Contents | May 2004
The Atlantic Monthly | May 2004
Letters to the Editor
aitlin Flanagan ("How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement," March Atlantic) flatters me in referring to my book The Price of Motherhood as the "Big Kahuna" and the "Das Kapital of our working-mother age." But I'm afraid she is the closet Marxist, stirring up class warfare among women. Her piece is one long attack on working mothers, referred to as "professional-class mothers."
She attacks me for not attacking Zoe Baird, the ambitious self-made attorney whose husband failed to pay Social Security taxes for their two household employees. Flanagan says I called this a "civil violation" (as I did, correctly), implying that I should have called for a criminal prosecution, and accuses me of being illogical because I argue that all workers (including mothers at home) should receive Social Security. Never mind that the point of retelling the Zoe Baird story was to show how women shot themselves in the foot by attacking her instead of focusing their anger on immigration laws that keep nannies undocumented. The upshot of the Baird affair was to strengthen a system that marginalizes domestic workers and bars countless qualified people—mostly mothers—from judgeships and high office.
In my book I describe how Canada has adopted a reform whereby temporary work permits are issued to foreigners with training in early childhood development or four years of hands-on experience. They must live in, and after two years they may apply for permanent-resident status. This law was made possible by an alliance of affluent two-career couples, organized foreign-born child-care workers, and women's groups.
No such alliance exists in the United States, and no reform is in sight. One immigration attorney told me that this is because so many American working women feel guilty about hiring a nanny at all. They feel it is "somehow selfish and inappropriate for women to be seeking solutions just for themselves for what many see as a privilege."
In other words, judgmental attitudes like Flanagan's are contributing to the very exploitation of immigrant women that she deplores. We need a cease-fire in the mommy wars and the "nanny wars," and a reminder of the first rule of real war: divided we fall.
aitlin Flanagan's rant would make more sense if it addressed the plight of exploited workers in general—and especially if she could tell us what other jobs Third World women with limited skills can find that pay $350 a week plus room, board, utilities, health insurance, and Social Security benefits, or that pay $10 to $15 an hour on weekends.
Sarah Armstrong Jones
Los Angeles, Calif.
nyone who admits to never having changed a sheet should not presume to expound on those who have changed thousands. Caitlin Flanagan's narrow-minded and self-serving essay was clearly meant to be provocative and splashy, presumably to pave the way for her book in progress on "modern motherhood." She manages to sow dissension among those with common concerns, to demonstrate her lack of historical imagination, and to trash nearly everyone else who has ventured to write on the subject of women vis-à-vis motherhood, housework, and professional aspirations.
Thirtysomething professional women, in Flanagan's view, are guilty of moral turpitude in hiring poor immigrant women for housework and child care. Her sharpest barbs, however, are aimed at older feminists (particularly the novelist and activist Alix Kates Shulman), who are guilty of the apparently worse crime of silliness. Their "silliness" consists of the morally irreproachable and perfectly reasonable (if radical at the time) suggestion that men help care for the homes they occupy and the children they father. Except for a mention of Flanagan's husband, who has never changed a sheet either, men are so conspicuously absent from her article that they might as well not exist—a sad commentary on the earlier ideals of equal partnership.
After all of Flanagan's high-handed judgments, her ignorant flaying of young and old alike, and her snide parenthetical jokes, what is her grand conclusion about how to handle the conflicting demands of work, marriage, and child-rearing? Treat our hired help fairly and pay taxes! The feminists of thirty years ago, despite their "silliness," approached the matter with far more complex thought and inventiveness. But it's easier to dodge the hard questions, mock one's peers and elders, pat oneself on the back, gush over one's excellent nanny, and publish a nasty piece of work.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz
New York, N.Y
ow does Caitlin Flanagan know that "when a mother works, something is lost" for children? She offers no supporting evidence other than her own experiences growing up with an at-home mom and becoming one herself. Since she is so cutting about the justifications offered by other women, it is surprising she doesn't recognize her own.
