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In Prospect

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from the magazine

In Prospect

Winter 2020
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A chorus of critics charges that the United States puts far too many people behind bars. And one of the worst consequences, the critics say, is that the families of the incarcerated lose the involvement of fathers and siblings (men make up more than 90 percent of prisoners). Yet, as Rafael A. Mangual argues in “Fathers, Families, and Incarceration,” this view rests on the premise that the offenders, if kept from jail, could be economically productive dads and brothers. Mounting evidence suggests that that premise is false and that jailing criminals is often better, on balance, for their families—especially for children, who’d otherwise be exposed to ongoing antisocial behavior.

Another campaign—this one whipped up by green activists and sympathetic politicians—seeks to rid us of plastic bags, bottles, and straws, seeing such objects as a threat to the environment. Numerous cities now restrict single-use plastic bags, and celebrities find themselves “plastic-shamed” when caught using, say, a disposable water bottle. John Tierney’s “The Perverse Panic over Plastic” exposes the hysteria.

Few things could benefit the environment—and energy supply—more than the successful development and widespread adoption of modular nuclear reactors, reports James B. Meigs in “Next-Gen Nuclear Power.” This cutting-edge technology, should it prove viable, could provide clean and abundant power, with reactors so efficient, small, and safe that they could be located right next to cities. Meigs walks nonspecialists through the technology, looks at the startups and more established firms pursuing this bold vision, and limns the implications for America’s future prosperity.

The onetime “arsenal of democracy,” Detroit has struggled for decades, bleeding population and jobs and suffering a wrenching bankruptcy in 2013. But some positive change is under way, with the rise of mobility as a service. One thing Detroit still knows how to do is build cars, and, as Nicole Gelinas observes in “The Mobile City,” autonomous-vehicle firms are taking advantage of that know-how, as well as the city’s sparsely occupied boulevards, which allow AV explorers to test self-driving cars and shuttles without excessive risk to others. Gelinas shows how this emergent technology could help Detroit to revitalize its downtown further—attracting more residents—and expand its limited public transit, too.

An addiction epidemic is raging in Los Angeles, and Skid Row is its epicenter, with thousands of homeless passing through yearly, disease-ridden tent encampments blocking sidewalks, and near-constant overdoses overwhelming public officials. Christopher F. Rufo’s “The Moral Crisis of Skid Row” cautions that palliatives like “harm-reduction” programs, however well-intended, won’t solve the crisis, which is ultimately spiritual and cultural. Just south of L.A., Joel Kotkin and Alicia Kurimska tell a brighter story about “The Long Beach Model.” The port city, an hour from Hollywood, has kept alive a working- and middle-class economy, built around trade and the high-end manufacturing that was once the Golden State’s glory.

E. J. McMahon’s “One State, Two Stories” takes the pulse of troubled upstate New York. McMahon blames misguided tax-and-spend policies; a turnaround won’t be easy, though, because downstate supporters of those policies increasingly dominate the state’s politics. Steven Malanga’s “Equity Warriors” details a hot trend in municipal government: appointing officials who hunt for discrimination everywhere—and frequently find it where it seemingly doesn’t exist.

There’s even more fascinating writing in this issue, including acclaimed novelist Tara Isabella Burton’s dispatch from Tbilisi, Georgia, and urbanist Mario Polèse on how Montreal solved its housing shortage by reforming zoning and freeing up markets—a path once followed in the Bronx, where housing and property, more lightly regulated, could adapt rapidly to economic shifts, as Theo Mackey Pollack explains in “West Bronx Wisdom.” In “A Catholic Debate over Liberalism,” Park MacDougald offers a guide to the dustup among religious conservatives about the moral legitimacy of modern democracy, and Brian Patrick Eha takes on “The New Puritans,” the leftist partisans of “cancel” culture.

—Brian C. Anderson

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