The recent headlines in the Times-Picayune have been grim: “N.O. Is Murder Capital for 2006,” “Insurers Bilked Flood Program,” “Details Murky on How to Get Evacuees Home,” “Louisiana National Guard Has All the Troops It Needs for Hurricane Season, But Many of Its High-Water Trucks Remain in Iraq,” “It’s Hurricane Season: Six Months of Bracing for the Worst While Hoping for the Best.” Things have been that way for almost two years, so Tuesday’s headline, “Jefferson Indicted in Bribery Scheme,” didn’t hit home with the thud that it might have elsewhere.
Down here, outside the “Green Zone,” we are almost numb to news of societal decay, governmental incompetence and political corruption. But in the rest of the country, the news of veteran Democratic Representative William Jefferson’s indictment on sixteen counts of money laundering, racketeering and other crimes as part of an alleged seven-year bribery scheme in which he and his family bilked the developing world for hundreds of thousands of dollars, should be a call to action, the final straw. The very possibility of a government that serves the common good is at stake.
Here in New Orleans we have been disabused of such a utopian relationship between the state and its citizens. Our former populist governor, Edwin Edwards, is growing old in a federal prison. Nearly everyone in former Mayor Marc Morial’s inner circle has been indicted or is under investigation for self-dealing or kickbacks in contracts for the city’s meager public services.
Many of our elected judges sit in the same orange prison jumpsuits as the inmates they harshly sentenced. Millions of dollars from our struggling public schools disappeared annually, without a trace, before the state took over. Though there are astounding public needs in this devastated city, there is no public trust, nor hardly any real expectation of civic entitlements. Perhaps this is the reason that, following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans did not get a New Deal or a Marshall Plan but a “recovery” based on the Republican Party’s fundamental distrust of government and inclination toward market-based solutions.
As President Bush explained in his solemn evening speech before New Orleans’s backlit St. Louis Cathedral, when most of the city was still in darkness, “It is entrepreneurship that creates jobs and opportunity; it is entrepreneurship that helps break the cycle of poverty; and we will take the side of entrepreneurs as they lead the economic revival of the Gulf region.” And, clearly, with headlines like “A Troubling Bayou Tradition: Louisiana’s History of Corruption Bodes Ill for the Relief Money Headed Its Way” appearing in publications across the country, the post-Katrina recovery effort was not an ideal place to begin a discussion of first principles about whether government or the private sector should take the lead in redeveloping this wasteland. Too much corruption for too long among the most populist leaders here had answered the question in practical terms in a manner that rendered the theoretical question moot.