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What New Orleans can teach North Carolina


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This dispatch comes to you from the city of New Orleans, where my wife and I have been visitors the last few days. I love New Orleans but it scares me too. It's a city dripping with money on one block and reeking with poverty the next. Great jazz and blues musicians play in bars flanked by raunchy strip joints. And that's in the best part of town.

NOLA thrives on tourists and gamblers. But the wealth is spotty, and the pathologies of those whom it has passed over are all around. Our screaming cab driver, with his many hatreds. The kids who were drinking in the French Quarter one night and sleeping, or begging, on the sidewalk the next morning.

This is my first time in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. The recovery is complete in some places, a patch job in others. But in the infamous Lower Ninth Ward, the low ground where the water was deepest and flooding the longest, the devastation remains; the efforts to restore it have fizzled, leaving the Lower Ninth Ward a wasteland.

What strikes me about New Orleans is that, eight years after the flood, it is a case study of this country's political paralysis in the face of major challenges that threaten to tear us apart. In simplest terms, we've lost our ability to invest our resources for the public good. Instead, we've decided—or rather, the Republican Party, which governs us by obstruction, has decided—that we must be "market-driven" and leave the investing decisions to those with wealth to invest and returns to reap for themselves.

Thus, New Orleans' public schools, terrible prior to Katrina, have been abandoned, in part to the state—which doesn't want them—but mostly to charter-school operators, who vary wildly in quality. Some are quite good. Some are so bad, based on their test scores, that their proprietors lose their charters at the end of a school year, leaving parents and students to scramble for an opening elsewhere the following year.

It's like letting somebody work on your teeth for a year or two and then—oops—realizing he wasn't actually a dentist. And shouldn't have been given a drill.

To take a different example, New Orleans' roads are a moonscape of giant ripples and deep, teeth-rattling potholes.

Our friends John McLachlan and his wife, Christopher, have been our hosts. They live part-time in Raleigh and part-time in New Orleans, where John is a professor of environmental science and pharmacology at Tulane University.

John said one reason the streets in New Orleans are so rippled is that the city is built on sand, which was pushed around by Katrina. But another reason is that the state of Louisiana, under Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and a tax-cutting, GOP-controlled Legislature, refuses to spend money on the sinful, Democratic city of New Orleans.

Sound familiar? Louisiana, according to BallotPedia, is one of 24 states with a Republican trifecta—control of the governor's office and both houses of the Legislature.

So too, as of this year, is North Carolina, where Republicans are gunning for the traditional public schools, touting charter schools and vouchers for private schools instead—and gunning for Raleigh.

All this is magnified by the fact that the Republicans also control the U.S. House of Representatives, which enables them to prevent federal spending and even force the current "sequestration" of previously appropriated funds. The federal spending cuts fall most harshly on cities and the poor, because their needs are greatest. Add to that, in Republican-trifecta states, cuts to education, transportation and Medicaid funding, and you have a disaster in the making for the urban poor.

Katrina was a natural disaster, though arguably it was the first of many superstorms we can expect due to climate change. Still, the scale of the damage was well within the scope of the federal and state governments to overcome had they chosen to do so.

But as John said, the political will simply wasn't there to rebuild New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods. And what little will did exist dissipated in the Great Recession of 2008.

Today, the streets in the Lower Ninth look like they were bombed. You take a car there at your peril. For every house that's been restored, 10 are boarded up, in a state of collapse. Or they've been removed, and a vacant, usually overgrown lot is left behind. A few people live there. Those with a choice have moved.

Ironically, the evidence that the nation and Louisiana could've restored New Orleans is on display elsewhere in the city. The National World War II Museum, featuring "Beyond All Boundaries," a film for which Tom Hanks is narrator and executive producer, is testimony to what the United States is capable of when it pulls itself together.

Attacked by Japan in December 1941, the U.S. needed less than four years to land 16 million troops and an unbelievable amount of ships, planes, armament and supplies in Europe and the Far East and, with our allies, defeat our enemies.

The war was fought with borrowed money—borrowed, via war bonds, almost entirely from one another. It was borrowed from Americans, paid to Americans and, when the war ended, it led to the greatest period of sustained prosperity in this nation's history.

We fought with common purpose then, and 290,000 Americans died for our nation. Today, our nation requires only that we live for it and invest in it. But it does require that much.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Political paralysis."



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