Letters

  • Generation X
  • Population Surprise
  • Tabloid Law
  • Grazing Problems

    Generation X

    Ted Halstead's frustrating analysis of an entire generation's political beliefs and aspirations ("A Politics for Generation X," August Atlantic) didn't even manage to scratch the surface of the problems that face us. Not that Halstead was entirely wrong; in fact, I believe that some form of philosophical and political pragmatism may be the only solution. Our problems, though, run much deeper. We lack any kind of historical perspective, any perception of why our country is the way it is. We are not leaders, no matter how much advertising and pop culture try to make us believe otherwise. We have plenty of money and almost no ability to stop spending. Our worlds are shaped and guided by our taste in mass-market films and music.

    In general, my generation lacks any kind of rooted aesthetic or ethical sense. I know this sounds harsh, but turn on the radio or go to the multiplex and you'll see: media executives are forthright about how eager they are to take our money -- Generation X is the most desirable demographic in the country -- and most often "our" entertainment is little more than a focus group's lame approximation of what we like.

    The Boomer right took to Wall Street and Silicon Valley with a terrifying and rapacious greed; they assisted their elders in constructing multinational trusts and eliminating all humane interaction between workers and employers. The Boomer left dismantled our education establishment by deconstructing their own knowledge, rejecting it as white-imperialist propaganda, and replacing it with nonthreatening utopian tracts of dubious quality.

    Now the most educated among us work in media-related fields, swallowing the techno-propaganda that our parents' generation feeds us. Any resistance earns the epithet "Luddite": you're either a booster or a caveman. We experience simultaneous flattery and condescension; our pride is stoked in order to earn access to either our wallets or our programming abilities.

    As far as our religious beliefs go, my generation should stop our parents' stupid abuse of the word "spiritual." Religion isn't a selfish pursuit; if you want to adopt a faith (I choose not to), do it for the ethical teachings, not for the achievement of inner peace. One thing religion should teach you is that there is no inner peace when others suffer.

    Joel Gordon

    Regarding Ted Halstead's provocative final question: I believe we who are the children of Boomers will overcome our "aversion to politics" and get involved when we have our own children -- when we look at our sons and daughters and realize that we cannot remain children ourselves any longer.

    Chris Owen

    Ted Halstead correctly says that the payroll tax "is the most regressive of all taxes." However, his solution -- replacing payroll taxes with pollution taxes -- would hardly "galvanize the members of Generation X," nor is it fiscally sound. The tax would be enormous, it would not be a long-term solution, and it is even more regressive than the payroll tax.

    First, a large amount of revenue would need to be replaced. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. government collected $572 billion in payroll taxes in 1998. Assuming that half of this revenue could be collected from gasoline taxes, and using Redefining Progress's revenue-estimating methodology, an additional gasoline tax of $3 a gallon would be needed (one cent raises about one billion dollars). Somehow I doubt that the average Generation Xer will want to spend more than $30 to fill up the gas tank. And that's for a small car.

    Second, to be effective, pollution taxes should reduce pollution, which can occur only if fossil-fuel consumption falls. Over the long term, people would substitute clean energy for fossil fuels because of the tax, with the result that fossil-fuel consumption would decline, and with it the amount of revenue collected from the pollution tax. But the entitlement programs funded by payroll taxes need funding each year. Eventually another source of revenue would be needed.

    Third, a pollution tax would be more regressive than the payroll tax. Pollution taxes are generally excise taxes, which means that people pay the same amount of tax regardless of their income. No tax is more regressive than an excise tax -- except perhaps the poll tax.

    Thomas Kornfield

    Joel Gordon attests to the political frustration of Gen-Xers and their propensity to reject the nostrums of right and left, but veers astray when he suggests that all Xers "have plenty of money."

    Chris Owen may be correct that most Xers will not engage in the political process until they become parents, but that would be a shame, because our polity is currently in dire need of new ideas and new leaders.

    Thomas Kornfield makes good points about substituting pollution levies for payroll taxes. Given that the payroll tax is the largest and most regressive tax facing ordinary wage earners, reducing it would do far more to help working Americans get ahead than any of the tax-cut proposals now being discussed on Capitol Hill. As for fiscal prudence, offsetting payroll-tax cuts with other sources of revenue makes more sense than financing huge tax cuts out of a surplus that has yet to materialize. I would propose exempting the first $10,000 of wages from payroll taxes and replacing the roughly $140 billion in lost revenue through the auction of tradable carbon permits (which the majority of economists view as the soundest way to address global warming). Contrary to Kornfield's contention that such revenues would shrink over time, the laws of supply and demand suggest that receipts from the auction of carbon permits would actually increase as the total number of available permits was reduced.

