Search This Blog

Loading...

31.8.05

Katrina exposes populism/liberalism's legacy: flooding and looting

Earlier this week, first when Hurricane Katrina damage looked tractable, then when it became anything but, I posted some questions about how, operationally, things were handled leading up to and after the event, with their long-term consequences. Now it’s time to come to grips with the political ideology that has aggravated this whole unfortunate situation.

In some ways, we have brought this on ourselves by permitting and tolerating a political culture that endorses the ideas that there are free lunches, that’s it’s easier to get power by being entertaining and taking care of your friends rather than by pursuing ethical, efficient policies, and that you always can blame your shortcomings on someone or something else (the “wealthy,” “big business,” insert your favorite racial/ethnic and/or religious slur here, etc.) rather than taking responsibility for your own affairs and failures.

While in a global sense we associate these attitudes with political liberalism, more specifically in Louisiana we see its variant populism. And where liberalism/populism deserves blame in all of this is in measures taken before this disaster that were supposed to mitigate it, and in the things that have happened since this horror.

We’ve known for decades that the lack of emphasis on efficiency and/or the outright corruption that so often afflicts public works projects in Louisiana may have contributed to road and bridge collapses, pump failures, and levee breaks that caused the vast majority of damage in the greater New Orleans area. We know that the state would rather spend funds on favored constituencies and slush funds than to use them more wisely, one aspect of which could have been better preparation for something like this. We know that aggressive state taxation and overburdening regulatory policy have been punitive towards exactly those whose energy and activities precisely could bring a change to these inferior sets of attitudes. We know that patronage and preferments run rampant in policy-making.

Nowhere have these attitudes flourished more than in New Orleans, leading to waste, inefficiency and corruption, most egregiously in its police forces. As a result, school achievement sank (when the public schools were not being abandoned), business fled followed by people, and the city began to take on a Third World aspect with burgeoning underemployment, an increasing number of squalid neighborhoods whose people lived in fear lacking confidence in the city and police, and whose industries congregated in the categories of industrial and entertainment and tourism – two of the lower growth, lower value sectors.

And at present the city gets to demonstrate these attitudes further with an unacceptably-large portion of its population now devoted to looting (which is itself another sign of their stupidity; everybody has to leave the city, you can’t take your stolen guns, appliances, cars, even apparel, with you, and they may well be ruined by the disaster’s aftermath or confiscated while you’re gone, so what’s the point?). These thugs have learned the lessons of liberalism all too well, its call for class warfare encouraging these people to think they are oppressed and thus deserve to help themselves to things that they have not earned because they have not contributed enough to society, and its preaching that moral precepts supported by religion be removed from the public square and thus prompt their elimination as a concern in our daily comportment.

Certainly no politician in Louisiana must have wished any of this on the affected area and people. But the fact is, the majority of our statewide officials and legislators, and particularly those in Orleans Parish, are political liberals who share the same basic attitude on this subject of wealth redistribution and religious belief’s relationship to government as do the looters. They must look at themselves in the mirror and come to grips with the fact that, while they prefer to use government to correct what they see as “unfairness,” that looters use direct means, with violence if necessary, to accomplish the same purpose. They need to understand this is how, in the real world, their core ideological beliefs translate into action and consequence.

That realization, along with the complex of liberal attitudes which encourage envy, selfishness, and meanness as part of public policy, should be sobering and encourage these officials to abandon these and instead to pursue policy that lets people keep what is theirs, that provides incentives for productivity, that allows people to live with minimal government interference, and that supports efforts to encourage moral behavior. Others both nationally and internationally don’t get it; let’s hope that our Louisiana politicians do.

Previously reeling, Orleans schools troubled even worse after Katrina

Foreword: This was the posting I wrote Monday morning, when it was apparent Hurricane Katrina missed New Orleans and the direct damage from it seemed minimal, which I had intended to run later that day:

As if things couldn’t get any worse, the Orleans schools cleanup needs may be more extensive than those created by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s not enough that 65 percent of the Orleans Parish School District’s schools failed state accountability standards, and that the budget is tens of millions of dollars on the negative side, and that the federal government is investigating the whereabouts of $70 million. Now we have confirmation of the system’s financial corruption that shows nobody who should know does know what is going on there – or perhaps that they even care.

The most incredulous aspect to all of this is that the practices of “gaming” the system where allowed to continue year after year. How unaware were the system’s top officials. Summing it all up was the remark made by Interim Superintendent Ora Watson: “I've never worked in a school district where stipends played that big a role in how people got paid. It seemed that it had become, in my opinion, something people began to consider a right.”

How long has Watson worked for this system (I don’t actually know; the district’s website has no biographical information on her)? At least the past couple of years as the deputy superintendent, and she never had an inkling of any of this? This is going to be a real problem if she’s got more of a clue than anybody else in the system that doesn’t even know how many employees it has.

