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28.1.06

Repopulating Orleans story focuses on sensational

In academia, there are those who often seem more interested in calling attention to themselves than just doing their jobs of teaching and providing useful research. The self-promotion efforts of athletes, entertainers, reality-show participants, and politicians pale in comparison to some of the things I see regularly in my profession. But they need accomplices to pull off this showmanship, so when their “discoveries” comport with the media’s agenda and ideology (see an example here) and its need to follow them, both can fulfill their desires.

It’s not always intentional; sometimes the media will take some research out of context, and other times (quite frankly) since few journalists have anything more than a surface understanding of the topics they cover, the media will swallow whole what is fed to them by some in academia. I don’t know if either holds true in this case, but certainly it was not at all responsible for the media to report and for the researchers to allow them to promote

… if the post-Katrina city were limited to the population previously living in areas that were undamaged by the storm – that is, if nobody were able to return to damaged neighborhoods – New Orleans is at risk of losing more than 80% of its black population …. if the future city were limited to the population previously living in zones undamaged by Katrina it would risk losing about 50% of its white residents but more than 80% of its black population.

Were this written in September, 2005, it might have been interesting speculation. But it’s now about five months later, and the numbers they use are wholly unrealistic as proven by subsequent events. To begin, let’s review the population as best known in New Orleans when Katrina hit, from the Jul. 1, 2004 estimates from the Census Bureau (oddly, the researchers ignore these and use the 2000 actual census – usually not a bad strategy, but it’s not good in this case because New Orleans lost about 5 percent of its population just in those four years).

According to it, New Orleans (Orleans Parish) had 462,269 people, of which 313,402 were black, 132,314 white, and 16,553 of “other” races. Taking these researchers’ claims, this means that New Orleans could wind up with just 62,681 blacks and 66,157 whites (and that’s putting the black total at 80 percent, not “more than”).

But then consider first a Congressional Research Service report they used, which says that 272,000 blacks and 101,000 non-blacks evacuated. Doing the math tells you that meant 41,402 blacks and (assuming the ratio of 8:1 whites/others prior to the storm holds) 42,548 whites remained (and with other races a city total of 89,269). With these numbers not far from their initial guesses, this should have alerted these researchers immediately to a fundamental problem in their study – that their 80/50 assumption is that all parts of all “damaged” neighborhoods would not be rebuilt was way overboard.

Now consider estimates provided by Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, that at least by December the city had 136,681 people. Without going into the methodology here (part of a future academic presentation I’ll be making at a professional meeting which will predict the number of registered voters in Orleans come the rescheduled election days, who they are, and how they likely will vote), that figure can be decomposed into an estimate of 67,691 blacks and 62,699 whites. In other words, before the end of the year was out, already these researchers’ numbers were quite shaky.

Now about two months later, people continue to flow into Orleans. And what these guys fail to appreciate is the details of the plan considered by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission which do not at all imply that nothing in the damaged areas will be rebuilt, and also that more housing will be constructed in higher ground in other areas. (This is not the wisest plan, but it seems to be the one that will be pursued.) In short, other estimates that argue New Orleans will approach or even exceed a quarter million people in the next couple of years seem much more valid.

Were these researchers more cautious and mindful in drawing conclusions, and the media less focused on trying to make for a “bigger” story, more temperate estimates with more conditions attached to them would have been reported. (At least this news story added a dose of realism in recognizing the conclusions as improbable; some didn’t. This one even downplays the sensational claims in favor of analyzing other aspects.) And that would mean watchdogs like myself would have written on a different subject today, and gladly so.

26.1.06

Louisiana sees through LeBlanc's dishonest history rewrite

One reason why Gov. Kathleen Blanco will not be reelected – and cannot seem to understand that – is, by the communications of her administration, that it seems to think that the Louisiana public is comprised of sheep that cannot think for themselves.

There may be some truth to that belief – witness the fact that Democrats/liberals/populists keep getting elected to office, Blanco included – but, by and large, the hurricane disasters of 2005 have startled many out of their somnambulant conditions regarding state government. The magnitude of the impacts of the disasters on peoples’ personal lives has re-engaged the critical faculties of many.