    Population Surprise

    According to Max Singer ("The Population Surprise," August Atlantic), "The big surprise of the past twenty years is that in not one country did fertility stop falling when it reached the replacement rate -- 2.1 children per woman." Simply stated, Singer is wrong.

    By examining fertility rates in the United States, one finds errors in Singer's logic. At the end of the Baby Boom (1960-1964) the total fertility rate (TFR) for the United States stood at 3.5. By the end of the 1960s that rate had fallen to 2.6, and by the early 1970s it was at replacement level. For several years the TFR continued falling, reaching its historical low of 1.7 in 1976. Since that time, however, it has been gradually climbing back to around replacement level, where it remains today.

    Singer asks the reader to believe that the lowest possible fertility rates will occur worldwide, that the demographic trends of the past few decades will intensify and continue indefinitely, and that the demographic behavior of a few industrialized nations over the past few decades is our future. If you believe Singer's flawed logic, why not believe high-end assumptions that have the world's population growing to 27 billion by 2150?

    Given current trends in world population growth, Singer's prediction of a world population smaller than the U.S. population today may indeed come to pass. But the cause won't be a birth dearth; it will be pollution, disease, famine, war, and the widespread collapse of environmental life-support systems and the human social infrastructure and economy.

    Sharon McCloe Stein

    Max Singer writes of the very long term, "a century or two or three," and concludes that there is little need to be concerned with growth or decline in the worldpopulation, because modern society will be ready, willing, and able to choose for itself the number of children that should be born. While we await the coming of modern society to the world as a whole, more than a billion people today are not able to make decisions about how many children they want. They lack knowledge of reproductive health; most do not have health care that enables them to have confidence that their children will survive; they do not know of or have access to contraception; and women have many fewer opportunities than men for choices of every kind. These failings of today's worldsociety can be and should be addressed with the means now available in those countries that are fortunate enough to be blessed with what passes for modernity.

    Paul Micou

    Sharon Stein says that increased fertility associated with the U.S. postwar Baby Boom contradicts my statement that in not one country did fertility stop falling when it hit the replacement rate. As I reported, a temporary upturn in U.S. fertility occurred more than a generation ago, after which the 200-year downward trend resumed, with fertility staying below replacement for twenty-five years. But that doesn't contradict the experience in some fifty countries that the replacement rate is not a barrier to falling fertility. Overall experience strongly indicates that unless values change, overall world fertility will go below replacement level in the first part of the twenty-first century and stay below long enough to produce many years of world population decline. My estimates are based on an attempt to impose as few assumptions as possible on the interpretation of the past. Lower or higher estimates would also be reasonable. We cannot get away from uncertainty.

    I agree with Paul Micou that programs encouraging contraception should not be stopped even though world population will begin declining in 2050.

    Tabloid Law

    Alex Beam writes in "Tabloid Law" (August Atlantic), "The same First Amendment invoked by Williams & Connolly to allow The Washington Postto publish the Pentagon Papers grants the tabloids enormous leeway in examining celebrities' lives."

    Williams & Connolly were not involved with the Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers, because the firm was not representing the Postat that time. Ben Bradlee did consult Ed Williams as a personal friend, as described in Katherine Graham's Personal History.The Postwas ably represented by William R. Glendon, of Royall Koegel and Wells.

    Shirley R. Newhall

    Shirley Newhall is right that Williams & Connolly did not formally represent The Washington Postin the Pentagon Papers case. But I believe that most participants (my source was Evan Thomas's biography of Edward Bennett Williams) agree that it was Williams's informal advice to Bradlee that prompted the paper to push ahead with publication.

    Grazing Problems

    I was very interested to read Perri Knize's article on ranching ("Winning the War for the West," July Atlantic). Like Knize, I am a native New Yorker and a journalist who transplanted herself to the West, in my case more than fifteen years ago. In fact, one of Knize's sources, a New Mexico environmentalist whom I knew slightly, asked me to call Knize while she was working on the piece, because he thought we had a few things in common. I realized partway into the phone call, and later confirmed, that his real reason for asking me to call her was his fear that she wasn't doing her homework. That was my impression too.

