Disaster Envy and Austerity Morality

Over the weekend Kristen McQueary, who is not some crank on Thought Catalog but in fact a member of the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, a major metropolitan news daily, wrote what will surely go down in history as one of the most repugnant opinion pieces of all time. McQueary used the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to reflect on what she considers the storm’s ultimately positive legacy: the privatization of the public school system, the dissolution of public housing, and sweeping fiscal austerity. This may not have the rhetorical panache of William Graham Sumner’s 1883 What the Social Classes Owe Each Other, but if I ever have the good fortune to write the history textbooks of the 2030s it will be reprinted in one of those little sidebars as a primary source illustration of the elite mindset of our second Gilded Age.

McQueary’s column might not otherwise have raised much ire; after all, such austerity narratives dominate public discussion of urban issues as well as city governments. Bond ratings have pushed aside questions of how people can earn a living; educators have become cast as obstacles to education while “entrepreneurs” are mythologized as the solvers of problems heretofore unknown; and prosperity seems increasingly to consist of a funhouse mirror view wherein wealth follows from making everyone poorer. But McQueary wasn’t content to leave it there, wishing that a similar storm might hit Chicago, unleashing the kind of disruption that changed New Orleans, because, and I’m not kidding here, people in Chicago are waiting for deliverance from the city’s budget and unfunded pension problems just as people in New Orleans waited on rooftops to be rescued from drowning in floodwaters (it’s worth noting that McQueary’s metaphor doesn’t even make narrative sense–are Chicagoans already desperate to be rescued? Why do they need the storm, then?). Hard to imagine anyone getting upset, right?

McQueary has of course “apologized” for the fact that some readers (those with functioning moral sense) found her comparative assessment of the seriousness of death and displacement in New Orleans and budget troubles in Chicago, and her apparent belief that lowering the wages of garbagemen and stripping teachers of tenure protections made it all worthwhile, to be completely disgusting.

The problem is that McQueary has disowned her metaphorical conceit but not the ideological indifference to human suffering behind it. She has also completely distorted the political economy of rebuilding, imagining the wrenching changes to the city’s political economy that followed its physical destruction as more or less consensual:

In the years after the storm, residents were divided. Some wanted everything rebuilt the way it was. Others wanted to move forward in a new direction. And that’s ultimately what happened for large parts of the city. New Orleans, of course, hasn’t solved all of its problems. But as Mayor Landrieu reminded us, by the time he took office in 2010, there was a mandate not to put New Orleans back like it had been, but to build a city that works.

Who could quibble with such an anodyne statement? The city used to be messed up, but now it works! Some people disagreed about what to do, but eventually some of them got their way! Out with the old, c’est la vie, laissez la privatisation roulé!

Perhaps the 118,000 African American residents who have not returned to New Orleans might have objected, had they been there to raise their voices in favor of a different mandate. For those who do live in today’s New Orleans, the notion of a “city that works” papers over some gruesome inequalities in terms of who actually works, and for how much. The city’s racial inequalities in earnings and employment are worse than ever, and the Brookings Institution has recently found “good jobs”, defined as

jobs that are accessible to low- and middle-skilled workers and offer stable incomes and upward mobility—

are insufficient in number and growing too slowly relative to those with low wages and no path to advancement or security.
Good jobs

represented 33 percent of all the metro area’s jobs in 2014. These good jobs were found in high numbers and concentrations across a range of occupational fields, from production to maintenance and from management to health care. Yet good jobs in the metro New Orleans area grew by 2.2 percent from 2010 to 2014, while other jobs expanded by 6.1 percent.

It would surprise nobody, perhaps aside from Kristen McQueary, that those holding “good jobs” in New Orleans today are overwhelmingly white. One might think that increasing the number of these jobs and ensuring equal access to them might be a priority. But that kind of thinking clearly ignores the magic of entrepreneurial disruption that so enchants McQueary and that demands fewer jobs with high wages and the security that tenure or a union contract might provide.

With occupations like garbageman and school teacher being purged from the list of good jobs, the percentage may reach single digits soon. Presumably, once nobody in New Orleans can earn a living today or save for tomorrow, they’ll all get rich through the power of the market. This sort of magical thinking would be hilarious if it weren’t the ruling idea of our time.

If you’re not tired and nauseated thinking about this, Adolph Reed has published all that needs to be said on the subject of McQueary’s column and “unpology” at Left Business Observer. A taste:

And what notion of democratic government does she operate with such that Paul Vallas’s having been freed from “restrictive mandates from the city or the state” seems like something to be applauded? He may have “created the nation’s first free-market education system” (can someone pass the salad dressing?), but, if McQueary could imagine doing the most superficial research instead of merely exuberantly rehearsing press releases, she’d have learned that that system has not, even by the the education “reformers’” very dubious metric of standardized testing, improved educational performance overall and certainly has undermined educational quality for many students in the city. And what notion of education does she operate with such that teachers are not only least competent to organize conducting it but are somehow its enemies, though a random “entrepreneur” with no expertise is the one — actually The One — to whom that vital public service should be entrusted? God help us if McQueary starts thinking about how to organize the fire department.

Ouch. Where Reed really nails it, though, is in the observation that austerity, by gutting social provision and underwriting the reorganization of the workforce around poverty wages, in fact constitutes a slow-working violence on people like those of New Orleans and, in McQueary’s fond hopes, Chicago:

The greatest irony of her original stupid article and the backtracking unpology is that she can’t recognize that it’s precisely the sort of arrangements she enthusiastically touts as the utopian possibilities opened by the horrors of Katrina that created that disaster in the first place. She’s right; it was man-made, but, if she were a little less smugly shallow and ideological, she might have asked how it was man-made. It was the product of decades of the sorts of policies, pursued at every level from Orleans Parish to the White House and by corporate Democrats as well as Republicans, she rhapsodizes about—privatization, retrenchment, corporate welfare paid for by cutting vital public services and pasting the moves over with fairy tales about “efficiency” and “lean management” and “doing more with less” and hoping to avoid the day of reckoning.

So, I’ll give this much to McQueary; she’s right that Katrina has a lesson for us. It’s a lesson about what happens when you follow the sorts of destructive approaches to public policy that McQueary shills for.

If anybody needs me, I’ll be off wishing I had written that, then wishing that it hadn’t been necessary to write in the first place.

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One comment on “Disaster Envy and Austerity Morality

  1. […] important to note in the wake of Kristen McQueary’s odious op-ed wishing for a Katrina-like disaster to strike Chicago that the city’s political […]

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