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Issue No. 76 (October 1, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

The Katrina dialogues

Intimations of the multi-partisan truth telling and creativity we need now

For many years, in my books and newsletters, I’ve been urging Americans to listen to one another and learn from one another and try to think creatively about our pressing problems.

Never was that more necessary than in the aftermath of Katrina.  For the most part, though, it  isn't happening, and the country feels more divided and unruly now than ever.

We may lack the power to knock people’s heads together.  But we can bring folks together on paper and make them listen and learn together there.

For example: Over three dozen significant politicians, policy analysts, and commentators take part in the imaginary roundtable below.  Some are left, some are right, some are "other." Everything I have them say is paraphrased from articles they’ve written or talks or interviews they’ve given since Katrina (all listed in the RE:SOURCES section at the end of this article).

All I’ve intrusively done is added an occasional first sentence. And added a facilitator named “Dio.”

It would, perhaps, be pretentious to claim that Dio’s name comes from Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who searched with a lantern -- in the daylight! -- for an honest person. So let’s just say it comes from “diorama,” a kind of art that takes one- or two-dimensional figures and transmutes them into multi-dimensional scenes.

Multi-dimensional, multi-partisan, and oh so badly needed.

Scene One. Introduction

Dio (facilitator): I hope you know why you’re all here.

Michael Tomasky (American Prospect): Yeah, it’s to use the hurricane to --

William Greider (former political correspondent, Rolling Stone) [eagerly]: Did you say “cocaine”?

Tomasky [to Greider, under his breath]: F---in’ Christ, you nitwit, we’re on tape. [To Dio.] It’s to use Hurricane Katrina to expose the insidious failings in the whole conservative project!

Rebecca Hagelin (Heritage Foundation): Ugh . . . you people! [Collects herself.] I am here to explore how the liberal refusal to teach civility, decency, and morality gravely compounded the problems after Katrina!

Neal Peirce (Citistates Group): Well, I am here to listen to all of you. A really open process, tapping the best of both private sector and government talent to forge inventive new approaches, should pass muster with conservatives and progressives. And frankly, guys, every party has so much to learn and benefit --.

Rich Lowry (National Review): If the tableaux of suffering in New Orleans prompts meaningful soul-searching by all of us, then maybe there can be a Grand Left-Right Bargain that includes, say, greater attention to out-of-wedlock births from the left in exchange for the right’s support for more urban spending. [Grimaces.] Anything is worth addressing the problem of fatherlessness.

Dio: I say let’s try for two, three, many Grand Bargains!

Scene Two. Post-Katrina planning

Greider: Only the federal government can lead the rebuilding. I’m drawn to Ted Kennedy’s idea for a “Gulf Coast Regional Development Authority,” modeled on FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority.

Naomi Klein (The Nation): Bill, enough with the centralization already! The People should rebuild New Orleans, the exact same people most victimized by the flood. The effort should be led by grassroots community coalitions --.

R. Glenn Hubbard (American Enterprise Institute): Both of you are dreaming. A group of national business leaders should be convened -- with federal support, of course --

Klein: [cynical laughter]

Hubbard: -- to conceptualize the revitalization of New Orleans in line with free market principles!

Dio: I suspect there are ways to integrate all your concerns into the planning process.

E. J. Dionne (Brookings Institution): “Livability” is the concept that can bring it all together. That odd but increasingly popular word embodies the idea that if governments plan right AND in cooperation with local citizens, they can safeguard the environment, create better lives for families, and let loose sustainable private-sector growth.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) [in characteristic mock turtleneck and sport jacket]: A lot of people laughed when Radical Middle Newsletter named me the most visionary member of the 108th Congress; nobody’s laughing now that it’s common knowledge that I warned against New Orleans’s vulnerability back in January. But this is no time to revisit the past. [Blumenauer smiles wanly. Or is it a smirk?] Instead, we should take our blindness as a sign that we can only reconstruct the Gulf Region after we’ve devised a plan to do it wisely and well. We are haunted -- haunted -- by our failure to plan for winning the peace in Iraq, and it would be tragic if we jeopardized our ability to recreate vital communities by failing to adequately plan for Katrina reconstruction!

