Philanthropist and Open Society Institute Chairman George Soros

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros arrived in New Orleans Tuesday to survey the progress of his foundation’s social investments, and after being in the city for less than 24 hours, he said he intends to increase his involvement in post-Katrina recovery efforts.

Such expansion of giving comes at a time when other foundations have begun phasing out their activities here. Likewise, federal recovery benefits are expected to expire next year, and media coverage has slumped into “Katrina fatigue.” He was not specific about his current level of giving or how much it would increase.

Soros is in town for a meeting of his Open Society Institute, a grant-making foundations that has doled out millions worldwide. The Institute’s grants in New Orleans include financing part of the operations of The Lens.

Soros said he has not been to the city in many years, though OSI has been financing grassroots efforts in New Orleans, particularly in criminal justice, for the past ten years.

The Lens sat down with Mr. Soros and Ann Beeson, his executive director of U.S. Programs, Wednesday morning in his downtown hotel room for a 45-minute discussion on Katrina recovery, education, criminal justice, media, leadership and racism. Here are the highlights from our conversation:

Soros on Media:

“The foundation is not well suited to be in the newspaper business because it is a business and has to be run as a business. So it is basically a losing proposition. We’ve tried to strengthen the field as a profession and keep it alive, such as with investigative journalism, but the business would be a trap for the foundation.”

On Leadership:

“I think leaders naturally emerge … I don’t like leadership courses because it makes people kind of conceited, and makes them think they … ought to be treated differently, and that they should have some type of entitlement.”

On Racism:

“I think actually America is a more or less success story as far as integration is concerned, and there’s always more to be done. … I’m quite concerned about America in many ways, but as far as racial integration is concerned, it is a success, though it’s an ongoing process.”

On Education:

“[With] No Child Left Behind, to meet the standards demanded of the schools, the schools get rid of their troublemakers by putting them into the juvenile justice system. So most of the kids in the juvenile justice system are put in there directly from the schools, by the schools, and once you’re put in there your fate is sealed.”

On Criminal Justice:

“This diversion of public spending on putting people in jail and keeping them there is an incredible waste of money and of lives … it is one of the most outrageous systemic failures in America.”

On the post-Katrina Recovery:

“In some ways it may have been a blessing in disguise that the recovery is slow because now you have the beginnings of an engaged electorate … now maybe when [full recovery] happens [government] will be less corrupt than it would have been otherwise.”

Check in later this week for video footage and more coverage of  The Lens interview with George Soros.

— Brentin Mock