"The Real State of the Union," a special feature in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, generated more than 150 letters from readers. The bulk of this month's Letters to the Editor is devoted to a sampling of responses to that feature.
It is ironic that the centerpiece of Jedediah Purdy's article ("Suspicious Minds") consists of a pair of charts separately depicting the decline over time of trust in institutions and trust in individuals. But these charts are untrustworthy, because they use different scales. Plot the "Interpersonal Trust" data on the same chart with "Trust in Institutions" and you will find that "Interpersonal Trust" has held up much better than trust in "Major Companies" or in "The Executive Branch." Shame on Purdy. To atone, he might provide a sequel on the topic of "Trust in the Media."
Jedediah Purdy replies:
I'm not sure what has upset David Smith about the graphs that accompanied my essay. He doesn't suggest that the contrasting graphs somehow aid my argument, so I am left with the impression that he thinks I deceive people just for fun.
In any case, the graphs differ because they represent different kinds of data. The graph of trust in institutions measures how many people expressed "a great deal of confidence" in various institutions—one of four possible answers, from highest to lowest level of confidence. As I point out in my essay, these have not "held up" but, rather, have jumped around a great deal, often tracking major public events. The interpersonal-trust graph is based on a two-option, either-or measure, which shows what percentage of people believe that others are or are not trustworthy. The share who find others truthworthy has fallen for decades. These two graphs measure different but related phenomena in different ways, not because I designed the graphs that way but because the only good data on these trends were gathered with differently structured poll questions. Putting them on one chart would have invited the same kind of confusion that David Smith has gone out of his way to achieve.
The "five largest federal tax expenditures" presented in Maya MacGuineas's sidebar titled "The Real State of the Budget" are quite a stretch, to say the least. Presenting these so-called "expenditures" (exclusions for pension and health-care contributions, deductions for home-mortgage interest and various taxes, and reduced rates for capital gains) as such presupposes that all this potential income was naturally "owed" in the first place. If so, why stop here? Why not add to the list deductions for the cost of materials, or the cost of labor? And what about the reduction in tax revenue that derives from not taxing everyone at the highest rate? Why not just start with the proposition that all revenues generated by business are owed to the government, and what the government chooses to give back to businesses or to citizens becomes income? The line of reasoning in this sidebar is comparable to my adding up all the discounts I took advantage of in buying Christmas gifts and assuming that I made that amount of money. A tax opportunity forgone is not an expenditure; it is simply food for political argument.
The idea of an $800 billion "hidden budget" (defined as "tax expenditures—subsidies that run through the tax code and which the government pays for, in effect, through forgone tax revenues") is at the core of Maya MacGuineas's sidebar. She presents a brief analysis of it and concludes that most of that money benefits upper-middle-class Americans.
The analysis on which it rests, however, considers only "the five largest federal tax expenditures," which make up only $334 billion (42 percent) of the total hidden budget. How the expenditure of the remaining $466 billion (58 percent) would affect this conclusion is apparently ignored.
C. Bernard Barfoot
If deductions, exclusions, reduced tax rates, and other "subsidies" in the tax code are "expenditures," then what portion of the tax code represents "revenues"? Maya MacGuineas's analysis implies that there is some "base" form of taxation that is revenue, and that downward deviations from this base represent the "hidden budget." But if this analysis is to be honest and comprehensive, then all deviations from the base should be included as expenditures. So what is the base? The only unbiased base one could concoct would be a single-rate tax on all income. The single rate would have to be the highest tax rate, because we are looking for any modification to the base that results in less revenue generation (in the author's terms, "subsidies" or "expenditures"). The author gives the reduced tax rate for capital gains as an example of an expenditure. So it seems fair to count any reduction from the base (that is, highest) rate as an expenditure.
In 1999 the highest average effective tax rate was about 26.5 percent. So by a consistent definition of "expenditure," those who paid less than this highest rate were "subsidized," and the amount of the subsidy is the difference between what they actually paid and what they would have paid if they had been taxed at 26.5 percent. This amount turns out to be about $600 billion, of which about $430 billion would have come from taxpayers earning less than $75,000. This despite the fact that by virtue of using adjusted gross income and effective tax rates, we have let all these folks keep their other "subsidies"!
Samuel J. Radcliffe
Tqhe Real State of the Budget" proposes a disaster for the middle class. The chart shows that taxing pension contributions and earnings would raise an additional $88 billion; taxing employer contributions for health care would raise $69 billion; eliminating the deduction for home-mortgage interest would raise $67 billion; taxing capital gains at a non-reduced rate would raise $65 billion; and eliminating deductions for state and local income and personal-property taxes would raise $45 billion. These five tax increases would raise a total of $334 billion. This thinking follows the usual liberal line that such additional taxes would affect only "the rich"—as if the middle class had no pensions, no health care, no home mortgages, no capital gains, and no IRAs or any other investments, and paid no state or local taxes.