Jersey City, N.J.
he fact that Caitlin Flanagan has taken her children to eight birthday parties in a month is not, in my view, an example of "the way that adult middle-class life has become so intensely, laughably child-centered." The very subject of her piece belies this notion and makes it an absurd statement. If legions of women who can afford to raise their own children choose not to do so, and spend the majority of their hours away from their children, what about this is "child-centered"? And furthermore, any society that makes it hard for most middle-class women to find quality day care so that they (out of necessity) can work is also not "child-centered." I don't know who this "professional class" is that Flanagan speaks of. Most of the college- (and even graduate-school-) educated women I know are teachers, nurses, musicians, social workers, and entry-level doctors and lawyers with huge school debts. They use a patchwork of home day care, after-school programs, teenagers, and relatives to care for their kids; those boatloads of willing nannies to which Flanagan refers are quite scarce in the heartland of America. Considering the amount of shuttling around many children—rich, poor, and middle-class—do before and after school, I can't agree that we are as a society "child-centered." Taking your children to birthday parties on rushed Saturdays when your nanny has her day off does not mean your world revolves around the well-being of your children or your family.
hank you, Caitlin Flanagan, for the most honest assessment I've read of the working-versus-stay-at-home-mom dilemma. I completely agree with Flanagan's premise that the latest assumption of the feminist movement is "that all working mothers—rich and poor—constitute a single class, that they are all similarly oppressed, and that they are united in a struggle against common difficulties."
What really amazes me is that according to Flanagan's article, many upper-middle-class women who choose to work and hire a nanny or send their child to a day-care center are unwilling to pay a decent wage to the people to whom they entrust the most valuable thing in their lives. How can these women (and their husbands), who so readily spend money on everything else, justify paying so little to the people whom they count on to do so much? In addition to the important ethical considerations of poor women's watching wealthier women's children for rock-bottom rates, isn't it worth paying a few extra dollars for your own peace of mind—to say nothing of your child's well-being—to ensure that your child has the best possible care? For all these reasons upper-middle-class women should gladly pay a premium for a safe and loving child-care provider, and should consider themselves fortunate that, unlike women who truly need to work, they have child-care choices.
Caitlin Flanagan replies:
Elizabeth Weinstein makes two excellent points. Some professions are not highly compensated. Most of my friends have careers in the same fields as Weinstein's friends, and for them child care is a similarly expensive scramble. I have noticed that the ones who live in big cities with large immigrant populations use in-home nannies, and the ones who live in places without lots of domestic workers use day care. Stronger still are her observations on my discussion of "child-centered" family life; she's quite right.
Now let us turn to Ann Crittenden's letter. It demands to be examined on a point-by-point basis.
1) Crittenden says that my essay is "one long attack on working mothers, referred to as 'professional-class mothers.'" Wrong. Much of the essay centers on the fundamental distinction between poor working mothers and financially comfortable ones. It points out that feminists are eager to erase this distinction, which is exactly what Crittenden has done in this mischaracterization—one so blatant as to appear willful.
2) Crittenden suggests that I find her argument about Zoe Baird illogical. Quite right. I also find it hypocritical: why is it horribly unjust for the government to deny at-home moms Social Security set-asides, but only something minor—on a par with getting a parking ticket—if a professional-class woman does the same thing to a poorly paid immigrant nanny?
3) The immigration plan Crittenden proposes: offensive. It is built on the assumption that to facilitate the daily lives of professional-class working mothers, we need an endless supply of poor immigrants to do their housework and child care. But there are plenty of Americans who need work. Why won't they take the jobs? Because professional-class working mothers have set the pay so low and have so often refused to contribute benefits (such as health care and maternity leave, as well as Social Security set-asides) that Americans don't want the jobs. Flooding the country with more immigrants would only force wages downward. How much should we pay our nannies? Perhaps we could use a calculation described in The Price of Motherhood. Crittenden tells us that to compensate a professional-class at-home mother for all her labor (the exact labor that nannies provide working mothers), her husband should pay her $100,000.
4) I challenge Crittenden to highlight and reproduce a single sentence from my essay that supports her claim that "judgmental attitudes like Flanagan's are contributing to the very exploitation of nannies she deplores." She may send the sentence to me care of this magazine.