Peirce: We need a new New Federalism for the 21st century. Not some form of Washington-mandated command and control like under FDR and LBJ, not federal disengagement like under Reagan and W., but rather a process of direct engagement, mutual respect, consultation, and open democratic processes.

Blumenauer: Exactly. I call it building a “citizen infrastructure.” Citizens at every social and economic level should review what happened and participate in long-term recovery planning.

Robert Grow (Envision Utah): There are precedents for this. We learned in Utah that looking at alternative futures through “scenarios” is the best way the public can engage and actually see what their choices are. We tried to be as inclusive as possible by approaching the largest businesses, banks, developers [Grow looks directly at Hubbard], but also at environmental and community groups and the faith-based community.

Peirce: It’s already happening with Katrina -- the press just isn’t tuned in yet. Like, the Enterprise Foundation and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the biggest “intermediaries” that finance low-income housing, have already sat down with low-income residents and community groups and leaders of faith communities to discuss just how their communities should be rebuilt. And in Mississippi --

Dio: -- which I still remember from 1964-65 [sighs] --

Peirce: -- the Governor has empowered former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale to bring in Andres Duany and his Congress of New Urbanism to organize a huge set of “charrettes,” broad community forums, to plan rebuilding.

Scene Three. Post-Katrina employment

Dio: I am thrilled to see that our President has stepped up to the plate on this one.

George W. Bush (President of the United States): Hi, guys. I think the feds should provide “Worker Recovery Accounts” of up to $5,000 to every Katrina evacuee, whether or not they’ve stayed in the Gulf Region and whether or not they plan on ever going back. They should be able to draw on these accounts for job-related education and training. For child care and transportation while training or looking for work. And -- and -- for all the other stuff they need to help ‘em return to work!

[Spontaneous applause by nearly everyone.]

Margy Waller (Brookings Institution): OK, there’s value in giving people choice, maybe even especially when they’re down on their luck. But choice works best when you have information about, like, what training is available, and are there really jobs at the end of that tunnel, and where? And we have no infrastructure to provide that information!

David Gray (New America Foundation): We know that in the Gulf Region there are going to be huge needs in four areas: infrastructure, health care, communications, and energy. Can we somehow close the gap between the skills needed in those areas and the skills of the local people?

Dio: The Gulf Region is going to lose people permanently if we don’t act fast, though.

Allida Black (Center for American Progress): Why don’t we help people develop job skills NOW which they can put to immediate use in the Gulf?

Former Sen. John Edwards (Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, UNC-Chapel Hill): I agree! We ought to make sure that the people who have lost their homes and jobs and are now displaced, are able to rebuild their own communities in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast.

Black: Let’s have the government connect with organizations that can train those who want to return to rebuild their communities. Like, Habitat for Humanity is making thousands of ready-to-be-assembled homes for shipment to the region. Let those who want to return home work with Habitat -- not only to learn basic carpentry, electrical, and plumbing skills, but also to help rebuild the communities they loved.

Blumenauer: I’d like to establish “cash for work” programs in New Orleans and the Gulf similar to those established by the Mercy Corps in Southeast Asia after the tsunami. I was there --

Nancy Lindborg (Mercy Corps): -- so I was hoping you’d mention us! After the earthquake and tsunami, we paid villagers to do projects they identified as most important. In one typical village in Indonesia folks began by clearing the road into their village, just so they could pick through the remains of their houses and have the military recover the bodies. By now that village has a new well, a generator that runs the water pump, and enough lights to allow people to extend the workday well into the night!

Bush: Did’ja know that back in ‘73, when I was supposedly young & foolish, I spent nine months working for PULL, a nonprofit program in inner-city Houston, tutoring kids and giving motivational speeches and connecting a lot of well-to-do folks with the program?

Dio: I wonder why Karl Rove never has you mention that part of your story. I hope you’ll bring it up more now.

Scene Four. Post-Katrina housing

Dio: But George, what were you thinking when you proposed housing Katrina victims in hundreds of thousands of mobile homes and trailers?

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ): FEMA’s already gone ahead and purchased 300,000 manufactured homes! I tell you, FEMA is a disaster!