The reality, of course, is quite different. The IRS Statistics of Income Report for 1999 (the most recent available) shows that families earning $50,000 to $75,000 are the largest class of federal income-tax payers; in 1999 they paid more than $700 billion in federal income taxes. Families with incomes of more than $1 million ("the rich") paid less than $600 billion. It is quite evident that this "real budget" proposes to squeeze the largest portion of the $334 billion tax increase out of the middle class.
The premise of Maya MacGuineas's presentation is that tax dollars not collected (through exclusions and deductions) are really "expenditures." Under a subheading laughably titled "Budget Facts," we are told that the money per person spent on seniors exceeds that spent on children by a ratio of 8:1. But everyone knows that education is largely funded by local communities and the states. MacGuineas undoubtedly included Social Security payouts in the senior dollar amount on which she based the ratio. But I'm only guessing, since no sources or assumptions are given as a basis for her figures.
Thank God that so little of our education, retirement, and health care is funded by the federal government. Tax deductions and exclusions put more money in the hands of individuals, so they can make decisions based on self-interest. Do we really want a sluggish behemoth (the feds) administering these crucial facets of our lives?
Maya MacGuineas makes the argument that features of the income-tax code such as the deduction for home-mortgage interest payments amount to "expenditures" paid mostly to households making more than $100,000 a year. She even has pie charts to show how the government is paying big chunks of money to the rich. The hidden message is that the government is subsidizing rich people at the expense of the poor. This is utter nonsense: every supposed "expenditure" by the government to the rich taxpayer is made with his own money, not—as with welfare payments—with someone else's. Under her line of reasoning, if I were to go into a clothing shop and buy a suit at a time when the store was having a sale of 20 percent off, I should declare the 20 percent on my next tax return as "income" paid to me by the store.
The truth is that spending by the federal government has for many years been a huge transfer of wealth from people who earn it to people who do not, enforced by the ballot box (in the case of payments to the elderly) and by the threat of social unrest (in the case of payments to the poor).
Stewart B. Herman
New York, N.Y.
Maya MacGuineas replies:
Both Charles Treichel and Samuel J. Radcliffe take issue with the baseline I use for estimating federal tax expenditures—arguing, it seems, that it would be more appropriate to use an arbitrarily constructed baseline rather than the standard one employed by the Joint Tax Committee. I can only imagine the howls of protest had I taken that route. Tax expenditures must, by law, be defined relative to a normal income-tax structure. Normal income-tax structure has been widely interpreted to include existing tax rates (which are graduated, not flat), the personal exemption, the standard deduction, and the exemption of costs needed to generate income. (Which is why, in answer to Mr. Treichel's question, the deductions for the costs of labor and materials are not included as tax expenditures.) Some believe that the tax-expenditure baseline should reflect changes in the U.S. tax system, which has become more of a hybrid income and consumption tax than a straightforward income tax. Indeed, the Treasury Department may alter its estimates to reflect this shift. It is, however, quite unlikely that Treasury will arrive at anything resembling what either Mr. Treichel or Mr. Radcliffe might propose.
A number of letter writers object to the concept of tax expenditures more broadly. Federal tax expenditures are defined by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 as "revenue losses attributable to provisions of the Federal tax laws which allow a special exclusion, exemption, or deduction from gross income or which provide a special credit, a preferential rate of tax, or a deferral of tax liability." By making this area of the budget more transparent, I am starting with the premise not, as Mr. Treichel suggests, that all potential income is "owed" to the government but, rather, that government must pay for what it spends, through either tax revenues or borrowing. When policies are created that allow some people to pay less than they otherwise would, the money has to be made up by someone else. The effect is no different when the government creates a new spending program that must be paid for. This point is made by the Joint Tax Committee in its annual listing of tax expenditures, where it explains, "Special income tax provisions are referred to as tax expenditures because they may be considered to be analogous to direct outlay programs, and the two can be considered as alternative means of accomplishing similar budget policy objectives." Reinforcing this point, the President's budget states, "Spending programs require resources to be raised via taxes, user charges, or government borrowing, which can impose further costs by diverting resources from their most efficient uses, but tax expenditures can have similar effects by requiring government to make up for lost revenue." Simply put, when the government provides a service for one group of people, whether by writing checks for Social Security or by providing tax breaks, someone else has to make up the difference.
I happen to agree with C. Bernard Barfoot's point that by analyzing only the five largest tax expenditures, I was unable to paint a complete picture. That the data are not available to do so illustrates one of the common criticisms of using the tax code to achieve public-policy objectives: it is extremely difficult to measure and evaluate the effects of tax-expenditure policies.
In response to Barbara McAulay's comments, of course the portion of Social Security that is paid to senior citizens was included in the analysis of how much of the federal budget is devoted to seniors relative to children. Given that Social Security is the single largest government program, it would have been absurd to exclude it. Ms. McAulay claims to be relieved that so little of our education, retirement, and health care is funded by the federal government, so she might want to glance at the budget. Presumably, she would be dismayed to learn that a tremendous share of retirement and health-care costs are financed and administered by the federal government—the "sluggish behemoth," as she calls it.
