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New Orleans' wreckage is a metaphor for the South's economy

"Math sucks

I'd like to burn this textbook,

I hate this stuff so much!"

--Jimmy Buffett, 1999

I'd been hanging out at an economic development conference for three days. In New Orleans. If you don't get the irony, you've had your head in a bowl of etoufee for the last 10 months.

While the experts collectively back-patted over their insight about how whiz-kid technology was going to make the South rise again, I was thinking of reality. Hundreds of thousands of textile jobs, gone. US automakers closing factories. Corporate cannibalism gobbling up the once-proud names of our best companies.

When a city rivals Hiroshima for devastation, the term "economic development" takes on new dimensions. What's left, or so-far rebuilt, of New Orleans' economy is a little Potemkin Village façade, a dash of desperation and a huge heaping of nuttin'.

There's little evidence of, as Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco optimistically asserted, a "huge amount" of reconstruction. Sure, Bourbon Street is again crowded and exudes its trademark stink of piss, stale beer and garbage. Most of the city remains deserted.

A bright spot in NO's "Upper Ninth" is where Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis are building cottages so that musicians and artists, the true "economic developers" in the city, can return. Between the musicians' village and a house that looked as if its spine had been broken over a giant's knee, I met Freddie.

His light brown skin was dusted gray with the airborne grime that permeates the Ninth. He was pushing a cart loaded with scraps of lumber, when a wheel came off. We sorta three-wheeled the cart down a street to his house, a blasted remnant of a shotgun dwelling.

"The governor tells me a lot of rebuilding is underway," I remarked. Freddie looked at me and started taking boards off the cart. I repeated my statement. "I heard you the first time," Freddie said. "You'd helped me so I didn't want to be impolite."

"Impolite?" I said.

"Look around," he said. "You see anything much being done?"

I said I was attending an economic development conference in the French Quarter. Freddie -- which comes from his last name, Fredericks -- made a hearty laugh. "I've been a waiter for 30 years, had my last job for 10 and made good money. But the restaurant is still closed. Hardly any work now. Businesses can't open because there's no one to work. No one can come back to work because there aren't any homes. Aren't any homes because we got no money to rebuild. So what you are going develop, sir?"

Freddie pretty much summed up the South. OK, we haven't all been hit by a major hurricane, but our economy is going through its own storms.

If you believe traditional economic models still work, the New Orleans conference offered hope. The confab was populated by scientists, governors, bureaucrats, business innovators and think-tankers who collectively are dubbed the Southern Growth Policies Board, based in North Carolina.

It was decidedly cutting-edge stuff. Talk about "nano" technology was hot. Heck, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue sounded downright scientific, explaining to the gathering that one hair from his increasingly hairless head is 80,000 nanos thick. When not measuring the guv's hair width, nanos can be used to manipulate matter, bettering just about everything we use, including, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported during the conference, brassieres.

Thinking about eensy-teensy nanos and quantum physics, I felt the pain of the Bard of Pascagoula when he strummed "Math Sucks!" My head was awhirl in calculations.

But I believe Southern Growth's scientists, investors and policy makers have added the numbers correctly.

The South's traditional economic lures -- cheap land, cheap labor -- are as worthless today as Confederate dollars. Technology and innovation are the new passwords to prosperity.

But how do you get the public and business to travel the high-tech route. "That's the million dollar question," said Southern Growth's technology chief, Scott Doron.

North Carolina is miles ahead of many of its downhome brethren. But as Southern Growth's annual report states, the South "lags the nation in economic growth, innovation and educational achievement. It is accepted in our culture that these are unchangeable conditions."

The obvious priorities should be public policies that boost investment in technology and -- to the distress of latter-day Buffetts and Suggs -- more school emphasis on math and science.

One of the stars of the event was Ping Fu, who heads the Durham firm Geomagic, which has revolutionized digital imaging. Fu, declared a non-person during China's "Cultural Revolution," fled to America where she was one of the inventors of the Web browser.

"Many people are excited about the implications of technology," Fu told me. "But is that excitement enough? I don't think so, not when you look at the state of much of (the South)."

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