Can anyone save New Orleans?

    What’s cooking in New Orleans? “Nothing,” celebrity chef Emeril
    Lagasse recently told the New York Post’s Cindy Adams. “The mayor’s a
    clunk. The governor is also a clunk. They don’t know their (derrieres)
    from a hole in the ground. All my three restaurants got hit. I’ve
    reopened Emeril’s, but only a few locals come. There’re no tourists. No
    visitors. No spenders. No money. No future. No people. It’s lost. It’ll
    never come back.”

    Congressman Richard Baker believes New Orleans and its environs can
    come back if it can rebuild its housing stock and thus begin
    rehabilitating battered communities. The Baton Rouge Republican’s
    proposed Louisiana Recovery Corporation (LRC) appears to be the only
    coherent plan for revitalizing the tempest-tossed Bayou State. It
    deserves the proper hearing it will get before the Senate Banking
    Committee on Feb. 15.

    Baker’s bill, H.R. 4100, would issue Treasury bonds to create a $30
    billion revolving loan fund. Owners of Louisiana’s 240,000 damaged or
    destroyed homes and small businesses voluntarily could sell their
    property to the LRC. It would pay owners 60 percent of their equity and
    lenders up to 60 percent of their mortgage receivables. The LRC would
    consolidate these distressed or demolished properties and auction them
    off to private developers. Sales revenues would repay bondholders.
    Original owners could ask for first dibs on revitalized properties. The
    LRC would expire after 10 years.

    Also, Baker’s $30 billion revolving loan fund would collect and
    repay 60 cents on the dollar. Even if it underwrote 40 cents on the
    dollar, that would involve a $12 billion outlay, not all $30 billion.

    “In this case, there is basically no market. As such, people have
    little or no options,” Baker told Baker, who launched a
    still-operating real-estate agency at age 22 and enjoys a 91 percent
    lifetime American Conservative Union rating, added: “The situation
    calls for an unprecedented solution, through a corporation that
    basically remakes the market, reintroduces market forces, gets property
    back into commerce in a necessarily more comprehensive approach, and
    then gradually recedes from the marketplace over time.”

    As public programs go, Baker’s proposal is a bit like a live-virus
    vaccine. A limited amount of government now, followed by better health,
    rather than illness and, eventually, even more government. Baker’s plan
    should inoculate against the alternative: an epidemic of mortgage
    foreclosures, personal bankruptcies, bank failures, and an inevitable
    bailout by federal regulators at greater expense in outlays and

    “I don’t believe in taxing the good people of Kansas, New Hampshire,
    and California $30 billion on the grounds that otherwise you’ll tax
    them more later,” responds David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute.

    While I usually agree that free markets should solve these things,
    New Orleans’ markets largely have washed away. Last November, I
    witnessed moderate to jaw-dropping flood damage from Lake Pontchartrain
    clear down to Marais Street, just above the French Quarter. Only the
    roughly 10-block-wide “Sliver by the River” abutting the Mississippi,
    stood essentially intact.

    “The bottom line is this, it is difficult to understand how
    Louisiana rebuilds if its landscape is littered with the remains of
    over 200,000 unusable homes and business properties,” former Louisiana
    governors Mike Foster, Buddy Roemer, and David Treen, all Republicans,
    wrote President Bush Feb. 1. Without the Baker plan, they fear these
    deeds will stay “tied up in a legal mess impenetrable to the private
    market, for years and years to come.”

    Despite initial interest, the White House has cooled on the Baker
    plan, preferring to spend another $18 billion on emergency relief,
    temporary housing, and other items. Bush’s efforts appear focused on,
    at most, 20,000 damaged homes, leaving at least 90 percent of the
    problem unanswered. Since federally built levees collapsed in a
    Category 3 hurricane, Washington should do better.

    Without a mechanism for reconstituting what is, essentially, a
    property market in smithereens, the city that nurtured jazz, oysters
    Rockefeller, Mardi Gras, round-the-clock cocktails, and plenty more may
    be no more.

    “I would ask all our fellow Americans if they can accept having
    within its shores a great American city and a substantial area of a
    culturally and economically important state lying in ruins for years to
    come,” Baker said. “Think about that: American ruins.”

    (Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service
    and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in
    Fairfax, Va. E-mail him at deroy.murdock(at)