So when Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc tries to paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra in a letter reprinted in the Louisiana press, we can see the paint. In the letter, LeBlanc proclaims that the failed response of Blanco to Katrina’s invasion wasn’t really that because she couldn’t be held responsible for government’s actions or inactions because former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Michael Brown said dealing with Katrina’s impact “was beyond the capacity of the state and local government.”

Very true, but LeBlanc here uses a strange logic that tries to deflect us from the truth. He wants us to believe that we should interpret Brown’s comments to mean “beyond the capacity of any state and local government” which then would, as LeBlanc writes, mean that what Brown “told a congressional committee in Washington last September that the blame lay on the doorsteps of the governor are now proven to be untrue.”

Uh, not quite; not even. With his mode of thinking displayed here, I wouldn’t mind being an alcoholic panhandling outside of LeBlanc’s office, because I could be assured that he reliably would hand me more money to drink away, telling me, “It’s not your fault, it’s beyond your capacity to sober up, I don’t blame you,” when, in fact, the right attitude and willpower can be provided by the responsible person to help himself out of this unfortunate condition.

What LeBlanc doesn’t understand that Brown’s remark really meant that Katrina was “beyond the capacity of Louisiana state and New Orleans local government,” not any or all state and local governments. And what LeBlanc won’t admit to us is the reason why it was “beyond capacity” was because Louisiana state and local governments by their own inept actions stunted their capacities to respond adequately.

Documentation is extensive about how state and local emergency plans were a joke, how Blanco seemed unable to issue the correct orders even though she had had a chance to learn the ropes a year previously, and how she seemed confused and paralyzed by the crisis. In fact, LeBlanc even authors an outright falsehood, that Blanco’s “pleas for massive outside help went unheeded” since she dallied and ultimately turned down Pres. George W. Bush’s offer to send in troops under federal control.

(Ironically, as LeBlanc’s letter was being reprinted across the state, more egg got thrown on the Blanco Administration’s face as more details about the “Hurricane Pam” exercise became available that directly impugned his argument. The report pointed out the inadequacies of the state’s then-planned response – a full year before it really happened with Katrina during which time Blanco did little to correct the clearly-identified shortcomings that she could.)

To summarize, LeBlanc seems unable to grasp that just because Brown said he bore much blame for inadequate response that this does not automatically absolve Blanco of blame herself. Her actions are a matter of public record, and they are decidedly unflattering. By all means, let’s heed LeBlanc’s advice to not “make political gains in the middle of this tragedy” – starting with LeBlanc himself by his disavowing his attempts to rewrite history.

Closing, LeBlanc asks that observers of the situation move along from assigning blame. Agreed, but this does not give him license to distort the record. Because before they can be effective leaders in the state’s recovery, LeBlanc and Blanco need to be honest with themselves and with the Louisiana public, who can see through all of this chicanery.

25.1.06

Electoral considerations likely to land Alito Landrieu's vote

The upcoming vote on the confirmation of U.S. Appellate Court Judge Samuel Alito presents a hard choice for Sen. Mary Landrieu, and either option could spell her political doom.

Landrieu must realize that Alito will be confirmed. Senate Democrats should understand the magnanimity of moderate Republican senators has run out on this Supreme Court nominee and any attempted filibuster would send the GOP centrists to support a rule change that would disallow filibusters of judicial nominees. In addition, at least one Senate Democrat moderate has pledged to cross up Democrat leadership and to support Alito.

Therefore, Landrieu’s vote has become merely symbolic, with costs and benefits going both ways. Pre-hurricanes, she showed a selective, maybe even nuanced, behavior towards controversial nominees. She voted against U.S. Appellate Court Judge Janice Rogers Brown, perhaps figuring that black Democrat leaders could not countenance a favorable vote even if whites largely supported her as did a significant portion of blacks, since she needs those leaders’ political machines in the state. She voted against U.S. Appellate Court Judge William Pryor as well, but voted for U.S. Appellate Court Judge Priscilla Owen, perhaps as Owen was more “local” (from Texas, even if Pryor was from the South), less demonized by black Democrats, and female, to give Landrieu some ammunition to garner more conservative support in the state since it was clear Owen’s would go through (after all, 1 out of 3 often wins you a batting championship in the major leagues). And she did vote for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

She likely will apply the same logic to the Alito vote, mindful of the changed election dynamics in the state. By 2008, her base still may be disproportionately eroded courtesy of the hurricane disasters, and the ultra-liberal (even as she tries to disguise it) probable top of the Democrat ticket also may cost her votes. At the same time, she cannot compete against a quality, genuine conservative GOP challenger by deliberately throwing an Alito confirmation vote the way of the majority conservative voters in the state.

