Political MoJo

Levees designed to protect New Orleans from imaginary hurricanes, not real ones

| Wed Sep. 21, 2005 8:11 PM EDT

After Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans in 1965, the city fortified itself with levees that could supposedly offer protection for a storm of up to a Category 3 strength, and then only a fast-moving Category 3. As more and more of Louisiana's coastline disappeared over the years, it became obvious to anyone who lived in New Orleans that what may have worked in 1965 was quite likely to be useless.

Indeed, the system may have been only minimally useful when it was created. That is because some areas have always been more vulnerable to hurricane storm surges, and because the levees were not designed as they should have been.

"They really need to re-analyze how to rehabilitate the levees using a current risk-based analysis. That can be easily done, that's what needs to be done. They really have to take all the calculations and weave that into a new design," says Lee Butler, an engineering consultant and former Army Corps of Engineers computer analyst.

The Corps based its design on a "standard hurricane project," which was based on wind strength and not storm surge, which is New Orleans' biggest hurricane problem. But in order to adequately re-build the levee system, Congress will have to change its design criteria. Under current law, there are no allowances for geographical and storm variations. It is easy to assume that a Category 3 storm is more dangerous to the city than a Category 1, but when flooding is the key factor, no such assumption can really be made.

According to Butler, "the storm category characterization is too simplistic. It's as simplistic as the color code for terrorism alerts." Those who live in New Orleans' lower 9th Ward and in St. Bernard Parish know that their neighborhoods will always flood more than other parts of the city. Those neighborhoods have a 1 in 200 chance of flooding from storm surge in a given year, as opposed to the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, for example, which has a 1 in 500 chance. And when levees come together in a "v" shape, the chance for flooding is even higher. And like interest in a bank account, the chances of flooding in a vulnerable area grow exponentially over the decades.

Scientists and engineers at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center have taken issue with the Corps of Engineers' explanation that Hurricane Katrina's storm surge broke the 17th Street Canal levees. They maintain that Katrina's surges didn't come close to toppling the barriers, meaning that either flawed design or inadequate construction was to blame for the breaches. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Hurricane Center, says that the floodwall slabs should have been interlocked, and that the canals they were intended to protect should have had floodgates.

The Corps of Engineers has promised a full investigation into the levees' design and construction.

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Enterprise Zones

| Wed Sep. 21, 2005 6:11 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Times' editorial page is skeptical about Bush's new "Gulf Opportunity Zones" in New Orleans—tax incentives to bring businesses back into the area:

To revive New Orleans' economy, Bush has proposed creating "Gulf Opportunity Zones." Similar to the "enterprise zones" that have been declared across the country since the 1980s, these would offer about $2 billion worth of tax breaks and loan subsidies to businesses that build and equip offices in Katrina's wake.

Although some analysts are enthusiastic about enterprise zones, they may not be the best way to encourage New Orleans' recovery. In general, most new jobs emanate from new, small businesses, which don't benefit much from tax breaks because they don't have much taxable income. By contrast, the beneficiaries of enterprise zones often are established businesses that move their offices into the zone to lower their tax burden.

Curiously, I haven't seen any paper report on the fact that the city of New Orleans had already been designated a "Renewable Community"—in essence, one of the aforementioned "enterprise zones"—and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had already been offering $17 billion worth of tax credits to businesses in the area since 2000. Did it do any good? Well, New Orleans remains one of the poorest cities in the country, and I haven't found any indications that things have perked up over the past four years. Interestingly, the Bush administration decided not to offer any new grant funding for these zones in 2004 "because the EZ program has not been deemed to be sufficiently effective."

The classic knock against these tax breaks is that they are too small to entice most businesses to move, and the ones who do set up in these zones probably would have moved anyway, meaning they just get free money. I'm not sure how a few more tax breaks will help. That said, $2 billion is a relatively small part of the overall reconstruction budget, so in theory it's worth a try, though this just seems like an odd thing for the White House to tout.