    Knize writes that "many scientists who study what happens to land where cattle graze admit that no definitive case can be made."

    Sorry, that's just wrong. A recent paper by A. J. Belsky, published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation,took a comprehensive view of the peer-reviewed literature on grazing's effect on riparian habitat. Belsky's conclusion was this: "An extensive literature search did not locate peer-reviewed empirical papers reporting a positive impact of cattle on riparian areas when those areas were compared to ungrazed controls." Belsky reports that some papers showed no effects of grazing, but "the authors of these papers usually explained this absence of statistically significant impacts as being due to stochastic or design problems associated with their research."

    Belsky, who grew up in Abilene, Texas, but spent most of her career working on National Science Foundation grants in East Africa, says she bent over backward to find papers that showed positive effects of grazing. There were none. What she did find was that the environmental effects of grazing can be reduced with improved management but not eliminated.

    Robert Ohmart, of the Center for Environmental Studies at Arizona State University, published a similar literature review in 1996, in a book called Rangeland Wildlife,published by the Society of Range Management, a group certainly not known for its anti-ranching tendencies.

    Ohmart's paper was narrower in scope, looking only at wildlife and fish, but inevitably it, too, focused on riparian habitat; 60 to 70 percent of Western bird species and perhaps 80 percent of wildlife species in Arizona, New Mexico, and southeastern Oregon are dependent on riparian habitats. Yet Ohmart's paper showed that in Arizona, at least, only two or three percent of the cottonwood-willow riparian association remains. That's 10,000 to 11,000 acres out of 260,000 acres of floodplain in the state of Arizona, which comprises 73 million acres of land. The effects on wildlife are about what you'd expect.

    It's true that huge numbers of livestock and cataclysmic drought followed by severe rain damaged streams in the late 1800s. But according to Ohmart, these streams have been prevented from recovering by continued widespread grazing. Ohmart says that's why most of the cottonwoods you see along southwestern streams are old and decadent. Cattle have eaten so many young cottonwood and willow shoots over the past century that Ohmart predicts a crash in biodiversity in thirty to fifty years, when the last of the mature cottonwoods die out. And for Knize to say that all -- or even most -- ranchers use "ecosystem management" is plainly absurd.

    Susan Zakin

    As a wildlife biologist who has worked on the public lands of the West, I found your recent article by Perri Knize to be full of errors and misrepresentations.

    Knize glosses over the multiple impacts that livestock production has upon wildlife, and fails to note that both independent and government studies have identified livestock production as responsible for more endangered species in the West than any other human activity (such as logging, mining, and building subdivisions).

    Though Knize continually asserts that "wildlife" benefits from livestock production, she usually fails to identify the species. And in the few instances when she does name specific animals, she refers mostly to elk, deer, and geese -- all highly adaptable and relatively common animals that tend to flourish on human disturbance. Both deer and geese, in fact, thrive even in urban environments -- which few biologists would identify as good wildlife habitat.

    What Knize does not point out is that dozens of species, many of which were formerly widely distributed, are now on the verge of extinction or significantly reduced in numbers, largely as a consequence of livestock-induced habitat degradation, disease transmission from livestock, or persecution by ranchers. These include black-tailed prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, sage grouse, bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzly bears, swift foxes, desert tortoises, Southwestern willow flycatchers, Bonneville cutthroat trout, and many others.

    Mollie Matteson

    Perri Knize did a great disservice to the hundreds of range, grassland, wildlife, and fisheries scientists who have spent their careers studying and publishing on the environmental effects of livestock grazing in the West. She is guilty of the same "half-truths, skewed facts, and outright fallacies" of which she accuses others. Let's look at the scientific evidence.

    Although the federal range may, as she says, be "in better condition than it has been in more than a century," it had no direction to go but up. Decades of uncontrolled grazing prior to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 converted hundreds of millions of acres in the West into denuded, eroding moonscapes. These rangelands have improved somewhat since the 1930s not because of better grazing practices but because of significant reductions in cattle and sheep grazing. This proves that any form of livestock management is better than none. It doesn't show that grazing is beneficial to grasslands and shrublands, or that it does not harm the environment.

