In Prospect

Autumn 2005

Contributing Editor Nicole Gelinas, who as a Tulane undergrad fell permanently under the Big Easy’s magical spell, was lamenting, in one of our editorial meetings months before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’s sad decline. It was, she said, a poster child for an unreformed town, stuck in a time warp before policy innovators sparked America’s urban renaissance. The once-great port city, we agreed, was well worth an article on How Not to Do It. But we didn’t envision a story like the chilling “Who’s Killing New Orleans?”. You might think that, after the flood of ink spilled recently over New Orleans, you have no interest in hearing one more word. But read this article. It is a revelation, brilliantly—and surprisingly—illuminating the deeper meaning of the chaos following August 29.

Of course, the urban-reform movement that bypassed New Orleans has now slowed and in some places sputtered out, after its successes of the late 1990s. Worse, a counterrevolution has gathered momentum. As Steven Malanga documented in the City Journal stories collected in his acclaimed book, The New New Left, a coalition of public-employee unions, government-funded social-service agencies, and health-care unions whose members live off Medicaid’s billions have become the most powerful political force in many U.S. cities and statehouses. It’s not true, as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia famously said, that “There is no Democratic or Republican way of picking up garbage,” since the Democratic way has always been to do it with as many unionized employees, and as inefficiently, as possible; but the new tax-eaters’ party that has taken control of cities has pushed that principle much further. As Malanga’s “The Conspiracy Against the Taxpayers” shows, the average (inefficient and possibly unneeded) public-sector employee now not only gets paid better than the average private-sector worker, but also enjoys a lavishly better, and safer, pension, and can start collecting it much sooner. As the bill for all this now comes due, the taxpayers who have to foot it are groaning under the burden—and leaving for more taxpayer-friendly climes.

In “They’re Taking Away Your Property for What?”, Nicole Gelinas unmasks another face of the conspiracy against the taxpayers that is the urban counterrevolution. Critics rightly excoriated as unjust the Supreme Court’s recent Kelo decision, which expanded government’s eminent-domain powers. But, Gelinas explains, critics didn’t notice that the Court was merely endorsing a long-standing practice by which state and local governments seize private property, without even having to show that it is blighted, in order to further government-led “economic development.” From New London to Moscow, such central planning has never worked. What it does do, however, is give government and its politically connected supporters a rich store of assets to divvy up—which, with the addition of a few hundred million dollars of subsidies from the powerless taxpayer, makes for a festive piñata for the political racket, though it leaves the community much poorer than it would be if private investors made their own decisions with their own property, in the traditional American way.

Such developments make one value anew the wisdom of Jefferson’s quip: “That government is best that governs least.” But once we strip away the legions of overpaid public workers providing services that no one needs, a few key government functions remain—above all, keeping citizens safe from external and internal aggression. In a war against Muslim terror, Victor Davis Hanson argues, that would mean making sure that fewer Muslims enter the U.S. and keeping tabs on Islamic radicals already here—a task government is irresponsibly loath to undertake. But the consequences of such failure became horribly evident in the London July 7 bombings, whose psychological origins Theodore Dalrymple uncovers in “The Suicide Bombers Among Us”.

The cause of the U.S. government’s reluctance to secure our borders is its unwillingness to stem illegal immigration from Mexico—which, as Heather Mac Donald explains in her blood-pressure-raising “Mexico’s Undiplomatic Diplomats”, the Mexican government is all too willing to exploit. It’s another weakness in our homeland security, on top of the one Katrina exposed.