Tuscaloosa just needs to ‘believe in government’
In the aftermath of natural disasters, the standard Paul Krugman line is that only government can fix the problems, and that if one just “believes in government” with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, then things will go well. After Katrina, Krugman claimed that the reason that FEMA’s response to the disaster in New Orleans
…wasn’t just a consequence of Mr. Bush’s personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn’t forthcoming?
Or, as Krugman wrote in that same column, had the Bushies allegedly loved government, then FEMA would have had a magnificent response and no doubt everything in the Gulf post-Katrina would have recovered more quickly. (In other words, Krugman actually wants us to believe that federal government agents given near-absolute authority in New Orleans somehow eschewed their power and decided to pursue an ideological line of “limited government.” Yeah, we run into those kinds of government agents all the time, agents who are deathly afraid of abusing their powers.
In other words, according to Krugman, the powerful, top-down government approach that is fashioned by bureaucrats who believe in what they are doing and directed by Liberal Democrats provides the best response to disaster. Well, we have a laboratory in the aftermath of tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin Missouri, and the results definitely are contra-Krugman.
David T. Beito and Daniel J. Smith have looked not only at the speed of post-tornado recovery in those two cities, but also the governmental action behind it. Tuscaloosa is using the tornado to engage in top-down government planning, and also is waiting for more FEMA money. (And everyone knows that since Barack Obama loves government, FEMA will be Johnny-on-the-spot.)
Joplin, on the other hand, is cutting back zoning enforcement and permitting businesses to rebuild, which definitely is an anti-Krugman approach and most likely would earn the Great Man’s contempt. So how are things going? Beito and Smith write:
In Joplin, eight of 10 affected businesses have reopened, according to the city’s Chamber of Commerce, while less than half in Tuscaloosa have even applied for building permits, according to city data we reviewed. Walgreens revived its Joplin store in what it calls a “record-setting” three months. In Tuscaloosa, a destroyed CVS still festers, undemolished. Large swaths of Tuscaloosa’s main commercial thoroughfares remain vacant lots, and several destroyed businesses have decided to reopen elsewhere, in neighboring Northport.
The reason for Joplin’s successes and Tuscaloosa’s shortcomings? In Tuscaloosa, officials sought to remake the urban landscape top-down, imposing a redevelopment plan on businesses. Joplin took a bottom-up approach, allowing businesses to take the lead in recovery.
Keep in mind that while much of Alabama tends to vote Republican, Tuscaloosa is a university town that is full of political liberals and, as such, believers in government planning. The planners also are spouting the politically-correct language and ideals. Write the authors:
The Alabama city’s recovery plan, “Tuscaloosa Forward,” is indeed state-of-the-art urban planning—and that’s the crux of the problem. It sets out to “courageously create a showpiece” of “unique neighborhoods that are healthy, safe, accessible, connected, and sustainable,” all anchored by “village centers” for shopping (in a local economy that struggles to sustain current shopping centers). Another goal is to “preserve neighborhood character” from a “disproportionate ratio of renters to owners.” The plan never mentions protecting property rights.
Joplin, on the other hand, features an:
official plan (that) not only makes property rights a priority but clocks in at only 21 pages, compared with Tuscaloosa’s 128. Joplin’s plan also relied heavily on input from businesses (including through a Citizen’s Advisory Recovery Team) instead of Tuscaloosa’s reliance on outside consulting firms. “We need to say to our businesses, community, and to our citizens, ‘If you guys want to rebuild your houses, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen,’” said Joplin City Council member William Scearce in an interview.
Now, if one only read the columns of Paul Krugman, one would think that Joplin’s recovery would be lagging and Tuscaloosa would be booming. Yet, all of the things that leftists like Krugman claim are needed to make an economy recover, don’t seem to be working very well:
Instead of encouraging businesses to rebuild as quickly as possible, Tuscaloosa enforced restrictive zoning rules and building codes that raised costs—prohibitively, in some cases. John Carney, owner of Express Oil Change, which was annihilated by the storm, estimates that the city’s delays and regulation will cost him nearly $100,000. And trying to follow the rules often yielded mountains of red tape, as the city rejected businesses’ proposals one after another.
“It’s just been a hodgepodge,” says Mr. Carney. “We’ve gotten so many mixed signals from the get go. The plans have been ever-changing.” Boulevard Salon owner Tommy Metrock, one of the few business owners to rebuild on Tuscaloosa’s main thoroughfare, McFarland Boulevard, says the restrictions created “chaos” as people put their livelihoods on hold while the city planned.
There is one other possibility, however. Perhaps that the influence of other Republicans in Alabama has been such that the city planners in Tuscaloosa simply don’t believe ENOUGH in government to work magic. I’m sure that Krugman would come up with a similar explanation, or maybe he will write a column to say that businesses have turned Joplin into a hellhole and government, by accidentally creating “wide-open spaces” in Tuscaloosa, has turned the city into paradise. Stay tuned.
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William L. Anderson is an author and an associate professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland. He is also an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy as well as for the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama.
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