Michael D. Smith was born in Shreveport, raised in Alexandria, went to high school at the Louisiana School in Natchitoches, and is a current resident of New Orleans. In 2005, he earned a BA in Religious Studies and Environmental Policy Studies from Rice University, and in 2006, he was awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study and conduct research in Kathmandu, Nepal. Michael, who is fluent in Tibetan, Hindi, and Nepali languages, spent a year in Kathmandu studying contemporary synthesis in practice and ritual between Tibetan, Nepali, and Western Buddhists. After his return to New Orleans, Michael earned dual Masters Degrees in Public Health and Social Work from Tulane University. Michael is one of the founding members and the former President of the New Orleans Food Cooperative, which is preparing to open a community-owned grocery store in an underserved area of downtown New Orleans. Currently, Michael is the on-site coordinator for Tulane University, Centenary College, and Loyola University study abroad programs in India. He is also the proud owner of a double-barrel shotgun home on the Lafitte Corridor, a home that was recently praised by The Times-Picayune for its unique, eclectic contribution to the neighborhood.
Lamar: Where are you right now?
Michael: I am at the LHA Charitable Trust community social service building, which is in McLeod Ganj in Northern India, home to the Dalai Lama as well as a few thousand other Tibetan exiles. This building was purchased by the Louisiana Himalaya Association 501(c)3 on behalf of its sister charity. Right now the Dalai Lama isn’t here; he’s in Washington DC giving Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) Buddhist teachings, dedicated to world peace.
Michael: I am coordinating summer study abroad programs in northern India for Centenary College (Shreveport), Loyola University (New Orleans), and Tulane University School of Social Work (New Orleans). I develop the itinerary and arrange the transportation, lodging, food, volunteer opportunities, and guest speakers for the students. One reason I love it is because it allows me improve my Tibetan and Hindi language skills while working with students from Louisiana.
Lamar: OK, so let’s get down to business. You’ve spent a substantial amount of time in India and Nepal during the last few years. What lessons have you learned in India and Nepal that you think directly translate to life in Louisiana?
Michael: India and Nepal each have their own lessons. India is the world’s largest democracy and one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Indians are very pro-America, and have a socialized free-market economy (health care, education, rail transportation, infrastructure, and so forth are supplied by the state). Despite their socialized health system and numerous social programs, India’s GDP is growing at 9% per year. This is because of India’s innovative entrepreneurs, no doubt, who are investing incredible amounts of money in information technology and other emerging industries.
This is also due to the power of co-operatives in India. Millions of Indians belong to various types of co-operatives (producer, consumer, housing, banking/credit union, retail, etc), and they provide billions of dollars of economic benefits to their members, in addition to community and social benefits. The government has numerous technical assistance and grant programs for co-operatives; they have their own tax code, and even some states in India have “Departments of Co-operation” which run programs supporting the development and sustainability of the co-operatives. It’s really touching if you study the model, based on the Seven International Co-operative Principals.
Nepal is a much different story. It has been struggling to establish a stable government since a popular uprising toppled the monarchy in 2006. I have been deeply moved by the Nepali people’s inimitable spirit and optimism despite towering challenges with even the most basic services, such as regular electricity, water, cooking gas and petroleum; lack of adequate health care, jobs, education, public safety; and looming environmental issues related to global climate change. It is hard to deny the reality of global warming when you have been watching your country’s Himalayan glaciers become smaller and smaller each year, sometimes leading to catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), which have claimed many lives in downstream villages.
I first traveled to South Asia in August 2003, and have returned each year. It has been an amazing and beautiful journey of growth and self realization, filled with fits and starts, gain and loss. The world is a much smaller place now than it was even eight years ago, and the pace of social, political, and economic change that I’ve witnessed in the short slice of time I’ve been visiting has been truly astounding. It puts things back at home in perspective, to say the least.
Lamar: Earlier this year, you were a fellow in Louisiana’s New Leaders Council, and throughout the last few years, you’ve met countless young progressives from all over Louisiana. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that Louisiana is a deep red state. What do you think the future is for Louisiana progressives? Do you think there is a generational divide?
Michael: Politics has swings, and right now, white voters in Louisiana are swinging Republican. This isn’t surprising considering who is in the White House. Absolutely there is a generational divide; young people are much more willing to openly confront the issues that have divided our communities: whether they are social, economic, religious, or racial. Our generation has almost unlimited access to information and the ability to use social networking and the Internet to share information at an unprecedented level. I believe that the more information we make available, and the more we share about ourselves and each other, the less our politics will be based on divisiveness or misunderstanding.
The difference between progressives and conservatives is that progressives think honestly about the consequences of policy for future generations, not just the current generation. Today’s youth are truly concerned about the future of the world: Will we have jobs? Will our state and country be bankrupt? Can we get a good education? Will our kids have a good education? Will the environment be able to sustain us and future generations? Will we have access to affordable health care? Progressives are also willing to make difficult sacrifices now to solve future problems. That’s a crucial difference.
