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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Let Louisiana rebuild her levees”

In my July 21st, 2006, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I argued that the rebuilding of the levees in Louisiana, following hurricane Katrina, was best left to the State government and not to the national government.

You can read the column beneath the fold.

Let Louisiana rebuild her levees

It’s no secret that Uncle Sam failed my hometown of New Orleans. Some blame the White House, others blame Congress and yet others blame the Army Corps of Engineers. Everyone blames FEMA.

I’m sure that each of these branches and agencies of government is blameworthy. I’m sure also that pointing fingers and banging fists and rolling some heads will do nothing to solve the fundamental problem:

Washington is too distant from ordinary Americans, and has saddled itself with far too many obligations (many of which conflict with each other), to spend taxpayer money wisely.

So while Congress debates how it will “reform” the Army Corps, hoping to make it a more responsible and capable agency, I have a more radical proposal for my friends and loved ones in Louisiana: Forget about the Army Corps. Rebuild your levees yourselves.

The estimated cost of rebuilding these levees is $3.5 billion. Admittedly, for Uncle Sam that’s no money at all; it’s a mere 0.16 percent of his annual budget. For the government of the state of Louisiana, however, $3.5 billion is a significant chunk of its annual budget. So it’s natural that politicians in the Pelican State are eager to have Uncle Sam foot the bill.

Unfortunately, having Uncle Sam pay means entrusting reconstruction to the very same agency whose big-time screw-up led to the Katrina catastrophe. Of course, Congress promises reform and the Army Corps insists that it will absolutely, positively, cross-its-heart-and-hope-to-die do better next time.

But why believe these promises? If I hire a firm, say, to cut down trees in my yard and then that firm’s employees smash my roof and kill my children through their carelessness, I would refuse to hire that firm for further work. And I’d not change my mind even if the firm’s owner called to assure me that he has since “reformed” the ways his employees operate.

Indeed, even if that firm offered to trim my trees at a remarkably low price, I’d not hire it. Instead, I would find another tree-removal service, perhaps this time paying more attention than I did earlier to that firm’s credentials.

Surely the same sort of logic should apply to Louisiana’s levees. The state of Louisiana should tell the Army Corps, in no uncertain terms, “no thank you; we’ll do this job ourselves.”

“But the cost!” some scream. To which I reply, “Step back and look at the big picture.”

The cost of having Uncle Sam pay to rebuild the levees seems to me to be enormous, for doing so requires reliance on an agency proven to be dangerously susceptible to political influence. If the levees are rebuilt, and continue to be maintained, by the Army Corps, there’s a good chance that they will again break, killing hundreds more people and inflicting billions of dollars of property damage. Is $3.5 billion, plus subsequent maintenance expenses, too high a price to pay to avoid this fate?

Moreover, the necessary $3.5 billion can be — and should be — gotten by issuing debt. I don’t often endorse debt-financing of government projects. But levee construction is precisely the sort of endeavor most appropriate to be paid for with debt. The reason is that the result — sturdy, reliable, long-lived levees — are a capital investment for the state’s citizens that will yield benefits for decades. As such, responsibility for paying for these levees is properly shared by future taxpayers.

The most credible objection to my suggestion is that the state of Louisiana has a “Long” and infamous history of corruption and incompetence — and, I concede, Katrina provided ample evidence that these curses continue to plague my home state. It is indeed possible that Louisiana’s own government will botch levee reconstruction.

But in this choice among two highly imperfect options, I say let the officials and citizens with the greatest personal stakes in the matter now take more responsibility for their own fates.

I am not one to trust politics at any level. I sincerely wish that a politically acceptable means of clearing government completely out of the business of levee construction were possible so that creative, private entrepreneurs would turn their energies to the task. I have no doubt that private initiative and enterprise would rise to the challenge and provide levees and other means of flood control far superior to what even the best government effort would produce.

But levee reconstruction now inevitably will be done by government. So, again, given this regrettable reality, let’s try some decentralization. Maybe the still-vivid memories of Katrina will inspire Louisiana citizens and officials to build levees more reliable than those produced by a hidebound Beltway bureaucracy answerable to a pork-drunk Congress.