In Prospect

Summer 2013

From the patria potestas of ancient Rome to the European bourgeois household depicted by Rembrandt to the American immigrant experience, the Western story has woven together the destinies of families and cities. Yet as Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres observe in “The Childless City,” the modern metropolis is increasingly becoming a kid-free playground for creative-class singles, wealthy childless couples, and transient college students—with an entrenched poor population looking in at all the fun. In American cities with more than 500,000 residents, the authors note, the population of under-14-year-olds actually fell in the 2000s—not a good portent for a vibrant future. Lousy schools and safety concerns have partly driven the family exodus, but an equally important factor, Kotkin and Modarres believe, is space, which regulatory barriers and zoning restrictions are making ever pricier in cities. Some urbanists celebrate the childless city, but not Kotkin and Modarres, who wonder if it’s sustainable.

What’s clearly unsustainable is the amount of money owed by American state and local governments. In “The Indebted States of America,” Steven Malanga shows that the debt crisis is trillions of dollars worse than most people realize because of the widespread hidden borrowing that municipalities have undertaken, often using legal loopholes and fishy accounting to skirt voter objections and restrictions in state constitutions. The costs of these spendthrift practices will soon consume state and local budgets, Malanga warns; he predicts a new public fiscal revolt as services deteriorate. Nicole Gelinas offers some pointed advice to these cash-strapped municipalities in “What to Do When You’re Broke”: look to insolvent California cities like Stockton, which have used bankruptcy proceedings to begin to free themselves from the unreasonable and unfair labor contracts and retirement deals for government workers that got them into fiscal trouble in the first place.

The municipal-debt disaster would probably never have happened if the New York–based Robin Hood Foundation had been in charge of the books. Guy Sorman’s “Philanthropy by the Numbers,” the second installment in a survey of the American nonprofit landscape that he began in our last issue, explores the movement (of which the Robin Hood Foundation is a leading proponent) to quantify the effects of charitable giving on society. Run by former Wall Street financiers, the foundation seeks to uplift the poor in the most efficient way possible, which for them means ensuring that every charitable “investment” produces greater quantifiable benefits than alternative uses of the funds would. Sorman thinks that Robin Hood’s approach, developed by in-house economist Michael Weinstein, can provide a useful check on philanthropy that wastes donors’ money on ineffective—or, worse, destructive—programs. But he cautions that quantification could also encourage charities to shift their giving to initiatives that are easier to count—and that something vital could be lost in the process.

The Right may be the loudest and most energetic defender of greater state autonomy, but the Left is starting to get enthused about states’ rights, too, writes constitutional scholar Adam Freedman in the fascinating “Federalism, Red and Blue,” his first essay for City Journal. Whether Texas conservatives are defending their guns or California liberals are telling Washington to keep its hands off their medical marijuana, neo-federalism is already transforming American politics and society in unpredictable ways. By trying to return hotly contentious national issues to the more pragmatic forum of local politics, Freedman argues, the movement ultimately may be good for the Republic.

“Just Tommy from Hyde Park,” by Paul Starobin, examines the legacy of Boston mayor Thomas Menino, currently in his 20th and final year in City Hall and a leading exemplar of pragmatic local policies. Indeed, what made Menino a five-termer—a “mayor for life,” as locals call him—was no boldness of vision, Starobin shows, but instead a deftness at the kind of hand-shaking and ribbon-cutting that brings to mind the urban politics of an earlier era.

—Brian C. Anderson