Mar 062017
Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

There’s no way to sugar-coat this: We came in dead last. Economically, New Orleans is the municipal equivalent of the 2008 Detroit Lions.

According to a report released by the Brookings Institute, New Orleans ranked last among America’s 100 largest cities in terms of economic prosperity between the years of 2010 and 2015. Everything decreased – worker productivity, average standard-of-living, and average wages.

In short, there were no silver linings. Although there was economic investment, particularly in healthcare and tourism, it didn’t provide much overall benefit to those who actually live here.

The report offered some glimpse as to why this might be the case: “Productivity grew fastest in metro areas that specialize in research-, technology-, and capital-intensive advanced industries but declined in metro areas where growth depended on retail, hospitality or health care.”

Thus, the only industries seeing gains are those least capable of actually providing economic prosperity. We’re continuing the slow slide to becoming a city that doesn’t really produce anything – a city that’s “nice to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”

Moving northward won’t help either, and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina can’t be blamed. Baton Rouge joined us near the bottom of the rankings, coming in at 88th.

This is not the first time Brookings has rained on New Orleans’ economic parade. A year-and-a-half ago, Brookings’ Amy Liu posted a blog entry entitled “Post-Katrina New Orleans bouncing back, but not for the better.” The piece emphasized three crucial facts:

  • “First, job growth in metro New Orleans is slowing, and the new jobs are predominantly low-quality.”
  • “Second, the economy has stalled and is not generating enough income to improve living standards.”
  • “Lastly, metro New Orleans’ sluggish economy has been accompanied by growth in poverty and a decline in median household incomes.”

Ouch. There’s no way to put a shine on that news, or so you might think. Despite the manifest lackluster economic performance, the Landrieu PR machine simultaneously made efforts to convince the nation that New Orleans is on a roll.

“Nobody can refute the fact that we have completely turned this story around,” Mayor Landrieu told the New York Times. “For the first time in 50 years, the city is on a trajectory that it has not been on, organizationally, functionally, economically, almost in every way.”

A puff piece by Scott Shalett, who was Landrieu’s chief of staff during his stint as lieutenant governor, followed in The Atlantic. According to Shalett, Katrina and the BP spill “catalyzed opportunity in New Orleans.” We should be so lucky.

“New Orleans is thriving,” Shalett gushed. “The city’s economy and its people are more resilient than ever and ready for a future that will show the world how to rebuild and renew!”

Mayor Landrieu repeated the same line as recently as last December, highlighting recent gains in healthcare and tourism as indicators of success. While nobody will deny that these sectors produce jobs, they tend to be low-paying, and the cost-of-living continues to rise. The fact remains that for most New Orleanians, their personal economic situation simply is not getting better. And it isn’t just stagnating – it’s getting worse.

It’s time to face facts. The New Orleans area is an economic basket case, and Landrieu’s strategy of ignoring reality and patting himself on the back has only served to further his own selfish political interests. Meanwhile, ordinary New Orleanians continue to feel the pinch.

Brookings does have some advice for New Orleans, although it is doubtful that it will be followed. Ms. Liu’s article recommended that New Orleans leverage its competitive advantages, particularly in water management, but also that it bolster existing industries such as metal manufacturing, insurance, and finance. Finally, a regional effort needs to be mounted.

Alas, those are not sexy ideas. They are not the type of trendy pabulum that politicians ordinarily emphasize, like the fanciful notion that New Orleans will become the next Hollywood or the next Silicon Valley. Ultimately, the most civic-minded public officials focus on nuts-and-bolts issues of efficient government and basic services. They don’t govern according to fads.

Landrieu’s tenure as mayor is mercifully coming to an end. The question remains of whether the next mayor will actually work to improve our economic state, or just talk it up. We’ve seen the results of style trumping substance, and hopefully we’ll eschew that moving forward.

Regardless, whoever succeeds Landrieu will be the beneficiary of low expectations. After all, at this point, we have nowhere to go but up.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

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