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20.5.06

Does Nagin read my posts? Or do we think alike strategically?

Something I seldom do is have to eat my words, when I pronounced six months ago that Ray Nagin could not win the New Orleans mayor’s race. At least I knew enough to figure out how Nagin did it before he did.

It’s a bit early to tell just how one part of the strategy, attract Republican voters, fared. (That will come, when I can get the post-election statistics available in the next few days.) Certainly anecdotal evidence would suggest that was happening when former Republican candidate Rob Couhig provided a lodestar to these individuals with his endorsement of Nagin. You heard at best veiled references from Nagin and his supporters about the “Landrieu dynasty” with a Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu win that would encourage these voters either to back Nagin, or to sit this one out – either worked to Nagin’s advantage.

But that could only neutralize potential Landrieu votes; Nagin also needed to create new votes to win. And that’s exactly what it appears he did, since it would have to be from two sources, the black-majority areas of town repopulating faster than the others because they have been depopulated the most but, most importantly, from displaced voters.

Consider that in the primary that 21,351 absentee/early votes were cast. If we put together Nagin’s and Couhig’s, they were about 9,000 of those, but Landrieu’s and those of the one major candidate that endorsed him, Ron Forman, were in the neighborhood of 11,000. For Nagin to have a chance, he would have to create at 2,000 more votes.

As it turned out, almost 25,000 did vote this way in the general election runoff, and of these “new” votes, it appears that Nagin grabbed almost all of these 3,500 as his total went over 12,500 (Landrieu’s plus other candidates inched up a little). Do not be surprised it if turns out that the black percentage of these votes comes closer to 70 percent this time out.

No doubt it was the assistance of some interest groups who wanted to see a black face as New Orleans mayor come Bobby Jindal endorsements or not helped Nagin to his win. And many other intriguing stories abound as a result of this – how does this affect Landrieu’s career, even his entire family’s, or state-level politics, or the recovery, or what about the parallel storylines that only one elected official in the majoritarian branches in New Orleans (5th District Assessor Tom Arnold, no less!) is a Republican, or how six of those assessors managed reelection, or even how just days ago it appeared the displaced vote was not going to come in at the level he needed to win?

But, for now, I’ll just say, a lot of people underestimated Nagin.

18.5.06

Minimum wage encourages inefficiency, illegal immigration

In the debate now raging in Washington about how to deal with illegal immigration, too much it focuses on trying to treat the symptoms rather than the disease – and the progress of a piece of legislation in the Louisiana Legislature shows it does no better.

Why is there an illegal immigration problem in the U.S.? It’s not because there are too many Mexicans or too few Americans wanting to work or employers are skinflints or there’s not enough border enforcement or too little effort in monitoring noncitizens and punishing miscreant employers. It’s because there’s too much regulation involved in running a business which makes inviting the hiring of illegal aliens despite legal sanctions.

The more regulation that is required, the greater the costs will be. An entirely unregulated labor marketplace is unrealistic, but clearly the labor marketplace in America today is over-regulated. One way in which that is the case is with the artificial minimum wage.

17.5.06

Extra revenues need to go to pay down retirement liability

Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s plans for additional revenues declared for this fiscal year by the Revenue Estimating Conference reflect more prudence than not, but she can do better.

The portion of the funds declared as non-recurring wisely will go towards paying off debts owed to the federal government for disaster assistance, as well as creating a fund to respond to future disasters. However, it must be noted that the state, over the next few years, is estimated to owe as much as $3 billion more. The emergency fund should be structured so that it could be used to pay off past debts such as these as well, but that still will leave the state with a huge bill.

However, her plans for the recurring funds are questionable. Pay raises for school support workers probably are more justifiable than those for teachers without measures for accountability attached. But her other priorities proposed for the recurring revenues, money needed for the state to build a new public school system in New Orleans, helping retired educators in the damaged areas, and taking care of health-care needs, probably are more important.

And the looming problem few elected officials seem willing to tackle isn’t mentioned at all but which represents perhaps the most compelling need, paying down the unfunded accrued liability in the state’s retirement systems. Sen. Walter Boasso’s SB 526 would commit the state to pay in the neighborhood of $110 million a year until 2029 which would lop off almost $2 billion of the interest owed on the estimated $12 billion that will be owed by then that the state is required to pay according to the Constitution.

Wisest would be for Blanco to commit to the spending under this bill, and the remaining $65 million can go for education and health care in damaged areas (retired educator needs will be more than addressed by shoring up the retirement systems). She should concentrate on these areas and pass on any pay raises. Again, prudence dictates that old problems be dealt with before new commitments get made.

16.5.06

Liberal hack writes Katrina polemic disguised as history

It’s official: it looks like the job of historian for the Gov. Kathleen Blanco administration has been filled, courtesy of Tulane academician Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge.

