Katrina Revives an Old Debate

One of the beauties of the Internet is having, just clicks away, radically divergent views on any given issue. With the reconstruction of New Orleans looming larger every day, the hope — or the specter, depending on your political persuasion — of a New New Deal has commentators producing proliferating punditry.

William Greider, in The Nation, is looking forward to putting government to work again, and thinks the lesson of the New Deal must be applied to the Katrina aftermath — the lesson that “only the federal government has the resources and authority to lead such a complex undertaking.”

He applauds Sen. Ted Kennedy’s idea for a “Gulf Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority,” an echo of FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority, and compares John Edwards’ proposal for a jobs program to the WPA. “As the dimensions of this challenge become clearer, reformers will discover other New Deal models they can emulate and adapt to present circumstances,” Greider writes.

“The [non-pundit] media haven’t paid much attention so far,” Greider claims, “because the New Deal proposals probably sound like historic relics. But the aptness of the ideas — aggressive government intervention, integrated across many fronts — will become clearer to people if Democrats re-educate the electorate.”

Over at the Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, Stephen Moore thinks the public is too New Deal-minded. He thinks we should not be so quick to throw billions of dollars at relief efforts (so many billions, in fact, that he says that “every one of the 500,000 families displaced by Katrina [could get] a check for $400,000, and they could each build a beach front home virtually anywhere in America.”)

So rampant have the misuse of emergency funds been that, he reports, “the Louis Vuitton store reported selling two monographed luxury handbags for $800 each, both paid for by women with FEMA’s $2,000 emergency disaster relief debit cards.”

He also thinks we can cut out the $250 million in counseling and legal services provided to the stunned survivors. “After 9/11, the federal government authorized tens of millions of dollars for ‘counseling’ to traumatized families of the victims. A Republican Study Committee audit discovered that millions went for ‘peace’ and ‘diversity’ workshops, a ‘yearlong celebration of trees, gardens and other healing places,’ theater workshops, anger-management classes and multiculturalism programs to discuss ‘who we are and why we are here.’ (Isn’t that what churches are for?)”

Needless to say, Moore thinks the New Deal — rather than a model to be emulated — set a terrible precedent in American political thought. He writes, “Before the New Deal taught us that the federal government is the solution to every malady, most congresses and presidents would have concluded that the federal government’s role was minimal. One of our greatest presidents, Democrat Grover Cleveland, vetoed an appropriation for drought victims because there was no constitutional authority to spend for such purposes. Today he would be ridiculed by Ted Kennedy as ‘incompassionate.’”

The truth of the New Deal model’s usefulness to the Katrina cleanup probably lies halfway between these two polemics. Understanding what that middle looks like — what the federal government’s role really should be — is a much more productive, and interesting, question to pursue.

But you’ve got to take off the politically tinted glasses to do it.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.