In Prospect

Autumn 2009

For the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, reforming health care is the top domestic-policy issue, with most of the plans proposed to date substantially expanding government’s role. Before going down that path, Americans should look closely at what has happened to germ-fighting, says Peter Huber in the disturbing “Anthraxing New York.” Huber shows that for years now, the government has been pretty much running vaccine development and provision—requisitioning the drugs, dictating the prices, and controlling quality. Which would be fine, except for one thing: thanks to this government meddling, the drug companies no longer find it profitable to supply the product. Thus we find ourselves with an anthrax vaccine decades old that doesn’t work very well and that we still have difficulty stockpiling—and that’s just one stage on our journey down the “road to pharmaceutical serfdom.” We can’t defend against biological attacks or natural threats like the swine flu, argues Huber, without “the private capital and expertise of a thriving, nimble, endlessly innovative civilian drug industry.”

Washington has been getting into another industry of late, too: cars. But throwing billions of bailout dollars at outmoded automakers like General Motors, weighed down by crazily generous pensions and unpopular products, is a big mistake and will prove difficult to unwind, maintains Claire Berlin­ski. Look at what Britain went through after taking over its car business in the seventies, she says in “Government Motors 1975.” The result was crummy cars, plunging sales, and billions of wasted pounds before the failed experiment ended—13 years later. Not even Margaret Thatcher was willing to take on the perpetually striking autoworkers, since the political fallout would have been too great. Are we so keen to replicate the dismal conditions of pre-Thatcher Britain in 2009 America? Luigi Zingales points to a better way in “An Economic Agenda for the GOP”: a path of economic competition and growth that reminds Republicans that supporting free markets is not the same thing as backing particular businesses.

City Journal has been expanding its coverage of California for many reasons: the state’s vast size and its importance in American history, of course, but also its status as one of the country’s major policy laboratories—one whose experiments, alas, have often left the Golden State less shiny than it was two decades ago. This issue features two California stories exploring key policy issues. Defenders of California’s big-spending, high-taxing model say that it’s a perfectly reasonable public choice: all the money buys great public goods, so Californians put up with the way the state’s hand lightens their wallets. In “The Big-Spending, High-Taxing, Lousy-Services Paradigm,” William Voegeli responds that, while that might be plausible in theory, the reality is that the state increasingly just takes the money to hand over to the service providers themselves—above all, to the powerful public-sector employees who enjoy plush benefits and retirements—while services deteriorate.

The second California story, Heather Mac Donald’s “The Bilingual Ban That Worked,” chronicles something that the state’s voters got right, back in 1998: passing Proposition 227, the initiative that banned bilingual education in the public schools. Bilingual advocates warned that the ban would wreck Spanish-speaking kids’ self-esteem and widen the achievement gap. In this first major assessment of the results of the bilingual ban, Mac Donald shows that the fears were misplaced: Hispanic students are doing better on a range of tests and acquiring English at a faster pace.

Still, the students, dragged down by street culture and family breakup, are struggling, Mac Donald notes. If they really want to help Hispanic students, California schools should adopt E. D. Hirsch’s content-rich Core Knowledge curriculum. As Sol Stern describes in “E. D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy,” Hirsch’s ideas about the importance of cultural literacy for long-term academic success and civic awareness have worked wonders in Massachusetts, whose education reforms have been deeply influenced by them.

—Brian C. Anderson