Friday, January 13, 2006

Saving New Orleans neighborhoods is too much paperwork 

While you read the snippet below from today's Wall Street Journal, recall that Rep. Richard Baker's bill is the foundation for so many of the urban planning recommendations made by the Bring Back New Orleans commission. The Baker bill basically seeks to form a corporation that will buy out stricken homeowners and their lenders, and sell unwanted properties to developers. (Granted, it's not perfect. The bill could become a boondoggle for large out-of-state developers for example.) But everyone here agrees something like the Baker bill is necessary to resurrect New Orleans' battered neighborhoods. In a city with very little widespread agreement, there is near-unanimity on this score. (More here on Baker's H.R. 4100. )

WSJ "Bush returns to Storm-Battered Gulf Coast" (sub. req.):

Mr. Bush says he is committed to rebuilding New Orleans's flood walls "bigger and better than ever" but so far has supported only a $3.1 billion effort to put them back the way they were before the storm. City officials say much rebuilding is unlikely unless the levees are substantially upgraded.

The administration is also cool to legislation that would buy out landowners whose property was ruined by the storm. Aides say the White House is leery about the proposal from Republican Louisiana Rep. Richard Baker not only because of the price-- $80 billion perhaps-- but also because such a program doesn't comport with the administration's philosophy of shrinking Washington bureaucracy.

So we have more despicable anti-Louisiana back-door maneuvering from the Bush administration in order to perhaps sink the Baker bill for a second time. First off, eighty billion is a figure only critics of the bill have used, and is a gross distortion of the possible costs to the government, which Baker has been extremely careful about estimating. But the really interesting thing about the above quote is the second objection voiced by unnamed "aides". They actually claimed the bill "doesn't comport with the administration's philosophy of shrinking Washington bureaucracy"?!?! Are you kidding me?!!

Let's get this straight: an American city suffers through unfathomable catastrophe, is teetering on the verge of economic collapse, and has placed nearly all its hopes on an innovative proposal to save the area from a paralyzing foreclosure crisis (which leads to blight and crime and depressed housing market)....

...and what does the Bush administration do? They work behind the scenes to kill the innovative proposal in December, and now they have aides expressing concern about how this bill might interfere with "shrinking bureaucracy in Washington". Under Bush, the "size and scope" of government has radically increased, yet, it's the paperwork in Baker's bill which is of deep concern to the White House. So, presidential aides give the national press another bullsh-t reason as to why the Baker bill should be sunk: it would add to the "bureaucracy" in Washington.

Add this to Bush's measly 2% down payment on restoring Louisiana's protective coastal wetlands, and his pledge to rebuild our sorry levees back to only Category 3 strength. Yet, big-time Republicans like Boysie Bollinger want us to think Bush is this state's "best friend".

I can see how Bush might be Boysie's best friend. (Photo by David Grunfeld T-P.)

But as far as Louisiana is concerned, with friends like Bush, who needs... (I'll let y'all fill in the blank to that one.)


The Times-Pic has this to say:

A buyout program proposed by Baker, R-Baton Rouge, is widely seen as a critical part of the city's rebuilding plan. The measure failed to pass Congress last month, but it enjoys near uniform support among Louisiana politicians here and in Washington.

But after Thursday's meeting, Nagin, who attended the powwow and sat on the president's left, said Bush remains skeptical about the bill in its current form. Nagin said the president's doubts center on the legislation's ultimate price tag, and on the unprecedented federal involvement in a local matter Baker's plan may represent.
"Chairman Powell will be meeting with Rep. Baker in the near future to discuss his ideas," a White House spokesperson said. "We certainly want to help find solutions with the housing issues, but we do have concerns with adding another layer of federal bureaucracy."
But on what most city leaders consider the paramount issue for rebuilding -- the construction of a levee system that could withstand a hit from a Category 5 storm -- Bush remained coy. In fact, neither he nor Powell, who flew down on Air Force One with Bush and attended the meeting, have ever voiced support for Category 5 storm protection, which carries an uncertain price tag and could take years to complete. Asked directly about it on several occasions, both men carefully sidestepped the matter, and Bush did so again Thursday.

Coyness. That's what you want from a President or Reconstruction Czar when they talk about the most important issue facing your stricken city. Yeah, by all means, please mince words and make no firm commitments. That's helpful.

Why can't Bush just have the testicular fortitude to say what he really thinks: "No, we think Category 5 levees are too expensive. The country is fighting a trillion dollar war right now, and my promise to cut the deficit in half by 2009 is looking more and more like a pipe dream. So twenty billion is too much to spend to protect South Louisiana with Cat 5 levees. Unlike Senate Minority leader Harry Reid, we think Category 3 is good enough for New Orleans."