From the comments of Sarah Armstrong Jones we are to infer, I think, that nannies where she lives receive not only Social Security set-asides but also health insurance. In what Valhalla does she dwell? Los Angeles. So do I. I have never met a domestic worker whose employer contributes to a health-insurance plan, and of the many employers of domestic workers I have interviewed, fewer than 20 percent pay Social Security taxes on their employees' wages.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz says that people who don't change sheets should not "presume to expound on" those who do. Good thing the abolitionists (many of whom never picked cotton as slaves) didn't feel that way. My "sharpest barbs" were not reserved for older feminists. Ms. Schwartz may not be an enthusiastic student of the niceties of the English language, but surely she understands that in the lexicon of barbs "silly" is not a particularly stinging entry. Indeed, much of the piece centers on the very argument she makes—that second-wave feminists of the seventies grappled with these problems in a much more sophisticated and admirable manner than do contemporary ones. As for my husband's changing sheets—why in the world would I want him to do that? He is the head of the household, and I treat him as such. But I'm not a feminist, so there's no surprise there. The more telling question is why so many feminists, when hiring housekeepers and nannies, exclusively employ females. They seem to assume that women are more suited to such work. I agree with them.
Carly Berwick touchingly demands "supporting evidence" for the simple claim that "when a mother works, something is lost," as though reams of sociological research must be presented if one is to say anything at all about the most essential and enduring of all human relationships, the one between mother and child. For starters, a minimum of forty hours a week of mother-child interaction is lost if the mother works full time. (When you take away the hours that both spend asleep, many professional-class working mothers routinely spend less than an hour a day with their children.)
I was prepared for the anger my essay would prompt in women. I was unprepared for the silence that has ensued on the subject of how professional-class women treat their nannies. It is instructive that the only angry correspondent to address the question of how domestic workers are treated argues that they are actually very well compensated. How droll. Unlike most women, I pay my domestic workers' Social Security taxes. I do it not only because it's the law but also because I feel a moral obligation to the women who work for me. Apparently, if I became a feminist, I would be free to rip them off, pocket my savings, and decry the patriarchy and my own oppression all in one breath. No, thanks.
Blind Into Baghdad
n "Blind Into Baghdad" (January/ February Atlantic) James Fallows asserts that "sending the Iraqi soldiers home" was a "catastrophic error of commission." Fallows, who is normally a very able and careful reporter, refers to a Washington Post story that quotes me, but he did not attempt to talk to me about the issue, and I am therefore taking this opportunity to comment on what actually happened.
The fundamental problem with the dissolution-as-catastrophe theory is that using the old army was never an option, because that army had ceased to exist, as had its infrastructure. Even if the old army had still existed, there would have been some serious problems, to put it mildly, had Jay Garner or the U.S. military commanders started the effort to rebuild the country by proclaiming that this key element of Saddam's power structure would be a centerpiece of coalition efforts to maintain security. But that is admittedly a matter of judgment, if not a very difficult one.
What is a matter of fact and not of judgment, however, is that using the old army, good idea or bad, was not feasible. The Iraqi soldiers had not been sent home; they had gone on their own. The pre-war studies that Fallows refers to as counseling not to "tear apart the army" had—like most pre-war observers—assumed that the end of the fighting would see large Iraqi army units sitting in intact bases waiting for orders, and at least theoretically available to assist the coalition in the post-conflict phase. Instead, by the time Baghdad and Tikrit fell, in early April, not a single organized Iraqi military unit was still in existence. The old army had simply disintegrated. When Paul Bremer arrived in Baghdad in mid-May and, shortly thereafter, issued an order terminating the formal legal existence of Saddam's defunct military and security apparatus, the old army had already been gone for weeks.
Once this military Humpty-Dumpty had broken itself apart, attempting to reconstitute it, even if that had been a good idea, was totally impractical. At best, a recall effort might have yielded a lot of senior officers eager to reclaim their perks and status. Certainly there were plenty of them. Of the 80,000 officers in the old army, some 11,000 were generals. (The U.S. Army, approximately the same size as the former Iraqi military, has just over 300 generals.)
But a recall effort could not have produced a force of any real use as a security service. Whereas the career officers were overwhelmingly Sunni, the ordinary soldiers were conscripts and overwhelmingly Shia. Enlisted men were held in the ranks only by draconian measures that included cutting off the ears of suspected conscription evaders. With the collapse of Saddam's regime, those conscripts happily returned home to their families. They have welcomed the coalition's formal ending of their obligations, and no significant numbers would have heeded a call to return to the colors under their old officers.