Michael Lind (New America Foundation): I can imagine “FEMAvilles” becoming new ghettos across the South.

Newt Gingrich (former House Majority Leader): Ghettos of despair.

Susan J. Popkin (Urban Institute): If they simply put poor people in mobile homes, they’ll be recreating the same troubled neighborhoods that were destroyed. And we know how to do this better.

Bruce Katz (Brookings Institution): It’s not rocket science. If you turned on the voucher faucet, you’d have people in apartments within a week!

Edgar Olsen (housing economist, University of Virginia): We’ve got to scrap the mobile home contracts for rental vouchers. Rental occupancy rates are at historic lows, as are rents. There are more than 1.1 million available units in the South, with an average rent of less than $700. Houston’s vacancy rate is over 15%.

Bush: OK, OK, guys, you’ve convinced me.

[Stares of utter disbelief from more than half the people in the room.]

Peirce: I know for a fact he changed his mind -- I just called my office. Three-month housing vouchers are now being issued to displaced families, letting them move out of temporary shelters and into the rental housing market. The vouchers can be used for rent and security deposits and can be used anywhere in the country that hurricane families have landed since the storms.

Klein: It’s not enough! There are ways to convert vacant apartments into cheap or free housing. After passing an ordinance, cities could issue Section 8 certificates, covering rent until evacuees find jobs --.

Peirce: Naomi, Naomi, sometimes always demanding “more” is counter-productive. The prelude to our friend George’s change of heart was not really our astute reasoning, but the fact that on September 15 the Senate voted unanimously -- unanimously! -- to support an amendment by a Democrat to create a $3.5 billion program of rental assistance. That prelude was a rare act of current-day bipartisanship.

Greider and Hagelin [in unison]: It won't last.

Dio: Part of our task is to see that it lasts.

Scene Five. Racial aspirations

Dio: John, I know you’ve got something special to add.

John McWhorter (Manhattan Institute): As hundreds of thousands of blacks return to New Orleans, where so much will have to be rebuilt from square one, this could be an opportunity to create a thriving black working class! For years to come the city could offer opportunities for poor blacks to get training in construction, white collar jobs, medical and foster care. There could also be an unprecedented chance to create small businesses to serve communities as they rebuild. It would be so healthy & exciting for the black community to re-create in the Gulf the kinds of struggling but coherent black communities that integration dissolved!

Gregory Rodriguez (New America Foundation): I’ve got news for you, John. African-Americans will not be first in line to rebuild the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Impoverished white Cajuns will not be first in line. Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, will. Haven’t you noticed that the Department of Homeland Security has stopped sanctioning employers who hire workers who can’t document their citizenship? The idea is to benefit Americans who may have lost everything in the hurricane -- but the main effect will be to let contractors hire illegal immigrants. And I say, Viva La Nueva Orleans!

Dio: Look, maybe we’ll have four coherent and increasingly successful communities down there -- Hispanic, African-American, working-class Cajun white, and middle- to upper-class white. And undoubtedly a fifth community, Stanley Crouch’s rich “gumbo,” some exciting and ever-evolving admixture of all four. I can live with that. I look forward to that!, so long as most everyone down there is gainfully employed.

Scene Six. Partnering with nature

Dio: I’m not so sure I look forward to another round of heroic dike-building, though.

Bruce Babbitt (former Secretary of the Interior): We should learn from Florida. Until the 1940s they had a real Maginot Line mentality -- just build another dike in the path of the last hurricane and hope for the best. Now they’ve developed a flexible battle plan to manage water across the entire landscape of South Florida.

Blumenauer [eyes blazing]: Holistic is necessary but not sufficient! We need to employ natural solutions wherever possible. We should use the protective forces of nature to protect us from the destructive powers of nature. One thing that means is restoring the natural floodplains in the Gulf region. Green infrastructure is often cheaper and more effective than pipes and concrete --.

Dio [brushing back long hair]: So I suppose you’re preparing for a knock-down, drag-out with the political right.

