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The Public Interest.

The journal that saved the city
Summer 2000

Irwin M. Stelzer

“Cities are humanity's hothouses, where human potential develops to its fullest pitch of excellence and variety." So says Myron Magnet, editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, a magazine that gets more policy bang per philanthropic buck than any of its think-tank publication cousins. And now Magnet has collected the magazine's best in a single volume, The Millennial City: A New Urban Paradigm for 21st Century America.

Magnet contends that "the new urban paradigm" has four principal elements: a new approach to crime, the reform of welfare, the shrinking of bloated government, and education reform. The book contains a series of articles on these subjects, with others devoted to homelessness, the quality of life, immigrants, the physical city, and the economy. It's no exaggeration to say that this new paradigm rescued many American cities from what might have been an irreversible descent into chaos.

To read, or in this reviewer's case, to reread the 35 articles reproduced here is to be reminded of why the City Journal has become the bible of New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose annual "State of the City Speeches" so closely follow City Journal articles that Magnet could easily win a plagiarism suit. In addition, Magnet's magazine has guided such reform-minded mayors as Los Angeles's Richard Riordan, who replaced his predecessor Tom Bradley's "grandiose centralized visions" with programs to lighten the tax and regulatory burdens on small business, and Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who realized early in his term that privatization could put a competitive spur to the city's work force and improve the quality of city services while reducing their cost. Magnet and his magazine's reputation have even reached London, where a leading newspaper recently devoted a full page to Magnet's views on how London's new left-wing mayor might avoid destroying the British capital with the soft-on-crime, strong-on-welfare policies of pre-Giuliani New York.

The City Journal's series of articles on education policy, many of them by Sol Stern, are among its best. Stern exposes the teachers' unions for caring only about themselves, the students be damned. He also describes the achievements of the fund-starved Catholic schools and makes the case for vouchers as the way to improve primary and secondary education. Also in this series, Kay Hymowitz reveals the so-called "special education" programs to be wasteful and destructive—a source of funds for parents best able to game the funding system by finagling eligibility status for their children ("special" needs or no).This latter article demonstrates one of City journal's great strengths. Although he has a taste for fine-tuned think pieces, such as Roger Scruton's "Why Lampposts and Phone Booths Matter," Magnet clearly prefers hard-nosed factual reporting by writers willing to go into the classrooms, dig through detailed budget reports, and immerse themselves in the smells, sounds, and sights of New York.

Consider Steven Craig and D. Andrew Austin's "New York's Million Missing jobs," which meticulously compares the expenditures of New York with other cities—no easy chore, given the opaque and noncomparable nature of the financial reporting schemes of America's cities. The authors demonstrate that the overmanning of the public sector and the associated job-killing tax burden cannot be explained by any special characteristic of New York City. After comparing the relevant characteristics and budgets of New York with those of 18 other cities, Craig and Austin conclude that "New York isn't different enough from other cities to require its unique spending level." All this in an article that is both data-laden and highly readable.

And there is E. Fuller Torrey's article ("Let's Stop Being Nutty About the Mentally 111") recommending a new approach to treatment of the mentally unstable—but only after Torrey visits the Keener Men's Shelter on Ward's island; and Kay Hymowitz ("The Teen Mommy Track"), deploring programs that treat unwed teen pregnancy as an alternative life style—but only after taking the trouble to interview 30 new or expectant young mothers, their boyfriends, nurses, teachers, and social workers. And then there is the wonderful Heather Mac Donald ("Why Johnny's Teacher Can't Teach"), who describes the deplorable irrelevance and plain silliness of what is taught in the nation's teacher education schools—but only after attending some eye-opening lectures at the City College of New York.

But it would be unfair to leave the impression that City Journal articles are so detailed and case-specific that they lack a set of informing principles. The publication reflects Magnet's underlying philosophy: a belief in competition because it provides efficiency and choice; a healthy suspicion of the municipal welfare state for turning citizens into demoralized victims and dependents; and the understanding that no one is "'entitled' to the unconditional support of his or her neighbors."

The City Journal is important not only because it has played a key role in the urban renaissance of recent years. It is important, too, for the lessons it provides other think-tanks. These institutions, some of them based in Washington and focused on one aspect or another of national domestic and foreign policy, others concentrating on regional affairs or, as with the Manhattan Institute, on policy at the state and local level, are rapidly replacing our universities as homes for scholars who seek to escape the stultifying politically correct atmosphere of campus life. In the case of the Manhattan Institute, we have it to thank not only for the City Journal but for supporting the research of such leading scholars as Charles Murray, whose Losing Ground has gone from a shockingly radical prescription for welfare reform to mainstream public policy in a few short years.

What the City Journal teaches—or should teach—is that a well-edited, attractive, and relevant journal is the key to effective delivery of the ideas that are born in the conference rooms, libraries, lunch rooms, and offices of the tanks to which independent scholars now come to think. And it is the editor of that journal we have to thank for this lesson.

©2000 The Public Interest

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