    Knize also wrote that cattle grazing improves wildlife habitat, because elk, deer, and antelope prefer the more succulent shoots that grow after plants are grazed by cattle. She ignores data showing that elk actively avoid areas grazed by cattle, that these plants are not adapted to heavy grazing and are damaged by multiple defoliations, and that the regrowth may be only 10 percent of the amount of the forage originally available to wildlife. She also fails to mention that elk, deer, and other wildlife managed just fine before cattle were introduced.

    It is true that pronghorn have been declining at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, in Oregon, where cattle were removed in the early 1990s, but the trend is similar among pronghorn throughout the West, from New Mexico to Canada. Pronghorn experts speculate that the recent decline is due to adverse climatic conditions and to the degradation of sagebrush communities by a hundred years of livestock grazing.

    Knize's conclusion that "modern livestock grazing has comparatively little environmental impact" is strongly and convincingly refuted by even the most cursory review of the scientific literature.

    A. Joy Belsky

    I never stated that all or even most ranchers practice ecosystem management. But more ranchers are interested in it and practicing it all the time. The point is that livestock grazing can coexist harmoniously with native species, and many of the changes ranchers need to make are not difficult or expensive, just creative.

    Yes, riparian areas have been badly damaged, but our understanding of the importance of riparian areas is relatively recent, and they easily and quickly recover with good management. Solid programs are now in place to reverse the damage, and they have been very successful. Nowhere have I been able to find a study that says riparian areas are in the worst condition in history. The scientists I asked about it find this statement highly improbable, especially in light of the dramatic drop in livestock numbers over the past fifty years and the vast improvements in management over the same period. These scientists believe that grazed uplands are in the best condition they have been in since the beginning of the century.

    Susan Zakin, as a journalist, should take better care to check her sources. Some of the scientists whose work A. Joy Belsky cites in her Journal of Soil and Water Conservationpaper disagree with her and say their work was taken out of context for the purpose of supporting what they consider to be a highly biased and unwarranted conclusion. Even the premise of Belsky's study is dubious: she compares grazed land with ungrazed land, something that is rare -- if not nonexistent -- in the United States.

    I have in hand many, many peer-reviewed research papers that find not only that cattle and wildlife are compatible but that well-managed grazing is beneficial to many kinds of wildlife. For example, mountain plovers require highly disturbed land, which can be created by livestock grazing. Sage-grouse numbers were higher a generation ago, when there were more cattle grazing in the birds' sagebrush-steppe habitat than there are today. Studies show that prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, sandhill cranes, and many other species benefit from well-managed livestock grazing. Raptors and other predators also benefit, because reduced cover makes it easier for them to find their prey.

    As for Mollie Matteson's assertion that livestock are the single greatest threat to endangered species, a research paper published in volume 45, No. 7 of Bioscience,"Taxpayer-Subsidized Resource Extraction Harms Species," by Losos, Hayes, et al., states that livestock grazing is the third greatest threat to listed species -- after water development and human recreation.

    Belsky, who has written the tracts on which the anti-grazing activists most rely, has called her own scientific credibility into doubt with her absurd assertions that elk avoid cattle, that range plants are not adapted to heavy grazing, and that regrowth is dramatically less than the forage that was "originally" there. An abundance of data show that elk prefer cattle pasture. In fact, some wildlife-management areas use cattle to prepare pasture for elk. Anyone who lives in Montana or Wyoming has seen elk herds grazing in the same pasture with cattle. The elk population is exploding, and most of those animals winter on private ranchlands. That is why all western states have programs to assist ranchers in keeping their lands open to hunters.

    Range plants are absolutely adapted to multiple defoliations. Before white settlement the range was heavily grazed and trampled by 10 to 60 million bison; in some parts of the West the prairie was ground into dust, and the first trappers' horses starved for lack of grass. The wallows of these bison still pockmark the landscape today.

    As to the welfare of elk and deer before white settlement, we know that the Shoshone Indians were starving in Idaho when Lewis and Clark arrived because of a lack of wild game -- probably owing to a population crash, part of the natural cycle. We have more of these game animals right now than at any time since European settlement of the West began. In fact, one of the most degraded riparian areas in the country is the Lamar River Valley, in Yellowstone National Park, where elk -- not cattle -- have eaten almost all the willows in the riparian areas. There never has been any magic "balance of nature." Nature is a place of extremes; species proliferate and then diminish. What is natural is a boom-and-bust cycle.


    The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; Letters - 99.11; Volume 284, No. 5; page 8-13.

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