Moreover, even if a few units could somehow have been reassembled, they would not have had what Fallows describes as "a place to go each day," because the soldiers had taken with them virtually everything from their bases and barracks, and what they did not take was stolen or trashed by looters who promptly ransacked the facilities they had abandoned. An army, or any useful security force, needs not just people but equipment and facilities. Putting the least wrecked of the old Iraqi bases into bare-bones shape for the new army has cost several million dollars for each battalion and a couple of months' hard work.
Nor is it the case that, as Fallows claims, military personnel have "no longer had a paycheck" and have become "part of the security threat." Iraqi funds have been used to pay former commissioned and noncommissioned officers a monthly stipend. (The only exceptions are some 8,000 who nominally held military rank but were in fact functionaries in Saddam's security, propaganda, and political organizations or were very high in the Baath Party hierarchy.) These stipends deliberately do not match the opulent bonuses and awards Saddam gave to favored officers, but they have given Iraq's former military professionals a decent if modest income while they make the transition to new careers. The overall result since the payments were announced, in June, has been that although many ex-officers are predictably unhappy at their loss of privilege and profession, they have not as a class been a source of significant peaceful protest or opposition, much less a "part of the security threat."
Walter B. Slocombe
James Fallows replies:
During much of the time I was interviewing people, mainly face to face and mainly on the East Coast of the United States, Walter Slocombe was in Baghdad. That is why I did not run into him. The reason I didn't seek him out is that my article, unlike some other press reports, did not say that he had personally played a major role in the decision to disband the Iraqi army. Obviously, I went to great lengths to seek out comment from responsible officials in the Pentagon—who, with the notable exception of Douglas Feith, declined to cooperate.
Mr. Slocombe's points here are a longer and more detailed version of what Douglas Feith told me: that the dissolution of the army was a recognition of the messy reality that American occupiers confronted just after the war. The Iraqi army had "already disbanded itself," my article quoted Feith as saying. But as the article also pointed out, that judgment was highly controversial at the time, and has remained so in retrospect. CIA and U.S. Army officials, among others, warned about the effect of the sweeping dissolution order. When all the evidence is in, and historians can assess both the reasons for this decision and its long-term effect, it is possible that they will see it the way Mr. Slocombe does: as the best of a bad set of options. For now, what I said in the article remains true: virtually the only people to say this was a good decision are the ones who made it.
State Of The Union
o concept in economics is more deeply and widely misunderstood than the trade deficit. Regrettably, Sherle Schwenninger's "America's 'Suez Moment'" (The State of the Union, January/February Atlantic) only confirms this conclusion. Schwenninger commits the common mistake of equating a current-account deficit with debt. They are emphatically not synonymous.
I'm writing this letter on my Sony computer, which I bought outright. I have full, debt-free ownership of the computer; Sony, in return, has $2,000 in cash. Even if Sony does not spend those dollars on American output during the current period, thereby contributing to the U.S. current-account deficit, debt is created only if Sony lends those dollars to Americans, chiefly by buying dollar-denominated corporate and government bonds. If, instead, Sony buys shares of stock in American corporations, buys American real estate, or holds those dollars as cash reserves, no American becomes indebted as a result.
Schwenninger overlooks an even deeper fact. Foreigners who earn dollars by selling goods and services to Americans and then invest those dollars in American assets believe that the U.S. economy's prospects are rosy. This is so regardless of whether foreigners' investments in America create debt or not. How many of us rush to buy equity in companies we believe are headed for bankruptcy? How many of us lend money to people and institutions we think cannot pay us back? How many of us hold currencies that we suspect will lose significant value?
The trade deficit is more likely to be evidence of economic health than a cause for concern.
Donald J. Boudreaux
Chairman, Department of Economics
George Mason University
herle Schwenninger writes that China holds more federal debt than any other country. This statement is not consistent with data from the Department of the Treasury. According to Treasury officials, Japan is the largest holder of federal securities, with more than $500 billion outstanding; China is second, with around $145 billion outstanding.
