Are we booming or bankrupt? Let’s keep the campaign conversation going

Soren Kierkegaard yearned to look forward as confidently as we look backwards.

Niels Christian Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard yearned to look forward as confidently as we look backwards.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard observed that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” A nice turn of phrase, but most of us already grasp the concept: The lessons learned from the past don’t remove future risk from present choices. Nothing’s guaranteed in the Casino of Life. We still have to place our bets and take our chances.

If we ever do learn how to understand “forwards” it would simplify decisions — especially those made in the voting booth. We wouldn’t get swept up in political campaigns that play on our hopes and fears. Instead we’d make logical choices among candidates whose futures were readily apparent.

Saturday’s elections seemed to reinforce Kierkegaard’s maxim. Mayor Mitch Landrieu captured nearly two-thirds of the vote and was decisively re-elected. Meanwhile, Landrieu’s predecessor, Ray Nagin, prepared to endure the second week of a corruption trial. News stories couldn’t resist the stark contrast between their respective fates.

Landrieu breezed to re-election with the same ease he came into office four years ago, when he won every precinct in the city save one.  That 2010 landslide was commonly seen as a buyers’ remorse election, because four years earlier — amid the ungodly mess after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood — New Orleanians gave Nagin another term on the job. He beat Landrieu by four percent in a runoff.  We didn’t know then what we know now.

Testimony at Nagin’s corruption trial suggests that his alleged malfeasance was worse than most suspected. Federal prosecutors paint Nagin as a criminal who obtained payoffs for city contracts and leveraged his public office to secure funds for the granite countertop business he owned with his sons. This is far removed from the Nagin we thought we knew at the time: unpredictable but easy-going, bold but ineffectual. Prosecutors have presented evidence that shows Nagin making overtures for contracts to Home Depot executives.  Daily trial coverage describes Nagin offering to help the company ease out of an arrangement that would have required it to guarantee high-paying jobs for community residents.

If that’s true it means Nagin wasn’t clueless. He was actively selling us out.

Well, much has changed since the Nagin era. We hope. Under Nagin, we wondered if the mayor was too lackadaisical to ever follow through on his policy ideas. Now, under Landrieu, the concern is over-implementation. There’s no question about engagement, or who’s in charge, or the will to follow through. The problem now is whether the results of the mayor’s policies match his rhetoric.  And if they don’t, will Landrieu listen to critics who point out the disparity, or try to steamroll them?

The election might have been a lost opportunity for a vigorous public re-examination of the “discontent” over the city’s current trajectory. Both of Landrieu’s challengers, former judge Michael Bagneris and Danatus King, president of the local NAACP chapter, appealed to the notion that New Orleans is two cities— one blighted and languishing, the other ”new” and prosperous. The Dickensian scene they painted dovetails with an increasingly charged debate over gentrification — waves of new residents coming into historic neighborhoods. Ballooning housing prices (and property taxes) have meant rent increases for many longtime residents.

Instead of being “sold out” by a Nagin, focused on feathering his nest, allegedly through bribery and kickbacks, are we being “priced out” by Landrieu administration policies that favor an upper-crust influx that’s crowding out the poor? And if so, why?

At various intervals, we’ve seen the Landrieu administration freak out for fear that the city’s recovery will collapse due to ineluctable fiscal obligations that run into the billions. They include: flood protection upkeep, a sewerage system overhaul, federal consent decree expenses for the city jail and police department, and the firefighter’s pension bailout. Federal disaster-recovery dollars have dried up, and most residents who planned to return have already done so. Therefore, the city’s tax base must quickly expand to pay for these additional burdens or else … doom, apparently.

This summer, Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin rang the alarm in an op-ed that claimed “tough decisions” are necessary if New Orleans is to avoid Detroit-style bankruptcy. I wonder to what extent those decisions have already been made. Notwithstanding all their rhetoric about city unity, does Landrieu’s team essentially believe that the fiscal situation is so dire rapid expansion of the tax base is the only antidote to urban collapse? Is it gentrify now or go bust?