Richard Baker's reelection campaign blogroll includes Little Green Footballs. What an enlightened choice! I always find the most thoughtful comments there.

Sadly, no Louisiana blogs seem to be link-worthy.
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Heckuva President 

President Bush (remarks made September 2, 2005):

I want to congratulate the governors for being leaders. You didn't ask for this, when you swore in, but you're doing a heck of a job.
Again, I want to thank you all for -- and, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA Director is working 24 -- (applause) -- they're working 24 hours a day.

Again, my attitude is, if it's not going exactly right, we're going to make it go exactly right.

President Bush returns to New Orleans January 12, 2006:
President Bush made his first trip here in three months on Thursday and declared that New Orleans was "a heck of a place to bring your family" and that it had "some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun."

Mr. Bush spent his brief visit in a meeting with political and business leaders on the edge of the Garden District, the grand neighborhood largely untouched by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, and saw little devastation. He did not go into the city's hardest-hit areas or to Jackson Square, where several hundred girls from the Academy of the Sacred Heart staged a protest demanding stronger levees.

Mr. Bush added that "for folks around the country who are looking for a great place to have a convention, or a great place to visit, I'd suggest coming here to the great New Orleans."

Mr. Bush, who appeared to be trying to spread optimism in a city that is years away from recovery, did not tell the group or the city's residents what many were hoping to hear: that he would commit the federal government to building the strongest possible levees, a Category 5 storm protection system.

Instead, on a day when the Bush administration revised the deficit upward to more than $400 billion and blamed it largely on Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush restated his support for spending $3.1 billion of federal money on building "stronger and better" levees.

"Do what now?"

(T-P photo by David Grunfeld)
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More parallels than a trainyard 

There's a NYT op-ed by professor Morgan Cloud from Emory University that revisits a domestic wiretapping scandal from back during the days of LBJ. (Imagine for a sec being on Johnson's sh-tlist and having Hoover in the FBI; that is, imagine being RFK). Anyway, I'm going to quote liberally from this piece because... well, because I think there are more useful parallels between the Johnson and Bush administrations than any other.

Cloud begins by asking "Can we trust claims that the unregulated monitoring of telephone conversations by the executive branch does not threaten our privacy because the president has authorized spying only upon people linked to terrorist groups?"

We learn that "national security" became the justification for illegal wiretaps during the Eisenhower administration, and, though the Supreme Court was "outraged", Eisenhower's attorney general argued that the President could take such extraordinary measures in order to preserve the nation's security.

Guess what happened next?

In the decade after this authorization, the F.B.I. installed hundreds of electronic bugs and a large percentage were in criminal investigations having nothing to do with Communists, the cold war or the nation's foreign enemies. One figured prominently in the scandal that erupted during Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

In 1966, an influential Washington lobbyist named Fred Black asked the Supreme Court to reverse his conviction for tax evasion. The case was potentially embarrassing to President Johnson because Black was an associate of Bobby Baker, a Johnson protégé. Before Black's legal proceedings were resolved, Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall advised the Supreme Court that as part of an unrelated criminal investigation, F.B.I. agents had illegally installed microphones in Black's hotel suite and recorded conversations between Black and his lawyers, and that prosecutors in the tax case had unknowingly received information from those bugs. Although Marshall argued that prosecutors had not used that information against Black, the Supreme Court ordered the Johnson administration to submit a report explaining the source of the F.B.I.'s authority to conduct this electronic surveillance.

The court's order provoked intense press coverage and a high-stakes political battle involving Johnson, Hoover and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. In an effort to force the Justice Department to report that Kennedy had approved the bugging during his tenure as attorney general, Hoover lobbied within the Johnson administration and leaked information to the press. Kennedy, however, explicitly denied that he had approved the illegal electronic surveillance of Black or others.

Kennedy was vindicated when the Justice Department report submitted to the Supreme Court by Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach named Hoover as the person who had authorized the illegal bugging. Although Hoover claimed that every recent administration had informally approved the practice, only the 1954 Brownell memorandum documented an explicit grant of authority for the illegal installation of electronic bugs. The F.B.I. had turned an administration's assertion of authority to eavesdrop on the nation's enemies into a justification for listening to private conversations unrelated to national security.

The Supreme Court reversed Fred Black's conviction. At his second trial, Black was acquitted. Within months of telling the Supreme Court that Hoover had authorized the bugging, Katzenbach resigned as attorney general. He later said, "I could no longer effectively serve as attorney general because of Mr. Hoover's obvious resentment of me."

