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The Next Marshall Plan

In recent months, as observers here and elsewhere have noted the sluggish pace of Louisiana's post-Katrina recovery, calls have arisen for a domestic version of the Marshall Plan. We add our voice to that growing chorus, but we note that while many have rallied around the concept, few if any have bothered to explain precisely why the idea of a modern-day Marshall Plan would address Louisiana's post-Katrina needs so perfectly -- and how such a plan might work.

The parallels between conditions in post-war Europe and those in post-Katrina Louisiana are striking. In both cases, local and regional infrastructures and economies lay in shambles, and political leadership in the hardest-hit areas seemed incapable of effective action. Moreover, the federal government's initial relief efforts quickly became mired in red tape, parochial disputes and political opportunism. Most interesting, in our view, is the fact that the Marshall Plan -- named for Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who proposed the plan in a speech to the graduating class at Harvard University in 1947 -- was not implemented until more than two years after fighting ended in Europe. By all accounts, the plan was a resounding success, yet it didn't come until two years after the war's end. Proponents of a post-Katrina version of the Marshall Plan should therefore take heart: It's not too late for America to get it right in south Louisiana.

So what exactly was the Marshall Plan, and why would such a plan work today in Louisiana?

In its simplest form, the Marshall Plan was America's commitment to the reconstruction of post-war Europe. Beginning in 1947 and lasting four years, the plan was developed by participating European nations and triggered $13 billion in economic and technical assistance. In its earliest stages, the plan fed the starving and sheltered the homeless. By its completion, every participating nation saw its economy grow beyond pre-war levels.

Interestingly, much like many Katrina relief proposals, the Marshall Plan was initially opposed by a tight-fisted Congress. Marshall himself understood that most Americans would have difficulty comprehending the scope and scale of Europe's devastation. "[T]he problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation," he said. Those words ring just as true today of south Louisiana. To his enduring credit, Marshall also stated plainly that the plan would be expensive: "Such assistance, I am convinced, must not be on a piecemeal basis as various crises develop. Any assistance that this government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative." Again, he could just as easily have been speaking about post-Katrina Louisiana.

Above all, Marshall understood that an American commitment to rebuilding Europe after World War II ultimately would pay economic and political dividends for the United States. A resurgent Europe bought American goods and technology for decades after the Marshall Plan ended, and a stronger Western Europe helped stop the spread of Soviet-style communism. Similarly, a national commitment to rebuild Louisiana's economy, infrastructure and coastline will be good for all of America, not just Louisiana. It will protect the source of 40 percent of our nation's seafood, 30 percent of its energy, and vast reserves of uniquely American cultural, architectural and culinary treasures.

So what should the next Marshall Plan look like?

Like the original, it should be a collaborative undertaking, not a "top-down" directive forced upon a devastated people in their hour of need. "The program should be a joint one," Marshall said in his Harvard address, and the same is true today. It's important to note that some strings were attached to the original Marshall Plan, notably a requirement that European nations put parochial interests aside and develop regional economic strategies. This should be an underlying premise of America's next Marshall Plan as well. Aid should come directly to local governments from Washington -- not through the state -- but it should be tied to parishes working together on regional solutions to common issues.

Our suggestion that aid flow directly to local governments is paramount. Washington's current blueprint for federal disaster relief -- the Stafford Act -- utterly fails to anticipate a disaster on the scale of Katrina. Its reams of red tape, particularly its requirement that funds and authority flow through the states, ostensibly provide accountability; in reality, the Act serves only to delay, if not impede, real progress. The next Marshall Plan therefore should be a fast lane for direct federal relief to local governments.

We also suggest, as some presidential candidates have proposed, that one person be placed in charge of the plan as its director. That person should report directly to the president. Several assistant directors, each with responsibility for specific areas of relief, should report to the director. Congress should not hesitate to fund the program, based on a spending plan drawn by affected parishes and the plan's administrators. Assistance should focus on the basics: infrastructure, transportation, education, public transit, public safety, health care and hospitals, coastal restoration and public buildings.

Generations have praised the original Marshall Plan. Sir Winston Churchill called it "the most unsordid act in history." Someday, perhaps, someone will give equally high praise to Washington's response to Katrina. It's not too late to get it right.

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