In Prospect

Winter 2012

New Jersey governor Chris Christie has fought mightily, and with some success, to restore fiscal sanity to his spendthrift state. One of the biggest obstacles to change, though, is an institution that’s also responsible for much of the original budget mess: the state’s arrogant supreme court. In “The Court That Broke Jersey,” Steven Malanga shows how, over the last half-century, New Jersey’s highest court has remade the state through judicial force majeure—robbing municipalities of zoning power to promote the building of subsidized housing, taking over school funding and curricula in pursuit of social justice, and ignoring taxpayer protections in the state constitution, which the judges view as perfectly malleable. The result of the court’s activism has been to drive government spending up and up, requiring taxes as high as any in the nation. As Malanga argues, until the judges stick to applying the law and not inventing it, Jersey won’t be able to solve its fiscal woes fully.

Another governor trying to get his state’s finances in order—Scott Walker in Wisconsin—enacted cutting-edge public-sector labor reforms early last year, most controversially a partial ban on collective bargaining for government unions. Christian Schneider’s informative “It’s Working in Walker’s Wisconsin” shows how these measures are already saving taxpayers millions and offering a model for other states. No surprise that public unions around the nation have been pouring money into Wisconsin, trying to recall the governor from office.

With so many states and cities under budgetary stress these days, it’s worth recalling the example of three-term New York City mayor Ed Koch, argues Tevi Troy in “The Last Sane Liberal,” a comprehensive reassessment of the iconoclastic Democratic politician’s career. Koch first became mayor in 1978, a time of grave fiscal peril for the city, and he put aside his progressivism for a tough-minded program of austerity and management reforms. By 1981, Koch had balanced the city’s budget, a remarkable turnaround that was accompanied by a spirit of renewed optimism among New Yorkers.

With her usual bracing honesty, Heather Mac Donald assesses “California’s Demographic Revolution.” In a remarkably short time, Hispanics have become the majority of the state’s schoolchildren and will soon be the majority of its workforce and population. This shift raises major questions for California’s future, Mac Donald maintains, for Hispanic upward mobility has largely stalled—a troubling development in a state whose economy is increasingly based on skilled labor. The culprits for the mobility breakdown: family collapse, poor educational outcomes, and the seductions of the street. If Hispanics can avoid single parenthood, do better in school, and resist gang culture, their willingness to work hard and respect for authority could make them a major asset for the Golden State, Mac Donald believes—but those are big ifs. (What might help on the schooling front, says Laura Vanderkam in “The Math of Khan,” is the mastery-based approach to learning math and science promoted by hedge-fund-analyst-turned-YouTube-sensation Salman Khan.)

From Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square, youthful protesters have occupied the streets in recent months, seeking to explode existing political and economic institutions.Guy Sorman surveys “The New Rebellions,” which are purely oppositional and mostly leaderless. Their unacknowledged prophet may be Marshall McLuhan, who saw before anyone the power of new communications technologies to change society. With Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, any user can conjure a movement, says Sorman—“if he or she seizes the right moment and captures something about the spirit of the time.” It would be unwise to ignore the new rebellions, which could transform the world for good or for ill.

Urban landlords are much maligned. But as Bert Stratton’s “The Landlord’s Tale” makes clear, they don’t always have it easy, dealing with deadbeat tenants, too small a pool of competent building managers, and many other worries. More important, says Stratton, who owns commercial and rental properties in Cleveland, is that landlords—at least if they’re doing their job right—perform a useful social function, protecting neighborhoods from decline.

—Brian C. Anderson