Lamar: I’m also particularly interested in exploring the ways in which race relations inform Louisiana politics. How do you think race informs our politics? Do you believe that our views on race are changing? And relatedly, why do you think it’s possible for Bobby Jindal to make history by becoming the first Indian-American Governor in the country? Could an African-American Democrat win a statewide office in today’s political climate?
Michael: Race is the basic dividing line that politicians use to distinguish themselves from their opponents, and it’s unfortunate that so many people still vote along strict racial lines, regardless of the candidate’s merit.
I’ve been wondering how important Jindal’s conversion to Catholicism from Hinduism has been in his electability. My gut feeling is that he would never have made it as far as he has, both in his political appointments and his political campaigns. The Indian-American community in Louisiana certainly has supported him, regardless of his religious beliefs, but they are a relatively small voting bloc.
Jindal accomplished his success, unfortunately, by abandoning as much of his Indian identity as possible. He has made himself as white as possible – and I wonder how this psychological repression relates to his policies that hurt the poor. His ideological purity is like the zealousness of a new convert, if I may.
I’d love to give Jindal a lesson on Indian political, social, and economic values. He may learn something valuable about the importance of governing for the poor, not for the rich.
I think it’s obvious that an African-American Democrat would have huge hurdles to being elected for any statewide office. Judging by the number of McCain-Landrieu ticket voters in the 2008 federal election cycle, it would seem that any African-American candidate would have serious obstacles in a state-wide race. What is a more interesting question is whether an African-American Republican could win statewide office in Louisiana. That test would show how race-based the conservative voters in Louisiana actually are.
Lamar: In New Orleans, you’ve helped to build the New Orleans Food Co-op from the ground-up, and because it’s an innovative business model, you’ve had to interact with local and state government more than most would-be business owners and developers. Aside from raising money, what has been your greatest challenge? What has this experience taught you about Louisiana government?
Michael: The greatest challenge to opening a consumer food co-op in Louisiana is the lack of education about the benefits of co-operative. In other parts of the country, people already know the numerous economic and social benefits that are provided by a well-managed co-op. In New Orleans, we have been educating people about how they work in theory, but abstraction is never as compelling as the real thing. I am hopeful that once the New Orleans Food Co-op is open and successful for a few years, it will be easy to demonstrate the value of investing time and energy in opening more co-operatives. I think we’ve done a good job. The co-op is on track to open a $1.6 million grocery store in August and has over 1,600 member-owners from the community – who are literally our corporate shareholders.
My experience with the legislative branch of Louisiana government is that the good legislators are surprisingly easy to connect with. Many of them have excellent staff persons that are very responsive, and many of the legislators will call you directly and take time to meet you, often at a location that is convenient to you. J.P. Morrell and Sen. Karen Carter Peterson in the Senate, Jared Brossett and Neil Abramson in the House, and Congressman Cedric Richmond are good examples.
However, Agriculture Secretary Mike Strain aside, the Administration talked very nice when I met them in person but rarely followed up and in the end were not serious about our budget request. Jindal didn’t actually veto the money for the food co-op. He had his people gut the 2010 Capital Outlay bill of over 100 community projects (many which would have created numerous jobs) with a sneaky procedural maneuver after it was passed, in order to give $30 million to Nucor to buy land in St. James Parish for a pig-iron plant. Nucor grossed $12 billion in 2009 and is based in North Carolina. It didn’t make sense. It was bad public policy, and it hurt a lot of great projects.
Lamar: If you were Governor, what are the three things that you would do immediately?
Michael: There is a lot I would like to do, but much of it is on the legislative side. On the executive side, I would:
1) Call a Constitutional Convention to change the rules that allow higher education and healthcare dollars to be cut from the General Fund while other expenditures are protected. Also, the Constitution should require that all tax-breaks are sun-setted, and only reauthorized if they make sense.
2) Eliminate the Office of Abstinence Education. It’s a waste of money and hides a puritanical religious agenda (abstinence education does not work; the evidence is clear). Telling teenagers not to have sex has never stopped teenagers from having sex. Ever. Period. Probably does the opposite, actually.
3) Instead create the Office of Co-operative Development to promote, develop, and support community-based economic development projects across the state. These can include producer co-operatives (agriculture, compost, manufacturing, textiles, etc), retail co-operatives (a step stronger than business associations, as they allow for collective purchasing and other cost-sharing between businesses), housing co-operatives, financial co-operatives (such as credit unions and micro-finance institutions), and consumer co-operatives (could be any community-owned store). The focus would be on job creation, capital retention, and increased economic activity.
Lamar: You and I both have degrees from Rice in Religious Studies. What role should religion play in our state’s government? Do you think it’s appropriate for science teachers in public schools to teach religious concepts as an alternate to evolution? Do you think it’s appropriate for the State to install a monument of the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol? Even if it’s paid for with private dollars? Do you believe organizations like the Louisiana Family Forum should be treated as lobbying firms, or is it acceptable for them to lobby the legislature and assist in authoring legislation as a non-profit, religious, “educational” 501c3?