But the fundamental issue was not who would win these power struggles or even which official had authorized the illegal bugging. It was that an executive branch agency had engaged in domestic spying free from any oversight by other government institutions. The courts and Congress soon acted. In 1967, the Supreme Court decided two cases imposing Fourth Amendment restrictions on electronic surveillance. One opinion cited the Black case in a discussion of bugging for "prosecutorial purposes." In 1968, Congress enacted a statute that established comprehensive restrictions on wiretapping and electronic surveillance - including a judicial warrant requirement.

This bit of history shows how, unregulated by either the courts or Congress, the F.B.I. was free to expand a grant of authority to combat our cold war enemies into a license to spy on ordinary citizens. With an unchecked executive branch, we should fear that similar abuses may be occurring today, in our war on terrorism.

Like historian Douglas Brinkley says, history can remind us that our times are not uniquely oppressive.
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Thursday, January 12, 2006

525,600 minutes 

That's the length of these new extended NBC Winter Olympics commercials, which include MTV "Real World" style first-name introductions to our athletes. (Lovely noted this and thought it was blog-worthy.) I saw one of these promos which featured an entire Donnas song, wherein the group performed on a snowy mountain amongst jazzed-up winter Olympians. Now, I like the Donnas, but that got tedious rather quickly.

Speaking of commercials, is anyone else getting alarmed at the level of sadism displayed in these Capital One spots with David Spade and his chubby office underling? Jeezm, after getting beaten and electro-shocked, what's next for this sad boy?

A very special "Q & A session" in a dark (but well-equipped) Egyptian basement?
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Breakin' 2: River Levee boogaloo 

World Class has more info on the "How close did the River get to overtoppin' the levees" issue I mentioned last week. Since nasty Kat had one of the largest storm surges ever recorded, it's somewhat reassuring to hear that the levees had more than a few feet to spare (though dillyberto has eyewitnesses who say it was within a foot or two of the levee tops). This is a complex matter, however, and hurricane structure/angle/strength factors into the equation along with the seasonal river level. (And, presumably, many many other variables.)
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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"Where the green grass grows, there can't be wrong..." 

So the Bring Back New Orleans commission is proposing that most of the historic Broadmoor neighborhood become... green space!

If neighborhoods like our flood-ravaged part of town can't justify their viability within the next 4 months, they'll become parks. Homeowners will be reimbursed (more or less) and those who refuse to leave their homes will be forced to do so.

"Ain't no right", you say?

Au contraire! By "virtue" of eminent domain, the gubmint can force you out.
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YRHT won't annoy you ever again. 

Pawpaw alerts me to a new law which says you can be either annoying or anonymous, but not both. Therefore, I will choose to preserve my closely guarded anonymity, and will never write any commentary that might annoy someone, because Snarlin' Arlin the most distinguished senior senator from Pennsylvannia likes it that way.

We shouldn't question the wisdom of the man who developed the "Magic Single Bullet Theory" to JFK's undoing.

That might annoy someone.
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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Political analyst and Gambit Weekly editor Clancy Dubos spoke at last Thursday's Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans meeting.

It was packed, and he made some general but perceptive observations including: politicians are attempting to fit the new post K reality into the old political boxes, which obviously isn't working so well. Secondly, and most importantly, he challenged Citizens to not stop at Levee Board Consolidation (their current goal) and begin thinking about other political reforms. He lists many possibilities in the latest Gambit editorial (undoubtedly penned by himself). One such reform includes reforming the seven Orleans parish tax assessor offices.

A throwback to the days when city politics revolved around its wards, New Orleans' seven-assessor system has remained popular among voters mostly because people love the idea of being able to go down to City Hall and eyeball the person who assesses their property -- knowing that person needs the taxpayer's vote to keep his or her job. While quaint, this notion has not produced even-handed assessments citywide -- just as assessors from different parishes often vary significantly in their assessment practices. Here again, while New Orleans will be the logical place to start, small parishes with relatively few residents should likewise be forced to consolidate with their neighbors.

Again we hear the "we have seven assessors because we like to reach out and touch them" line. That's not the whole truth. New Orleans has seven assessors because they keep voters mollified with ultra-low assessments, and because-- due to their political connections-- they rarely face significant opposition during elections. Not only are their rarely updated asessments not "even-handed citywide", they are not even-handed within their own districts! This is something that must be changed soon.

