Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Lost Cause Winning Again

Welp. Now that South Carolina has brought the Rebel Flag down, our "national conversation" on race and American history is ready to be turned back over to modern day believers in the Lost Cause. The full power of our larger, 150 year fairy tale history is rearing its ugly head in defense of our plague of Ozymandian monuments to Santa Claus the Easter Bunny the Tooth Fairy assorted mythological personalities created in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Not to say everyone contributing to this handover is a believer in the so-called Confederacy. Far from it, in fact. Most of the folks ready to man the battlements in the defense of imaginary Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the rest are simply holding on to the sentimentality of growing up in a region that cared more about heroic bedtime stories than it did with primary documents and evidence.

Others will appeal to the "history" - some to that of the South itself as if we are defined by 4 years of rebellion and 150 years of trying to cover up the real reasons for that rebellion, others as if the mere existence of a statue for a certain period of time should mean the thing itself is inviolate. Some defenders of the status quo are actually individuals who despise the so-called Confederacy and Lost Cause, but they dismiss any discussion of monuments and street names as "not focusing on the real problems," as if our larger social complexity is incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. As if so many of the larger social problems they'd rather we be talking about don't have their cultural roots in the fairy tale of the Lost Cause.

Meanwhile, the Lost Cause doesn't  care if its defenders actually agree with it or not, semantically. It just keeps plodding along as it has since 1865, waiting for its opponents to argue with each other or change the subject before it quietly slips over to the desk and writes its own history when no one is looking or doing any fact checking. Before you know it, Bobby Lee is building schools for the children of his previously enslaved-Americans, and would have seen them all become productive voting citizens if those pesky carpetbaggers and scalawags hadn't come in and forced the South to turn to Jim Crow laws. Or something. I haven't checked the comments sections in the past hour, so I'm not fully up to date on all the new magical things Lee and Davis and the gang did to selflessly fix the country they tried so hard to break after they tried to break it.

The most successful defenders of the Lost Cause are currently getting everyone caught up talking about statues and place names for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. We've even gone off the rails so far in New Orleans that there's a "serious" discussion over the meaning of the fleur de lis and whether the city should abandon the symbol.

How does it help the so-called Confederacy to talk about bad parts of slave-owners? Well, despite their complex and often troubling places in American history, Washington, Jefferson, & Jackson were all Presidents of the UNITED States of America. There is definitely a need to further scrutinize their mythological histories with their historical realities, but not when the topic of conversation is focused on the so-called CONFEDERATE States of America and the cultural legacy of the Lost Cause in the South. Suddenly, you're rhetorically defending men who tried to destroy the United States through rebellion by referencing men who all used their office to put down rebellions or respond to threats against the United States.

Furthermore, consensus history already includes a lot about George, Tom, & Andy's slave owning, Native American fighting, and general hypocrisies. New Orleans already took names of theirs off local public schools. Most of us learn that the story of George Washington & the Cherry Tree is apocryphal - it is one of our first lessons in the difference between what we tell children at bedtime and what is the real story.

The Lost Cause, on the other hand, is a bunch of people holding onto the so-called Confederate States equivalent of that cherry tree story, holding their hands over their ears and yelling LA LA LA when someone wants to tell them their Christmas presents aren't actually delivered down the chimney by a Coca-Cola marketing campaign. The first rule of the Lost Cause is you do not criticize the Lost Cause.

As far as the fleur is concerned, history is full of appropriations and assimilations of symbols one way or another. I'm fairly confident, based on my limited experience in New Orleans, that the fleur de lis symbol long ago ceased to be one associated with French colonial black codes, and became far more inclusive among a very diverse population associated with living and participating in the culture of this city. As with all things, there is good reason to explore the history behind the symbol. But we can accept, in many cases, that history is not static and things can change, over time, in a culture.