James K. Glassman (American Enterprise Institute): It’s not the Sixties any more, Dio. Many of us on the so-called right acknowledge that higher levees will not be able to stop another 100-year storm. The lowest areas of the city and its surroundings should probably revert to wetlands and floodplains -- grand natural parks. I would only add that we can’t stop there. The city will need substantial floodwalls to compartmentalize the high water, and massive surge barriers such as those that protect London from the Thames and Venice from the Adriatic.

Ross Gelbspan (author, The Heat Is On): Great statement, Jim, but please don’t call Katrina a “100-year storm.” Its real name is global warming! As the atmosphere warms, it generates longer droughts, more-intense downpours, more-frequent heat waves, and more-severe storms. Katrina actually began as a relatively small hurricane. But it was supercharged with extraordinary intensity by the relatively blistering sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scene Seven. Flood insurance

Dio: That puts flood insurance on the front burner, doesn’t it?

Blumenauer: I have already offered legislation instructing the National Flood Insurance Program to provide a disincentive to property owners to live in repetitively flooded areas. In addition, the legislation would provide repeatedly flooded homeowners with assistance in either elevating their homes or moving their homes away from flood waters.

Anne Applebaum (author & syndicated columnist): That’s helpful, Earl, but we can’t just spend our way out of this mess. We should require coastal developers to pay heavier taxes and higher insurance premiums. And we should introduce stricter building codes. In truly unstable places, we should prevent any new construction at all.

Anonymous (representative from Washington Post Editorial Board): Our great newspaper, arguably the best in America now [Greider and Hagelin groan], is prepared to say that flood insurance should be compulsory, as auto insurance is; and we should price flood insurance according to where you’re located. By pricing flood insurance accurately, the government would drive housing development to higher, drier land.

Klein: Aren’t you forgetting something?

Anonymous (Post rep): OK, in some places that have acute shortages of safe land, like New Orleans, this may inflict hardship on the poor. But the best way to address that is to offer means-tested subsidies in those jurisdictions! Surely we can all agree that we don’t want to offer subsidies to rich and poor alike all over the nation.

Scene Eight. Culture of poverty

Dio: OK, time to deal with the elephant in the room.

Nicole Gelinas (Manhattan Institute): The story of those who looted, trashed, and terrorized New Orleans that first week is already being re-written by liberals. In real life, the storm didn’t destroy everyone’s homes and livelihoods -- fellow citizens did a big chunk of that work!

Dio: I’ve got to admit, I read the Associated Press wire that first week because its stories seemed a lot more gory than those in the New York Times.

Theodore Dalrymple (City Journal): Desperation for food and drink hardly explains why rescue helicopters should have been fired at, and a pediatric hospital attacked.

Gelinas: On a normal day, those who make up New Orleans’s dangerous criminal class terrorize their own communities. After Katrina struck, the whole city became their hostage.

Dalrymple: In no instance that I recall did the survivors of the tsunami mention having been robbed by other survivors. And there were no reports of looting or other forms of public disorder after the recent floods in Bombay.

Jennifer Moses (journalist, Baton Rouge): What my wonderful friend Becky sees when she takes her kids to school or to the dentist is a whole neighborhood, just a few blocks from our own, where every third household exists on welfare; parents routinely abuse their kids; young men deal drugs; prostitutes ply their trade; and rap music extolling the joys of gang rape and murder blasts out of every other car!

Gelinas: Sad to say, most of the 100,000 or so people who stayed behind were not only poor in financial resources but in “human capital” as well.

William Raspberry (syndicated columnist): I’ve often asked young black men where they expect to be 10 years from now, and their earnest expectations include “nice job, nice wife, nice car, nice crib” -- though nothing they are doing or planning puts them on track to achieve those goals.

Dio: So what can we do, besides passing the nice measures outlined above, measures that imply that culturally everything is A-OK?

Robert J. Samuelson (economist & syndicated columnist): There are limits to what can be done. Much poverty involves personal behavior that government can’t easily alter.

Kevin Merida (reporter, Washington Post): And we’re already spending money hand over foot. Excluding Social Security, Congressional researchers say there are more than 80 poverty-related programs, which in 2003 cost $522 billion.

