In Prospect

Winter 2010

Last September, a cell-phone video captured a scene that horrified the nation: Chicago teens, some swinging thick railroad ties, beating to death 16-year-old Derrion Albert on a bleak thoroughfare in the Roseland neighborhood on the city’s notorious South Side. It was an extreme example of the youth violence that pervades Chicago’s poor black neighborhoods and that no one, including the Chicago Police Department, seems able to bring under control. In “Chicago’s Real Crime Story,” Heather Mac Donald looks at Chicago’s long history of black youth violence and at the cluelessness of the city’s influential “community organizers”—including a young Barack Obama, who worked in Roseland 25 years ago—about its primary cause: the disintegrating black family. Chicago’s black youths, around 80 percent of whom are born to single mothers, grow up in a world where there’s zero expectation that males should take care of their kids, let alone marry the mothers. The city’s crime plague, Mac Donald argues, is one consequence of this dysfunctional culture, which fails to civilize men through marriage. Worse, Chicago may be witnessing the next stage in black family breakdown: mothers are starting to run off, too, leaving kids with no parents other than the state.

The Los Angeles–based Jesse Lee Peterson tackles that crisis head-on with his religiously inspired message of individual responsibility, family, and personal empowerment. As Andrew Klavan observes in his fascinating portrait of the controversial African-American activist and broadcaster, “A Man Alone,” it’s a message that holds out far more hope for poor minority communities than the dependency-creating, Jesse Jackson–style, blame-the-system-as-racist approach that has dominated the last four decades of efforts to help blacks join the American mainstream.

Steven Malanga reports on another demographic shift with big implications, this one global: tumbling fertility rates. As nations become more urbanized and wealthy, their citizens are having fewer kids. In fact, fertility rates in the developed world have fallen so far that parents aren’t even replacing themselves, leading to population implosions instead of explosions. This change, Malanga argues in “Our Vanishing Ultimate Resource,” brings with it extraordinary challenges, among them economic sluggishness, as “birth dearths” shrink labor pools and give rise to graying populations that are more risk-averse, less creative, and less inclined to buy things.

Among industrialized nations, Malanga shows, America is alone in resisting the trend, leading to predictions of vigorous U.S. economic growth over the next half-century. The reason Americans seem more inclined to have babies? It may be the U.S.’s dynamic brand of free-market capitalism, which (despite recent difficulties) gives families lots of life-choice options, generates prosperity, and builds long-term optimism, so that having larger families becomes more feasible and attractive. The new regulations, taxes, and entitlements that the Obama Democrats want to impose on the U.S. economy, though, could dampen its vital force.

New York State’s economy, by contrast, already isn’t vital, and a chief reason is burdensome taxes. Because of the complicated way federal and state taxes crisscross, New York’s income levies will soon reach their highest effective rate ever for top earners, E. J. McMahon and Josh Barro document in “Empire of Excess.” That puts New York at a growing disadvantage in competing with states like Florida, which have no personal income tax. More of New York’s most productive citizens could be rushing for the exits.

Myron Magnet continues his remarkable series on the Founding Fathers and their homes with “The Education of John Jay,” a tour de force that should be on every college student’s reading list. Jay is one of the most fascinating yet least known of the Founders, and Magnet brings him vividly to life, drawing extensively on period documents, especially the correspondence between this wise “Christian stoic” and his wife, Sally, a Jane Austen heroine come to life. As Magnet shows, Jay’s prudent diplomacy helped forge the nation, and his life of duty offers lessons to us all.

—Brian C. Anderson