As higher-income people move in, will we see an exodus of low-income natives who are forced to move out of their suddenly “cool” neighborhoods? Where will they go? To the languishing areas that are affordable but still blighted and depressed? Will these neighborhoods, in effect, become the city’s “sacrifice zones”— collections of displaced locals who have to “sit tight” while the influx of taxpayers pays off the city’s debts and infrastructure expenses?

We’ll revisit these questions, because they will persist, but don’t worry: In five or 10 years, we’ll have a better understanding of the answers. Of course, by then we’ll have already voted in a new administration and be living (if we’re that lucky) with new problems. In the meantime, let’s interpret Landrieu’s re-election as the continuation of a conversation — not the end of one.

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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • scotchirish

    1) If it’s an obligation, it’s ineluctable.

    2) Please describe how to prosperity without increased property values.

  • Mark, how can a “booming NOLA” and an Engaged Workforce have an increasing population, but with each election after Hurricane Katrina, have less and less total votes cast?

    Population: 223k(’06), 336k(08′), 343k(’10), 369k(’12);
    Total Mayoral Votes Cast: 108k(’06), 89k(’10), 84k(’14)

    So is there something contradictory with these number above? The Vote numbers are far more SOLID in population counts. This means the tax base is SHRINKING, just like it has been doing for the last 50 years…This is financially bad as it is step in the bankruptcy direction.

    If New Orleans and Louisiana is going to survive it will have to learn there is NO FREE LUNCH and it cannot, and has never made any positive tax revenue off Mardi Gras, Parades, Second Lines and these Free Festivals it has every other week. If it did make any money, where did it go? as the streets, lights, you name it, are still not fixed.

    The only ones who make any money are the promoters, like float makers, and alcohol distributors…..This is similar to the California Gold Rush….only those that sold the picks and shovels made any money off the Gold Rush.

    Second. CITY EMPLOYEE PENSIONS FUNDS.40% of all city tax revenue goes to former city employees. Any increase in tax rates will have 40% go to pension funds.

    IN SUMMARY, there are Two things “might” avoid bankruptcy as one hurricane or evacuation will hurt bad:
    (1) GET RID OF THE FREE LUNCH CULTURE (see above for examples)

  • Mark Moseley

    1) Hey, only one redundancy! I’m improving.
    2) Prosperity for whom, and at whose expense?

  • Mark Moseley

    “How can a ‘booming NOLA’ and an Engaged Workforce have an increasing population, but with each election after Hurricane Katrina, have less and less total votes cast?”

    Decline in turnout.

  • Wasn’t it good weather this past Feb 2014 election? And wasn’t NOLA supposed to have an “Engaged Workforce”? Hence, shouldn’t this engaged workforce be more inclined to turnout in greater numbers? And add to that a “reportedly” increasing population?

    Reported Population is going up and up, the “ranked this and that” are supposedly up and up, yet total votes casts is going down and down???

  • Mark Moseley

    In 2006, there were about 300k reg voters for Orleans despite only 200k living in the Parish. Remember, the reg vote numbers then were based on Nola’s pre-K population of ~440k. That year, a CLOSE mayor’s race drew national attention. Turnout was also higher than in subsequent elections. As some of the displaced never returned, reg voter totals declined. Now it’s about 243k.

    So the decline from 2006 to 2010 simply tracks pre-K/post-K population decline. The (smaller) decline from 2010 to 2014 — well, that could be a function of people expecting Landrieu to win, but not feeling enthused enough to show support or pissed enough to cast a protest vote.

    It seems pretty clear to me that the population has increased substantially in recent years, and continues to do so. Is it your belief that the media reports — many of which are based on the 2010 census or other studies– are wildly off the mark? Say, by more than 10 percent of the true count? If you had to pick a population number– what would it be? 375k, 300k, 275k??

    Now, if voter rolls remain stagnant as the city’s population continues to (reportedly) increase— for example, if in late 2017 we’re supposedly at 420k pop but with only 250k registered voters, and there’s another decline in election turnout in a contentious, wide-open mayor’s race— well, that would obviously present a big question mark about the population numbers.

  • scotchirish

    Maybe the increased population is mostly juveniles, illegals, and convicted felons.