Just like the United States flag flew over centuries of enslavement and Jim Crow and terrible things done to many ethnic minorities, as a symbol it has grown through the years to be more inclusive as the reality and aspirations of the nation became more inclusive. There is a reason it was carried at the front of the column as the marchers entered Selma, there is a reason it was waving on the steps of the Supreme Court as same sex marriage was legalized, and there is a reason it was seen on the steps of the South Carolina capitol as the Rebel Flag came down on Friday. If you weren't watching the live feed, you may have missed the audio of the crowd chanting "USA, USA, USA!"

It was easy to feel, in that moment, that things were changing. How gloriously & naively hopeful. While we're watching that flag come down, the Lost Cause has snuck in the back and started deleting paragraphs in the story we're writing right now. Listen close and you can hear which words they're typing in place: First the Rebel Flag, next the US Flag! First the Washington NFL logo, next the Saints' fleur!  First Robert E. Lee's statue, next the Statue of Liberty! What about the black on black crime in Chicago? Which city will "they" burn to the ground next? The second rule of the Lost Cause is you do not criticize the Lost Cause.

Because that's what all this symbolism, the flags and the monuments, come down to. If Lee and Davis and the gang had spent as much real time on reconciliation as their mythology states, they might be worthy of the monuments and street names. They could have thrown themselves and their full clout into the project of Reconstruction, civil rights, and been remembered for building a better South and a better country after all, and it would have been in truth instead of in fantasy. Instead, they became the very symbols standing in the way of progress and reconciliation. The Rebel Flag was flown by rioting whites, the symbol of police dogs and firehoses, bombed churches and burning crosses, terrorism and night riders. Because of this, we've been going over the same old ground for 150 years, and the proof was in the pudding. Jim Crow won. The Lost Cause won. And we do not have the South the bedtime stories promised. We have nothing close, despite generations of work. So strong is the current we're working against.

That still doesn't stop the bedtime story from winning the day. The Lost Cause is upstairs putting the kids to sleep with it, while the other adults are still downstairs at the dinner table, arguing amongst themselves.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Proof of Life

It is that time of year again.

There are tropical waves in the Atlantic basin. Rising Tide 9 has opened registration for this year's conference. UNO is seeking submissions for a book on post-Katrina writing.

“If you wrote, or remember reading, blogs/posts that should not be missed—because they crystallized the particular challenges of post-Katrina life, or maybe even inspired action for addressing them—I want to hear from you,”- Cynthia Joyce

That's how it starts. Scrolling through the Rising Tide archives and catch glimpses of Ashley fighting with the sound board, Greg chuckling at his own subversive (and wildly inappropriate) jokes, and Morwen's soft and resolute lines of questioning. Trying to recall who all took shots off that ski in the yacht club. Dusting off that copy of A Howling in the Wires - the first real attempt at an anthology I was aware of - thinking of that night at Mimi's where it seemed everyone got a turn at the microphone before anyone believed a noise ordinance might really shut the music down.

Times like these are for going back through the archives. Bouncing from weblog to weblog, finding out which ones are still active, which ones still have links going all the way back. There are posts there you remember reading the day they published, there are posts there you see for the first time. See how many have changed over the years.* Those that are already gone provide some scope of how easy it is to lose our own history, how fragile it is to capture.

I wish Ms. Joyce well. I think it is important work.

For myself, when I do this, around this time every year, I usually start as far back as possible. Back when I didn't really have the sense of how to pay attention to stuff like this. That's where I find the most work I missed - that time where so much of the writing sounded like it was looking for or giving proof of life.

After a catastostrophic event and the ongoing catastrophic aftermath, bathing in the nude in front of the house is quite liberating after the first few minutes... I don't recommend this for all catastrophic events - preferably one where most people have evacuated... pick and choose your event carefully. - Gulfsails, September 2005 
These people have shocked me out of my delusional complacency, we are not fine down here. All is not well - but there are these bright pockets where, with no better way to put it and apologizing beforehand for the mellodrama... God sleeps on a cot in a Winn-Dixie parking lot caring for kittens.  - Gulfsails, October 2005 

