays and carnival will gloss over real needs for action in the very short term, and people will wake up one morning in February and go, well, we tried but it didn't work out.

Yup, that fear has been in my mind for a long time now.

Thank you for hitting the nail on the head.
Quality, not quantity, I say. I'd be satisfied with one piece of that caliber each week (no pressure or anything ;-P ). In the interim, us "Wetheads" can strike out across the vast and intriguing plain that is the rest of the NOLA blogosphere. I have, for instance, engaged another prominent local blogger in dialogue about the community broadcasting issue.
Wow, well said. I think we're a bit tired right now, but we'll get a 2nd wind. Who knows, instead of lulling us, maybe Mardi Gras will remind us of why we're still here. I just can't allow myself to think of the alternatives.
stay pissed off. dont accept the staus quo.

it's gonna be five to ten years before the ship changes course.

this shit didnt happen over night but our awareness did . i.e. da levees.

keep up the fight. our future population is depending on us.
Shut down the port? What you describe sounds like some kind of alternate universe. I cannot imagine in this life any of our current lizard-kings doing anything half so ballsy. Thrilling idea, though.

Although lately it seems like every day I read or hear something that makes me think, "OMG I've got to get the f--- out of here."
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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