Monday, October 30, 2006

Humpty Dumpty: The Post-Katrina Version

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
Through the Looking Glass, Chapter VI

When Ray Nagin uses a number, it means just what he chooses it to mean -- (invariably) either more or less (than any reasonable person would expect it to mean). It really should come as no surprise that when Nagin promised new contracts for garbage collection totaling $20M, he really meant $25M, which really meant $26.8M. Or that at least $5.89M will be added to that, with more cost to be added on top of that. That's as much precision as anybody has expected from the mayor for at least a year now. The mayor makes up a number, nobody questions him on it and it becomes accepted as fact. Nagin understands this business. The press hasn't demanded accurate numbers since Katrina, possibly since he took office. Frankly, I can't understand why James Gill is suddenly getting indignant.

Let's review, last September the mayor announced that he expected to layoff 3,000 employees in order to save $3M-$5M a month. I thought that the projected savings sounded remarkably imprecise; when I asked a friend who owns a business, he didn't need to think about it -- to only save $5M by laying off 3,000 employees, they'd all have to be minimum wage employees or devoid of benefits. Of course, the city ended up laying off 2,400 employees*. Of course, estimates are always imprecise, but the Nagin administration still uses the 3,000 figure when it suits its purposes. This morning on the WWL morning news, (City Finance Director) Reginald Zeno said that the city took the tough step of laying off 3,000 workers to reduce the city debt. When a member of the Nagin administration says 3,000, it means just what he chooses it to mean. In the same interview, Zeno said that the the city budget went from $480M in 2005 to $325M in 2006. Yet, when the mayor gave his 100 day presentation, he said that the city was operating on a quarter of its pre-Katrina budget. Rather than question that figure, The Picayune complimented the mayor for doing so much with so little. It seemed quite content that a quarter meant just what the mayor chose it to mean. Though it's not important, nobody's even questioned the mayor when he's said he had "about a 10 hour window" when he could have done more before ordering a mandatory evacuation. It's not a major issue, I would feel petty for bringing it up if it weren't so typical of the mayor's immunity from precision. Clearly 10 hours meant just what the mayor chose it to mean. To be fair, the mayor (or a close associate) has given very specific financial information at least once. Of course, nobody in the local press found it noteworthy that it was obviously a bald-faced lie.

More recently, when the mayor proposed pay raises for municipal workers, the reporter covering the story pointed out that the administration's cost estimates didn't account for a sizable number of employees, but the Times Picayune saw no reason to emphasize that fact. So why is the Times Picayune suddenly acting like it's news that the mayor chose for $20M to really mean $30-$40M with some costs unaccounted for? Who's changing the rules of the game here?

I'd like to suggest that it would save a lot of trouble if the mayor just stopped using numbers altogether. When asked about the evacuation, the mayor should just hold his thumb to his forefinger and say, "Well, you know man, there was a teeny weeny little window of opportunity when I could have done more." When discussing any proposed increase in city expenditures, he should hold his hands about a foot apart and widen them as he says, "It will cost some money, but we've got this great big federal loan." Finally, as he spreads his arms all the way, he should say, "And besides, it will just be a small slice of that great big exploding pie." Such answers would certainly be absurd, especially from a mayor who promised transparency. But they wouldn't be any absurd than the manufactured numbers that he's been using to answer questions, and they would certainly be a lot more honest.

*The Sewerage and Water Board also eliminated about 500 positions, but it's an entirely separate budgeting entity from the City of New Orleans and most of the eliminated positions were employees who failed to return after Katrina -- not layoffs. In most ways totally separate from the "3,000 tough cuts" that the mayor likes to cite. Also, nobody in the press seems to question the figure.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Old Favorites
  • Political Boxing (untitled)
  • Did Bush Take His Ball and Go Home
  • Teratogens and Plan B
  • Foghorn Leghorn Republicans
  • Quote of the Day
  • October's News(Dec.1)
  • untitled, Nov.19 (offshore revenue)
  • Remember Upton Sinclair
  • Oct. Liar of thr month
  • Jindal's True Colors
  • No bid contracts