Of Men in Trucks & Mardi Gras:
They run red lights and stop signs and turn in front of you like you’re not there. They have no use for civil society. I’m glad they’re here–a nice pair of them gutted my mama’s house–but I can’t wait ’til they’re fucking gone. - G-Bitch, December 2005  
I love Mardi Gras only slightly less than Jazz Fest. My priority today was not grading the 23 essays I received Friday. (to clear my plate for the 20 I receive Monday) or the 4 lesson plans I need by Monday morning or getting my office computer to my office space or the pre-midterm alerts to students at risk of failing—it was getting to the grocery store, before parades trap me in my home, to lay in supplies for a weekend of parades and grilling and drinking. I’m a New Orleanian with New Orleanian priorities. - G-Bitch, February 2006
Prescient visions of Dizneylandrieu:
Imagine if you will a New Orleans without Mardi Gras Indians; without neighborhoods where young boys actually want to learn to play the trombone, so they can march proudly at the head of the parade; without the little neighborhood restaurants where Creole cooking was perfected before we gave it to the world; without the little bars where every generation of musicians have played for a circle of friends and neighbors before they took our music into the world. - Wet Bank Guide, September 2005
Hearing about seven fatal stress related heart attacks, in people ranging from 83 to 20, over the course of three days is overwhelming. These seven came from every ethnic and socio-economic group. The stress is an equal opportunity killer, it seems. When you see all the reports about structures and dollars, please remember the humans involved. They seem to be getting lost in the shuffle now that they're off the roofs and off your TV screens. - NOLA Slate, March 2006
This picture. Christmas 2005.

When people visited. This could have been written at any time in the last 9 years.
I managed to hold it together enough to communicate how difficult it was for people to rebuild in these areas that the city, the state, the country was willing to write off before I dropped my charges off at the edge of the French Quarter. I’ve been racking my brains ever since for the reasons why this particular tour felt different from many others I’ve given since we moved back to New Orleans in 2006. Not too long ago, I complained that New Orleans since the levee breaches had become a cause, not a city. I think now that I was wrong. - Liprap on Humid City, April, 2012
Song references.
Emmylou Harris once said on "A Prairie Home Companion" that she wrote to Pete Seeger when she was much younger, telling him she didn't feel she could be a folksinger because she hadn't suffered enough. 
Seeger's one word response was, "Wait." - Liprap, November 2006

(*What the heck is this?)

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Hurricane Arthur & Storm Surge

What a difference two years makes. For those of you keeping score at home, two of the biggest weather forecast misfires of 2012 involved the storm surge of Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy. They were both Category 1 storms, but their Category 3 size storm surges did most of their damage. It seems even when weather predictions go out of their way to warn of surge, when it is associated with the words "category" and "one," folks are more likely to think they can ride out the storm ("hunker down" being the term of art in Louisiana).

But as we learned, Cat 3 size water packs one hell of a punch. If you're going to hunker, you better make sure you're behind some big levees or on higher ground. If not, you'd better make a plan to get there.

So nowadays, NHC has experimental storm surge inundation maps. They've also got rainfall totals estimations, because flash flooding is like the tornado of flooding, and shows up often without much advance warning. And in places that have functioning drainage systems and less rain than New Orleans (we deal with flash flooding on a sometimes hourly basis), the people may not be used to any flooding, so that's also a big upgrade.

To demonstrate the power of storm surge, the attached screenshot is the NHC's potential storm surge inundation map of St. Simons Island and Glynn County. For reference, this location is now a few hundred miles behind Hurricane Arthur. But the power of that Category 1 storm was enough to forecast high water up into the Marshes of Glynn, and from North Florida all the way to the Chesapeake. You can see why they ordered the evacuation of Hatteras Island in North Carolina if you click on the NHC surge forecast and scroll over to the Outer Banks. Coastal living is glorious, but it comes at a price.