I was intrigued by Michael Lind's article ("The New Continental Divide"), in which he describes U.S. coastal areas that have become as crowded as Europe and Asia. The United States is now the third most populous country in the world, after China and India, and growing by three million people annually. As Lind points out, immigrants account for 70 percent of that growth (at least), and they settle primarily in already overcrowded coastal areas, driving down wages and worsening working conditions.
In order to alleviate crowded metro areas, Lind suggests a federal program that would help "poor and working-class Americans" move from both coasts to the Great Plains by establishing manufacturing and a high-tech infrastructure there. This would work, he maintains, only if future migrants and immigrants did not settle in coastal areas. Otherwise, just in order to keep pace with immigration, about two million people annually would have to be moved inland to less crowded states.
The "real" solution is the most obvious and realistic one, completely overlooked in this essay. Congress should reduce our unsustainable immigration numbers from 1.8 million a year to pre-1965 numbers of under 300,000. Like the Homestead Act, this would not cost the government a dime.
Michael Lind's essay is a masterpiece of heartland-bashing. He advocates ending farm and ranch subsidies and eliminating irrigation subsidies in the West. He believes that water should be diverted from agriculture to industry. He suggests moving poor immigrants from their present urban, coastal locations, which they prefer to the heartland, and building factories to attract them. He feels that a sixty-acre alfalfa field is a poor use of land and water, when the same land and water could support a "semiconductor factory with 2,000 workers." He advocates a "post-agrarian heartland" in which "monotonous expanses of wheat and corn" are replaced by factories or wilderness. He writes that "the first wave of heartland settlement was ... a failure," although "the United States grows far more food today than it did in 1954—on about three quarters the acreage." Some failure! Apparently, he has not given a thought to the high food prices and food scarcity that his liberal post-agrarian utopia would produce. His real goal is to move poor (and often illegal) immigrants to the heartland, replacing agriculture with factories for the immigrants and wilderness for the elite.
Michael Lind's suggestion ignores the basic reason that people leave the Great Plains and move to coastal areas. Rural communities lack the education and economic opportunities desired by many Americans. If these states cannot sustain and retain their own small populations, they certainly cannot offer hope for people seeking a better-than-coastal life.
To fulfill Lind's dream of resettling the heartland we must begin with local and state policies to enhance economic development, not federal policies of displacement that shift coastal housing problems to the economically depressed center. Lind is misguided in reducing the heartland's problem to a need for more people. First we must counter the misconception that Lind and many other coastal natives have that "Kansas will never be as scenic as San Francisco."
Mary K. Feeney
Michael Lind is behind the times in recommending that the government undertake an initiative to provide "high-speed broadband access" widely, especially in the American heartland. Under the Clinton Administration and at the urging of Al Gore, the Federal Communications Commission significantly raised the small fee previously charged to help poor people get phone service. Called the universal connectivity charge, this tax on all telephone service now rakes in more than $5 billion a year. The amount one pays varies by provider; AT&T is currently forced by the FCC to add 11 percent to my long-distance bill. The money is collected by the FCC and spent outside the purview of Congress by the "nonprofit" Service Administration Corporation, with a board composed primarily of telephone-company executives. The money spent in every state is used mainly for the type of communications infrastructure that Lind wants. Considering the vast overcapacity already in the telecommunications network, if $5 billion a year isn't enough, how much does Lind want to spend?
Michael Lind replies:
Caroline MacWherter is right that the decentralization of population in the United States cannot produce higher wages and living standards unless the overall U.S. population is stabilized. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the present high rate of immigration will help bring the U.S. population to 400 or 500 million by 2050 and perhaps more than a billion by the twenty-second century. In 1995 the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Barbara Jordan, recommended reducing unskilled immigration and capping family-sponsored immigration (the largest category) at 400,000 a year. Unfortunately, a coalition of business lobbies interested in low-wage labor and ethnic lobbies seeking to increase the numbers of particular ethnic groups, without regard for the consequences for wages and the environment, continues to block meaningful immigration reform in Congress.
Mary Feeney's description of me as a "coastal native" is amusingly erroneous. I am a fifth-generation native of west-central Texas, the southernmost portion of the Great Plains, and I own a small cattle ranch not far from Fredericksburg, Texas. The fact that I would lose my agricultural tax exemption if the policies I propose were adopted might be taken as evidence of my sincerity, inasmuch as in the common law an "admission against interest" is taken to be of high probative value.
I agree with Morton Lurie that a disguised excise tax on telephone users is an unfair way to pay for telephone and Internet service for rural and poor Americans. The money should come out of general revenues, so that a lighter tax burden falls on a larger taxpaying population. As I argued in my essay, most of the money should be provided by the federal government, which is better able than many financially struggling state and local governments to pay for what is really a national infrastructure.
