Bobby Jindal Finally Takes Us Out of Some of Our Misery

screen-shot-2014-10-01-at-1-39-12-pmNew Orleans   There is a pretty fair dose of embarrassment that comes from just plain living in Louisiana. Poverty, inequality, education, health, welfare, and football teams are regularly at the top of every list, though most of these are bad lists to be on and require lots of apologizing. Even trying to catch a break by changing the subject to New Orleans can quickly go down a bad road about Katrina recovery, crime, boiling water to drink, and, well, some people think the city is dirty from what they tell me. If you are going to live in Louisiana, you have to learn to take it in stride and shrug it off.

Adding insult to injury though has been the humiliating farce of Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal’s perverse fantasy run for President of the United States. There has never been a rational way to explain this other than an ego trip divorced from all reality.

Sometimes governors run for President as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did based on their record in their home states. In Jindal’s case, there was no way to pretend he wasn’t running based on his record in Louisiana, yet that’s been abysmal.

Louisiana is going into the eighth straight year of a budget shortfall, this time by what looks like a half-billion, and because of Jindal’s no-taxes pledge to Grover Norquist, a Washington resident who to the best of anyone’s knowledge does not live and suffer in Louisiana, many citizens would embrace voodoo economics as something better than what Jindal was pretended. Universities have been decimated. Hospitals have been semi-privatized to outside contractors but the contracts are short money to run them. Medicaid was not expanded under the Affordable Care Act even though the state leads the nation in the number of low income families without health protection. There is no state minimum wage. Like I said, there will soon be a proposal to change the license plate slogan from Sportsman’s Paradise to Shamer’s Paradise.

Jindal pretty clearly made the decision some years ago to sacrifice the State of Louisiana and its citizens on the altar of his ambition. In order to try to build a crazy conservative base there were never any obstacles to the outrages, including the legal limits of his considerable powers as governor under the Louisiana constitution. Planned Parenthood, get them out of the state. Syrians, no way, Jose. Guns, let ‘em fire. Immigrants, deport every last one. Honduran children, get them out of here. Charter schools, vouchers, and religious extremism, bring it on! And, so on and so on.

The arc of justice eventually bends our way though. None of this boot licking worked. A cartoon in one the newspapers had Jindal giving his announcement that he was dropping his Presidential campaign, while calling for his “supporter,” singular, not plural. His popularity is now about 20% in Louisiana. Pundits believe he may be sinking the Republican shot at replacing him. President Obama is now more popular than Jindal in Louisiana!

Finally, some of the embarrassment for Louisiana will ease. Jindal’s ego fueled presidential run is over. Jindal said he has come to realize, “it’s not my time.” Sadly, he has not come to realize that he has now squandered his time, and it will never ever be his time. His time is over.

Now the big problem for Louisianans is living with Jindal’s scorched earth governance policies, and that pain will last for years.

Volunteers May be the Only Good Thing to Hit New Orleans after Katrina

DSCN0432New Orleans    Opinions are divided on the New Orleans so-called recovery after Hurricane Katrina, and it is more than a glass half-full, half-empty situation. Talking to Vanessa Gueringer on Wade’s World, her articulate anger still rages, and listening to her describe how her community in the lower 9th ward has had to fight to win the fulfillment of every promise to the area, it is impossible not to agree. There are many in the city who are ready to evacuate if they hear the word “resilience” even one more time.

Presidents Obama and Bush have now visited along with the current and former HUD secretary and a host of others. I listened to the disappointment expressed by neighbors and colleagues that President Obama didn’t double down on his commitment to rebuild. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been everywhere enjoying his Mardi Gras moment. Former Mayor and current head of the Urban League Marc Morial was more sober, releasing his report on the state of black New Orleans, where the short summary is: bleak with little change or hope.