If you're looking for other resources to follow during #hurricaneseason in the Atlantic and Gulf, here are some good clicks (if you aren't already). Feel free to leave any good ones I've missed in the comments:

National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center

Eric Holthaus who is also live-blogging Hurricane Arthur at Slate

Weather Underground

The Weather Channel Breaking

And of course, your local NWS spots, government accounts, and Emergency Management offices. Mine include:

Glynn County (GA) Government

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Prisoner Exchange Problem

It is well that war is so terrible, else we should become too fond of it.” – General Robert E. Lee

You know what I don’t like? I don’t like seeing those Taliban guys hugging each other after being released to their folks in Qatar. I don’t like to see those smiles on their faces, knowing that they helped run an organization that resisted American & NATO soldiers with force of arms. I don’t like thinking about the fact that these guys may have literally shot the guns that killed American soldiers. Letting them go even though they did that sucks, and there’s no two ways about it.

But I’ve read more than five minutes worth of real history in my life, not the bullshit version Hollywood or Fox News wants us to think of as “history,” and I know that Americans getting killed and hurt is part and parcel of any American national decision to go to war. Part of the thing about seeing the enemy as a human enemy, despite how distasteful I find their politics or reasons for fighting, is the acceptance that they will fight when we send men and women with guns into their country. Both sides of that coin are why decisions to go to war should never be taken so lightly.

Taking such decisions lightly means you're voluntarily giving up the context you need to judge decisions made when it comes to fighting a war. You'll let your emotions rule your decisions instead of looking at the bigger picture. Right now, we're seeing this in a big way in the controversy regarding a prisoner exchange. Now, there's a lot going on with this right now, but this is about the "controversial" issue of prisoner exchange. Because apparently, we have to go over this again.

Do you know why prisoners are taken during an armed conflict? Do you know why they are supposed to be treated humanely while in captivity? Do you know why they are supposed to be allowed to return to their families and communities as the fighting comes to an end? Do you know why we have international laws on matters such as these?

These are serious questions. Over the past 13 years, we seem to have lost the answers as a nation. Some people would have you believe that the reason to capture enemy fighters is to torture them, that's just what these "enemy combatants" deserve, amirite? Others decry those of us who believe in humane treatment and end of conflict exchange as "coddling" or "unwilling to offend" terrorists. While the urge to punish those who take up arms against our nation is a natural one, there are real reasons not to go down that path, and these reasons are all in American national security interests.

There is a very tangible, tactical reason for humane treatment of prisoners. If an enemy believes they will be mistreated, killed, or tortured if taken prisoner, they will resist all the harder against our troops. They are more likely to fight to the last man. On the other hand, if it is widely known that being taken prisoner means humane treatment at the hands of the enemy, and eventual release back to family and communities, that makes it more likely the enemy will surrender to our troops. And if there is less enemy to fight, the more likely our side is to win the conflict with fewer casualties.

Furthermore, think about what happens when the war is over, or winding down. Hopefully, America will be on the side that has won the war, and has killed or captured more of the enemy than our own side has sustained. Hopefully, those numbers mean you ARE exchanging prisoners at 5 to 1 rates or higher. And here's the hard part: you have to be mature, taking war seriously, and accept the fact that at the end of an armed conflict, we are going to release people who have shot at our soldiers. It is a tough pill to swallow, but that’s what we do because it means they are releasing our people who shot at them.

Because the very real alternative is that the other side institutes a TAKE NO PRISONERS attitude, and simply kill wounded or surrendering soldiers on OUR side, or tortures and mistreats them once captured. The expectation that both sides will behave in such humane ways to people who have been shooting at them isn’t done because we like to “coddle” or “not offend” the enemy – the expectation is they will extend the same courtesy to OUR people who we have CHOSEN to send into HARM’s WAY. That is also why people who violate those norms while in possession of prisoners are usually considered war criminals. Usually.

That's the math, boys and girls. That's why we can't sink to an enemy's level. While those gut reactions and a desire for retribution are completely natural, when you make a national decision to invade another country, you shouldn’t dehumanize an enemy so significantly that you take it as a personal insult, far away from the front lines, that the people who live in the place we are invading may choose to resist the invasion with force of arms.

That end-of-conflict trade, that rules-of-war thing that the last administration and their cheerleaders spent so much time making fun of, that practice is founded in the critically real understanding that sides in an armed conflict take prisoners in the first place, treat them humanely in the second, and release them at the end of the conflict.