Training Grounds

| Wed Sep. 21, 2005 4:49 PM EDT

Via Swopa, Newsweek has an alarming new report out: apparently Sunni insurgents in Iraq are lending a helping hand to fighters in Afghanistan, which has likely played some role in the increased Taliban attacks in the latter country:

Daud and other Taliban leaders tell NEWSWEEK that the Afghan conflict is entering a new phase, with help from Iraq. According to them, Osama bin Laden has opened an underground railroad to and from jihadist training camps in the Sunni Triangle. Self-described graduates of the program say they've come home to Afghanistan with more-effective killing techniques and renewed enthusiasm for the war against the West. Daud says he's been communicating a "new momentum and spirit" to the 300 fighters under his command.

U.S. military officers in Afghanistan say they've seen no evidence of any direct collaboration between the Taliban and Iraq's insurgents. "That's not to say that it couldn't happen or be in the process of happening," says one senior U.S. military officer who can't be quoted by name because of the sensitive nature of his job. "If I started to see that," he adds, "then I would begin to worry." Afghanistan's top brass is worried now. Taliban forces are larger, more aggressive and better armed and organized than at any time since the end of 2001, says Defense Minister Abdur Rahim Wardak: "They have more men, equipment, money, better explosives and remote-controlled detonators." Worse yet, he says, there are "strong indications" that Al Qaeda has brought in a team of Arab instructors from Iraq to teach the latest insurgent techniques to the Taliban.

Also, check out this tidbit, about several Taliban fighters who were invited to receive advanced training in Iraq:

One beneficiary of Al Qaeda's renewed interest in Afghanistan is Hamza Sangari, a Taliban commander from Khost province. Late last year, he says, he received an invitation from none other than bin Laden's chief envoy to the insurgents in Iraq, Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi. Sangari, 36, says he jumped at the chance for advanced field training in the Sunni Triangle: "God heard and granted my request to see and learn from the Iraqi mujahedin." In December he traveled there with a select group of eight Afghan Taliban, two Central Asians and five Arab Qaeda fighters. … Sangari and his companions were relayed from one band of smugglers to another until early January, when they finally crossed the unmarked desert border into Iraq.

Sangari spent his time in Iraq being escorted to guerrilla bases in towns like Fallujah and Ramadi, and in remote desert regions. He says he was welcomed wherever he went. "I've never been so well received," he says. He was impressed with what he saw. "The Iraqi mujahedin are better armed, organized and trained than we are," he says. He stayed four weeks at a remote training camp called Ashaq al Hoor, he says, where he saw adolescent boys being trained as suicide bombers. [Emph. added]

Notice those dates. In January—a full two months after the U.S. offensive to retake and pacify the city—Fallujah is still a place where fighters from abroad can be invited to come and train for war.

Crying Wolf

| Wed Sep. 21, 2005 2:53 PM EDT

In Salon, Maia Szalavitz reports that the U.S. drug czar's office has cooked up a new scare campaign, telling everyone that pot causes schizophrenia. See ads like this one. Of course, despite the fact that marijuana use has increased at a fairly, um, healthy clip since the 1930s, the percentage of schizophrenics in the general population has stayed constant. So, you know, the link might not actually be that solid. Anyway, this would all be very humorous except that it has real effects on the credibility of serious health warnings. Methamphetamines, for instance, actually can cause psychosis—but, of course, no one is going to listen to a government that's already making hysterical claims about pot and mental illness.

Why Not Roberts?

| Wed Sep. 21, 2005 2:24 PM EDT

Via Shakespeare's Sister, it looks like Pat Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, will vote to confirm John Roberts. Says Leahy: "All of us will vote this month but only later will we know if Judge Roberts proves to be the kind of chief justice he says he would be, if he truly will be his own man." What?

