In Prospect

Spring 2011

What a quintessential marriage of cool and style to write your name in giant separate living letters, large as animals, lithe as snakes, mysterious as Arabic and Chinese curls of alphabet.” So wrote novelist Norman Mailer about the scrawls of illegal graffiti covering New York back in the mid-seventies, signs of a city that was losing control of public order. Defeating the graffiti plague was essential to the city’s eventual rebirth during the 1990s.

Few were the bad ideas that Mailer didn’t sign on to, but his romantic view of graffiti and refusal to take its consequences seriously remain alarmingly common among elites. In the blistering “Radical Graffiti Chic,” Heather Mac Donald takes aim at the first major American museum survey of graffiti, Art in the Streets, which opens at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art in April. As Mac Donald notes, MOCA’s buzz-obsessed trustees include some of L.A.’s most successful executives; they’d sic the dogs on any vandal foolish enough to try to “tag” one of their Westside mansions. The victims of MOCA’s graffiti celebration will be not the superrich but the law-abiding residents and merchants of L.A.’s most graffiti-inundated neighborhoods, who’ll doubtless have to put up with even more defacement of their properties.

Sometimes bad ideas come wrapped in the best intentions. The federal government has tried to improve American eating habits for decades. But as Steven Malanga shows in “The Washington Diet,” the government’s dietary guidelines, first issued by a congressional committee in 1977 and updated every half-decade since 1980, have swept aside conflicting evidence and clearly gone beyond what science knows. Indeed, they could actually be making us sicker and fatter. Malanga’s cautionary tale about the nanny state and unintended consequences is sure to be controversial.

Head north from New York City and you will find another example of misguided federal-government activity, this time by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, notes James Panero in “The Hudson River Destruction Project,” has been dredging the Hudson River, removing pollutant-laden sludge, and shipping it by train to a dumping ground in Texas. The project has devastated Hudson River communities, which have seen their way of life ruined by the ceaseless activity. That might have been justified had the environmental gains been substantial and real. But as Panero explains, the dredging operation has actually made the river’s health worse by releasing long-settled PCBs into its current.

A second Hudson-related story in this issue concerns the Tappan Zee Bridge, which links Rockland and Westchester Counties over the river. More than 50 million cars, trucks, and buses traverse it yearly, many of them proceeding to New York City. As Nicole Gelinas warns in “The Tappan Zee Is Falling Down,” the bridge is long past its replacement date: without constant makeshift repairs and vigilant inspection, it could collapse or be shut down by officials. If the “Tap” went out of commission, the negative effects on the regional economy would be huge. Traffic would clog already-clogged bridges and tunnels to the south, and many commuters would be unable to get to the city to work at all. New York clearly needs a new bridge, yet it can’t seem to muster the political will to build it. Gelinas explores the reasons for that failure and offers a model for thinking about infrastructure—which America needs to replace, renew, and expand in order to grow its economy—in an era of budgetary stress.

In “Land of Delinquents,” Josh Barro looks at one of the nation’s gravest cases of budgetary stress: Illinois, where out-of-control spending and borrowing over the last decade or so have generated scary budget deficits for years to come. Governor Pat Quinn has tried to solve the crisis with a gigantic tax hike. The increase won’t generate enough new revenue to balance the budget, though, and it will harm the state’s economic competitiveness. What’s necessary, Barro argues, are serious structural spending reforms. And that, as with building new infrastructure, will require real political leadership.

—Brian C. Anderson