Politics and reconstruction

Posted: Sep 21, 2005 12:00 AM

It is sad evidence of the bitterness, intense partisanship and mindless ideology of our current politics that President Bush's proposal for the reconstruction of New Orleans and the other devastated gulf communities has been received with such thoughtless criticism across much of the political spectrum.

 In the minutes and hours after the president's speech, famous journalists were criticizing the president for wearing a blue shirt ("it didn't set off well from the blue background") and the location of his speech ("picking a beauty spot when he was only yards from destruction was dishonest").

 The sheer shallowness and vacuity of such observations at our first moment of serious, national consideration of one of America's worst calamities is breathtaking.

 Worse, the pettiness of the president's loyal opposition -- Sen. Harry Reid and other leading Democrats -- holding press conferences before the speech in order to criticize what they had not yet even heard further discredits their standing as serious statesmen.

 In lonely and noble exception to such attitudes stands the article by Donna Brazile (a leading Democratic Party partisan and campaign manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign), who thanked the president for his unprecedented support of New Orleans and the gulf region and offered to work with him to make it a great success.

 Some people will note as almost an excuse for her fine statement (in fact, privately, a couple of Democrats in town have already said to me) that she is from New Orleans -- as if that excused her failure to viciously attack the president. Has it come to that in our political class? Are they completely unable to see a national obligation when it arises -- and behave accordingly?

 It is manifestly impossible for Louisiana (and Mississippi) to handle their crises. They were two of the poorest states before the hurricane. Now they have lost much of their economic base. Good heavens, the entire economic activity of New Orleans has been extinguished for some unknown length of time.

 We are one nation -- one admittedly raucous family -- and when a member of our family has been overwhelmed beyond any plausible ability to manage by itself, the rest of the family must unite to save it. Afterward, we can continue the bickering -- if we must.

 On the conservative side, a certain ideological rigidity is on display. A conservative television host, among others, deplored the president's statement that historic racism had a role in poverty. Now, I fully share (and have written on in the last week) the conservative view that persistent poverty in the inner cities is substantially caused by government welfare programs that breed dependency -- not by the remnants of racism in our society. And if that is all the president had said, I would have raised a skeptical eyebrow.

 But the president's outline of his approach to the redevelopment was stunningly Kempian: Enterprise zones, individual job-training accounts, tuition vouchers for parents of schoolchildren, urban homesteading. His opening proposals minimize bureaucracy, and maximize individual initiative and responsibility.

 In light of such commitments, the president's one-sentence reference to "historic" racism should have been seen as a bow to the sensibilities of many of our citizens (and also a gesture of ideological modesty that despite our convictions, there may be a small "racism" truth as well as a larger "dependency" truth to the causes of poverty).

 When it comes to paying for this vast project, predictably, the liberals said raise taxes, the conservatives said cut spending, and President Bush said raise the deficit.

 All three reflective answers have their shortcomings. Paying it all with taxes would have a depressive, job-killing effect on an economy that is OK but could turn down if we are not careful.

 Budget cuts are essential but won't be enough. In my judgment, at least, reducing appropriated spending over the next six to 12 months by about $50 billion is doable but would be extraordinarily hard. (We could start with $25 billion of earmarked highway construction and send that money to the more pressing needs of gulf reconstruction of downed bridges and washed-out roads.)

 More is simply not politically plausible. Remember, in 1995, Newt Gingrich's 104th Congress cut about $50 billion out of actual appropriations -- it took a year of intense political and budgetary struggle to accomplish. Now we are going to need at least $200 billion.

 That leaves deficits -- President Bush's preferred financing method. With Treasury revenues up recently, low inflation and low long-term interest rates, the economy can probably absorb that level of further debt.

 But it should make us all very uneasy. Deficit would approach or pass 5 percent of GDP. War costs continue to mount. Another terrorist attack could cost as much to manage. And overhanging all that is the vast structural deficits of Social Security and Medicare that in a very few years will make a deficit of 5 percent of GDP look like Victorian fiscal probity.

 Is it beyond the imagination of political realists to pay for the reconstruction with substantial budget cuts, modest tax increases and the remainder in debt?