n "Radical Tax Reform," Maya MacGuineas states that the question of whether the current tax system is fair may be rephrased as "To what extent is one's overall tax burden commensurate with one's ability to meet it?" Why doesn't she just add "and to each according to his need," and complete the Marxist cliché? I see nothing fair about making taxes progressive. My working life has been shaped by two facts: I spent years without an income preparing myself for the professional career in which I now work; and I work much longer hours than most people. Do I deserve a higher income than the median? You bet. I make a lot of money for my employer, I give up time I'd much rather be spending with my wife and children, and I think I do something that's socially useful. So why should my income be viewed as fair game by all of society's free riders? In contrast to MacGuineas's conception of fairness, I could make a case that the only fair tax system is a sharply regressive one. That's because I get much less from my government than do people with lower incomes. No food stamps for me. No welfare. No Medicare. No Medicaid. No Section 8 housing vouchers. No drug treatment. Less police and fire protection, too, because my neighbors and I live pretty quiet lives. You get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get. How about that for a guiding principle? Not bloody likely, though. I guess I'll just have to live with the satisfaction of knowing that as I sit in my office at ten o'clock at night, I'm making money for the people at home in front of the TV, having a beer and having the last laugh. It's utterly unfair, and a bad way to run a society that supposedly prizes hard work and self-sacrifice.
Stewart B. Herman
New York, N.Y.
adical Tax Reform" hit the right notes for those of us who believe the world of taxation is in a fallen condition—one characterized by unfairness, unwillingness to pay for what you bought, and mind-boggling, stupefying complexity. However, although Maya MacGuineas's proposal ploughs interesting new ground, her discussion fails to address the possibility that taxation of wealth could deal directly, fairly, and possibly more simply with these problems.
The logical basis for a wealth tax is that wealth commands, directs, and benefits from the operations and therefore the cost of government. If a single tax rate is applied to wealth, the first requirement—for "fairness"—is met. And the rate of tax paid goes up in direct proportion to the level of wealth.
My back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that if personal income were added to personal wealth and taxed at the rate of something near two percent, the revenues produced would permit us to scrap all present taxes on personal income, estates, and dividends; regressive payroll taxes (Medicare, Social Security); and federal excise taxes.
This proposal would undoubtedly finish close to last in a race for politically acceptable and easily implemented solutions, but perhaps it would be among the early finishers in a race for logical and "radical" solutions.
Robert D. Coye
Suttons Bay, Mich.
Maya MacGuineas replies:
Stewart Herman's points are well taken; fair is in the eye of the beholder, and certainly so when it comes to taxes. My preference for progressive taxes (shared by Adam Smith) is no more "right" than his for regressive. I would, however, quibble with his claim about Medicare, since I assume he will accept the benefits that will be offered to him once he is of qualifying age. (And the same goes for Social Security.) Assuming he lives to at least an average age, it is quite likely he will receive far more than he ever paid into the programs, making him one of the many millions who receive "middle-class welfare."
Robert Coye brings up the interesting issue of a single wealth tax—something I certainly see the appeal of and did consider, but ultimately rejected because it would be inconsistent with the need for policies that encourage rather than discourage personal saving. Furthermore, such taxes can be difficult administratively, because they require valuing underlying assets, many of which are not associated with clear market values until they are actually sold. Nonetheless, I like Mr. Coye's grand-scale thinking, which is what I think the current tax debate needs.
on Peck ("Putting a Value on Health") and Laurie Rubiner ("Insurance Required") propose that we solve the problem of having people without health-care coverage in this country by requiring everyone to buy health insurance, with government subsidies if necessary. I wholeheartedly agree with the goal of universal access to health care, but this plan is impractical.
I work in a clinic for the poor and uninsured. I love my patients, but I know that many of them are irresponsible. Many would not buy health insurance even if it were required—just as they drive cars without auto insurance. They would not select a health plan even if it cost them nothing. We frequently encounter children whose parents have not enrolled them in Medicaid, which they could receive free. What are we to do with these people? I doubt we're prepared to jail them for not choosing a health plan, and the idea of fining them is laughable. The defiantly uninsured won't be denied medical care if they turn up in an emergency room. Without penalties we have no way of enforcing a law requiring everyone to have health insurance.
Such a law would be widely evaded by healthy young people as well, even among the prosperous. They seldom need medical attention, and they have an inchoate understanding that their insurance premiums serve mainly to subsidize the care of older, sicker people. Many of them would make an economically rational decision not to spend their money on health insurance even if this were illegal. Without their participation the cost of insurance would rise intolerably, just as it is doing now.
