As somebody who lived in and love New Orleans, I want to see the city restored to its former glory. But Nicole Gelinas worries that we might be on the wrong track:

“President Bush’s advisers insist that he’s not abandoning conservatism in his commitment to rebuild the Gulf Coast. But a mark of conservative thinking is properly identifying problems before dedicating billions to solving them. The president hasn’t done that in New Orleans. Instead, in his September 15 speech from Jackson Square, Bush vowed to combat ‘poverty’-a foe that cities and the feds have never conquered in their long war against urban decay.

“In the language of Lyndon Johnson, Bush ascribed the violence and desperation Americans saw in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina to ‘deep, persistent poverty in this region. . . . That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.’ The president then issued a call to the nation: ‘We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. . . . Let us rise above the legacy of inequality.’

“But amorphous talk about poverty, racism, and inequality won’t help New Orleans rebuild. New Orleans has two more pressing-and much simpler-problems that need fixing right now.”

One is the engineering problem of repairing and strengthening the city’s levee system.

The other one is more difficult: the city’s lawlessness. The looting you saw on TV was simply a manifestation of the violence and corruption endemic to New Orleans. Unless New Orleans can establish a civic culture of honesty and achievement, it will continue to foster the economic climate of decline that began before the floodwaters rose.

Gelinas notes:

“New Orleans has lost middle-class jobs partly because investors are fed up with the city’s entrenched public corruption. ‘Outside companies don’t invest because they are sick and tired of the kickbacks,’ Bernazzani says. ‘New Orleans is deprived of a tax windfall.’ (Just this summer, the feds indicted four cronies of previous mayor Morial, including Morial’s uncle, for alleged public-contract abuses-and before Katrina, the FBI was investigating alleged widespread corruption at the city’s school board, which isn’t under mayoral control.) A corrupt government cannot police itself or its city, nor can it provide adequate public services of any kind. As taxpayers and businesses decamp in disgust, the city thus has fewer fiscal resources with each generation.”