Shannon Brownlee brings to the table an important issue that has received scant attention ("The Overtreated American"). As a nurse and an ethicist who makes rounds weekly in intensive-care units, I am constantly struck by the enormous sums of money spent on patients whose best possible outcome will be nursing-home placement on life support. Families have increasingly unrealistic expectations, and physicians and hospitals feel constrained by the threat of liability to accommodate the "values and wishes" of patients and families to "do everything." I would argue that the majority of patients would look at this group and say "no thanks." Yet families simply cannot let go. Do we have the courage as a society to limit these expensive interventions (while excluding the 45 million with no access)? Insurers can impose limits, but what hospital will stop care in the face of a family that refuses to agree? And so the price for the hospital is unreimbursed care, another major crack in the system that, again, receives little attention. The bottom line is that we as a society feel entitled to the best of all medical care, without restraint, yesterday, but we are not willing to pay the ever increasing price tag.
Shannon Brownlee's valuable suggestions would be even more worthwhile if this country were not approaching its health-care problem backwards. We have continually assumed that our health care costs "too much" and must be constrained in order to keep the bills down. However, if we first determined what percentage of gross domestic product should be allocated to each of our basic needs, including health care, and then fit the services to that allocation, we would achieve a more satisfactory result. For example, if we collectively decided that we could dedicate as much as a fifth of GDP to provide our best medical technology to all citizens (health care currently absorbs 14 percent of GDP), we would be able to align other priorities and select appropriate methods, including those that Brownlee advocates.
Without the foundation of such comprehensive thinking, we will forever be struggling with cost containment and underusing our technical capabilities. We will also have trouble making tactical decisions—such as whether to continue spending six percent and 13 percent of our health-care dollars in the first and last years, respectively, of individual life.
Charles Stewart Goodwin
Shannon Brownlee replies:
One way to help Americans understand the limits of medicine would be for more hospitals to institute "palliative care" practices. Palliative-care specialists are devoted not to trying to extend patients' lives but, rather, to improving the quality of them, particularly for those in pain or with terminal conditions. That involves working closely with families, and helping them to grasp the true consequences of medical decisions. Putting an ailing eighty-five-year-old woman with pneumonia in the hospital increases the chances that she will die in the intensive-care unit. A better choice might be to care for her at home, with nursing help to keep her comfortable, and to treat her illness.
Charles Stewart Goodwin's suggestion, that we decide what percentage of GDP we want to spend on health care and then keep treatment costs within that budget, sounds a lot like a single-payer system. And without first changing the culture of medicine and the constraints on quality, a single-payer system could have the perverse effect of boosting overtreatment rather than reducing it—lowering the quality of care even more. Canada and Europe pay less per capita for health care than we do, but they, too, are plagued by high rates of overtreatment. In this country Medicare is in effect a single-payer system for the aged, and it has been unable to rein in excess care.
Ray Boshara's "$6,000 Solution" is nothing but microwaved propaganda from the leftist cafeteria. No one has ever shown that inequality of wealth creates social problems; Marx said it, and journalists believe it. If Boshara did a little research, he would find these things to be true:
A. Inequality increases during expansions and shrinks during recessions.
B. Inequality has increased in the United States at a constant rate since World War II; Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had no effect on it at all.
C. There are three reasons for inequality growth:
2. Growth in the number of households headed by single mothers.
3. An increase in the proportion of young people in a country. Older people earn more than younger ones, so when countries have a high percentage of young people, the wealth is distributed less equally.
I suspect that Ray Boshara has never lived in the poverty about which he theorizes. If he had, he would know that however well-meaning his Stakeholder Account idea, it is unworkable.
Being poor doesn't mean just having low or no income. It also often means a lack of stable housing, dependable transportation, weather-appropriate clothing, and, in too many cases, nutritious food. And did I mention health and dental care? Being poor means constantly weighing one priority against another, managing one crisis after another, allocating scarce resources to patch immediate problems. Knowing what's for dinner sometimes constitutes long-range planning. I suggest that this lack of stability (a stability the middle class takes for granted)—never having sufficient resources to plan or prepare for what might come next—is responsible for the dysfunctional, crazy-making chaos that so often accompanies poverty.
If access to the Stakeholder Account were restricted by time or age requirements, what kind of frustration, anger, and bitterness would that engender? Does Boshara really believe that a family in such dire circumstances would be able—or willing—to let $6,000 (per child) simply sit in a portfolio while the family faced eviction, or starvation, or just general deprivation?
New York, N.Y.
Good ideas should not spring from a faulty historical memory, as when Ray Boshara discusses the Homestead Act of 1862. Boshara is correct about the basic terms of the act, but he fails to mention that this legislation was quickly used by wealthy eastern speculators to enrich themselves. Of the 600 million acres available, nearly 180 million were given by the government to railroad corporations, which sold the land at inflated prices to farmers desperate to be located near the means of shipping their products. Likewise, speculators sent hired men to sign for a homestead and turn it over for a quick profit. Indeed, one historian calculates that nearly half the homesteads issued in the fifty years after 1862 were fraudulent. Those farmers who did manage to acquire a homestead still needed to pay for the machinery, seeds, animals, and hands necessary to make a farm succeed. Although nothing is wrong with Boshara's proposal for remedying the serious gap between the haves and the have-nots, he might want to consider the tendency of the wealthy to grow rich on the backs of the poor.
