Editorial Roundup for Saturday n September 24, 2005

  • Rebuilding the Gulf: At a crossroads in New Orleans

Rebuilding the Gulf: At a crossroads in New Orleans

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 22

As crossroads go, Jackson Square in New Orleans is ordinarily a lovely spot, a civilized place for musicians and artists, a place to watch the world go by over chickory cafe au lait and hot beignets. But Jackson Square was dark and dank Thursday night when President George W. Bush arrived at a crossroads for his presidency to announce “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.” Mr. Bush hopes the $200 billion effort will do for the devastated Gulf Coast what the Marshall Plan did for post-war Europe.

His plan, and the still-unplumbed depths of government incompetence responding to Hurricane Katrina, brought the nation to a crossroads as well. Does America abandon the conceit that government’s job should be to get out of the way and let the free market work? Does it return to the notion that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by creating more government and increasing taxes to pay for it? Or does it give President Bill Clinton’s “third way” another try, harnessing government and private enterprise?

Mr. Bush, desperate to reverse his plummeting approval ratings, struck off down the third way, uncharacteristically accepting blame for the government’s inept response.

The “Gulf Opportunity Zone” he announced Thursday will rely heavily on federal tax incentives and loans help out small businesses and individuals. An “Urban Homesteading Act” will give Gulf residents a shot at free federal land if they promise to build homes on it. Evacuees will be eligible for up to $5,000 in grants for job training and education. On Friday, the president ruled out any tax increase to help pay for Katrina’s damage, but didn’t say anything about a higher federal deficit.

These are the sorts of incentive-based programs that Republicans prefer over free-spending Democratic programs. But there is much of that in the president’s plans, too. The federal government will rebuild Gulf infrastructure without state help, and reimburse states for the cost of providing social services to evacuees. To make sure the money is accounted for, all of the programs will be over-seen by a team of federal inspectors general.

Fiscal conservatives in Congress – there are still a few left – blanch at the thought of adding $200 billion to a federal budget deficit already estimated at $333 billion, at least not without offsetting budget cuts elsewhere.

Antitax leaders hoped to push more tax cuts through Congress this fall, continuing their assault on New Deal idealism. But Mr. Bush’s support has ebbed. For one thing, he can’t cut taxes and still afford guns in Iraq and butter in New Orleans. For another, he has suddenly discovered that many people who lived in New Orleans were poor.

Democrats, of course, prefer to spend freely and to offset those costs by reversing some of the tax cuts of Mr. Bush’s first term. They’re also suspicious that rebuilding efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans will look like those in post-Saddam Baghdad, an orgy of unaccountable corporate cronies feeding at the federal trough.

The reality is that the era of big government never actually ended; the beneficiaries merely changed. Poverty pimps were replaced by pork pimps, consultants and contractors and their pet congressmen who gamed the system.

The challenge for Mr. Bush, and for thoughtful people on both sides of the aisle, is not to end big government or to extend it. The challenge is to steer it honesty, fairly and competently.

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