Why It's Important to Know Lawmakers' Day Jobs

State legislatures are mysterious institutions, but there are a few things most of us know about them. We know which party is in control. We know when one of the leaders gets in trouble with the law. We can find out, for the most part, who gives money to candidates and how much they choose to give.

What we don’t know, at least at the moment, is what sorts of people are filling the seats -- which professions and occupations produce our state leadership. In particular, we don’t know much about how the professional makeup of legislatures has changed since Republicans took control of most statehouses in 2010. This isn’t a trivial issue, either. It matters quite a bit whether we are being governed by a coalition of lawyers and teachers or by an alliance of corporate executives and insurance brokers. READ MORE

The Panhandler Dilemma

Let’s start with a little quiz: You’re walking past a street corner in your neighborhood and you notice a man sitting on an orange crate and holding up a hand-lettered sign that says, “Homeless. Please Help.” Is he threatening or harassing you in any way? You’d most likely say no. If so, you’re in agreement with most Americans and virtually every court that has ruled on the subject in the past two decades. Asking for money in that situation is considered to be a form of free speech, protected by the First Amendment.

How about this one: You’re making an ATM withdrawal and a teenager comes up to you and says politely, “I sure could use one of those twenties you’re taking out of there.” That’s a different story. Local governments all over the country consider that sort of thing to be illegal harassment and have made it a crime. READ MORE

Hypergentrification and the Disappearance of Local Businesses

In New York City, and especially in Manhattan, 2015 may be remembered as the year the neighborhood store suffered a mass extinction.

Small retail businesses have been closing their doors in New York this year at a rate that longtime students of the city’s commercial life say has no precedent in their memory. At the beginning of the year, in a much publicized departure, Café Edison, a Times Square institution, gave up after 34 years at the same spot. Since then, every few days has seemed to bring news of another small business closing -- a shoe store, a diner or a hole-in-the-wall cheese shop. Multiply those closings by a few hundred, and you’ll have an idea of what is happening these days on the New York commercial front. READ MORE

Why Political Machines Were Good for Government

Of all the columns I have written for this magazine over the past 24 years, the one that brought the biggest response by far was a column on political patronage. Actually, it was a defense of political patronage. Most readers hated it. Sorting through dozens of letters and emails, I found only one that agreed with my point of view. Everybody else seemed to feel I was defending corruption and insulting the principles of merit and integrity that a decent democratic government ought to strive for.

The background was this: In 2004, Ernie Fletcher took over as the first Republican governor of Kentucky in 32 years. He proceeded to hand out jobs all over the state to GOP loyalists, not just in the higher reaches of public office but in every one of the 120 counties of the commonwealth as well. Anybody who wanted to fill a vacancy on a highway crew or in a state welfare office had to survive an eight-step hiring process that included getting the approval of the governor’s designated Republican contact in the applicant’s county. READ MORE

One Iconoclast’s Blunt Message on Transportation Funding

It would be easy to dismiss Charles Marohn as a crank. At a time when half of Washington is batting around numbers that purport to reveal how much money Congress should spend to save the nation’s troubled transportation system, Marohn is suggesting the simplest number of all: zero. What the system needs, Marohn says, isn’t a big infusion of cash, but a thorough examination of what it ought to be doing in the first place. Barring such an examination, he wouldn’t give the transportation system a dime.

Marohn is an unrepentant iconoclast, but he is no crank. He is a soft-spoken civil engineer from small-town Minnesota who spent most of two decades giving local governments conventional advice on how to build and repair roads, sidewalks and bridges. His solutions came straight out of the Green Book, published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the bible that engineers all over the country use in dealing with transportation issues. But eventually he decided that his advice wasn’t worth much. He was telling communities to build high-speed streets and highways that were neither attractive nor safe. What the local residents really needed, Marohn came to believe, was less-intrusive, lower-speed infrastructure that fostered human-scale street life and a safe pedestrian presence. READ MORE