Ray Boshara replies:
The point of my article was not to argue that wealth inequality causes social problems (although some recent data, summarized in the Winter 2002 issue of Daedalus, show that it does), or to argue that inequality per se is the problem, but, rather, to show that wealth inequality tells us that too few people have enough resources to move their lives forward—and, consequently, that we need to think about wealth-based, not just income-based, solutions to inequality. As to the charge that my idea is from the "leftist cafeteria," if Roger McKinney did a little research, he'd find that both Democrats and Republicans have introduced or supported legislation to create and fund asset accounts for every child in America.
Barbara Maddox makes my point perhaps better than I did: Because government never enabled the poor to have assets, and actually told the poor that they couldn't have assets, the poor have no economic stability whatsoever, must live crisis to crisis, and have little hope of a better future. I couldn't agree more that poverty means more than just a low income; it means having no assets—and there are at least twice as many asset-poor as income-poor households in the United States today. Granted, money locked up in an American Stakeholder Account would do nothing to relieve the day-to-day pressures of poverty, but it would go a long way toward ensuring that the next generation, and subsequent generations, would not live in poverty. Also, the first part of my proposal—to "democratize" the tax-code subsidies for savings and assets—would generate both new savings and income-producing assets that could be tapped by the poor in a time of necessity. Finally, I would note that in voluntary asset-building demonstration projects around the country it is the poorest of the poor who are saving the greatest proportion of their income. And by the way, I did grow up in poverty.
Lack of space, rather than a faulty historical memory, is responsible for my brief and necessarily incomplete discussion of the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act and, for that matter, the GI Bill were far from perfect. Both policies, for example, largely failed to reach African-Americans and other minority members. And that failure surely contributed to the enormous differences in wealth between whites and nonwhites today. However, the core idea of the Homestead Act—widespread asset ownership—remains sound, and is worth revisiting in the twenty-first century, whether through American Stakeholder Accounts or other means.
In rightly questioning whether racial categories (in this case, those used by the U.S. Census Bureau) are valid or relevant, Gregory Rodriguez writes (in "Mongrel America"), "If your mother is Asian and your father is African-American, what, racially speaking, are you? (And if your spouse is half Mexican and half Russian Jewish, what are your children?)"
"Jewish" is not a race, it is a religion—period. "Race" is biologically transmitted, because it is a genetic phenomenon; the religious traditions of Judaism, like those of all religions, are socially and culturally transmitted and have no foundation in our genome. Judaism is passed from generation to generation through the social and cultural teaching of its traditions, practices, and beliefs.
David M. Taub
I read Gregory Rodriguez's essay with relish and a bit of surprise. Rodriguez insists that Mexicans, "a product of intermingling—both cultural and genetic" between Spaniards and the native peoples of the Americas, "have a history of tolerating and even reveling in such ambiguity." To a certain extent this is true. No one doubts that the vast majority of Mexican citizens today are "mestizos," a word that signifies the mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood.
I hope, though, that Rodriguez isn't suggesting that skin color and ancestry aren't divisive issues among contemporary Latinos. One need only glance at Spanish-language television to notice the absence of dark-skinned mestizos or indigenas on many programs, especially the popular telenovelas. And why are the political elites in most of Latin and South America made up of folks no darker than Antonio Banderas? Or consider the lowly status of "Indians" in Mexico, a status that Oaxacan immigrants experience north of the border.
Rodriguez mentions that "Asians and Latinos ... are most open to intermarriage." But with whom? Almost exclusively Caucasians. Mexican-Americans are far more willing to find mates among white Americans than among black ones, no matter what common legacy of discrimination blacks and browns have historically dealt with in America.
Gregory Rodriguez replies:
Indeed, Jewishness—like Mexicanness—is not a racial category, and I did not mean to imply that it was. Nonetheless, American Jews can be considered a group of people defined by distinctive shared cultural traits. As the historian Hasia Diner, of New York University, has written, "Judaism the religion [has] existed in tandem with this other thing we might call Jewishness as ethnicity. Jewishness as peoplehood."
My article was not about race in "Latin and South America," as Terrence Butcher puts it. Nor was I implying that "skin color and ancestry aren't divisive issues" in contemporary Mexico. However, it is not news that Mexico has its own racial hierarchy. In fact, many of the mestizo migrants with whom my article is concerned are refugees from inequality in their country of origin.
But it is a big mistake to equate the racial attitudes of the white elite that runs Mexican television with the attitudes of darker-skinned emigrants. Although white elites, both above and below the Rio Grande, have always had more of a stake in maintaining notions of racial purity, mestizos—by virtue of their mixed heritage—have usually had a more fluid view of race. This has been particularly true of those who trekked northward. Originally settled largely by mestizos, New Spain's northwestern frontier—today's American Southwest—was significantly less racially stratified than either Mexico's interior or the eastern United States.
Mexican-Americans who intermarry don't marry Anglos "almost exclusively." In California, although Anglo-Hispanic babies do make up the largest portion (53 percent) of multiracial and multi-ethnic births (Anglos and Hispanics are, after all, the two largest groups in the state), Hispanic-black and Hispanic-Asian babies together account for a significant 13 percent of the state's mixed births.