Dio: If 50 million of us are “poor,” that comes to $10,440 per poor person per year!

Edwards: We need to say some simple truths. It is wrong when boys and young men father children but don’t care for them! It is wrong when girls and young women bear children that they aren’t ready to care for!

Dio: But Senator Edwards, those are just words.

Edwards: OK, how’s about this. The government insists that young fathers work and take responsibility for their children. In return, the government agrees to help find them a job.

Lowry: Hey, I like that. Especially since, in my view, the root of poverty is the breakdown of the family. Roughly 60% of the births in New Orleans were out of wedlock.

Gelinas: Please, pretty please, can we do something to put violent criminals behind bars?

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ): I’d like to see everyone arrested or detained by federal authorities be forced to provide samples of their DNA.

Dio: Now it’s only those who are convicted, right?

Kyl: Right. Many criminals are serial predators with prior arrests but no convictions. So the only way police are realistically likely to convict such people before their third or 10th or 20th crime is by maintaining a DNA database of all who are arrested.

Raspberry: Some of us might be willing to consider something like that, IF this country is also helping young black men and women get on track to achieve their goals.

Michael Dannenberg (New America Foundation): That means American schools have got to assume what I call their “community-building” function.

William Galston (Communitarian Network): Exactly. If I could raise a magic wand, by eighth grade every rising ninth-grader would be attached to an adult who understands that young person and the life forces that might propel that young person forward. I’m not talking about some warm, fuzzy bond. I mean someone to help the young person answer that question that the middle class has largely figured out: What do I do next?

Ray Boshara (New America Foundation): There also needs to be a core of financial education, to make sure people can handle the financial aspects of their lives.

Edwards: We have got to attract good teachers into poor areas. We have simply got to give them incentives to go there. And we have got to strengthen our early childhood programs.

Gov. Mark Warner (D-VA, and one of Edwards’s rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination): Now you’re talking, John. It seems to me that the data is absolutely clear that, from an investment standpoint, from a brain-development standpoint, from a policy standpoint, there are few places we can get a better return than early childhood initiatives.

Dio: Doesn’t Virginia have preschool for at-risk three-year-olds now?

Warner: Hey, we have “New Parent Tool Kits” now. It’s amazing the challenges some parents face. So partnering with the private sector in Virginia, we’ve created this tool kit that goes out to the parents of all new infants with appropriate information, calendars -- we even include a Goodnight, Moon, the perfect children’s bedtime book, for good keeping to all these parents.

Dio: There is so much good in this bad world. If we keep on listening to and learning from each other, surely we can see this planet through.



All passages above -- except for certain first lines -- derive from the documents below.  Most are freely accessible via the Google search engine (www.google.com).

Anonymous: “Rethinking Flood Insurance,” Washington Post (editorial), September 21, 2005

Applebaum: see Anne Applebaum, “Back to Trent Lott’s House,” Washington Post, September 21, 2005

Babbitt: see Bruce Babbitt, “What Florida Can Teach Us,” Washington Post, September 22, 2005

Black: see Allida Black, “Lessons from History: A Blueprint for Revitalizing the Gulf Coast” (policy brief), Center for American Progress, September 15, 2005

Blumenauer: see Congressman Earl Blumenauer, “Rebuilding the Gulf States: A Congressional Action Plan for Katrina Recovery,” Blumenauer for Congress (website), no date; see also Blumenauer quotes in Dionne below

Boshara: from Satin’s notes, “A Post-Katrina Policy Agenda” (brown-bag lunch event), New America Foundation, September 22, 2005

Bush: see George W. Bush, “President Discusses Hurricane Relief in Address to Nation” (speech transcript), Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, September 15, 2005; Neil Irwin, “‘Recovery Accounts’ Revive a Controversial Bush Initiative,” Washington Post, September 17, 2005; Shankar Vedantam, “Temporary-Home Plan Announced,” Washington Post, September 24, 2005

Bush’s experience at PULL: see Bill Minutaglio, First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty (Three Rivers / Crown, rev. 2001), pp. 149-52

Dalrymple: see Theodore Dalrymple, “The Veneer of Civilization,” National Review, September 26, 2005

Dannenberg: see under Boshara above

Dio: claims to have been deeply influenced by Search for Common Ground, Washington DC (present at the founding, 1982), Judicial Arbitration & Mediation Services, New York NY (intern, 1993-94), and Center for Dispute Settlement, Washington DC (course certificate, 2004).  Claims to have enjoyed Tom Atlee's Tao of Democracy (2003), Mark Gerzon's A House Divided (1996), Barry Johnson's Polarity Management (rev. 1996), Linda Singer's Settling Disputes (rev. 1994), and William Ury's The Third Side (rev. 2000).

