There seem to be two very different reactions to the year of post-Katrina recovery. Each is pessimistic. One is to decry the failure of government, or at least of our government, to bring New Orleans back to normalcy. Under this view, there are collective action problems in the way of private sector activity, and perhaps some moral sense that we ought to move people from tent cities to brand new housing as quickly as possible. Instead we have shaky politics, a great deal of remaining rubble, crime rates that are returning to horrible pre-Katrina levels, racial differences, and no reason to think that the rebuilding will protect against a category 4 or 5 hurricane in the future. President Bush's impending visit to the area is thus analogized to visits to Baghdad; in both places only half the country believes the sweet-talking against the backdrop of despair. The New Orleans situation is conventionally described as reflecting a lack of will on the administration's part. Despite the talk and the promise of aid, the actual expenditures are said to be lagging. A government that cared would be spending much more.
An alternative view is that expenditures are largely wasteful. In the first place it is not obvious that New Orleans ought to be rebuilt to pre-Katrina proportions. A majority of its population has not returned, and perhaps that it is a good thing. Second, there is the fear that appropriations will be misspent. Stories of emergency aid claimed by undeserving, fraudulent families fuel this view, as does a perception that local politicians are not to be trusted. In short, the first view is pessimistic about the government's motives. The second view is pessimistic about its competence, or about the nature of humans in the face of free lunches. The two views may be correlated with gender, with political affiliation, or simply with which newspapers or blogs one reads.
In some ways, these perspectives are repeated with respect to Iraq. There is a view that puts much of the blame on a (claimed) failure to invest in more troops and an alternative view that places blame on the corruption of no-bid contracts. Again, the views may be correlated with political affiliation or information sources. In all these cases, there is the usual problem of counterfactuals. We do not know what would have happened if we had 500,000 troops in Iraq in the immediate post-invasion period; we do not know what would have happened if each returning resident to New Orleans had been given a generous stipend (and perhaps each non-returning resident a more modest stipend, as once discussed in this blog); we do not know what would have happened if the same sort of devastation had occurred in Houston, say, rather than in New Orleans, where the political stars would have been differently aligned.
If there is any room for contrarian optimism, I think it must arise from a belief in incrementalism. When some tactic appears to work, the decisionmaker steps on the accelerator and produces a little more of what works. When failure is revealed, there is a corresponding cutback. Failure is never rewarded with a massive investment (even though it is possible that failure comes from an insufficient investment). The right path in New Orleans might well be to hold steady and invest slowly, and only as private investors and residents vote with their money and feet. But I suspect that the observers who think New Orleans will look good in two years are not those who think Baghdad will do so.