Letters to the editor

Campaign Finance

Joshua Green (“The Amazing Money Machine,” June Atlantic) is probably too young to remember the revolutionary direct-mail campaign that fueled George McGovern’s ’72 presidential campaign. It was the brainchild of Morris Dees, who, along with a couple of brilliant direct-marketing guys from New York, put together “The Presidential Club”—a monthly giving campaign for small donors for McGovern. It was a huge success and embodied all the principles Green is now attributing to Mark Gorenberg. The only thing it lacked was the Internet and the kind of instant digital technology that is available now.

Because McGovern suffered such an ignominious defeat, people tend to forget that there were aspects of his campaign—energizing the younger generation, speaking out early and often against a very ill-advised war effort, and small-donor fund-raising in particular—to which Gorenberg and Obama owe a great deal in terms of precedent.

Senator McGovern is 84 now and deserves much more recognition for his contributions to the Democrats. Young pups like Green really ought to spend a little more time doing their homework before making sweeping statements like “The only way to raise money was to attract small donors, a task Democrats had never done well.”

Larry Bangs
Boulder, Colo.

Joshua Green replies:

Larry Bangs might benefit from doing a little homework, too. George McGovern was outspent 2-to-1 by Richard Nixon in 1972. My article explained why that won’t happen to Barack Obama. He has reached a broader, more diverse group of small-dollar donors than McGovern ever did—and one that I’ll bet even includes its share of curmudgeons.

Near-Earth Objects

Gregg Easterbrook paints a vivid picture of impending cataclysmic impacts and urges a massive repositioning of government funding toward asteroid defense (“The Sky Is Falling,” June Atlantic). Easterbrook is a distinguished science journalist, but he has spun a sensational Chicken Little story. His article suggests that the probability of a “devastating” Earth impact this century is as high as one in 10. Multiple research studies based on craters, atmospheric strikes, and counts of near-Earth objects suggest probabilities hundreds to thousands of times lower.

The difference between catastrophic Earth impacts every 300,000 years and every 1,000 years is the difference between an infinitesimal threat and looming Armageddon. Guided mostly by solid science, NASA and other national and international agencies have prioritized their programs rationally—monitoring near-Earth objects but not massively shifting resources to some Star Wars–style defense system aimed upward.

Historical and geological records stretching back thousands of years indicate that floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis kill thousands of humans worldwide on a regular basis. In contrast, there’s no evidence that any human anywhere has ever been killed by an extraterrestrial impact. Societies do little enough to mitigate the real and pressing threats from earthly natural hazards without shifting resources to imagined dangers from the wild fringes of the solar system and the wild fringes of science.

Nicholas Pinter and Scott Ishman
Department of Geology
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Ill.

Gregg Easterbrook replies:

Estimates of the frequency of space-rock strikes are just estimates, and may not tell us anything about when the next impact will occur—it could be an eon, it could be tomorrow. Floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis are sure to happen more frequently, but humanity will survive these events; we might not survive an impact from space. Meanwhile, nothing can be done to prevent earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. But space strikes appear to be entirely avoidable, and not necessarily with “massive repositioning of government funding.” A fraction of the money NASA wants to waste on a moon base would likely be sufficient.

The Old College Try

I will acknowledge that secondary schools have been allowing numerous underprepared students to pass on to the next level of education, and I agree that the buck has to stop with someone and that that someone must often be me—the lower-division adjunct English instructor at a university with few acceptance requirements—but I vehemently disagree with Professor X (“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” June Atlantic) that the solution is to fail these students in their required English courses.

The author seems to think he’s there to test his students on whether they already know how to complete a writing task, rather than to teach them how to complete it. The real travesty is that universities are willing to hire people who aren’t interested in their students’ success. Many of my students pass my courses because of a tremendous amount of work on both our parts, and while it can be exhausting at times, it’s work that I ultimately find deeply satisfying. Perhaps it’s time for Professor X to look for employment elsewhere than in our higher-education system, where he has clearly “los[t] faith in the task.”

Keetje Kuipers
Adjunct Associate Professor
University of Montana
Missoula, Mont.

Professor X reveals a trend in American society that is reducing yet another meaningful experience—in this case, getting a college education—to its lowest common denominator: obtaining a college degree.

Adult education has become the cash cow for many small regional colleges and universities, and for many freestanding “universities.” One cannot drive through any large city in the country without seeing names with University attached, offering degrees in any subject. One can now get (I do not write earn) a Ph.D. online. For many Americans and their employers, it makes little difference where one gets the degree. Satellite centers are established in shopping centers; part-time faculty is hired on a course-by-course basis; an open-admissions policy allows anyone who can pay the fee to enroll in classes.

May the Goddess of Wisdom continue to bless Professor X, who is swimming against the current that is sweeping America toward becoming the country with the highest level of college degrees and the lowest level of college education.

James C. Coomer
Emeritus professor of political science
Norcross, Ga.

Professor X’s rebuke of American colleges for their practice of admitting students “to classes they cannot possibly pass” is basically unchallengeable. Anyone who’s been involved in adjunct teaching at the community-college level over the past 10 or 15 years, in particular English Composition I and II, will nod in instant recognition at almost every point he makes and every personal anecdote he uses. Yet his critique falls far short of identifying the root cause of the problem: the systematic underfunding of public higher education.