Dionne: see E.J. Dionne Jr., “Visions of the New New Orleans,” Washington Post, September 20, 2005

Edwards: see Sen. John Edwards et al., “Restoring the American Dream: Combating Poverty and Building One America” (event transcript), Center for American Progress, September 19, 2005

Flake: quoted in Jonathan Weisman, “Critics Fear Trailer ‘Ghettos,’” Washington Post, September 16, 2005

Galston: quoted in Raspberry below

Gelbspan: see Ross Gelbspan, “Katrina’s Real Name,” Boston Globe, August 30, 2005

Gelinas: see Nicole Gelinas, “A Perfect Storm of Lawlessness,” City Journal, September 1, 2005; Gelinas, “Rebuilding New Orleans Will Take a Miracle,” Dallas Morning News, September 5, 2005

Gingrich: see under Flake above

Glassman: see James K. Glassman, “How To Rebuild a Great City,” Scripps Howard News Service, September 12, 2005

Greider: see William Greider, “A ‘New’ New Deal,” The Nation, September 16, 2005

Gray: see under Boshara above

Grow: see Robert Grow, “Envision Utah Provides Model for Civic Engagement,” The Planning Report, June 2004; see also discussion of Grow in Peirce, “Katrina’s Opportunity,” below

Hagelin: see Rebecca Hagelin, “Throwing Out the Thugs,” World Net Daily, September 6, 2005

Hubbard: see R. Glenn Hubbard, “A Post-Hurricane Action Plan Should Focus on People,” Financial Times, September 19, 2005

Katz: see under Flake above

Klein: see Naomi Klein, “Let the People Rebuild New Orleans,” The Nation, September 26, 2005; Klein, “Purging the Poor,” The Nation, October 10, 2005

Kyl: quoted in Jonathan Krim, “Bill Would Permit DNA Collection from All Those Arrested,” Washington Post, September 24, 2005

Lind: see under Boshara above

Lindborg: see statement of Nancy Lindborg, hearing on “Tsunami Response: Lessons Learned,” Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Senate, February 10, 2005

Lowry: see Rich Lowry, “The Coming Battle Over New Orleans,” National Review Online, September 2, 2005

McWhorter: see John McWhorter, “Racism! They Charged,” National Review, September 26, 2005

Merida: see Kevin Merida & Michael Fletcher, “For the Poor, Sudden Celebrity,” Washington Post, September 22, 2005

Moses: see Jennifer Moses, “Why Baton Rouge Is Still Bush Country,” Washington Post, September 25, 2005

Olsen: see under Flake above

Peirce: see Neal Peirce, “Katrina’s Opportunity: A New New Federalism,” Stateline.org, September 20, 2005; Peirce, “Post-Hurricane Gleams of Light?,” Peirce Columns, October 2, 2005

Popkin: see under Flake above

Raspberry: see William Raspberry, “Poor Women’s ‘Magical Outlook,’” Washington Post, September 26, 2005

Rodriguez: see Gregory Rodriguez, “La Nueva Orleans,” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2005

Samuelson: see Robert J. Samuelson, “Discovering Poverty (Again),” Washington Post, September 21, 2005

Tomasky: quoted in Emerging Democratic Majority Staff, “Hurricane Politics Challenges Dems to Recast Strategy,” Donkey Rising (weblog), September 22, 2005

Waller: quoted in Neil Irwin article cited under Bush above

Warner: see Gov. Mark Warner et al., “Using Preschool to Close the Education Gap” (event transcript), Center on Children and Families, Brookings Institution, September 27, 2005


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