Pretending prisoner exchange is some new thing cooked up by a President you don't like is simply an ignorant, Fox News and Hollywood fueled misunderstanding of American military history. I can't imagine what today's toxic media culture would make of American treatment of German prisoners.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Short Term Solutions

So it seems there are a lot of NOLA culture warriors who have discovered the existence of short term rentals, and point to this practice as if it were both new and one of the root causes of the housing affordability and scarcity problem in New Orleans.

For me, short term rentals can pose a very real problem in certain contexts, but there are pros and cons to the practice. In general, I find the cons arise as mainly as a symptom of a larger structural problem that isn’t nearly as sexy to talk about.

Property tax policy.

If you think you’ve heard tune before on Hurricane Radio, that’s because you have. All the talk of “gentrification,” “development,” “luxury apartments,” “blight,” and “short term rentals” can sound like a bunch of complex and intractable problems that have no solutions. It can make you want to throw up your hands (metaphorically or physically) in frustration. That’s something that happens when you focus on the symptoms of a larger problem – you’re trying to fix what’s broke without trying to break what doesn’t need fixing. Focus on the root concern, even with a little bit of non-expert attention, and you’d be surprised what solutions you start to see. That’s where empowerment comes from, because there is something tangible you can start to advocate for in making a change.

Taking current property tax policy into consideration (at least that which I can research online), here are some ideas I came up with that might mitigate the short term rental crisis through policy in less than 5 steps: 

1. Have a high property tax rate, but allow the property owners to apply for itemized deductions.

2. Have a huge homestead exemption tied to a percentage of assessed property value as opposed to a set amount.

3. Generous (and possibly increasing) property tax deductions based on proof of long term renters, or low rent charged.

4. Smaller property tax deductions based on self-identification of short-term rental usage.

5. Proven violations of housing ordinances result in revocation of all deductions; finding of demolition by neglect allows assessment to look at property’s market value as if not neglected.


Now, I’m no expert on these matters, and some of these ideas may not be good ones. I’m not addressing how the assessor’s office comes up with property assessments, because I can’t seem to find that online. But some of these ideas may be workable. They sure help me think about short term rentals, land use, and gentrification in different ways. Lord knows, it sure beats complaining about how “hipsters” ruining New Orleans.

I could go into long-winded detail on almost all of them, but I'll focus this on how the Homestead Exemption (HE) is right now calibrated too low to help anyone with a house that's worth more than $100,000.

And you don’t have to take my word for it, you can go directly to the New Orleans Assessors’ Office to see how this works. Right now, here are the two basic property tax equations used to estimate your tax, as published on their website.

10% of property value = assessed value.
(Assessed value - $7500 HE) * .14706 + modifications = Your Property Tax

Do you see where the problem is here? The example uses a $100,000 home, and by that measure, the $7500 Homestead Exemption seems very reasonable. That’s because $7500 subtracted from $10,000 is a 75% discount. Looking at property value history of almost any property on Zillow, you can see how stable property values were right up until the flood. When this HE was adopted in the 80s (I think), it was probably very reasonable for most of the homes in NOLA.

Using The Lens Property Tax Calculator, a homeowner with a HE pays $450.45 on a $100,000 home.

But THESE days, median property values in NOLA are FAR higher than $100,000, especially for in-demand neighborhoods. What does that HE look like for a $300,000 home? Still $7500. But this time, subtracted from $30,000 assessed value. That’s only a  25% HE discount.

Again to our calculator, we find that if your home is now worth $300,000, you're paying $3425.85.

That may sound “progressive” from a taxation standpoint – the more your property is worth, the less percentage your discount is – but it isn’t calibrated to protect middle class and working class property owners who have seen their home values jump from $100K to $300K in the last decade without an associated increase in wages. In this way increasing home values added to inflation collude to increase tax liability on homeowners. This is especially true at the low end of the home ownership scale – as those properties have seen the biggest increase, percentage wise, in tax liability. In effect, those who already lived in the grand dames of New Orleans homes haven’t had a tremendous increase as percentage, because that $7500 discount already didn’t mean much to their property tax liability.* But folks who bought or moved or lived here 15 or more years ago because regular home values and rents were affordable have been the hardest hit with these increases. Heaven help those folks who are on a fixed income.