At this point, the Senate Democrats’ leaders only reason to try to get as many votes against Alito would be as a campaign issue, precisely the motivation for Landrieu. As evidenced by the pontificating tone and irrelevant comments of Democrats on and the exact split down party lines in the committee vote, they place great store in trying to preserve as close to unanimity as possible their opposition. At the same time, Democrat leaders have released party members from the obligation of voting with it, meaning no sanctions will be levied on members who vote to confirm.

With the GOP bullpen of viable statewide genuine conservative candidates for Senate for the moment sparse (its strongest pick by far interested in the Governor’s Mansion) and with the Democrat presidential stakes trending towards the opposite ideology, Landrieu probably can be assured to hold onto much of her liberal base while trying to demonstrate moderate tendencies by tossing a vote Alito’s way. But this may backfire if the state Republicans find a quality conservative to challenge her in 2008 and somehow in a rare moment of Democrat lucidity somebody less liberal snares the presidential nomination, for Landrieu’s solid liberal credentials, out of touch with the state’s majority’s interests, will appear more obvious than ever.

24.1.06

Louisiana leaders long on whining, short on leadership

Some pundits have pointed out that Louisiana complaints about the distribution of relief monies for the hurricane disasters, as well as federal reticence to do things such as pass homeowner insurance relief or commit to construct Category 5 capable levees for the state risk making the state’s politicians appear to be ingrates, if not crybabies. What most miss, however, are all the reasons why and a thorough explication of what is to come.

Elsewhere I have explained one cause is the general entitlement attitude concerning other peoples’ money often expressed by some of the states’ residents and many of its top politicians, married with a perceived lack of responsibility. Complaints emanating from its denizens thus make the state look petty, ungrateful, and irresponsible to the rest of the country, hardly a triumvirate of qualities to induce maximal aid giving.

Pettiness comes through when drawing comparisons with the how Mississippi seems to get more aid per capita adjusted for amount of destruction. These folks would do well to remember Matthew 20 and not question the generosity of the federal government to others. Even if the American people are the masters of the master, its Louisiana contingent comprises less than 3 percent of all Americans. Obviously, the state also appears as a bunch of ingrates when complaining about not getting enough when already having received tens of billions of dollars from the rest of the country’s taxpayers.

But what really damages the state’s case is this whining occurs within the context of downplaying the unfortunate fact that with many individuals and with the state as a whole that it did not do enough to prevent the widespread damage from occurring. Collectively, through state and local government’s failure to plan well, to follow plans, and to spend money wisely (throwing in here its representatives to national office) set up the New Orleans area for this catastrophe. (Even if the Army Corps of Engineers fell down on the job in some respects, that does not absolve state culpability.) Individually, people’s lack of common sense in having flood insurance also contributes.

Bluntly, had not human errors, many traceable back to state and local government, not occurred, the scale of destruction in Louisiana would have been much less than in Mississippi. We cannot forget that normal life in southern Mississippi did not involve living below sea level. To repeat (and restating this fact will hurt some feelings of some people in bad spots), common sense dictates that if you live below sea level, you buy flood insurance (even if the government tells you that you don’t have to; in that case, it should have been pretty cheap). To fail to do so and then to criticize the federal government for not doing enough to help those who failed to plan on this account defines chutzpah.

I also have noted previously that perceptions of the state leaders’ past performance in managing fiscal resources also has contributed to federal government wariness. The question about who actually is more corrupt, Louisiana, New Jersey, or some other place, is academic because the question isn’t who is worst, but whether Louisiana is bad enough. And nobody with a straight face can assert that Louisiana isn’t.

Finally, both of these factors play into the fact that a Republican-led federal government always will look askance a Democrat-run state. It’s not really partisanship but instead stems from ideological differences. Simply, because the liberalism on which the Democrats draw sustenance is so spectacularly wrong in understanding human beings and their natures, more responsible conservatives that comprise the Republican Party are less likely to trust that giving money with few or no strings to Democrat state leaders. They accurately fear that the inherent liberalism of these politicians will divert the money to uses that provide no real gains or solutions to the public policy problem, as liberals have demonstrated time and again. With its past populist attitudes, increased tolerance for corruption, intact good-old-boy political structure, and continued carping from some about the “unfairness” of aid allocation, Louisiana with its Democrat leadership provides little in the way of reassurance that will calm these fears.