Unfortunately, Margaret Talbot's article on prison releases came too soon to address a bizarre practice that has made news lately. Some states have arbitrarily released prisoners in order to make cuts in their corrections budgets—as if a high rate of incarceration is a luxury that the public can afford only during a strong economy, like a new sculpture in the lobby of the statehouse. Talbot has put her finger on part of the problem: we tend to think of incarceration as an end in itself, not as a means of establishing a safer society once the prisoner is released. If we really based our sentencing policy on the need to protect the public, releasing prisoners for budgetary reasons would be as unthinkable as eliminating police or fire protection. Anyone who can be released because of a budget crunch shouldn't be in prison in the first place.
As one of the directors of a charter school in Washington, D.C., I have seen the beneficial effects of the competitive "market" environment that James Pinkerton advocates for public schools ("A Grand Compromise"). When families are allowed to choose the schools they think will best serve their children, failing schools lose students and funding and are ultimately closed forever. Effective schools gain students and funding, and their programs are replicated.
As Pinkerton suggests, the potential for the federal government to eliminate these inequalities over time—and to put our high ideals above individual and parochial interests—is enormous. But the government would have to enforce locally unpopular policies with a great deal of controversy, as was the case with racial desegregation. Many upper-middle-class parents would resent having to take resources away from their children's schools or having to pay more to support those schools. Great moral leadership by the President and Congress would be needed to overcome the powerful constituencies of affluent families who want to see their children maintain a competitive educational and economic advantage over other students. But in the long term this is the only equitable, democratic, and effective way to improve American education as a whole.
Christopher C. Cuozzo
Hyde Leadership Public Charter School
James Pinkerton's proposal is enticing, but it won't work as intended. The fundamental problem of "under-performing schools," which is code for schools that serve poor and minority students, is that those students go to class with huge deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development. Which school in Pinkerton's proposal will willingly enroll these hard-to-teach students? They cost too much in terms of time, effort, and money to make them attractive candidates.
Though under Pinkerton's plan students are allowed to apply to any school they wish, they may not be guaranteed admission. Even if they are allowed to enroll, they will be the first ones expelled if they don't perform and behave. Schools that are forced to accept such problem students will close their doors rather than try to educate the uneducable as long as federal funding is fixed at a certain amount per student. The self-corrective market theory that Pinkerton envisions does not apply to education any more than economies of scale and other business approaches do.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Although I am in complete agreement with James Pinkerton's thesis that public school funding should be liberated from the local-property-tax system, I must criticize the graph used in his article to illustrate that "funding disparities between states partly explain the gaps in student achievement." It presents data for average per-pupil funding and composite NAEP scores for only thirty states, omitting many in the Midwest. The inclusion of Iowa, the Dakotas, and Nebraska, where student scores are high and cost per pupil is below the national average, would have greatly weakened the visual illustration that student funding is a major determinant of achievement.
Anthony G. Montag
Ricardo Bayon's article ("The Fuel Subsidy We Need"), like most articles on the so-called "hydrogen economy," fails to address the fundamental issue, which is where the hydrogen is to come from. Coal, oil, and uranium are primary fuels, in that they can be dug out of the ground, refined, and burned—or consumed in a nuclear reactor—to yield more energy than was used in the extraction and refining process. This is not the case with hydrogen. Large reserves of pure hydrogen are not lying around the planet waiting to be exploited. Hydrogen is a secondary fuel, more comparable to electricity than to fossil fuels. To extract hydrogen from water (Bayon's words) requires the input of at least as much energy as is recovered when the hydrogen is burned in a fuel cell. Furthermore, this energy has to be put in the form of electricity, most of which is currently generated by fossil-fuel-fired power plants.
Overall, the energy conversion from fossil fuel to electricity to hydrogen to motive power by means of a fuel cell is less efficient than the direct burning of gasoline in a hybrid automobile. And Bayon's alternative suggestion, to extract hydrogen from natural gas, does not really work either: because the energy content of the hydrogen in natural gas is substantially less than that of the carbon, more than half of the energy available in the natural gas would be discarded. If we cannot produce enough natural gas to power our fleet of vehicles directly, we surely cannot produce enough to power that same fleet after discarding more than half of the energy available.
To convert all the nation's vehicles to fuel cells using hydrogen would probably require us to double our present electricity-generation capacity. How are we to do this while reducing our use of imported oil? If we could do it economically with wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, or tidal power, we would already be doing so. Unfortunately, "hydrogen economy" is just another way of saying "nuclear economy."
Palo Alto, Calif.
W ater can be a source of hydrogen, as Ricardo Bayon correctly states, but he leaves out of the equation the energy needed to extract from a molecule of water the two hydrogen atoms that are tightly bound to one oxygen atom. Electrolysis is the process by which electricity can be used to separate them, but the electrical-energy input is greater than the energy available in the resulting hydrogen. For powering a vehicle, hydrogen's advantage over electricity from batteries is that it contains more energy per pound (or, in liquid form, more energy in the same volume). Thus it is appropriate to call hydrogen a storage medium rather than a source of energy.
