I missed the Bush speech the other night, and from the coverage, I can’t say I care. The idea of making No Man’s Land an “enterprise zone,” like the idea of auctioning off “surplus” federal lands, only justifies the fears expressed by some locals that the wealthy would be taking over the former homes of the (black) low-income residents of New Orleans. It’s bad politics and bad policy.
It’s indisputably true that we have to think twice about how the new New Orleans will be built, but planning to integrate low-income housing with middle class homes and commercial activities is a better solution than letting the wealthy buy up land. This isn’t a case where deregulation is the right solution. We know that part of the problem in No Man’s Land was that poverty kept many people from successfully preparing for the flooding and from evacuating the area. A plan that doesn’t specifically account for the greater poverty in New Orleans than in the nation at large will fail.
I’ll also say that the idea that we can spend billions on rebuilding Iraq and the South without rethinking the idiotic tax cuts of the early Bush years is profoundly wrong-headed. Now’s the time to re-instate the estate and gift tax and to freeze future tax cuts. Now is the time to impose a small hike in gas taxes to pay for reconstruction, reduce gas consumption while Gulf refineries and oil rigs are rebuilt, and free up resources for the reconstruction. Now is not the time for additional tax cuts, especially not for the very richest Americans.
There’s a certain Cassandra syndrome in the left side of the blogosphere. Just as we predicted that the invasion of Iraq would be quick and successful, but the reconstruction would be a disaster, I’d hate to be right in saying that the Bush plan will fail the people most at risk.
Government exists for one grand purpose: to insure against the unlikely catastrophes and the vagaries of dishonesty. Rush Holt said “The essential role of government is to provide for its citizens in their time of need.” I’d say that’s pretty apt. I think we can generalize and say that the role of government is to bring out the best in human nature. The Bush proposal fails that.
I think it’s closest to the American ideal, the spirit of neighbors borrowing a cup of sugar, or grabbing a bucket and running to help when they see smoke coming from a neighbor’s house. The government does best when it integrates the actions that private citizens would take if they could.
Some time in the next week, I’m going to start pimping Habitat for Humanity. I started out focussing my efforts on the Red Cross (if you haven’t yet, drop some cash with the link at the right). They do great work cleaning up the aftermath of these sorts of crises and getting refugees settled quickly. The time is getting close when we have to start thinking about rebuilding, and that’s where Habitat comes in.
The government needs to do the same thing. Shift from the responsive mode and start really planning. Anyone who’s read The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs knows that city planning is best when it respects neighborhoods that grow organically. Planning rarely works as well as ad hoc communities, which is why, even though No Man’s Land is a relatively clean slate, we’d do best to use the old layout as a starting place and change only in accordance with the advice and consent of the people in the neighborhood.
There’s a place for experiments in conservative ideology, and there’s a time for wild and potentially flawed ideas. Bush got those chances with Iraq, with Medicare, with failed tax cuts, with No Child Left Behind. Maybe now is a time for sensible, moderate and consensus driven policy. How’s that for a new direction?