DSCN0424-1 DSCN0423-1 DSCN0422-1The one place where almost everyone can find agreement is in thanking the hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of organizations who have come to the city over the last ten years as volunteers to help in any way they can. Appropriately,  even the City of New Orleans and Landrieu somehow understood this universal consensus and got behind the effort. People of good will from around the world made a difference to New Orleans in some way shaming our own government for its inaction, inequity, and racism. And, what better way to mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina than by organizing a humongous volunteer service day.

The volunteer goal for the anniversary was 10,000 people and for a change almost the same level of preparation and support is going into the affair as you find during Carnival season, which until this anniversary is the New Orleans benchmark for volunteer extravaganzas. Hosts of nonprofits were recruited to the effort. Individual projects by Tulane University and Xavier University were subsumed into the overall city campaign. ACORN International is hosting 100 volunteers at the ACORN Farm. A Community Voice has 100 volunteers canvassing the Upper 9th Ward, and Southern United Neighborhoods (SUN) has another 100 in the Lower 9th Ward. It’s all in!

There are even corporate sponsors. Just as Walmart trucks rolled into the area after Katrina and there were special vouchers for purchases in their stores, Walmart is a big sponsor of this volunteer assault on the city as well. Coordinators got water, peanut butter crackers, and of course blue volunteer t-shirts at pickup points at Walmart stores throughout the week. The blue in the t-shirts, not surprisingly, looks identically like the Walmart blue customers see in their stores, but, hey, what else would you expect, they say Walmart on the back along with sponsors.

DSCN0425-1 DSCN0428-1 DSCN0426-1The volunteers will only work three hours, and given the heat and humidity that surprises so many in late summer in the city, that probably has more to do with public health than public need. They will have lunch and entertainment later at the Superdome. You get it, right, we’re saying thank you, and whether corporate and tacky, or political and boosterism, we all really mean it.

DSCN0429-1 DSCN0430-1 DSCN0431-1For real, this is thanks to all the volunteers that made such a difference and came to help New Orleans. We’re hoping you feel welcome enough to keep on coming until the job is finished!


Kindle version of Battle for the Ninth for reduced price to mark the 10th Anniversary. 

Charter School Takeover Success Myth Shattered

charter-schoolNew Orleans    Call it what you may, charterization, privatization, or whatever the opposition of business and other elites to the public education system in the United States has gotten the kind of superficial analysis normally reserved for fashion trends and fall season television shows. The basic analysis is contentious and conducted at the high decibels of yelling voices arguing either that public schools suck, teachers are worthless and greedy, unions are obstacles, or on the other side that schools are suffering from inadequate funding, poor physical plants, and systemic racism that is abandoning many urban districts.

All of which made it a relief to finally see a sober, factual analysis of the largest charter school system experiment in the country that New Orleans has been subjected to in the wake of the post-Katrina takeover of the schools by Andrea Gabor, a professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York published in the New York Times.

Looking at the Recovery School District, as the charter takeover schools were called, Gabor finds that this so-called experiment has meant that the “reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.” Plain English: the charters only look good because they have been allowed to “cook the books.” Gabor quotes one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city saying, “There were pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain” including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.” This is the inevitable result of a system designed to teach to the test to survive. If you aren’t willing or able to educate the children, then get rid of them so that they don’t count against you in the scoring.

What’s going on? Gabor documents the following:

· After schools are taken over by charters, less than a third of the students in the previous school are enrolling.
· “In the decentralized charter system, no agency is responsible for keeping track of all kids,” meaning dropout rates are unreliable. An outside agency using Census Data from 2013, “found that over 26000 people in the metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as ‘disconnected,’ because neither working or in school.”
· Takeover schools that were rated “F” as falling once charterized become “T” for turnaround, and thus are not counted as “failing,” “nor would 16 “D” schools. In fact “40 percent of RSD schools were graded ‘D,’ ‘T’ or ‘F’” in 2013-14.
· Most of charter performance have been “doled out selectively, mostly to pro-charter researchers, and much of the research has been flawed.” She cites a humiliating incident last year when the Cowen Institute had to retract a study claiming that “most New Orleans charters were posting higher-than-expected graduation rates and test scores.” Cowen had been the former head of Tulane University and unabashedly a charter cheerleader, including putting a million of Tulane’s money in a post-Katrina charter that would give preference to the children of professors and employees.
· A Stanford University center claimed progress with a flawed methodology that compared charter school performance to a supposed “twin,” even though there are no non-charter schools in New Orleans now.
· African-American educators argue that “the charter movement won’t have ‘any type of long-term sustainability’ without meaningful participation from the black community,” which in New Orleans is 60% of the city.

It goes on and on, but Gabor’s bottom line is worth remembering:

“For outsiders, the biggest lesson in New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for most students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils”

In a city like New Orleans and many other urban districts throughout the country, the public school system is populated with “disadvantaged pupils” and minorities. Time to stop proselytizing and start educating.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Pop Science is Whitewashing Katrina Pain and People



New Orleans     President Obama here’s some advice before you come to New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina: no matter what happens please, please ignore every bit of advice you might possibly get from the author and The New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell about what to say about New Orleans and Katrina, and probably any other advice he ever gives you any the future. Recently, Gladwell was cited as one of the wise and rich men and women that Obama was consulting about his future post-Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gladwell has been on a bit of a roll the last number of years as the highly popular author of a number of books that might be characterized as “applied pop psychology” books including The Tipping Point, The Outliers, and others. Don’t tell me you haven’t read anything he’s written or I’ll ask you to give me the address of your cave. I’ve certainly read several. He specializes in pseudo-science stories that act like brain candy. You can’t read them quickly enough and they all seem smooth and sweet until you make the mistake of actually thinking about them and then you’re not sure. Whatever? It’s candy, so what might be the harm, right? Well, having just finished reading his most recent piece, “Starting Over” in The New Yorker labeled “Dept. of Social Studies,” which goes past candy, approaches unmitigated drivel, and then swerves into just plain dangerous, I’m convinced we need to get a petition together to the Secret Service to keep Gladwell as far away from the President as possible. Who knew Canadians could be so diabolical!

The thin reed Gladwell tries to grasp starts by trying to look at Katrina as a social experiment that might measure the impact of mobility on survivor families torn away from their homes by the devastation of Katrina, who were dropped or came to shore in other communities, and how they fared. Ok, that might be interesting, but then he tries to expropriate a seminal study done by economists indicting the United States at large for decades of abandoning urban America and perpetuating inequality by pretending the only thing under that shell was the issue of mobility, rather than disinvestment, racism, a deteriorated and mean-spirited social safety net, deindustrialization, and tax policies that have stagnated most of us while creating the super-rich. I could go on.

And, Gladwell knows he’s treading on dangerous ground throughout the piece. He tries to act like Katrina was bad news and that he would not have been riding with the business interests and social elites who were avowedly trying to whitewash the city, but unfortunately he wears his neo-conservative, neo-liberal biases on his sleeves. Implicitly, he totally supports every effort to prevent families from being able to return home from closing the schools to denying rebuilding funds to providing no healthcare. He pretty much sees the economy and population of New Orleans as a horror. He rationalizes this with a pseudo-science argument that the odds of lower income families “moving on up” are better in Houston, which he insults by calling it the “Salt Lake City” of the south, because the odds are slightly better that someone might crawl out of poverty, so darned are they lucky they were in a hurricane, surrounded by water and dead bodies, separated from family, friends, community and culture so they have a little teeny bit better chance in an economically stratified country to make it out. Spoiler alert: Please remember that there was no real way to read the study as arguing anything other than the odds were almost impossibly low for upward mobility anywhere!