This gets at the heart of what's wrong with Leahy's whole stance. All through the hearings, it was pretty clear that Roberts answered precisely zero questions about his stances on just about anything. He refused to comment on past case, or future cases, or hypothetical cases, or even the ideas inherent in the cases themselves. It was, as many have pointed out, a farce. The thing is, there's no reason it has to be this way. As Emily Bazelon pointed out in Slate, Roberts should have answered the damn questions: "Nothing in any legal code or judicial canon of ethics supports the broad stance against answering questions."

Now granted, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton nominee, also was very fond of taking the "Judicial Fifth" during her confirmation hearings, but the only thing to be said about that is that she was wrong to do so. Letting Roberts' evasiveness pass sets a terrible standard for the future. I would imagine—although who knows for sure—that the White House has gleaned a relatively clear picture of Roberts' views during its interviews with him. The public, along with the Senate, has not. Ted Kennedy has said he didn't know enough about Roberts to confirm him: "At the end of the four days of hearings, we still know very little more than we knew when we started." I doubt Kennedy would vote to confirm no matter what. Nevertheless, that, and not Leahy's position, is exactly the right precedent to try and uphold.

Louisiana hurricane evacuation money never spent on hurricane evacuation

| Tue Sep. 20, 2005 9:45 PM EDT

In 1997, Congress ordered FEMA to develop a hurricane evacuation plan for New Orleans, but somehow, the money wound up in the coffers of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Commission. A report produced by the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission turned out to be about the needs of the Causeway through the year 2016.

No one is able to say how or why the $500,000 allocation ended up with the Causeway Commission. In 1999, Congress directed FEMA to consult with the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, as well as the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. The federal Department of Homeland Security printed a million evacuation maps for the state, which were part of Louisiana's successful contra-flow traffic plan during the Katrina evacuation.

The first phase of the Hurricane Pam tabletop project did not address all of the state's evacuation needs. A spokesman for the Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has stated that he knows nothing about any FEMA funds allocated to the state prior to the Hurricane Pam project.

The 24-mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the world's longest bridge.

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Using Nuclear Weapons

| Tue Sep. 20, 2005 2:22 PM EDT

Nadezhda has a long and very worthwhile post on the Pentagon's draft revisions to its doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons. Officials now seem to be walking back from earlier proposed changes that "would allow commanders to seek presidential approval for using atomic arms against nations or terrorists who intend to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons against the United States, its troops or allies," although the debate still appears to be ongoing.

Paydays and Predators

| Tue Sep. 20, 2005 1:50 PM EDT

Via TPMCafe comes a new report from the Center for Responsible Lending on how the payday lending industry exploits low-income borrowers. Here's how a typical exchange might work in, for instance, Texas:

A borrower writes a check to the lender for the principal and interest. According to the center's example, for a $325 loan, the borrower writes a check for $377, the principal plus $52 in interest. The money is typically due two weeks later, an APR of more than 400 percent in this example.

If the borrower does not have the $377 when it is due, they can pay another $52 fee. This does not pay down the principal; it pays to keep the loan afloat. According to the center's study of the industry nationwide, "the average payday borrower pays $800 to borrow $325."

Cracking down on rogue lenders seems like the obvious solution here. A better policy solution, though, as outlined by Anne Kim of the Progressive Policy Institute, would simply be to get mainstream banks to offer the sort of services—check-cashing, payday lending, etc.—that are in high demand among low-income families, making it easier to regulate predatory lending. As was noted after Katrina, poor families often don't have bank accounts; but this is less because they don't understand how banks work—as many suppose—and more because mainstream banks simply don't offer much in the way of actually useful services for those low-income families. Payday-lenders, check-cashers, and pawnshops, on the other hand, do, and tend to proliferate in poorer areas. But because these services are so small and unregulated, they end up charging exorbitantly high fees and stripping billions of dollars in wealth away from low-earners. Vicious cycle ensues.