This complex of attitudes argues that the optimal strategy for state politicians to grab larger handouts is not by whining, but by pledging not to repeat past sins, to change institutions to facilitate this, and to emphasize that an economically-vibrant Louisiana serves the interests of the entire nation. Of course, this means admissions of failure by these same people doing the whining in order to make the pledges of improvement credible. But humbling oneself comes as naturally to most Louisiana politicians as rooting for Ole Miss on the gridiron.

While doing so would provide the best chance to secure the most reconstruction dollars, it also would further erode the tenuous reelection chances of many of these individuals such as Gov. Kathleen Blanco who continues to deny her culpability while foisting blame onto others. Nonetheless, true public service does not constitute in doing what it takes to get reelected, but to improve the polity, and it disserves the state to act otherwise. Many of Louisiana’s “leaders” must come to understand that, on this issue, the more they whine, the less they lead.

23.1.06

Hightower shows hand; local GOP needs to respond

If you believe that the “image-building” ads being run on television in the Shreveport media market touting the accomplishments of Mayor Keith Hightower are only that, then I’ve got some prime real estate in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to sell you.

Democrat Hightower doesn’t confirm that he is running for another office when he leaves the mayor’s job at the end of November, 2006, but neither does he disconfirm it. And there seems to be little point to spend $100,000 on feel-good ads about him and having a huge campaign war chest all ready to splurge unless he has something else in mind.

Given the timing of his leaving the mayor’s job, Hightower could be aiming for one of three jobs. First, it’s possible that he could try to set up a run for the House of Representatives later this year. This would be a longshot because of current Republican Rep. Jim McCrery’s high popularity even with his recent donation of contributions from activities organized by tainted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Plus, Hightower would not want to pursue a campaign so soon after his own controversial special interest connections (sludge contracts, real estate, city lending) alleged to influence his governing decisions and his controversial successful push to get Shreveport into a likely money-losing public lodging business.

Hightower would not be signaling that he wants to bide time and run in 2008, in order for time to lapse for the public to “forget” about these things, by running these ads now because in two years the public will forget any impact these ads had, too. They’ll also forget somewhat about Hightower in the meantime and the 2008 electoral landscape for Democrats in Louisiana probably would be even less favorable than in 2006 with a likely fairly liberal presidential candidate at the top of the ticket.

Second, Hightower could be angling for a statewide office. But the 2007 electoral environment for Democrats statewide probably will even be worse still, with a predicted state fiscal crisis ready to remind the public which party controlled the Legislature and held all the statewide offices before and right after the hurricane disasters (Democrats) and that the performance of state Democrats during that interval was, to be charitable, inadequate. Add to that the reduction of the reliably Democrat voting bloc around New Orleans and Hightower should want no part of an election cycle which may well end with a GOP majority of statewide offices.

Of course, Hightower could be jockeying for the special election later this year to fill the unexpired term of Secretary of State. But he is just a regional Democrat candidate without that large of a financial cushion that could get steamrolled by Mike Francis’ campaign, and the entrance into the contest of a black Democrat would make any such run a waste of Hightower’s resources.

Most likely, Hightower is angling for the open state Senate District 37 seat when (Louisiana’s best state) Sen. Max Malone is retired through term limits at the end of 2007. With current state Rep. Billy Montgomery (also facing term limits in his present post) likely to join the trend of legislators switching from Republican to Democrat and no genuine, competitive, quality Republican having emerged to run at this point, Hightower would like his chances against the big government advocate Montgomery. This also would explain the local range of the Hightower ads.

This cue ought to have metropolitan area Republicans starting an intense search to find a true conservative to challenge for the seat, one with a proven record of restrained government spending, accountability in that spending, and a commitment to honesty in government, among other true conservative principles. Hightower’s ad campaign belies his thinking at this point, a gauntlet thrown down that the GOP needs to take up now before all that’s left for District 37 come 2007 is an echo rather than a true choice with a superior option.