How do you unravel this preposterous pretzel of an argument? We need public policies for cities and their population which create equity, not that forcibly relocate people on buses, planes, and trains. And, those policies need to be applied to every city. If Gladwell, wants to pretend to look at the impact of mobility and social science, it is interesting that nowhere in the article is there mention of Canadaville, a post-Katrina project of his fellow Canadian, the huge auto parts gazillionaire Frank Stronach from Magma International and his 300-family relocation project of lower income families to Simmesport, Louisiana several parishes up the river. Perhaps he avoided that because it is universally seen as a disaster and was abandoned by Magma and Stronach.

Gladwell finally ends his piece saying with this monument to sophistry:

In the past ten years, much has been said, rightly, about the resilience and spirit of those who chose to rebuild the neighborhoods they had lost. It is time to appreciate as well the courage of those who, faced with the same disaster, decided to make a fresh start.


Courage is triggered by choice, not a combination of disaster and coercion that for many families continues to this day. The overwhelming number of families still not able to return home are African-American. Where there was choice – and resources – in higher income white families, as has been well documented and even Gladwell seems to acknowledge, people overwhelming came home. On one count after another for lower income families Katrina was a pure and simple devastation that continues to this day. Gladwell would undoubtedly line up in favor of putting the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, supporting pogroms forcing Jews to flee, and any number of outrages in the name of a few percentage points of progress in the by and by, rather than hunkering down and doing what’s right to support widespread progress for all the people where they live, including in urban areas like New Orleans.

Mr. President, don’t listen to Malcolm Gladwell. He may sell books, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a sycophantic apologist for the rich and, sadly, turns out to be a fool.

one of the homes at Canadaville

one of the homes in Canadaville

The Storm Next Time: How Safe is New Orleans?

120828073556-katrina-ann-01-horizontal-large-galleryNew Orleans   President Obama announced that he is visiting New Orleans on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Reportedly he wants to use the event to underline his climate change initiatives. The local papers are full of discussion about what needs to be done with many reviving the original President George W. Bush promise for 500-year storm protection. The cost is guesstimated at $100 billion. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says “let’s go!” Congress has repeatedly said, “no go!”

The question continues to be “How Safe is New Orleans?” The New Orleans on-line news service, The Lens, convened a question and answer session with Dr. Paul Kemp, a geologist and oceanographer connected to Louisiana State University who was involved in the inspection of the levees after the storm, the now-closed Hurricane Center at LSU, and a controversial commissioner on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, moderated by award winning reporter, Bob Marshall. To summarize the answer in one word from the experts: maybe.

This was not a crowd pleasing response, partially due to all of the “ifs, ands, and buts”, but let’s look at what Dr. Kemp offered. The levee system and the new gates leave the city better protected than it was at the storm. Kemp minced no words, saying that at the storm, there was “no system,” but an unfinished dirt patchwork. Now, he claims the pieces are put together, “armor,” meaning plastic sealing both sides of the levee is being added, and there’s an understanding that there has to be progress every day to maintain and advance the system.

Many were not assured. Saying something requires daily attention in the city “that care forgot” is a stretch. And, so is money in this broke ass community. St. Bernard Parish below New Orleans is already trying to scrimp on their share and they are often the first place on a storm’s path. Kemp under questioning said a minimum maintenance budget is $15 million, but no one really knows what the real costs are to maintain a multi-billion dollar system. Furthermore Kemp was clear that budget was not in hand, and repeated the need to keep improving daily or protection would be eroding.

Marshall’s questions were tinged with skepticism. In his introductory remarks he was clear that the minimal requirements to qualify homeowners for the national flood insurance program drove the levee protection plan, not the future safety of the residents. Metaphor mayhem broke out. Homeowners were reminded that they had fire insurance not to stop a fire, but to rebuild what they could after a fire and that this situation was similarly not about prevention, but potentially rebuilding. We needed a well-built third story house for protection and what we had might have is a decent one story dwelling.