The insurance companies, for their part, would sell basic, mandatory health insurance as long as they could make a profit on it. Each would inevitably find ways to cherry-pick the healthiest patients and deny as many claims as they could. This is maddening, but the insurance companies cannot be faulted for it. That is how they do their job of managing risk for the benefit of their shareholders. When they could no longer profitably sell mandatory health insurance, insurers would stop selling it, regardless of the law. It would be no easier to force them to sell this product than it would be to force people to buy it.
If we want everyone to have basic health-care coverage, and we should, we will simply have to furnish it through a government agency paid for with tax dollars, much as we do fire protection and public education. Private insurers cannot be relied on to act for the public good, and private individuals cannot be relied on at all.
J. Timothy Ames, M.D.
Laurie Rubiner replies:
I take issue with J. Timothy Ames's assertion that the uninsured are simply irresponsible. Eighty-five million people—one third of the non-elderly population—were uninsured at some point between 1996 and 1999. It is difficult to imagine that all these people were uninsured because they are irresponsible. Millions of people eligible for Medicaid are not enrolled because states have failed to develop effective strategies for outreach and enrollment in their publicly funded programs. The large and growing number of people without health insurance, the slow erosion of the employer-based system, and the skyrocketing cost of health care indicate a systemic problem: health insurance is simply unaffordable or unavailable to millions of people. The only viable way to get everyone into the system, and thereby to bring down costs for everyone, is to make health insurance mandatory. A system of mandatory insurance can be enforced in many ways: through default enrollment, for example, or through the tax code. Although some small number of people would undoubtedly try to evade the system, the vast majority of families want affordable, continuous coverage and, I believe, would welcome our universal program.
enjoyed the long-term perspective in Nathan Littlefield's article on the funding crisis of the U.S. government, "The $45 Trillion Problem." As a CPA and a benefits administrator, I am appalled at the bad accounting of the federal government that conceals its long-term liabilities. It is also a travesty to use the current Social Security surpluses to mask the size of the current federal deficit.
One of the problems with many tax-reform efforts is that they are too piecemeal; they look at only one tax or one program. I think the only way we will get reform is through a coordinated approach that gores every interest group's ox, but kills none of them. Each would gain the security of knowing that the government will be there to meet its smaller promises. Following are a few suggestions on which oxen to gore and how deeply.
1) Collect Social Security tax on all earned income. Congress took the first step in this direction by separating the Medicare tax and exempting it from the Social Security cap. Now we need to remove the cap for all of the tax. The current cap shifts the total federal tax burden (income plus Social Security taxes) heavily onto the middle class. A married worker with taxable income between $46,000 and $85,000 (the Social Security cap) pays the highest total tax rate. Social Security is a government income-redistribution program, not a pension plan. It adheres to none of the funding or payment requirements of pension plans. All its policies and rates are arbitrary, so why maintain the pension-plan fiction by limiting payments to the plan?
2) Reinstate income tax on dividends. The argument for removing the tax was that it's unfair to tax the same money twice. But earned income is taxed twice—for income tax and for Social Security tax. We cannot afford to let this sizable chunk of income be untaxed. The total burden of the double taxation is less than that on the middle-class worker cited above. Exempting dividends from Social Security tax is enough of a concession.
3) Exempt the first $5 million from the estate tax. Raising the limit to this level would lessen disruptions for family businesses and farms. However, allowing unlimited transfers perpetuates class differences and increases inequality in our society (and reduces charitable contributions). If earned-income tax rates were less confiscatory (the middle-class worker above pays a marginal federal rate of 40.3 percent on taxable income over $46,000), I would be less opposed to them. But with this heavy a tax burden, it is difficult for middle-class families to afford the education and investment to move quickly up the income scale, no matter how motivated or talented they are. I would support lowering the estate-tax rate to 25 percent or 30 percent, more in line with current income-tax rates.
4) Levy income tax on all Social Security payments. Persons receiving only Social Security income would pay little, whereas wealthy seniors would pay more. However, their total tax burden would remain much less than workers', since they would not pay Social Security tax.