  • If you look at the Orleans Parish electrical permits and Orleans Parish electrical hookup over the years after Hurricane Katrina and compare that to the “stated” population growth, you ask, “where in the world are these people living?” Look at New Orleans East and the 9th Ward. They are always in the news for lack of progress and no one really living there.

    Next, look at the schools that are closing and have very reduced enrollment. Xavier Prep, after almost 100 years, the administration realized it couldn’t stay open. Yes, the alumni think differently, but that’s a different story. Loyola U had a 30% enrollment drop last year and then cut, or asked early retirement, of 76 staff and faculty. Xavier U. also still hasn’t gotten back to it’s pre-Katrina enrollment.

    Then, there are a host of oil companies who have left after Hurricane Katrina. Avondale Shipyards who is almost shutdown and that’s a big hit right there. The same can be said for Michoud. And what about the New Orleans Regional Business Park? Only the custodian is left. And if you read the entrepreneurial blogs, you read that the most gung-ho and active people are leaving Nola.

    Let’s then look at sales tax revenue. Notice how the city isn’t talking about that separately, but combining that with other numbers like property taxes and total operating budget. Why not break out that number, sales taxes, from everything else and compare that year to year? From what I read, sales taxes are barely going anywhere, but “inflation” is going up and up. So any increase in sales tax revenue could be attributed to just inflation, as opposed to POPULATION increase. Stuff like food and drink has gone up dramatically in Nola, easily 10% across the board in one year.

    So, let’s see it’s stated the population is 369K. The population appears have like at least 25-30% Spanish people in New Orleans, not the 5%. (Isn’t there some new Spanish media building on the I-10 near Causeway? And hasn’t the number of cash checking services and Spanish stores exploded?) So, let’s say half the Spanish are illegals, very migrant, or live month-to-month, that would leave half of the 30% who are Spanish, which would be like 15% in overall population

    15% off of 369k = 313k
    20% off of 369k = 295k
    25% off of 369k = 277k

    20% population inaccuracy seems very possible in anything goes Orleans Parish.

  • scotchirish

    I don’t think you answered the 2nd question. If everything has to stay the same, how do you change?

  • Mark Moseley

    Well, change is inevitable, even in New Orleans. So the question becomes: What changes should we promote? Despite the talk of a unified city and the need for a diversified economy, it seems that recent waves of higher-income “gentrifiers” are concentrating in a few neighborhoods along the river, boosting rents and property values while other areas languish. City leaders might believe this is a wholly necessary dynamic — the only way the city can rapidly expand its tax base to pay for infrastructure and municipal debts. But it’s also a dynamic with serious consequences to many low-income, longtime residents. My point is that this is a conversation that could have occurred during the campaign, but (mostly) didn’t. So, let’s continue it, and not act as if the lopsided election results addressed, much less “resolved,” these issues.

  • scotchirish

    Rent control? Freeze residential property tax?

  • eva_marie

    Well if you research the history of New Orleans you will find that this city has always had to deal with a population of ‘the rich’ and ‘the poor’ living, working and basically existing together. As with every other city, this problem is ongoing and will never be resolved.
    This research will also show you that as a port city every twenty years or so there is an influx of a new group of people settling in the city. The new people move in and the old move out. There are thousands of people from Morgan City to Biloxi whose ancestors first arrived in this area when they settled in this city.
    Both of these issues have existed for three hundred years and this article does a disservice by presenting them as a problem that only has come about since Landrieu came aboard. How about reporting on how this administration has stacked up dealing with this compared to previous mayors and mayors from every other urban city that deals with these issues?

  • Mark Moseley

    It would be interesting to find the closest parallel in New Orleans history to the (alleged) “gentrify or die” political dynamics in a post-disaster landscape. That is to say: If the Two Cities argument made by Landrieu’s challengers has merit, and if the administration is relying on (and courting) a rapid influx of newcomers to expand the city’s tax base to keep finances afloat—perhaps there are significant differences this time around?

  • Clay

    Solon the Lawgiver to Croesus (of rich as Croesus fame): “Count no man happy untill he be dead.”