Take the City University of New York (CUNY). Once a beacon on the hill, in the late 1970s it fell victim to the type of savage budget-axing and personnel downsizing that corporate America would in the 1990s impose across broad sectors of the American labor force. As a consequence, close to 70 percent of all CUNY teachers are, like Professor X, part-time.

Massive underfunding inevitably produces a situation in which college administrators begin acting like subprime-mortgage lenders, preying on the working poor by promising, as the Borough of Manhattan Community College did in its recent advertising blitzkrieg across the city, “When you start here, you can go anywhere!” In 2006, I quit a tenured teaching position at BMCC largely because, between 2000 and 2006, the college added more than 3,000 new students, instantly producing all the same depressing classroom stories chronicled by Professor X.

Professor X will have us believe this whole situation is an indictment of the American ideal of an affordable and accessible higher education for everyone. It is a tempting conclusion to draw for anyone working in the trenches of the American community-college system. In the end, though, Professor X offers nothing more than a classic case of lashing out in the direction of least resistance—of blaming the victims instead of the U.S. corporate oligarchy.

Jonathan Scott
Bronx, N.Y.

Crime Explosion

Hanna Rosin fingers the wrong suspect for the alarming jump in murder rates in Memphis’s suburbs (“American Murder Mystery,” July/August Atlantic). She purports to use social-science research, including our own, to lay the blame on the HOPE VI public-housing program. We and other researchers worked at length with Ms. Rosin to make it clear that Housing Choice (Section 8) vouchers, the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, the Gautreaux program, and HOPE VI differ greatly from each other, but all have helped improve the lives of poor families in many ways.

Rosin twists these findings into an incriminating link between such antipoverty efforts and increased crime. She quotes Susan Popkin as saying that MTO and HOPE VI did not boost families’ self-sufficiency and that HOPE VI “has left a lot of people behind.” Yes, these housing programs have not increased employment, but Rosin’s summary understates their positive results and distorts the facts.

Many families who got housing vouchers through these programs are much better off now than they were in public housing. In their new neighborhoods, they no longer have to fear for their children’s safety, and the mental-health benefits for women and girls are on par with the results for antidepressant therapies. Because of the realities of the rental market, families who get vouchers often end up renting in transitional neighborhoods that may already be experiencing an increase in crime and poverty. There is no evidence that helping families move with vouchers causes crime. The people Popkin says are left behind are the most-vulnerable families. For these families, better housing is not enough, because they are struggling with serious health problems, substance abuse, and poor credit histories.

In questioning the Gautreaux results, Rosin disregards Stefanie DeLuca and colleagues’ recent findings that 15 to 20 years later, more than two-thirds of the families are still in better neighborhoods, and many mothers continue to enjoy employment gains and fewer require welfare. Housing policy alone does not solve all the problems facing urban families. However, cherry-picking research to write off the housing programs that do make a difference only misleads readers who want to understand the challenges and accomplishments of policies designed to help vulnerable families.

Susan J. Popkin
Principal Research Associate Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
The Urban Institute
Washington, D.C.

Stefanie DeLuca
Assistant Professor Department of Sociology
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Md.

Hanna Rosin replies:

Of course housing reforms have improved some lives in some ways. You couldn’t spend that much money and effort and make no difference. The question is: How much, and at what cost? The measurable improvements that social scientists point to are important but elusive: an increased sense of security and less depression. These are not on the same level as the concrete goals laid out when this program began: jobs, better education, and escape from poverty. Many experts I met were still supportive of the housing effort, yet all were confounded or disappointed by how it has turned out so far.

What happened in that controlled Gautreaux experiment bears no relationship to what happened when tens of thousands of public-housing residents were forced to leave their homes. Residents got a voucher, but little guidance about where to move. Most moved into transitional neighborhoods, where they lost a sense of community and an external support system. Worse yet, they helped tip these marginal neighborhoods into dysfunction and crime. As a result, the inner rings of suburbs around American cities look nothing like they did 10 or 15 years ago.

The most common criticism I get from academics is that I have no proof that the dispersal of Section 8 voucher holders increases crime. If by proof they mean an independent, 10-year longitudinal study, I concede. But the proof that already exists is pretty powerful. When the two Memphis researchers I wrote about compared the new crime hot spots to where Section 8 voucher holders had moved, they found a near-exact match. In city after city, police chiefs will tell you that taking the poorest residents out of the inner city has only moved the crime elsewhere.

The solution is not to burrow in and defend housing reform as it exists. Nor is it to give up entirely on the effort and leave the poor to fend for themselves. The answer is to face the new urban demographics and find ways to help people where they now live.

Advice and Consent

Joshua Green, in his article about Al Franken’s run for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota (“He’s Not Joking,” May Atlantic), suggests that the Democrats could win a “veto-proof majority in the Senate.” I believe he meant to say, “a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.” A filibuster-proof majority requires 60 votes, whereas a veto-proof majority requires 67 votes. I don’t think that even the most-optimistic Democrats realistically think that the Democrats can wind up with 67 Senate seats.

Michael J. Skarpelos
San Jose, Calif.

Joshua Green replies:

Thank you to Michael Skarpelos for the correction.