The Promiser in Chief

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

December 9, 2005

Sometimes reconstruction delayed is reconstruction denied.

A few months after the invasion of Iraq, President Bush promised to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and economy. He - or, at any rate, his speechwriters - understood that reconstruction was important not just for its own sake, but as a way to deprive the growing insurgency of support. In October 2003 he declared that "the more electricity is available, the more jobs are available, the more kids that are going to school, the more desperate these killers become."

But for a long time, Iraqi reconstruction was more of a public relations exercise than a real effort. Remember when visiting congressmen were taken on tours of newly painted schools?

Both supporters and opponents of the war now argue that by moving so slowly on reconstruction, the Bush administration missed a crucial window of opportunity. By the time reconstruction spending began in earnest, it was in a losing race with a deteriorating security situation.

As a result, the electricity and jobs that were supposed to make the killers desperate never arrived. Iraq produced less electricity last month than in October 2003. The Iraqi government estimates the unemployment rate at 27 percent, but the real number is probably much higher.

Now we're losing another window of opportunity for reconstruction. But this time it's at home.

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush made an elaborately staged appearance in New Orleans, where he promised big things. "The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region," he said, "will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

Such an effort would be the right thing to do. We can argue about details - about which levees should be restored and how strong to make them - but it's clearly in the nation's interests as well as local residents' to rebuild much of the regional economy.

But Mr. Bush seems to have forgotten about his promise. More than three months after Katrina, a major reconstruction effort isn't even in the planning stage, let alone under way. "To an extent almost inconceivable a few months ago," a Los Angeles Times report about New Orleans says, "the only real actors in the rebuilding drama at the moment are the city's homeowners and business owners."

It's worth noting in passing that Mr. Bush hasn't even appointed a new team to fix the dysfunctional Federal Emergency Management Agency. Most of the agency's key positions, including the director's job - left vacant by the departure of Michael "heck of a job" Brown - are filled on an acting basis, by temporary place holders. The chief of staff is still a political loyalist with no prior disaster management experience.

One FEMA program has, however, been revamped. The Recovery Channel is a satellite and Internet network that used to provide practical information to disaster victims. Now it features public relations segments telling viewers what a great job FEMA and the Bush administration are doing.

But back to reconstruction. By letting the gulf region languish, Mr. Bush is allowing a window of opportunity to close, just as he did in Iraq.

To see why, you need to understand a point emphasized by that report in The Los Angeles Times: the private sector can't rebuild the region on its own. The reason goes beyond the need for flood protection and basic infrastructure, which only the government can provide. Rebuilding is also blocked by a vicious circle of uncertainty. Business owners are reluctant to return to the gulf region because they aren't sure whether their customers and workers will return, too. And families are reluctant to return because they aren't sure whether businesses will be there to provide jobs and basic amenities.

A credible reconstruction plan could turn that vicious circle into a virtuous circle, in which everyone expects a regional recovery and, by acting on that expectation, helps that recovery come to pass. But as the months go by with no plan and no money, businesses and families will make permanent decisions to relocate elsewhere, and the loss of faith in a gulf region recovery will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Funny, isn't it? Back during the 2000 campaign Mr. Bush promised to avoid "nation building." And so he has. He failed to rebuild Iraq because he waited too long to get started. And now he's doing the same thing here at home.