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23.2.06

Spread of misinformation by politicians disserves community

Apparently, a recent rhetorical event into which Shreveport political figures inserted themselves debased education and served only to rip open wounds in the community.

The purpose of a debate ought to inform and invite critical thinking on the behalf of those privy to it. The topic ought to feature facts usable by either side, where the participants argue persuasively that the facts better fit the worldview on their side of the argument. At its conclusion, the side which best employs fact (rather than rhetoric or fiction) informed through a worldview that is best demonstrated as valid should win and inspire the audience to evaluate or re-evaluate its opinion on the matter.

By this standard, the “debate” held as part of Black History Month observations at Southern University – Shreveport was not. Instead, current city councilman Theron Jackson and former city councilman Joe Shyne, among others, made remarks that not only were nonfactual, but which served to inflame, rather than to educate; to confuse, rather than to clarify.

The topic was whether the there was a racially-discriminant component to government responses to and media reporting of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It seemed that the audience response, comprised mostly of black students, escalated “into a frenzy” when the likes of Jackson, Shyne, and others gave impassioned remarks that asserted the government’s response to victims of the storm discriminated against blacks and the media itself was biased in its portrayal of victims by race. The attendees seemed much more convinced of the veracity of these claims than their opposites.

Except, of course, there is not one shred of evidence to backup these assertions. Let’s take each point in turn.

Perhaps the most persuasive piece of evidence that government rescuing discriminated unfavorably against blacks would be if there were significantly more black mortalities than occurred to non-blacks. If blacks were neglected in favor of non-blacks in rescues, then the percentage of those who died who were black should be much higher than the actual proportion of blacks in the population.

In fact, Congressional research shows that 73 percent of the 373,000 evacuees from New Orleans were black (who comprised only 67.8 percent of the pre-storm population). Louisiana’s preliminary report on the deaths was that in Orleans Parish 59 percent of those who died were black. Also of interest was that deaths were fairly randomly distributed around the city in terms of socioeconomic status: given their relative proportions in the population, the poorer and richer were equally likely to have been killed by Katrina.

This fact makes very inconvenient the assertion that the government responded inequitably. Add to this that no nationally-prominent black politician or leader is willing to endorse this claim and that the only people who would seem to cannot produce any evidence beyond their vague, unsubstantiated “perceptions” (and some came away with very different views in the same situation.)

The charge of media bias in labeling (such as using pejorative terms to describe black victims) seems even sillier, apparently emerging over different wordings in cutlines of photos seized upon by people who specialize in finding offense to anything with which they don’t agree. In essence the photos’ captions were said to connote racial bias, when in fact their takers called the assigned cutlines accurate. Further, numerous, well-documented incidents occurred where the mainstream media itself hyped the imaginary racial element of the Katrina aftermath – hardly an indicator that it was “biased” against blacks in its coverage.

It’s disappointing that these myths have gained such traction, particularly in the black community. It’s unfortunate that locally this opportunity was missed to educate. But it’s shameful that local black political figures not only did not act as leaders to help educate in this matter, but that they encouraged ignorance. (And if they genuinely did not know these facts, they are derelict in their duty to be informed on matters in which they may be called to provide leadership).

As an educator, it frustrates me when those who should enlighten instead discourage inquiry that can open minds and improve the quality of public policy-making. Jackson in particular deserves shame because of his position in government; distancing himself from the event and the remarks made would be appropriate. By all means let’s have debate, but to engage in it bereft of facts not only makes the exercise useless and irresponsible, it makes it disingenuous and destructive, causing needless division and harm. Recall that it is only the truth that sets people free.

22.2.06

Is Landrieu more interested in union or port security?

The issue about whether the Port of New Orleans’ operations and those of five others should be run by a United Arab Emirates (essentially government-owned) company raises some interesting points (cogent and informed arguments concerning which may be found, here, here, and here). Why Sen. Mary Landrieu has so stridently come out against the deal at first borders on the baffling, if not insipid.

Democrat Landrieu appears to be against the deal because it would give a state with past dealings with the terror network monetary (but not necessarily operational) control over the company that runs operations (hiring, but not security) of these ports, raising a legitimate security question. She appears to have made up her mind almost instantly on the deal, as opposed to her Republican co-resident Sen. David Vitter who has said he has an open mind on the subject and wants Congressional vetting of the clearance granted in order for the transaction to close by Pres. George W. Bush.

What’s strikingly odd about Landrieu’s knee-jerk reaction is that in past, almost identical situations, we heard nary a peep out of her in opposition. In 1997, she stayed silent as controversy raged about the impending transfer of operation of the Panama Canal to a Chinese holding company with close ties to its communist government. A year later, again she did not voice any opposition to a proposed lease of Long Beach, CA port facilities to a company owned by the Chinese military.

