In Prospect

Spring 2014

Corruption and crime are old stories in Baltimore, but a recent case must have unsettled even the most jaded Charm City resident. In April 2013, federal officials indicted 25 people in the city on charges that included drug dealing and violence. A big bust, sure, but the real shocker was that all the crimes took place inside a Baltimore jail, the result of a conspiracy between correctional officers and a dangerous prison gang, the leader of which, Tavon White, ran the place like a private fiefdom. (White fathered children with four different guards.) In “Baltimore Behind Bars,” Washington Post columnist Charles Lane shows how new protections won by the union representing the prison guards played a key role in making the conspiracy possible—“a case study,” he writes, “in the distortion of state government by public-sector union power.”

Back in the late 1970s, liberal Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, viewed by many as the father of the “living Constitution,” called on state judges to become activists for social change, a role he played on the nation’s highest bench. The Supreme Court had taken a conservative turn, Brennan felt, but state constitutions had lots of fuzzy language that creative justices could interpret to achieve desirable ends, above the heads of benighted voters. As Steven Malanga writes in “Brennan’s Revenge,” state judges followed his advice, inventing “positive rights” unimagined by the Founders. The result: billions of dollars in new education spending, skyrocketing pension costs, and fiscal turmoil.

Information technology becomes faster and mightier by the hour, remaking entire industries, such as music and publishing. Next up for radical disruption is the legal profession, argues Northwestern law professor John O. McGinnis, in “Machines v. Lawyers.” Computers are making it easier to perform many legal tasks, he shows, and that means less work, less money, and less status for lawyers, and a deepening crisis in law schools, as enrollment stagnates. But what’s bad for lawyers may be good for the rest of us. Lawyers have long pushed for an expanding administrative state—after all, they make big money from big government. If technological innovators and entrepreneurs replace lawyers in the social pecking order, as McGinnis believes likely, they’ll probably prove friendlier to market freedom.

Pursuing groundbreaking, activist policing, New York famously became America’s safest major city. “New York’s Next Public Safety Revolution,” says Nicole Gelinas, will involve traffic. Though far fewer New Yorkers die because of reckless driving these days than 25 years ago, the city’s roads remain deadly for pedestrians—170 of whom were killed last year—and drivers alike. A smart agency-wide plan, launched by Mayor Bill de Blasio and backed by police chief (and City Journal contributor) William Bratton, will use cutting-edge data, stepped-up law enforcement, and safer road design to reduce the carnage. It’s a rare area where Mayor de Blasio is moving in the right direction. But as Heather Mac Donald observes, in “Back to Welfare’s Future in New York,” the mayor seems intent on dismantling one of the most successful reforms in urban history, which, under mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, turned around countless lives stuck in dependency. In a third New York–based piece in this issue, “Brooklyn’s Chinese Pioneers,” Kay S. Hymowitz reports on Fujianese immigrants, arriving in the city with no education and speaking little English, whose families are getting ahead—fast. Among the reasons: thick family ties, a fanatical devotion to education, and a willingness to work “like dogs.” The Fujianese experience, harsh as it can be, shows that mobility isn’t dead in America.

Mobility is certainly dead in Havana, “The Last Communist City,” as Michael J. Totten’s on-the-ground essay vividly describes. Havana was once one of the world’s most vibrant and prosperous cities, and its wealth wasn’t concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, whatever Fidel Castro’s apologists (and there are still a few) might say. Wandering through parts of the city that few outsiders encounter, Totten sees little but civilizational collapse, the inevitable product of decades of Marxist rule. It’s a place where tourists dining at a few government-sanctioned restaurants spend more on one dinner than many Cubans can make in a year.

—Brian C. Anderson