Kemp on the other hand was more scientist than advocate or politician which was reassuring. Unfortunately most of the science and technology is rapidly developing and unsteady so there’s no solid ground there. He clarified the misconceptions on storm surge articulately as not one 20-foot wall of water but a bulge that rose to a level and then fell with the task being to prevent the highest crest from hitting the levee protection.

Bottom line Kemp argued that no matter the storm, if it were just a matter of over-topping the levees whether five feet or whatever, the city would survive. There would be water in the streets and low lying areas but it would run in and out, and be similar to terrible New Orleans thunderstorms. There was a big “if” though constantly repeated: if the levees are not breached.

The real battle of New Orleans is being fought now on whether or not everything is being done to prevent the levees from being breached and identifying the most vulnerable spots and gaps, then shoring and closing them. There lies the answer to the question, “is New Orleans safe?”


Please enjoy Widespread Panic’s Steven’s Cat.

Confusing Minimum Wages with Living Wages

minimum-wageNew Orleans    The back and forth between raising minimum wages and winning living wages or at least more livable wages gets confusing at the confluence of policy and politics, tactics and strategy, and that’s not helping us either nationally or locally.

First a story. In 1978, in New Orleans, we began an organizing drive to build the Household Workers Organizing Committee. Our first campaign was designed to organize household workers or “maids,” as many called them then to force employers enjoying maximum power in this historically burdened profession over their domestic workers, to have to pay the federal minimum wage covering these workers for the first time. At streetcar and bus stops, early in the morning, headed to the wealthier neighborhoods by Lake Ponchartrain or uptown along St. Charles Avenue, I would fan out with our team of organizers to talk to workers about signing a petition demanding enforcement of the minimum wage. Many were making one-dollar or less per hour with bus fare and lunch counted against their wage. Mandatory payments of Social Security withholding by employers were rare as hen’s teeth. Here’s the punch line for today though. When we would tell the women that they were now going to be covered under the minimum wage of $1.65, they would almost always talk to us and themselves about being paid the “top wage,” which was how they saw the bump, and needless to say, few expected there was any real chance that they would be paid the new minimum, and they were probably right to some degree.

A minimum wage is just what it says. The very least that can be legally paid. It is not a maximum wage or even a “top” wage. In fact workers, their unions, and others that value people’s work and labor should want to pay fairly and pay more, but they categorically cannot pay less.  The Fight for $15 has been valuable in raising the issue of wages, especially for fast food workers, and in several labor markets like Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles it has helped set a standard of sorts. In many cities there is a tension though between the fight to establish and win higher minimum standards for all workers and the campaigners for $15 driven by the publicity and demands in other cities.

Either way, we have always argued for fairer wages in various cities and states on two grounds: one, that workers needed and deserved fair and increased pay, and, secondly, that an insignificant number of jobs, if any, would be lost by doing so. A study reported in The New York Times seems to indicate that holding onto to the $15 banner in many cities may perilously undermine our argument about job loss and could dangerously erode our political support for the righteousness of our cause. The economists essentially argued that a wage bump that was NO HIGHER than 50% above the median income could likely be absorbed, which is certainly the case in New York City and Seattle, but that we were on thin ice over unknown waters at 60% and higher. The list of those cities was long in the study and included Los Angeles which is on the $15 track now, but also Columbus, Charlotte, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Austin, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, and Minneapolis. Over 70% of median by 2020 the cities would include Miami, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Nashville, Omaha, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

We have argued before that we needed a standard that might be triggered to the cost of housing in many of these cities on the more adverse side of $15 per hour. More recently we have started finding some success at $10 and $10.55 an hour for various categories of workers in Houston and New Orleans. We need to keep fighting for $15 so that the debate remains focused, but we need to actually win increases for workers, especially those that are stuck bargaining for wages over the $7.25 legal federal minimum, and in so doing recognize that a 50% wage bump to $10 an hour or over is a life changing victory for them, and, as the Country & Western song says, “something we can be proud of” if and when we win.