The public-policy debate on energy is best served by technically sound and complete proposals. Proponents of fuel cells should include as part of their proposals ideas for the source of energy to produce the hydrogen that will run the fuel cells. Then we can discuss the relative merits of solar, wind, and nuclear energy, and of conservation, for ending our dependence on foreign oil. When one weighs all the costs, I believe, many untapped forms of conservation are still the least expensive means of reducing oil dependency.
Ricardo Bayon replies:
Naturally, I agree with both Hugo Madden and Lawrence Schoen when they point out that hydrogen is not a primary source of energy. But hydrogen will let us run our cars and trucks on electricity as opposed to oil—a transformation that would allow us to use renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal) to run our cars and trucks; to shift from highly decentralized "non-point" sources of pollution (our cars) to more centralized point sources of pollution (our generating stations), thus making pollution easier to control and reduce; and, perhaps most important, to one day generate all the energy we need to power our economy. None of these are negligible benefits. Both wind and solar technologies are growing at breakneck speed. And wind energy in some places is already cost-competitive with natural gas. So although a "hydrogen economy," if structured incorrectly, could indeed mean a nuclear or a coal economy (as Mr. Madden suggests), it could also mean a solar or a wind economy. Contrary to what Mr. Madden implies, we do have a choice.
I agree with Mr. Schoen, however, that conservation is still the best, the fastest, the most effective, and the least expensive way to reduce our country's oil addiction.
As evidence of Americans' exception al creativity, Ted Halstead writes (in "The American Paradox") that "we boast ... almost three times as many Nobel laureates as Britain, our closest competitor." But the United States has nearly five times Britain's population. On a per capita basis, Britain is one of ten European countries that best us on this measure. The tiny island nation of St. Lucia, with two laureates and a current population of 144,000, is often considered the world leader.
Paul von Hippel
Ted Halstead replies:
The United States indeed trails a number of European countries in Nobel Prizes per capita, but recent trends could change that. In the past decade the United States (with a mere five percent of the world's population) has taken home more medals than the rest of the world combined. And Europe, despite home-field advantage, produces fewer laureates than it used to.
Alas, the United States will probably never catch up to St. Lucia.
I am a regular reader of your fine periodical and an avid fan of William Langewiesche's insightful, compelling, and usually meticulously researched articles. Yet I read with growing outrage and skepticism his recent trilogy, "American Ground". I am a New York City firefighter who, although not on duty, arrived at the site minutes after the second tower came down and worked there for several weeks on a detail. I must take exception to several assertions made in these articles, which are offensive to my profession and my code of ethics, defy common sense, and are simply untrue.
I have been working for the FDNY for twenty-four years, and have never encountered "the little-known dirty secret that things disappear." As for the ridiculous story of looted Gap jeans: is it logical to assume that firefighters responding to the largest and most deadly fire of their careers, with a horrific loss of human life, would proceed to the concourse level with the intention of securing a 34 x 34 boot-cut jean? Note that the location of the destroyed rig necessitates that the items stolen would have to have been taken prior to the towers' collapse.
As a reader of The Atlantic, I was very surprised to see your comments in support of William Langewiesche's new book. I understand that you have a loyalty to your writers. But as an IAFF Local 2707 professional firefighter, I find the book's reference to looting by firefighters insulting beyond words. This call was the defining moment in every one of those firefighters' careers. To think that a firefighter would steal a pair of blue jeans while his brothers were attempting to save lives is unfathomable. How could you support such an assertion?
Beginning in 1975, I spent ten years as a firefighter in a small industrial city in Wisconsin. Like New York's firemen, we lived in the firehouse for twenty-four hours at a stretch. Like them, we were a tight-knit bunch who did a dangerous job that few people outside the fire service appreciated or even understood. As a result, I probably understood more fully than many other Americans what New York's firefighters were feeling in the weeks after 9/11. I also understand their reaction to William Langewiesche's book American Ground—but I don't share it. Firefighters can learn a lot from this book, if only they are willing. The entire American fire service needs to ask itself some hard questions about the events of 9/11. Why did so many firefighters go into those buildings? Why were they so poorly prepared to operate in that environment? How did the FDNY's systems of command and control fail? The last and greatest tragedy of 9/11 would be for the fire service to refuse to learn from the events of that day.
Thanks to The Atlantic Monthly for William Langewiesche's outstanding and revealing account of his observations at the WTC disaster. I have seen and listened to everything I could on TV about the fall of the towers: heartbreaking, emotional stories of those people who survived and those who didn't. It is fitting that someone tell "the rest of the story"—that we know what our people went through "unbuilding" the site, from day one to the finish. I say, God bless them as well.
Mary Lou Bjornaas
William Langewiesche replies:
During the past few months the articles published in The Atlantic (July/August, September, and October 2002) under the title "American Ground," now a book of the same name, have given rise to an intermittent series of protests in New York City. At the broadest level the protests concern my depiction of conflict among members of various groups at the World Trade Center site, notably conflict involving firefighters. More directly they concern my observation that low-grade looting of various kinds was a fact of life at the site, and was engaged in by small numbers of people from every group. And most specifically they concern the interpretation of an episode I described, alluded to by the letter writers (although the quote about "the little-known dirty secret" is in fact not my words), in which blue jeans from a retail store were found in a fire truck that had been crushed and buried under the pile.
