22 September 2005

That Shoe Fits on Either Foot

Over across the river, the Strib ran an editorial by Anne Applebaum; she of WaPo fame. Applebaum is among the first to ask constructive questions about reconstruction in the wake of Katrina. It's good timing for the topic, because the politically-icky blame game is fast wilting, and Rita has all the makings of a bad sequel. What gets rebuilt for who, by who, and where, is a good dialogue that a lot of entities need to be having and soon, so bravo to Ms. Applebaum for teeing this one up.

The piss in the Applebaum's punchbowl, though, is that her whole point is framed around Mississippi Senator Trent Lott's home, he of lefty punching bag fame.

What interests me is not the now-tired question of whether the president ought to have promised to rebuild the Mississippi senator's family home on the Pascagoula beachfront before mentioning the lost homes of thousands of much poorer, less notorious people. What interests me is why his house was built on the beach in the first place.

She continues to make basically sound points, but she's only using half of the binoculars:

Houses or apartments with ocean views command higher prices. Beachfront property owners can demand higher rents . . . And, best of all, the risks of owning beachfront property, floods, hurricanes and erosion, are covered by other people. Federally subsidized flood insurance programs and state-subsidized beach "re-nourishment" programs ensure that taxpayers -- rich, poor, local, national -- pay for damage to property built close to the water. To put it differently, Lott's house was on the beach because you and I paid for it.

OK, all valid, but try this one on: The reason the overwhelming majority of people who lost everything in New Orleans is because their houses were in a geographic bowl just waiting to be flooded. Among the reasons they chose to live there are the fact that it was just about the cheapest place to live in the lower 48. They don't have ocean view (like Lott, we're to presume), but are also making an equally unwise housing decision in the unbiased eye of Mother Nature and based on the inevitabilities of the hurricane cycle. They are also going their homes rebuilt by all of us, long before anyone with a spine can float a legitimate argument about whether it's a good idea or not.

So the very poor in New Orleans are tempting the same fate as the very wealthy along the gulf coast. They don't swing the kind of political clout that the wealthy apparently do, but this is a group that pays little to nothing in the way of federal taxes or into insurance pools.

Put another way, why doesn't Applebaum's basic tenant apply to the 'other side' of the imagery she's painting? Because she doesn't want to cloud the picture she's trying so hard to paint:

Leave aside New Orleans for a moment, with its special history and its peculiar geography.

Isn't that a convenient way of getting out of the hypocrisy . . .

Focus instead on the rest of the Gulf Coast, much of which was wiped out no less thoroughly. Just like other hurricane-prone, flood-prone, erosion-prone parts of the country -- the Florida Keys, the Outer Banks, the Texas and California coasts -- the Gulf Coast recently has experienced an extraordinary building boom. In 2003 approximately 153 million people lived in U.S. coastal counties, an increase of 33 million people since 1980. By 2008, 7 million more will probably have moved there, too.

There you have it. The shoes will fit either foot, but Applebaum has only brought us one shoe. Applebaum not only tries to pretend that New Orleans should not be considered in her crusade for wiser development, but does so by using the convenient lever of the embattled Republican who happened to have a nice view.

Lott himself used his political clout to force an Army engineer out of his job after the man had the temerity to suggest that Mississippi stop building casinos along the flood-prone coast. Twenty of those casinos were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the 16,000 people who worked in them have lost their jobs and probably their homes as well.

If Lott acted improperly, then use the system go get him. If those 16,000 don't deserve jobs, then tell them so. Applebaum is making a clumsy and elitist class judgment about how people should earn a living. Would she rather have those folks out of work, not owning/renting, not buying groceries and cars and DVD players?

To reverse this trend, politicians would have to do a lot more than write checks and come up with neat new names for old housing programs. Instead, they would have to force coastal property owners to pay the real cost of the risk they incur by building in dangerous places.

Correct, Ann: If they choose to live in dangerous places, make them pay the real costs of their decisions, including those who live below sea level. Oh, wait, she slipped in the term 'coastal.' I guess that mean we don't get to consider New Orleans.

(W)hen President Bush finally gets around to drinking his alcohol-free mint julep on Lott's new porch, we can hope that he raises a glass to those of us who made it all possible.

That's a nice lefty touch for the ending: Rip a person struggling with a disease. I'm trying to recall if Applebaum made Marlboro Man gags upon Peter Jennings' death . . . better yet, try this ending: Let's all go over to this guy's newly taxpayer-rebuilt pad for a cold Heineken.

If you address the rural meth problem, exclusion of white people in mobile homes invalidates your arguments. If you are going to address street gang issues in Chicago, and you pretend that none are born of the Asian community, your points become invalid. The same goes for you, Ms. Applebaum: Unwise development and building cuts across race, income and class, whether you choose to admits it or not.

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