James Fallows’s conclusion that our government “looks like a joke” because the 50 states, rather than their citizens, have equal representation in the Senate, is unsupported. Indeed, the notion that our government would not look like a joke if Senate representation were proportional to population is incompatible with his observation that California’s system, one that allows ballot measures to be enacted by voter referenda (what could be a more elevated expression of one-person, one-vote, democratic governance?), has produced a dysfunctional situation where benefits have been mandated without the tax burden to sustain them; that result seems like our national “joke” to me.
James Fallows replies:
In my lifetime, I have seen the legitimacy of public action change in what seems like a basic way. As Tom Allen points out, the change has been from cross-party skepticism to outright hostility by Republicans, and nervous defense by Democrats. What has remained constant is the convenience of a military excuse for any “nation building” effort, from the interstate-highway system onward. What has changed is the difficulty of advancing any other rationale. After World War II, my home state of California could launch ambitious programs to build universities, research centers, parks, etc., because this made life better for so many people—and because this represented an American ideal in particularly bright form. Now, despite its huge population and vital tech and entertainment industries, California symbolizes a different kind of future.
Timothy Bates may have misunderstood me. I argued that the careful balancing that went into the Constitution—the interests of bigger states against smaller, free states against slave states, farmers against traders—made sense for its time. But many realities have changed, and our governing structures have not, or not enough. Centuries’ worth of population shift, combined with the recent practice of subjecting all major Senate actions to the filibuster, has skewed the balance beyond recognition. California’s paralysis of self-government shows this situation in its extreme. This is what we would correctly call a “failed state” in other parts of the world. As an American optimist, I hope this is a diagnosis, subject to treatment, not a verdict.
As a fifth-year high-school teacher, I found Amanda Ripley’s “What Makes a Great Teacher” (January/February Atlantic) inspiring, and frustrating. I agree that a “history of perseverance” is essential for a good teacher. To juggle 100 students, parents, administrative paperwork, and the never-ending barrage of standardized tests takes twice as many hours as I am paid for, and perseverance is only one of many skills needed to do the job well. I was dismayed, however, that Ripley only touched upon the fact that the dedication needed to be an excellent teacher is extraordinarily difficult to maintain. Half of all new teachers quit within five years. The Obama administration should focus on recruiting the best teachers, but it should also dedicate itself to keeping good teachers teaching. Even Mr. Taylor, whom Ripley praises as an exceptional educator, wants to leave after only three years in the classroom. He insists it is to pass on his skills to others, but I know that it must also be because the commitment it takes to teach all students—not just those in lower-income schools—is exhausting.
Amanda Ripley replies:
I agree that we should dedicate ourselves to “keeping good teachers teaching.” But until we identify good teachers and track what they are doing, we cannot reasonably hope to support them. Teach for America has its limitations, but it is unusually dedicated to figuring out what its most effective teachers are doing—and changing its selection and training processes accordingly. Surely all teachers could benefit if schools designed policies for hiring, training, and pay based on what actually leads to learning. Until then, even exceptional teachers will work unnecessarily long days to get results.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Battle of the Big Box” (January/February Atlantic), the medals earned by the United States Colored Troops were Medals of Honor.