On the first two matters there is little to add. Tribalism was a fact of life on the pile, and a growing problem apparent to most people there; press reports from the time make note of it in various ways. The conflict was perhaps not surprising (lack of conflict would have been), but it posed serious challenges to the cleanup operation nonetheless. As for looting, the fact that it occurred in a modest but widespread way, and that some small proportion of every group at the site was implicated, was an open secret to everyone working on the pile, and to city officials and reporters, and was scarcely a matter for comment. ("You had to be blind not to notice," one of the construction-company executives explained matter-of-factly.) The looting began early, according to police officers I interviewed at the site; as I wrote, "it started in the shopping complex" during the initial evacuation, before the South Tower fell, "with the innocuous filching of cigarettes and soda pop," and it expanded. The looting was never the focus of my reporting. I avoided writing about many cases that I knew about. When I did address such activities, I deliberately used only general terms, and addressed them in only a handful of sentences. I tried to make it clear that for the most part the looting was casually opportunistic. My writing has never been sensationalistic—and it was certainly not in "American Ground." However, to have completely ignored the phenomenon of looting at the World Trade Center site, much less to have denied it, would have been dishonest.
With regard to the jeans episode, the precipitating event, as noted, was the discovery of a fire truck, deep under the rubble, in which jeans from a retail store were found. More to the point of my general subject, which was the engineering and cleanup process under way, was an argument that broke out on the pile immediately after the truck was found. Descriptions of the argument were provided to me shortly after it occurred by multiple independent eyewitnesses, people well known to me who for months had proved to be reliable and steady sources, and who held important jobs on the pile. As I described the scene, the argument broke out when some of the construction workers, who by then had grown extremely impatient with the firefighters, interpreted the discovery as evidence of looting, and taunted the firefighters accordingly. The firefighters defended themselves by asserting that the jeans had been blown into the fire truck. The construction workers would have none of it. Their reactions seemed to me to be extreme and unnecessarily provocative—as I believed my description made clear. Indeed, my reason for including this episode was not the question of looting—something I felt I had sufficiently discussed before—but, rather, the continuing tribalism and conflicts between the groups, which seemed to me to be a more important subject, and certainly more pertinent to my topic, which was the "unbuilding" of the Trade Center. That point is made explicitly a few sentences later: "The site would never stand united, as sloganeers said it should."
So allow me to say it again, as I have consistently said by now on many occasions, in writing and on the air: the jeans story was strictly related to reactions and interpretations on the pile—to the emotional and divisive social dynamics on a day in late fall, three months after the towers came down. It was not related to whatever happened on 9/11—and it was not an allegation of looting. I very specifically suppressed all identities on both sides of that story, in an attempt to keep the narrative focused on what mattered: a growing threat to the social order on the pile, which somehow the American system would have to grapple with. The passage was framed in those terms, and in a past tense and a context that I assumed would make it clear I was describing nothing more than what I intended to—a significant confrontation at a very important work site.
That being said, it is clear that the passage has been misinterpreted by many as an accusation. One reason is that, especially in the course of protests over the book, pieces of the episode have frequently been torn from context and turned into tabloid snippets and disembodied sound bites, and in that form have acquired a life of their own. But frankly, some of the misinterpretation may also be due to an unintentionally ambiguous choice of wording. The statement "It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell" can be read as my own assessment, rather than, as was intended, the description of an assessment by others. The addition of just a few words ("In their eyes, it was hard to avoid ...") would have made my meaning unequivocally clear.
Given the degree to which the misinterpretations have been promulgated, I intend to address the question of interpretation in an afterword to the paperback edition of the book (to be published in September), underscoring my meaning. I will also describe there some of the controversy that has followed publication—and mention some details and sidelights that have emerged in the year since I finished my reporting. I have received a large number of letters from readers, many of whom worked on the pile and have personal observations to share. A number of people have suggested corrections on various points, and any of the corrections that have merit will also be addressed. Finally, I will speak to the difficulties of writing "history in the present tense"—that is, trying to produce an honest description that has distance and durability, while working more or less contemporaneously with an emotionally searing event.
The World Trade Center site was an extremely complex place, loaded with emotion and political symbolism, full of action and confusion, with thousands of people involved, and many efforts proceeding in parallel, as well as many possible interpretations. As I knew from the start, certainly no one view could encompass it. I restricted my own view mostly to the engineering and deconstruction process. I wrote about it candidly and in depth, not in encyclopedic terms but in the first person, as I always do, serving as my readers' eyes and expressing my opinions openly. I saw—and continue to see—that recovery effort as reflecting a special form of American greatness, an intricate weave that included diverse acts and motivations and also a culture of improvisational genius that extended to thousands of people on the pile, from every group. I respect the right of others to disagree strongly with my views. Such disagreement is in part what I was writing about and, indeed, celebrating at the site.