And as with all things, if you’re renting at an affordable rate 10-15 or even 5 years ago, and the value of that property goes up and increases your landlord’s property tax liability, they’ve got to raise your rent. It doesn’t matter that neither you nor your landlord’s other wages have increased. They’re paying more so you’re paying more, and if you can’t afford it you have to find somewhere else to stay. If they can’t afford it, they’ve got to sell or renovate the property as a new luxury apartment.


I thought we were just talking about short term rentals, not why people are getting priced out of the places they’ve lived for 20 years? Isn’t that more the gentrification issue? Exactly – when the root cause of these issues is founded in the same policy, addressing the root policy will address multiple issues.

Short term rentals are in demand because NOLA is such a destination. Property owners facing these high percentage property tax increases in recent years have to make money on their property or sell. Here' we're not really talking about HE anymore, we're talking about rents going up and up and up while affordable housing options become scarce.

With short term rentals, they stand to make more money on their now high-tax-liability investment by competing directly with the overpriced hotels and legal B&B’s. While it is risky, a potential return of $2000 for a week is far greater than long term renting at $1400 a month. You only have to STR 8 weeks a year to make as much as you would with one long term renter at those prices, which means that you’ve got 44 more weeks of the year to simply put money in your pocket. That’s a CRAZY market incentive, and one reason you see people coming to NOLA, buying $300K homes in cash, and just leaving them on the STR market year round. It is one of the best investments anyone can make anywhere under the current land use policies in NOLA.

The fact that the city government actually benefits more from that arrangement, both in terms of property taxes collected and tourist money spent on something other than hotel rooms (where most of the money goes to the state), and ALL your market and government incentives are set up to promote the current state of affairs. Of course the city isn't interested in cracking down. If you want to change that state of affairs, you’ve got to address how property taxes are handled in this city.

Especially now that the Louisiana legislature has voted to put even more property tax hikes on the ballot this year.

*If my math is right (and it may not be), HE on a $750,000 property is a 10% discount, while a HE on a $900,000 property is just over a 9% discount. While that could translate to a few thousand dollars, that’s barely a 1% difference, and the demographic that owns homes at that price is the one best able to handle such an increase.

On the other hand, If your home went from $100,000 to $300,000, you’re HE discount on property tax has completely inverted from 75% of assessed value to 25%, and that's happened to the population least likely to be able to pay for that increase.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Letter to Louisiana Representative Nick Lorusso

Good evening, Representative Lorusso,

I am writing to urge you to vote NO on SB 469 that should be coming to the Louisiana State House floor later this week.

While there has been plenty of talk about the lawsuit that has been brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East, I find myself agreeing that this issue should be decided in a court of law rather than by retroactive legislative action. Not only do I believe in the non-partisan mission of the SLFPA that was created after the 2005 flood in order to keep politics out of flood protection, but I believe the attempts to undermine the SLFPA by the governor's office and legislature to be wrongheaded in politics and policy.

As a resident, worker, and taxpayer, I am less worried about lawyers fees than I am about oil companies sticking me and every other taxpayer with the bill for the messes they have made. More than just the tax burden of private interests being shifted to the public dime, every year, the coast gets closer to the city of New Orleans, makes everyone in the coastal parishes more vulnerable to flooding and storm surge, and threatens to drive more Louisianans from their homes. If the oil companies are found to have caused even part of that, they should be held responsible for cleaning up their own messes. The place to find that out is in a court of law.

It is time to stand up for Louisiana being a state of laws instead of a state of special interests. Please vote NO on SB 469.

Thank you for time.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Rising Tide 9 Request for Proposals

Got something to say about New Orleans & the Gulf Coast? Know some expert knowledge on a topic folks don't talk about enough? Working on a project to improve the city? Just want to go further than complaining about stuff on social media?

Here's your chance:

Rising Tide is still accepting programming proposals for Rising Tide 9 in September.

Make it happen.