21.2.06

Right kind of conflict desirable in Legislature

Appropriate to yesterday’s posting comes some musing about the “divisiveness” in the recent Louisiana legislative special session. Many members seem to perceive an increase in it so that argues for a valid increase in it. The larger questions are, what does it portend and whether it is bad.

Initially, we must understand that “divisiveness” is in the eye of the beholder, if not actually created by the beholder who then accuses others of fomenting it. When the House voted down a key component of the Legislative Black Caucus agenda, satellite voting centers, first representatives of the Caucus accused opponents of bad faith, and then members of it walked out of that day’s session. The divisiveness was not there as a result of a policy disagreement, it was induced as a result of the boycott.

Which illustrates another aspect of “divisiveness” in the Legislature: it becomes undesirable only when it threatens comity and courtesy among members. Policy disagreement can cause the most possible friction but this does not create a problem unless that conflict spills over into personal attacks and lack of decorum. To use it again as an example, the Caucus began to get into trouble on this account when its leaders asserted that opposition to their agenda amounted to racism.

From my own observations (hundreds of hours of watching committee and floor action during a regular session, and dozens more during special sessions which interested parties can view summaries of at the Louisiana Legislature Log), there didn’t seem to be that much testiness concerning courtesy. (Also consider that when Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond claims it’s the most “divided” Legislature that he’s seen, he’s only been in it a couple of years.) Perhaps, however, there was more policy conflict.

And that’s not a bad thing. Through much of its history, certainly recently, Louisiana has had a “get-along-go-along” legislature where a combination of strong gubernatorial leadership plus legislative politics that were built more upon personality and parochialism rather than engaging a contest of ideas has tended to produce fewer choices and more echoes in policy that came out of state government. If there were considerable good feelings, it’s because too often most everybody was on the same page: bring home goodies for your district or for the groups you felt you represented, and the rest of the time do what the governor wanted.

So if there’s more conflict as a result of an escalating battle of ideas, because more and more members are providing choices rather than echoes, that’s a good thing. And if existing legislators find that environment undesirable, then that’s a strong sign that voters need to make them go home, since the Framers of the Constitution were correct that debate should be as robust as possible because through it the observant can better separate the wheat from the chaff in public policy.

20.2.06

Parochial view puts Louisiana between rock, hard place

Sometimes, our elected officials speak unusually candidly. The state legislative delegation from around Opelousas for whatever reason did so at the conclusion of their latest special session, with one especially thought-provoking statement.

No, it wasn’t state Sen. Don Cravins’ remarkable admission that, assessing the session, “Some saw it an opportunity to push their own agenda and to get a mayor of their liking elected in New Orleans.” We already know that Cravins and his Democrat colleagues in the Legislature and in the executive branch weakened ballot security and needlessly committed state money to trying to get Democrats elected in Orleans Parish.

Rather, it was his son state Rep. Don Cravins’ observation that because the state is broke and Gov. Kathleen Blanco did not have cash to promise to legislators for pet projects, it made it hard for the governor to provide leadership. As if he were a zoologist commenting upon animals and their keeper, he noted, “There was nothing to calm them down, so nothing got done until the last few days, and then only some watered-down versions of what she wanted.”

This musing highlights a common misunderstanding people often have about the powers of Louisiana’s governor. Reviewing her formal powers, she would have to rank at best average among American governors (as political scientists do from time to time in published comparative research about American state governors). But it is the exercise of informal powers that can magnify the clout of this state’s governor.

Cravins alluded to one such application was the way in which budgeting, especially capital budgeting, is done in this state. Capital projects have their own separate budget the items of which that will get any funding pretty much depends upon the governor’s preferences. Further, the governor has a line item veto power that could excise any such item that for whatever reason she didn’t like.

That power also extends to the regular budget which occasionally has capital projects but also other expenditures tailored to local legislative districts. Keep in mind that a line item veto never had been overridden by the Legislature in the modern era.

Before feeling sorry for the Legislature, understand that it did this to itself. Legally, it could change the way capital budgeting gets done and could assert its override power if it wanted. But it doesn’t. As it is, much of the informal power a Louisiana governor has could be negated by simple legislative assertion.

If it did act that way, this would increase the difficulty level of a governor trying to lead an agenda through the Legislature. So that body sacrifices power for the comfort of being directed. But this reveals a disturbing condition of the relationship.

When Cravins remarks that because there is little money for the governor to hang over legislators’ heads to induce them to behave a certain way, it begs the question of why such a wacky system exists in the first place, one that has a decidedly parochial emphasis that gives short shrift to a comprehensive, statewide view that creates priorities on that basis. A thin wallet by necessity forces more of that kind of focus on policy-making, yet Cravins testifies that condition precisely makes that kind of leadership more difficult to achieve.

In essence, unless the state is flush with cash, policies prioritized to benefit the majority often get bumped by those that do not. And since Louisiana is going to be living hand to mouth for awhile, that means as far as getting the things done that need doing for successful recovery, as long as this system lasts the state is in a lot of trouble.