In Prospect

Winter 2013

Republicans have become scarce in urban America. Mitt Romney, to take one prominent example, spent little time in cities in his failed campaign to unseat Barack Obama in November’s presidential election, concentrating on suburban and rural voters instead; the president, unsurprisingly, won 70 percent of the pavement vote, a significant factor in his reelection. Things aren’t much better for local Republicans. The head of the GOP caucus in the U.S. Conference of Mayors calls it “little more than a social gathering.”

The Republican concession of cities to the Democratic Party is unwise politics, argues urban economist Edward L. Glaeser in “The GOP and the City.” After all, healthy cities teem with the talented and aspirational people who should sympathize with the Republican Party’s pro-private-sector, pro-civil-society stance. But the biggest victims of the Republicans’ urban problem are the cities themselves. Just as conservative ideas about crime and welfare reform helped revitalize the American city in the 1990s, conservative ideas about education, transportation, and regulation could benefit it in the future.

One city is sure to benefit from a second Obama term. As Aaron M. Renn’s provocative “Hail Columbia!” details, Washington, D.C., once a swamp of corruption and administrative dysfunction, is flourishing as never before. Its well-educated and growing population and its seemingly recession-proof economy are making it America’s true Second City. This isn’t good news, though, since the main driver of D.C.’s rise, as Renn shows, is the inexorable expansion of the federal bureaucracy, whose tentacular hold on American life keeps legions of regulators and lobbyists well employed and richly compensated. This isn’t the Washington that the Founding Fathers had in mind.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and a phalanx of left-wing activists want to micromanage the New York Police Department, which they view, absurdly, as a racist, out-of-control institution, and they’ve undertaken a legal war to achieve that aim. Heather Mac Donald’s “Courts v. Cops” looks at their brief against the NYPD and finds it pathetically weak, based on phony victims and spurious racism charges. But if a liberal federal judge decides several upcoming cases in favor of the activists, Mac Donald warns, the proactive policing that made Gotham’s streets safe again—and Los Angeles’s, too, as John Buntin describes in “The LAPD Remade”—could be in danger.

In his latest piece exploring the reasons for the Golden State’s precipitous, self-inflicted decline, Steven Malanga targets “The Pension Fund That Ate California.” The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, started life 80 years ago as a model of restraint, Malanga says. But over time, it has mutated into a monster of excess, lobbying for new employee benefits, pushing billions of dollars to politically connected companies, and making bad but trendy “socially responsible” investments. “Such dubious practices,” Malanga writes, “have piled up a crushing amount of pension debt, which California residents—and their children—will somehow have to repay.”

Famed education scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. heralds a way to reduce American economic inequality and improve social mobility: build up disadvantaged kids’ vocabularies. In “A Wealth of Words,” Hirsch points out that there’s a positive correlation among vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood of getting a college degree, and the size of future earnings. Making a detour into cognitive science, he explains why word knowledge is related to real-world competence. And he lays out how to improve students’ vocabularies, which may require nothing less than an “intellectual revolution.” Hirsch’s argument is sure to open up a national education debate.

In the back of the book, Adam Kirsch and Theodore Dalrymple assess the work of two leading literary talents. Kirsch, in “The Dream of the Peruvian,” celebrates the achievement of Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, whose writing combines a fierce love for economic, personal, and political liberty with a fascination for the darker reaches of the soul. And Dalrymple, takes us on a tour of “Zadie Smith’s London,” a place of dazzling multicultural variety—and potential breakdown.

—Brian C. Anderson