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September 14, 2005

Why the new New Orleans will be a 21st–century Potemkin Village


It hit me last evening when I read Joe Sharkey's "On The Road" column in yesterday's New York Times.

His topic was the new Clear Registered Traveler Program from Verified Identity Pass, Steve Brill's latest start–up company.

Brill, by the way, is the man who founded Court TV and The American Lawyer magazine.

Here's how you get your Clear Registered Traveler Card:

1) You fork over $79.95 for a one-year pass — money talks or take a walk, in this case to the back of the endlessly long, unmoving hoi polloi airport security line.

2) You give Brill's company your name, address, birth date, Social Security number, and two forms of government–issued ID.

3) You let the company take digital photographs of your fingerprints and irises.

4) The company sends this information to the Transportation Security Agency, which checks it.

5) The T.S.A. either accepts or rejects you — neither you nor the company is told why you were rejected should that happen.

So far they've signed up 7,000 people.

Brill estimates that about eight million people in the U.S. will sign up for a program like his over the next five or six years, and he intends to own at least one–third of the market.

Let's see — that's about 2.65 million people x $79.95 = $21 million a year — not chump change.

This program is a terrible idea, almost as bad as the current policy of separate airport security screening lines for first class and steerage — oops, I meant coach — passengers.

That happened because enough people with money and power used both to get their lives made more convenient.

But that leaves the rest of us to fend for ourselves, without the leverage afforded by the unhappy plutocracy.

That is immense power, lost.

The $79.95 verified identity pass will do the very same thing: leave the unempowered and unheard masses to stew in their lines while those who can pay take the shortcut.

Much better for everyone to be miserable for the reason noted above: them's that got can carry the rest of us along with them on their journey to a better line.

David J. Silbey, a history professor quoted in Sharkey's article, hit the nail precisely on the head: he "said that expediting the journey comfortably for the frequent and, therefore most influential, travelers could 'reduce pressure significantly' to enact necessary changes in standard airport security."

Sharkey wasn't convinced: he said he's already sent his money to Brill's company and signed up.

Money talks — those without walk or, in the case of airports, stand.

Which brings me, finally, to the headline leading this post.

Money is going to rebuild New Orleans — oodles and oodles of money.

But recreating a shell leaves the center hollow.

As Yeats wrote, the center cannot hold — not unless it's anchored by more than hope and wishful thinking.

Any major government initiative invariably comes down to many competing interests, some with excellent, off–the–wall ideas.

But action at the level of rebuilding a shattered major city requires consensus.

And consensus, in the end, is an average which takes into its maw all the great and not–so-great ideas and spits out... well, you and I and everyone in the country know what: back when I was in college we called it "SOSO" — same old same old.

So yes, there'll be lots of nice new buildings and levees and pumping stations and what–have–you but nothing's going to change: not until someone with a vision and the ability to communicate it says something like: from this day forward no resident of New Orleans pays one cent for medical care.


For any reason.

The U.S. government writes a blank check to fund all health care forever for anyone who can prove residence in the city of New Orleans.

Just that one measure would bring this great city back to life, bigger and better than it ever dreamed it could be.

But the chances of it happening are zero.

And that's why it's Potemkin time, all over again for the zillionth time.

September 14, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 15, 2005 12:08:22 PM


My apologies, in advance, to be hogging up your comments bar, but I thought of more I wanted to say.

I've been re-reading Joan Didion lately and your Yeats poem made me realize that what we really need right now are creative types thinking about these things that seem to be only on the minds of politicians and planners right now. We need a "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" for New Orleans, as Didion wrote it for San Francisco.

These thoughts are part of why I started the Katrina Poetry blog (http://everythingandnothing.typepad.com/katrinapoetry). The writers need to start writing. As Didion said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." But this is a time, unfortunately, when most down here are beginning to doubt the premises of all the stories we ever told ourselves - and it's scary as hell.

Posted by: Shawn Lea | Sep 14, 2005 5:53:52 PM

I have read with interest all of the different "plans" for New Orleans. City planners and social planners and evolutionists (and creationists) all see this as the perfect opportunity to create a new New Orleans.

New Orleans as Venice. New Orleans as San Francisco. The Small Easy.

Not many have mentioned the biggest problem I see. New Orleans (and the Mississippi Gulf Coast) are mainly tourist economies, and thus mainly service economies. And they feed off each other. Mississippi residents and tourists frequent New Orleans often - and the Mississippi beaches on weekends, especially at Waveland and Bay St. Louis, are full of Louisiana car tags as far as the eye can see. (This is also true on the Alabama side - where Ocean Springs and Pascagoula feed in and on the Mobile, Ala., market and vice versa.)

And it's all gone. All of it. The beach. The casinos. The houses. The people. The hotels. The businesses. It looks much worse in person than on the news, believe me.

The people won't be able to move back even when it is cleaned up because there will be no tourism for a long time. And all of the businesses that fed on the tourism will be affected.

I will end my rant. I apologize. But it's all too near and dear to me. My main point: It's a tourist economy. If you take away those dollars, what's left is government and professional services, which won't be able to survive without the tourists to feed on.

And it will affect the whole of both states. You can bet legislators from Louisiana and Mississippi are both losing sleep wondering how they are going to make it without the major tax dollars from tourism in the areas hardest hit.

Posted by: Shawn Lea | Sep 14, 2005 5:24:53 PM

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