Michael: Religion has no place in government. I strongly believe in the need for clear separation of church and state. Legislating morality is different than legislating based on ethical principals. No religion has a monopoly on ethics; we all share them as humans. The separation of church and state protects the church as much as the state. Every year Louisiana welcomes more and more peoples of other faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus (like Bobby Jindal’s parents); and foolishness like the Ten Commandments at the Capitol deprives these new citizens of our state their rights. Ethics aren’t supported by old rules written on new stones and erected in fancy places. Ethics are supported by doing what’s right for people, even your enemies, even when it is difficult.
It’s appears the LFF may have breached IRS 501c3 and 501c4 codes by transferring tax-exempt donated money from LFF to LFFA to use for lobbying. I wonder if Gene Mills is also paying people that testify for the LFFA in the legislature with this money as well. This demonstrates the irony that self-promoting religious megalomaniacs are actually more often the least ethical among us. It also is unfortunate because it makes it more difficult for legitimate 501c3s to do their important work for the people.
Lamar: Jazzfest or Voodoofest?
Michael: Between the two, I gotta go for Jazzfest because it’s old-school and has shown me some love with a cultural music exchange project I am working on: Bringing Louisiana musical artists to Nepal and Nepali artists to Louisiana. However, my favorite music festival in Louisiana is Festival International de Louisiane, which takes place in Downtown Lafayette at the end of April each year. It’s totally free and brings a very diverse crowd from all over southern Louisiana. This year, I volunteered for the festival doing recycling pick up. I had a blast.
Lamar: Who is the greatest living Louisianan?
Michael: Wow, tough question. I’m going to have to go with my Mom. She taught me more about patience, kindness, and understanding than anyone else I’ve ever met.
Lamar: Would you ever consider running for office? Do you think Louisianans would ever elect a Buddhist?
Michael: I would consider it when I am older and have more life and work experience. I think having actual work experience is very important for our public leaders. It is one of Governor Jindal’s biggest faults: He has really never worked outside of government and has never worked at a grassroots level. He just doesn’t understand the issues as they relate to common people.
I think that a Buddhist could be elected at a city level in New Orleans, but not on a statewide level right now. I hope that by the time someone who was a non-Christian decided to run on a statewide level, Louisiana voters will have moved beyond identity politics and instead elect its leaders based on ability and merit.
Lamar: When people in Nepal ask you to describe Louisiana to them, what do you say?
Michael: I tell them it’s in America, but the landscape and climate are a lot like southern Nepal: we grow a lot of rice, sugar, and soybeans too; have a lot of great festivals; our people are friendly and fun-loving like Nepali people; and we have the best music and the most delicious food, nice and spicy like theirs. We even have some similar dishes, such as redbeans and rice, and okra curry. The main difference is that we use less cumin, ginger root, and cinnamon. I tell them I love it at home; it’s the best place in the States.
Lamar: What is Bobby Jindal’s biggest failure as Governor?
Michael: His blatant hypocrisy and Orwellian intellectual dishonesty, as it relates to a number of issues:
1. Ethics reform. He talks a great game but reduced transparency in his bloated office.
2. Economic development and jobs creation. He cuts programs that help create jobs, and has his Office of Economic Development only focus on big projects at the expense of small local projects that would have more impact.
3. Federal Stimulus. He decries big government but he sure enjoyed handing out those oversized stimulus checks – with his own name on them, of course.
4. Short and long-term fiscal planning. He and his team act surprised when their own budget projections come up short. They intentionally project higher revenue so the legislature will pass budgets that have to get cut by the administration later. This saves them from having to make the cuts during the session, which would create fights with the legislature. It’s cowardly.
5. Healthcare. Jindal ran DHH into the ground when he was its secretary, and is further degrading public health in Louisiana, but the Governor talks about the importance of public health. Vetoing a 4-cent cigarette tax renewal, which cost the state $36 million in matching funds, was truly shameful. Public health research has shown that the most effective intervention to stop smoking is raising the price of cigarettes. Additionally, by slashing public health programs now, he’s just shifting healthcare costs to the state system in the future. We’ll pay for it now or later. It’s just more expensive later.
6. Higher Education. Raising college tuition 5% a year while cutting programs is somehow not a tax, somehow saving higher education, somehow not shifting costs to poor families. Purely Orwellian.
7. Science. The man has a degree in biology, yet has no respect for theory established according to the scientific method and no respect for evidence-based public policy.
8. Shameless self-promotion. Traveling the country raising campaign cash while the leadership vacuum in Louisiana grows. A lot of nerve, a lot of nice talking points, but not a lot of substance for the people of our state.
9. I could go on and on…
Lamar: Finally, I understand you’ve been attending a series of lectures by the Dalai Lama. Do you think he’ll ever visit us here in Louisiana?
Michael: Yes, I really enjoy attending the Dalai Lama’s philosophical discourses. They are very nuanced, and at the age of 76 he is still a very energetic teacher. I cannot make any comment about whether he’ll visit Louisiana at this time except that many people at home have an aspiration for that to occur, and when many people share an aspiration, often that aspiration comes to fruition. I can also say that if he comes, he’ll most likely be visiting New Orleans.