State Senator Julie Quinn was also in attendance, wearing a "Make Levees Not War" shirt. I found that interesting. A salty Mojo Nixon lyric briefly came to mind.
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Dillyberto, who you must each day for his Saintly inspiration, has made some early New Orleans City Council endorsements.
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Good links and comments in this post at Suspect Device blog (it's more than a great comic!).

I would only add Angus Lind's recent column , which describes a most juvenile and disgusting Katrina related charity "event". Teaser quote: "It's all about can your body take the toxic shock?"
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Texas model an "extreme example" of corrupt government 

So says David Broder's latest column, which explains how Tom Delay merely follows the corrupt tradition of Lyndon Johnson... and other Texans. Read the whole thing if you can, but here's the money quote:

Washington has lived with an incestuous relationship between business and government for many decades -- and the Texas model is simply an extreme example of its familiar pattern.

Certain GOP legislators and federal officials did their utmost to trumpet Louisiana's histoy of corruption after it was devastated in Katrina's aftermath. When it came to helping the gret stet, suddenly every federal penny was precious to the same Congress that outspent Lyndon Johnson.

Surely, surely, they must have similar concerns about the beaucoup tax dollars being funneled to Tejas-- right?
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Monday, January 09, 2006

A new Lowe's store near the N.O./Jefferson city line on Jeff Hwy is being built with mind-boggling speed. If you have lunch at Crabby Jack's across the street, you won't believe how much is accomplished before your eyes while you enjoy a seafood-stuffed mirliton.

It reminds me of a nature show I saw about the growth of young chimpanzees (or monkeys, I can't exactly recall). Apparently, during their early development these chimps are growing so fast that you can actually hear it.

Their bone and muscle growth is audible to the human ear.

I always found that amazing.
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Sunday, January 08, 2006

From an excellent Adam Nossiter piece in the NYT:

Into the void of the post-Katrina policy landscape, littered with half-ruined proposals, crumbling prescriptions and washed-out initiatives, an obscure and very conservative congressman has stepped in with the ultimate big government solution.

Representative Richard H. Baker, a Republican from suburban Baton Rouge who derides Democrats for not being sufficiently free-market, is the unlikely champion of a housing recovery plan that would make the federal government the biggest landowner in New Orleans - for a while, at least. Mr. Baker's proposed Louisiana Recovery Corporation would spend as much as $80 billion to pay off lenders, restore public works, buy huge ruined chunks of the city, clean them up and then sell them back to developers.

Desperate for a big-scale fix to the region's huge real estate problem, Louisiana officials and business leaders of all stripes - black and white, Republican and Democrat - have embraced this little-known congressman and his grandiose plan, calling its passage crucial. While the White House has yet to sign on, there are already signs that some Congressional leaders are interested in pursuing it; Mr. Baker said administration officials had not rejected it outright.

The passage of the bill has become increasingly important to Louisiana because the state lost out to the greater political power of Mississippi last month when Congress passed a $29 billion aid package for the Gulf states region. The package gave Mississippi about five times as much per household in housing aid as Louisiana received - a testimony to the clout of Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and Senator Thad Cochran, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Louisiana officials say they were forced to go along with the appropriation, because they may not have received an aid package at all otherwise. But now they are focused even more intently on Mr. Baker's buyout bill; many economists here say there may be no alternative to buyouts for homeowners who cannot make mortgage payments on ruined properties.

"It's probably one of the few last best hopes out there for people whose homes were flooded, and had no flood insurance," said Loren C. Scott, an emeritus economist at Louisiana State University. "Without this kind of help, there's a very large number of people who are just sunk."

James A. Richardson, director of the university's Public Administration Institute, said, "It's the only game in town, to a certain extent."
A sobering early flyover of the ruined neighborhoods in New Orleans convinced him that ordinary solutions would not work. Here was a problem way beyond the capacity of private enterprise. "In this case, everything's gone," Mr. Baker said. "Total elimination. So I have argued that this does require a precedent-setting remedy. And if we don't do this, what do you foresee for the region two years from now?"

Soft-spoken, mild-mannered and with the choirboy demeanor of a minister's son, Mr. Baker has spent years toiling in arcane financial-services regulation. With the calm of a man used to consorting with bankers and poring over balance sheets, he lays it all out: tens of thousands of strapped homeowners, owing millions in mortgage payments on properties of dubious value, to multiple lending institutions.

His effort is filled with paradoxes. Mr. Baker has devoted much of his Congressional career to reining in the quasi-governmental lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, saying they have too much power. Now, "as free market as I am," he said, he wants the government to take action in a way it never has before.
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