Brinkley has published an impressive array of books designed to recount history – almost as impressive as, from a 2004 article (premium content) about his previous work the hagiography Tour of Duty about Sen. John Kerry, his being “passionately devoted to just about every liberal cause and cliché – and, in Tour of Duty, it shows.” (The article goes on to show how Brinkley painted a selective, flattering picture of Kerry’s Vietnam days, ignored less-salutory evidence, riddled the book with errors, and then waged pejorative public relations campaigns against his critics.) But it’s something everybody in my profession already knows.

In my Twentieth Century American Foreign Policy course, I use as one of my textbooks his and his late colleague Stephen Ambrose’s Rise to Globalism. Here’s a line from its latest edition from p. 351, summing up their learned, complex, erudite impression of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy: “[R]eagan, despite the sneers of sophisticated critics, who regarded him as an object of ridicule, was somehow doing something right. Or perhaps he was just lucky.”

The voluminous documentation and analysis of Reagan’s foreign policy demonstrates beyond question just how shallow and uninformed this opinion is. And like his Kerry tome, it contains errors in fact, repeating falsehoods (such as the “October surprise”) designed to score partisan points in sections rather than present itself as serious history. (Needless to say, a reason I assign this book is that most of the rest are even less balanced than it, and it gives me a chance to provide contrast and correction to it; yes, Louisiana tax dollars are being used wisely.)

So it’s with little confidence that one should expect to see in Brinkley’s latest effort a dispassionate rendering of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. And, while I’ve not read (nor plan to waste money in order to) read the book, the excerpts of it I have read indicate that he doesn’t disappoint on this expectation.

I’ll stick to juts a few things, demonstrating how he tries to defend the poor, if not politically-driven, crisis management of Democrat Blanco while criticizing the man who beat his friend in 2004, Republican Pres. George W. Bush. He argues that the best course of action for Blanco, when asked by Bush to let the federal government take control of the state’s national guard (for political reasons), was in fact what she did, dither awhile and turn him down. Further, he asserts that, if not too detached, Bush was more interested in acting to shape his image, while Blanco was acting decisively to get buses into the city to evacuate people.

But if Brinkley bothered to read contemporary media accounts, he would know that Bush’s offer would have resulted in quicker action; instead, because Blanco saw the tragedy from the start through an entirely political lens, that was precisely why she delayed on the decision and then ultimately turned down an offer that could have started rescue operations much more quickly. Instead, she was more interested in who got what political credit or not than in getting help on the ground.

This is confirmed by Blanco’s own e-mail messages (some of which she initially tried to hide from investigators) that showed from the moment the magnitude of the crisis became apparent, she already was worried about how she and her actions would appear. She hand her staff obsessed about how they could shift blame to the White House – public documents Brinkley should have known about that absolutely refute his argument. Those same messages also reveal that she was very hesitant about the bus issue, thinking (finally, waiting two days despite her own evacuation plan) to send them, then apparently issuing a recall of them, and then sending them again.

All of this escapes Brinkley. It doesn’t get by local officials who, recently concerning a pending bill that would allow greater state takeover of local government during disasters, opined that the lesson they drew from Katrina was state government was the greatest impediment during the crisis. They felt they should be given the resources in the future, let them do their thing, and keep the state government out of the way.

Given his past behavior and just from these small snippets from this work, it’s a dubious proposition that it represents any thoughtful, informed analysis of the government response to Katrina, and we’ll have to wait for a genuine historical account that doesn’t aspire to the polemics we’ve come to expect from Brinkley. However, while the American people prevented him from getting a job as a Kerry Administration court historian, the good news for him is he seems well-positioned to get that job with Blanco.

15.5.06

Louisiana must tackle old issues before spending anew

A financial windfall is headed Louisiana’s way, current trends remaining as they are. And this good fortune should be treated this way – as a windfall and not something to count on consistently.

The Revenue Estimating Conference found $584 million in money for this year, but the bulk of it is in what is termed nonrecurring funds. Only around $100 million is expected to be in recurring funds, the bulk of that from sales and income taxes related to rebuilding the state after the 2005 hurricane disasters.

However, even before the hard numbers came out voices arose to bolster the chances of educator pay raises. Somewhat recklessly, despite the great uncertainty about Louisiana’s economy and storm-related costs, Gov. Kathleen Blanco had tossed in her budget this raise. With “extra” money now out there, that might provide enough of a cushion to grant it.

But before leaping, legislators need to take another good, long look. First, the concept of the raise rests on a dubious assertion – that state educators deserve it. Already, they are overpaid relative to indicators of student success. That should being pause to those who simply would hand out raises and hope for improved student achievement; better would be to implement an accountability system that rigorously and regularly assesses the knowledge of teachers regardless of how many years they have been teaching, with correction, demotion, and discharge as measures employed against those who are not capable. No raise should be given without also asking for increased accountability.

