In Prospect

Spring 2009

Obsessive Housing Disorder”: that’s what Steven Malanga’s remarkable cover stor calls Washington’s nearly century-long effort to boost American homeownership. Politicians across the political spectrum have viewed homeownership as fundamental to the American dream, a source of social stability and moral uplift. Yet from Herbert Hoover’s Own Your Own Home campaign in the twenties to the massive housing interventions of the New Deal to the urban mortgage programs of the sixties to the Clinton-era Community Reinvestment Act, the results have often been the same: relaxed lending standards, housing bubbles, massive defaults as people take on mortgages they’re unable to afford—and then economic downturns as things come crashing down. Even as we try to clean up the latest subprime-mortgage mess, Malanga reports, advocates from both parties are at it again, browbeating the feds not to abandon their commitment to the idea of every American’s owning his own home.

We’ll have a harder time turning the subprime-damaged economy around if we follow the misguided advice of the anti-carbon zealots, says Peter Huber in “Bound to Burn,” a blast of common sense in an often-fuzzy environmental debate. As Huber shows, the U.S. and other rich countries can’t stop the world’s developing nations from burning cheap, abundant carbon: they need the energy to grow. And if we unilaterally slash emissions by adopting less efficient, more expensive energy sources, we’ll simply drive our power-hungry industries (and the jobs they support) to poorer, less technologically advanced countries, reducing our competitiveness and making pollution worse. A more sensible approach, Huber maintains—that is, if we don’t want to hamstring our economy but really do worry about carbon emissions—is to promote better land use, reforestation, and ocean sequestration to help suck carbon out of the air and sink it back into the earth.

The British government says that crime keeps dropping. The British people say that crime is out of control. Who’s right? In “The Dark Figure of British Crime,” Claire Berlinski gets beneath the numbers—and sides with the public. The official numbers, she argues, aren’t capturing Britain’s rising urban disorder and menace, much of it inflicted by anomic youths on the prowl. Poor policing is partly to blame, Berlinski says; U.K. cops need to study New York’s crime turnaround closely.

Too often, modern thought views individual men and women as mere debris, swept along uncontrollably by historical and social currents. City Journal has always rejected this shrunken view of humanity; to us, Thomas Carlyle’s “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” seems much closer to the truth, for both good and ill.

This issue accordingly devotes several essays to major political and cultural figures who have profoundly influenced our world. Fred Siegel recognizes H. G. Wells, advisor to four presidents and the leading public intellectual of his era, as the “godfather” of modern liberalism. It’s a rediscovery that unsettlingly exposes Wells’s elitist contempt for democratic capitalism and his eugenic dreams. Sol Stern’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressor” explores the malign influence of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian thinker whose Marxian views unfortunately feature prominently in ed schools throughout the United States. Stefan Kanfer turns his experienced biographical eye on Richard Pryor, a “black Pagliacci” whose comedy exposed white racism, black family dysfunction, and his own inner demons. And, Guy Sorman visits with ninetysomething economist Anna Schwartz, who channels the spirit of Milton Friedman to argue that the government’s response to the credit crisis misdiagnoses the problem, which is about trust, not liquidity.

Men and women can make history, then. But they don’t completely control it, as Alain de Botton reminds us in his elegant “The Consolations of Pessimism.” It’s a little piece worth meditating on the next time someone says that the business cycle has been overcome and that the good times will last forever.

—Brian C. Anderson