Gerald E. Hyde
Salt Lake City, Utah
Nathan Littlefield replies:
It's worth noting that one of Gerald Hyde's proposals, extending the payroll tax, would have about four times the impact of taxing all Social Security benefits. Although precise comparisons are tough, the remaining two measures pale in comparison, and all four together would still leave substantial liabilities. Why? It comes down to the overwhelming importance of medical costs to the total imbalance, which has jumped from $45 trillion to about $51 trillion in the wake of the recent Medicare bill. "Only" about $7.5 trillion comes from Social Security, and very little is attributable to the discretionary part of the budget (defense, welfare, education, and so forth), which is funded in part by taxes on personal income. Medicare accounts for the rest, mainly because of increases in medical spending, which has risen rapidly in recent decades and will likely continue to do so far into the future.
must say that Jennifer Washburn's data in "The Tuition Crunch" cannot be refuted. The cost of attending college has risen dramatically—by 160 percent at public universities since 1975. However, two other calculations, widely ignored by the media, are the number of high school seniors who enroll in four-year degree programs and the number who subsequently graduate.
In 1970, 44 percent of high school seniors went on to college, and half of those graduated four years later. Last year 60 percent of high school seniors went on to college, and only 26 percent of those are expected to graduate in four years. Those who do not graduate will find themselves in debt to the tune of $11,400 a year (on average) for tuition, room, and board.
And although tuition has risen during this period, the total tuition revenue collected by colleges and universities has actually decreased as a proportion of overall revenue. In 1919, when data began to be collected, tuition revenue accounted for 21 percent of the total revenue earned by colleges and universities in the United States. This figure had dropped to 18 percent by 1969, and has remained unchanged for the past thirty-five years. Tax dollars filled a portion of this revenue gap in 1919, and by 1969 tax dollars accounted for 50 percent of total college revenue; this percentage, as well, has remained unchanged for the past thirty-five years.
The number of colleges and universities has doubled since World War II. In no other industry has such unchecked growth been so thoroughly subsidized by tax dollars. But the fact of more colleges doesn't mean that the public should be asked to spend more money to keep all of them in the black.
A 26 percent graduation rate is not worth a yearly federal and state investment in higher education of $112 billion.
P. D. Lesko
Ann Arbor, Mich.
ennifer Washburn rightly points out that rising tuition costs inhibit poorer students from attaining a bachelor's degree. However, she says little about the more than 1,000 community colleges in which millions of students are enrolled while paying considerably less than they would at public and private four-year colleges. Washburn correctly states that attending a community college does "reduce [students'] chances of attaining a bachelor's degree." We should not, however, underestimate the importance of community colleges' transferring thousands of graduates each year to four-year institutions. The community-college entry point is especially crucial for minority students who might otherwise be excluded from higher education. Since Washburn's ideal is "a highly educated work force," the role of community colleges in preparing graduates for paraprofessional jobs that fuel our "technological edge" should not be neglected. The "technological edge," which Washburn correctly states is "critical," is maintained in no small degree by community-college graduates who are employed in fields such as information science, engineering technologies, allied health, e-commerce, and public service. All of higher education, the four-year and the two-year sector alike, needs a higher funding priority at the federal and state levels if colleges are to meet American society's future requirements.
Dean of Arts and Sciences (retired)
Owens Community College
Jennifer Washburn replies:
I thank both P. D. Lesko and Gerald Bazer for their letters. Present college dropout rates are indeed shocking; the only way to truly remedy this problem is to dramatically improve our K-12 education system and the quality of college preparation in high school.
rancis Davis, in his splendid appreciation of Johnny Cash ("God's Lonely Man," March Atlantic), refers to "The Long Black Veil" as a "traditional ballad." Sorry, but it isn't. The lyrics were written by the Grand Ole Opry veteran Danny Dill for a Lefty Frizzell recording session. The next day—March 3, 1959, to be exact—his co-writer and pianist Marijohn Wilkin wound out a melody on the piano, and they pitched the song to Lefty. He wanted to record it. So, without a demo, Wilkin played piano on a straight "head session"—and the song proved to be the penultimate hit of Lefty's career. By the early 1960s it had been appropriated by folk musicians as a "traditional ballad."
Francis Davis replies:
Wilkin and Dill apparently hoped to cash in on the folk craze of the late 1950s by writing a song that closely resembled an Appalachian ballad. They were so successful that I and countless others who first heard "The Long Black Veil" in the 1960s, performed by Joan Baez or the Band, reflexively assumed it was, in fact, traditional. My thanks to Dave Hill for correcting my error.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2004; Letters to the Editor; Volume 293, No. 4; 16-27.