Outer-Circle Cronyism

| Tue Sep. 20, 2005 1:44 PM EDT

Noam Scheiber has a nuanced take on cronyism in the George Bush and Michael Brown era:

[I]f you happen to think bureaucracies are structurally incapable of improving people's lives, and if you have contempt for the kinds of people who reside in them, then you have two choices: You can either slash the bureaucracy and refund taxpayers' money, or you can reconcile yourself to the existence of bureaucracy and run it as a patronage operation. (If, by definition, a bureaucracy can't get any less competent, you might as well make appointments that benefit you personally or politically.)

He notes that all administrations have some degree of cronyism—every president brings in close friends and trusted advisers to the White House, because they need people they can rely on. What distinguishes the Bush administration, and what distinguished the Reagan administration, was what Scheiber calls "outer-circle cronyism":

The focus here isn't so much on handing out jobs to dubiously qualified friends and associates--that is, to one's own cronies. It's on handing out jobs to cronies of cronies, which increases the scale of the cronyism exponentially. The Clinton administration was relatively free of this pestilence. (Clinton's appointments were largely meritocratic even when they involved people in his extended social network.) The Bush administration is infested with it.

I think he's being too easy on the Clinton adminstration (see this piece for some Clinton crony nostalgia), but "infested" is apt for the current regime. One big fear here is that enough ineptitude among government bureaucracies will make enough people believe, eventually, that government bureaucracies simply can't work, and that "slash the bureaucracy " is the way to go. Not everyone thinks this is the likely outcome of the Bush era: In the Wall Street Journal today, Stephen Moore argues the party of Reagan is fast becoming the party of Roosevelt and big-government liberalism: "FEMA, despite its woeful performance, will grow in size and stature. So will the welfare state. Welcome to the new New Dealism of the GOP." It's a common prediction, and it has some validity—after Bush's Katrina speech, any conservative who advocates scaling back government will be situated far outside the political mainstream—but I worry that the eventual fallout from all this cronyism and dysfunction will be yet another Reagan-esque backlash, similar to the small-government backlash that came after the Nixon administration. The backlash is never sustainable in the long run—people fundamentally like having the government do stuff for them—but in the short run it pushes the country ever further to the right.

Will the North Korea Deal Hold?

| Tue Sep. 20, 2005 1:08 PM EDT

In more encouraging news, Michael Levi offers reasons think that the tentative deal reached with North Korea may be more permanent than the 1994 Agreed Framework struck by Bill Clinton:

[P]erhaps the most important difference between yesterday's agreement and the 1994 arrangement is that this is a six-party deal--giving the administration hope that its four partners will now be invested in holding North Korea to its obligations.

The American security guarantee has changed in subtle but interesting ways, as well: Whereas in 1994, the Clinton administration pledged to issue a formal guarantee, this time the Bush administration has insisted on a statement of its present intent. On the other hand, while in 1994 the Clinton administration only promised to refrain from nuclear attacks, the Bush administration has ruled out attack by any means. Finally, while the 1994 Agreed Framework contained a roadmap for future nuclear cooperation, with specific actions on both sides triggering future steps, the present agreement lays out a more vague vision for subsequent action.

If the six-party bit does in fact hold up and prove more durable than the Agreed Framework, then the White House was right about insisting on them, and his critics—including both John Kerry and this writer—were wrong. Although it still raises the question: why did China only now start pressuring North Korea after years of (apparently) shrugging its shoulders? Simon World argues that for the Chinese, "The North Korean problem turned from an asset to a liability," and makes a good case.

On the other hand, we're not exactly out of the nuclear woods yet. North Korea now seems to be demanding light-water reactors from the United States before it will abandon its nuclear program. Previously, Condoleeza Rice denounced—perhaps rightly—this sort of deal, where "the benefits were up front and the North Korean actions were later." But maybe everyone should just take Christopher Hill's advice: "Life is too short to overreact to every statement coming out of Pyongyang."