But what should we expect from a school board who fired the previous superintendent who had least tried to make progress, who then assented to Watson in the interim position then nearly replaced her, who fought the appointment of fiscal turnaround experts by calling the enterprise “racist,” and whose president did everything he could to prevent bringing in the experts Alvarez and Marsal?

None of this should have been any surprise to anybody years ago. In 2003-04, Orleans, with 9.36 percent of the average daily membership in state public schools, spent 15.84 percent of the state’s education expenditures. In other words, while the other 67 districts spent $4,709 per student, Orleans averaged a whopping $8,583 per student, over 82 percent more, to deliver the state’s worst education, according to test scores.

Even people with education administration degrees should have figured out a problem existed in Orleans schools long ago and begun to work to correct it. Then again, they probably got favored in this top-heavy, wasteful system. Interestingly, of all education employees statewide, Orleans only had 8.68 percent, but of theirs, 3.47 percent were top administrators – an incredible 27.4 percent of all such positions statewide being in Orleans.

And now there’s the complication of the Katrina aftermath. No doubt millions of dollars will have to be spent on repair of school facilities, by a system whose resource burden already groans under its weight.

Even with the first round of layoffs will 500-700 more to go, somehow the two years Alvarez and Marsal have doesn’t look long enough to salvage this incredible mess. Even if the streets were clear of water and school buildings habitable.

Afterword: Obviously, this analysis has been superseded. Likely the whole fall semester has been wiped out; there is no school system in operation to reform now, and won’t be for weeks. Maybe there won’t be a budget deficit now without any expenses, but infrastructural needs now must be in the tens of millions of dollars. It’s unclear whether the state even has the power to step in and run an entire school district on the basis of this kind of emergency. The cynical could say maybe the dirty flood waters will wash the system’s problems clean away and everything can start anew. Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be that simple or easy.

30.8.05

Bad Katrina news gets worse for state

When I wrote yesterday’s posting, the worst it appeared the state would see was in the greater New Orleans area a lot of broken windows, a few flattened structures, and some flooding. It appeared the real destruction in the state would have occurred in the sparsely-populated area near the mouth of the Mississippi.

But that was before more levees broke in Orleans today, and now the place is filling up with water. Unfortunately, the city having been a crime haven, it has shown that again with noticeable looting. As I wrote of yesterday, there will be more political and policy consequences as a result of the further devastation.

At the local level, embattled politicos such as Mayor Ray Nagin and the Orleans Parish School Board will find a reprieve from their critics. Even U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson may find the heat reduced in a federal investigation that seems to have targeted him.

However, the ripples will be felt all throughout the state. As mentioned in yesterday’s posting, the federal government does not pick up all disaster-related costs; states are expected to pay some. Given the magnitude of the impending disaster, they will not be inconsiderable.

Further, the big bonus the state’s treasury expected from oil now will be curtailed. Prices are up relatively slightly, but the falloff in production even if only for days could cost the state millions of dollars in severance taxes.

This hit to the state budget mostly will be born by current revenues. The state’s emergency spending mechanism would provide only a pittance up against damage of this magnitude. Or, to put it another way, if there’s any special session of the Legislature to be called, it will be to deal with this, not a teachers’ pay raise. That money probably is gone.

I pray for my friends and former colleagues in the New Orleans area, including avid reader of this blog C.B. Forgotston and New Orelans Bulletin blogger John Vinturella and his wife Dr. Susan Howell that the trials they face as a result of this be minimal.

29.8.05

Katrina leaves policy, political questions in her wake

I hope and pray that all are safe and damage is minimal in the Mississippi River delta area of the state and offshore, as well as to another of my former areas of residence, southern Mississippi.

As New Orleans and the rest of the area wrings themselves out, there are some things to ponder:

  • The contraflow system seemed to work much better than last year. This turned highways into double-sized, unidirectional thoroughfares for evacuation purposes. Still, problems remained, specifically, citizen knowledge about the system (available at the State Police website), more efficient diversion of traffic (too many headed only west), and that going west the system stopped after the I-10/I-55 interchange at LaPlace while eastward traffic on I-10 still was embargoed (frustrating many and causing some reckless folks to treat eastbound lanes as westbound lanes)
  • The Superdome lost parts of its roof, and one must question whether the repairs to it a decade ago were adequate to withstand the winds of a Category 5 storm. When built 30 years ago, the whole structure was supposed to be able to. If not, then it’s a classic example of Louisiana state government, just like with our highways, being pennywise and dollar foolish.
  • And what of its use as an evacuation center? Emergency protocols should be such that it ought to be able to hold many tens of thousands for days – there’s not a larger or (supposedly) safer structure in the city for this purpose.
  • And what does this mean for the Saints? Will they have repairs done in time for their home opener 9/18? Even more intriguing, will this affect the negotiations between the team and the state to get out of the lucrative deal the Saints have with it?
  • Many have argued New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin waited too long to officially issue an evacuation order. Of course, sensible people don’t have to wait on an elected official to tell them what to do and it’s a tough judgment call, but the fact of the matter was the contraflow plan was terminated at 4 PM Sunday, only a few hours after the call went out, in order to protect and better deploy public safety personnel. While there’s no real right or wrong in this situation, political opponents of Nagin may use this against him in his presumed reelection bid next year.
  • With the breaking of at least three levees in the area, questions can be raised about the quality of them. One never can build a levee that will block all surges from all hurricanes, but were these built to specification, and were the specifications stringent enough?
  • How much will this disaster cost the state, as ever strapped for money? There will be disaster cleanup costs, of course, despite that the majority of money to accomplish will come from the federal government, some (as much as 25 percent of the total) will come from the state. Also, already an estimated 1 million barrels of oil a day for the short term will be reduced from the affected area and this could be more. This will delay, if not eliminate, this extraction which is taxed by the state the proceeds from which go into state coffers.
  • Finally, no doubt flood insurance rates will rise as a result – how will this play out in the Legislature, the Department of Insurance, with the federal flood insurance and mitigation programs, and even the costal restoration issue at the federal level?