Also, there’s still enough uncertainty out there to merit cautious handling of funds. Witness the federal government flood assistance bills that have come due to the state – now up to $291 million for this year with a figure nearly 13 times that estimated to hit the state over the next eight to ten years. And what about the unfunded accrued liability that will cost the state billions of dollars – one bill in front of the Legislature would mandate $110 million a year for over 20 years paid to reduce this?

(As the REC met, the Senate Finance Committee also met to deal with a bill to reduce the state’s crushing $12 billion unfunded accrued liability in retirement accounts. There, Assistant Commissioner of Administration Jean Vandal made it known that Blanco would rather spend extra recurring revenues on raises than on fixing the existing problem.)

Oil prices won’t remain consistently this high forever, and it’s better to bank some money in the unpredictability left in the wake of the 2005 hurricane disasters. Why not work on the accountability system first, so it would be ready to go in a year or two when the true strength of Louisiana’s economy will be more obvious and forthcoming federal bills more predictable? Then, if the money is there on a recurring basis given other priorities, prudently the state can take another step in reforming its underperforming educational system.

14.5.06

Shreveport, Bossier City need to heed pro-growth agenda

From the looks of a summary of a recent report issued by the Urban Land Institute evaluating Shreveport and Bossier City, regarding the cities’ economic development it seems to make the right diagnosis, and in general identifies the correct cures.

ULI has a long history of providing advisory panels to areas for this purpose. In fact, its present highest profile supplicant is just south of here – the Bring New Orleans Back commission. Not that at all times can it provide the best advisors (one on the panel here, former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy, after a good start eventually succumbed to union and pro-tax pressure to help drive that city into financial receivership) or the best advice (one specific suggestion for here is to mimic Shreveport’s “Fair Share” city contracting program that goes to great lengths to disproportionately steer dollars on the basis of societal “disadvantage” which, like practically all other such programs, is ineffective and invites corruption much less discriminates against those business owners who presumably are not “disadvantaged”).

Still, the report does identify a major condition holding back the area’s economic development – parochialism. Both cities’ governments suffer from a “big fish/small pond” syndrome where more emphasis is placed upon using government policy to boost the power and prestige of those with power and their allies, perhaps more out of feelings of inferiority, than any realistic or coordinated strategy that can produce genuine and sustained economic growth.

This has led to the very wrong “Field of Dreams” theory of economic development pursued by both cities – build and development will come. In Shreveport, whose leaders feel slighted that the world seems to have passed them by, huge monuments arise or are refurbished, with others still being built, neither of which can ever hope to pay for themselves directly or indirectly, designed to get people to come to the city for short intervals to throw some money around. Meanwhile, as the city’s debt approaches a billion dollars, its infrastructure – on which government should spend its money instead of paying sports teams and developers or building convention centers and hotels – crumbles.

At least there is some principled dissent to this nonsense from a minority of political elites in Shreveport. Across the river, like lemmings marching to the sea, almost no politicians or their hangers-on buck the orthodoxy. Bossier City, whose leaders carry a chip on their shoulders because they think they get overshadowed by Shreveport, have latched onto the silly nouveau riche notion that building things better than Shreveport is the basis on which to launch an entire economic development boom, never fathoming that development comes from creating wealth, not from making it easier to turn what exists over by building a palace in which people can gather or by paying for a parking garage for venues where you sell rather than create.

The study says the two of them, as well as other area governments, should work together. That in and of itself qualifies almost as revolutionary given the cities’ leaders wariness of each other historically, but it also makes an even more radical proposal – regulate the process not by building stuff and by giving away taxpayer resources to specific targets, but by creating an environment where economic entities can keep more of what they create.

What if, for example, Bossier City hadn’t blown $78 million in cash on a money-losing arena and garage gift to a private developer? What if it instead had slashed sales and/or property taxes that could have set off a residential/commercial building boom and enticed business relocation and formation? (In the process, as the report suggested, revitalizing Old Bossier as a place for these new residential and commercial enterprises?) And continues to keep these taxes low to nonexistent courtesy of gambling proceeds?

What if, for example, Shreveport hadn’t blown $178 million in debt on a convention center and attached hotel? What if it instead spent that money repairing its water and sewerage system and on helping Bossier City build a pedestrian walkway paralleling the Long-Allen Bridge (as the report joins me in advocating), or put up its share with Bossier City for another two lanes for the Jimmie Davis Bridge, or paying for tax incentives to revitalize Ledbetter Heights and to encourage downtown residential development (still more report suggestions)?

This is real economic development, where government creates the environment for it to occur mainly by staying out of the way (and pockets) of entrepreneurs – not the big-spending, big government approach typically practiced in this metropolitan area. Maybe as a result of this report this time local politicians finally will understand this. If they had previously, the report probably never would have been commissioned.