"And for My Next Trick, I'll Pull a Job Out of My Hat"

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"And for My Next Trick, I'll Pull a Job Out of My Hat"

In the wake of the damage Katrina inflicted on New Orleans, conservatives have suddenly discovered something about the Big Easy: "Holy safety net, Batman -- there's a lot of poverty and urban dysfunction here." The tone of their words betrays an incredible naivete.

Just this week, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote:
The devastation is complete in [New Orleans'] predominantly African-American Lower 9th Ward, 36 percent of whose residents live below the poverty level. Their houses, in poor condition before the floodwaters, are not worth replacing.

... Developer Jimmy Riess, a member of the mayor's commission, calls New Orleans public schools the worst in the country and wants them totally reformed.
But aren't conservatives arriving rather late at the scene of the crime?

This article from a 1940 issue of The Atlantic Monthly reminds us that poverty, poor housing stock, corruption and struggling schools are not a recent phenomenon in New Orleans and much of Louisiana. In his 1940 article, David L. Cohn reflected on the environment that had propelled Huey Long into politics several years earlier:
New Orleans had been politically rotten since 1870. For years its police had collected tribute from prostitutes and gamblers; elections were bought at a dime a dozen .... and the municipal services of the South's largest city were those of a tank town that had just been struck by a tornado.

Louisiana, potentially one of the richest states in the Union, had shamefully neglected education, health, roads, and other public services. The mass of the people wallowed in poverty.

New Orleans, for instance, had only a small economic middle class. Its principal residential streets were merely palm-studded facades concealing dozens of mean little streets filled with the houses of the poor.
So there's good news and bad news. The good news is that Novak and his conservative brethren have actually been forced to talk about an issue they felt quite comfortable ignoring for years.

The bad news? Their solutions are more of the same warmed-over, free market rhetoric -- "enterprise zones" and the like. Judging from his column, Bob Novak seems to have spent more time talking to business executives than to ordinary residents. The best hope that Novak could offer for New Orleans and vicinity was that some business owners told him that once "businesses can reopen ... the magic of commerce will do its work."

So even if you lost your home in Lousiana and nearly all of your most cherished possessions, don't lose hope. Behold the "magic of commerce."

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