    Like it or not, the answers to or resolutions of these questions will have policy and political impacts in Louisiana.
  • 28.8.05

    To the Caddo Sheriff and Commission: nice try, but try again

    Appropriate to my plea that they get on with it, Caddo Sheriff Steve Prator has made an offer to the Caddo Parish Commission that everybody drop legal maneuverings concerning who pays what at the Caddo Correctional Center by ridding the controversy over its central arguing point – housing of one kind of non-parish prisoners.

    Essentially, the parish had tried to make Prator pay for “fixed” expenses of the operation of the jail when the law said he only had to cover security operating expenses, minus extraordinary items such as medical care and transportation of prisoners and other potential expenses that can be averted by having labor performed by sentenced prisoners. The courts negated that tactic but said Prator could not bill the parish for other expenses which the parish argues he still does. Prator then informed the parish that he could bill them for some others items he claimed he did not bother to charge the parish. The punch line, of course, is that the ultimate payer in all of this is the same, the Caddo parish taxpayer, regardless of what entity actually sends out the bill and to whom.

    Basically, what Prator has suggested is a kind of “nuclear option.” Since the haggling seems to come over the disposition of expenses related to non-parish prisoners, then Prator suggested simply that the CCC not accept any state prisoners. Of course, at an average of 240 such prisoners per 365 days a year at $22.39 reimbursement each by the state, Prator wants to turn down $1,961,364 a year in revenues (Prator estimates the revenue reduction to be $1.8 million annually although because of lag time it would be a year before this fully would be realized).

    Prator says the parish would have to kick in $600,000 under this regime; apparently a $306,600 equivalent of the $3.50 a day the parish must pay per prisoner housed (which would be waived by Prator) plus the value of forgone labor since Prator would lose many prisoners capable of doing jobs such as cooking and laundry (all state prisoners can be used for this since they are convicted; most parish prisoner are not sentenced but waiting for trial and thus cannot be used as forced labor). Prator eats $1.2 million himself but believes speeding up work release, the use of such prisoners nearing completion of sentence bringing revenues to the sheriff’s office, can offset a good chunk of this.

    What would the $600,000 get the parish besides a stop to legal wrestling? Even though a decade ago the CCC was pledged to create plenty of capacity to get criminals and alleged criminals off the streets, Prator argues he doesn’t have the space now to do so, filling up 25 percent of the CCC with non-parish prisoners (most of whom are state prisoners; presumably, a handful of other parish and other state prisoners still would be taken in). So, with more arrestees for misdemeanor offenses jailed, maybe more public safety could be bought.

    (Prator also argues that juvenile offenders could be sent to the CCC. Currently in their own separate facility, budgetary choices limit the Juvenile Court’s options in sentencing juveniles to detention. However, this is a more complicated matter.)

    But doesn’t this seem a bit drastic? First, if capacity seems to be a problem, then why doesn’t Prator initiate work release early anyway, not only gaining revenues by also creating space? It’s not contingent on him getting rid of state prisoners. And why get rid of all state prisoners? Would half create enough space; why must it be all or nothing? Because, Prator could argue, as long as even one prisoner remains so does the dispute. But does this not also apply to non-parish prisoners not state prisoners? Why aren’t they part of this proposal? If anything this group should be let go of first, because Prator has more options (through requests to the state and/or future legislation) to find reimbursement for extraordinary expenses of state prisoners from the state to make both him and Caddo happy.

    So let’s try an intermediate step instead. Prator should bill only non-security expenses pro-rated to parish prisoner proportion to the parish and pay all other expenses himself, while collecting his $3.50 per day per parish prisoner and $22.39 per day per state prisoner (and whatever per diems he gets for other parish and other state prisoners) while using whatever convict labor he can to reduce expenses. The parish, for its part, would pay its rate and non-security operating expenses of parish prisoners as billed by Prator. This is what the relevant laws would seem to dictate, so maybe all government entities should try following them to the letter for awhile and, believe it or not, maybe wasteful legal spending by parish taxpayers would vanish. Or is this too simple to work?