Letters to the editor

Defining Green Living

While I applaud Paul Holland and Linda Yates’s commitment to building a green home (“Xanadu,” by Joshua Green, July/August Atlantic) and hope other multimillionaires with estate-home plans follow suit, I wonder how a 5,600-square-foot single-family house sited in what appears to be semi-wildland, with five cars (albeit electric), a pool, and playing court could be the greenest house in the world. This raises concerns for me about LEED, which seems to focus on the physical house while ignoring its context. Wouldn’t it be greener for the couple to move up the peninsula from Silicon Valley to San Francisco (or any compact community), buy a 1,500-square-foot home that has been there for many decades, take public transit to work, and join the YMCA?

Amy Hutzel
San Francisco, Calif.

Joshua Green replies:

I sent Amy Hutzel’s letter to Linda Yates, and she responded: “When it comes to environmental impact, size matters, but what matters most is energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy. One of the home’s greenest features is its ability to produce enough clean energy to supply our needs and still return some to the grid. We don’t have five cars, but we’ll produce enough solar energy to charge five cars, so our transportation, along with our home, will be fossil-fuel-free and oil-independent for most of our day-to-day living. The site itself is, in a sense, recycled (not wildlands): the home is being built on the property where I grew up, which we’re returning to a more native state, both by replacing the existing, energy-inefficient dwelling and by restoring the surrounding habitat. We expect there will be ancillary benefits, too. The home will foster several clean technologies that others can use, which we hope will spark not just imaginations but new industries and new jobs.

“The LEED ‘greenest’ label is intended to encourage and reward green building. Any home larger than 2,500 square feet starts with a deficit and must earn more points proportionately to gain the same status as a smaller home. To be clear—and we say this every time we talk about the house—we are the greenest custom home; the greenest dwelling is actually a tent or a yurt.”

Considering Charter Cities

Although Sebastian Mallaby admits that Paul Romer’s scheme for foreign-run “charter cities” in undeveloped nations has many weak spots (“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty,” July/August Atlantic), he ignores the central fact of international politics that will ultimately doom Romer’s plans: national sovereignty itself. Romer argues that the poorest nations could not use Chinese-style special economic zones to lure foreign investment, because their weak governments could not be trusted to maintain the zones’ required “new rules.” By the same token, these governments could not be trusted to leave control over their “charter city” to foreigners. They might well be tempted to re-annex their territory by force to exploit the city’s newly affluent economy. And what could stop them? Only the military force of the sponsor nation. No wonder rich nations have been so reluctant to step forward as charter sponsors. A wise donor nation would demand extraterritoriality and the right to quarter troops in its charter. The cities would in reality become clones of Guantánamo: miniature colonies maintained by foreign armed forces. Romer should take a closer look at the real history of his Hong Kong exemplar. The British kept power there only as long as they could protect it against the armed sovereignty of China, and ceded it only when they could no longer defend it. Once again, a lovely theory is defeated by a stubborn fact.

David J. Zimny
Oakland, Calif.

Paul Romer’s proposals on how to tackle poverty in developing countries are not as far removed from feasibility as some in the development community may think. After all, the imitation of best practices in areas like public-sector financial management (New Zealand) or education reform (Denmark) is widely accepted and encouraged among industrialized countries. Therefore, experiments such as model cities or idea incubators may well generate a sufficient number of imitators to attain a critical mass, which may in turn serve as a catalyst for nationwide change.

What Dr. Romer does not emphasize sufficiently, though, is that urban elites must accept the need for rural development on equal terms with urban renewal and strengthened urban economic and political governance. Hence, heavyweight development institutions, such as the World Bank, need to remind central governments where most of their natural resources come from (the countryside) and make any further assistance conditional upon much closer integration of city-centric development efforts with those in rural areas.

Lucien Peters
Manassas, Va.

While I applaud Paul Romer’s attempt to “think the unthinkable,” it strikes me that both he and Sebastian Mallaby have missed the important fact that Romer’s idea is not at all novel, but instead, if implemented, would be a continuation of an already bad thing. One can find examples of Western enclaves, amiable to foreign direct investment and sheltered by their own laws, all across the global south—not least in those parts of Africa where the West has found and exploited oil.

Although Romer is certainly not advocating for another Niger Delta, I find it hard to believe that the Western governments in Romer’s narrative would not be inclined to set conditions in these “charter cities” favorable to their largest supporters at multinational firms, who are champing at the bit for cheap labor, low taxes, and government-provided security from the people and politics of the country that surrounds them. Romer and Mallaby seem to naively see a distinction between Western governments and multinational corporations that surely does not exist.

Graham Saunders
San Francisco, Calif.

Sebastian Mallaby replies:

David Zimny is right that the integrity of a charter city might ultimately have to be defended by force, much as Margaret Thatcher defended British rule in the far-off Falkland Islands. However, there are reasons to expect that host nations might respect the charter. They would be likely to lose a war, as Argentina did. They would be taking up arms notwithstanding the choice made by their own citizens to live under foreign rule in the charter city. And they would not derive much economic benefit from aggression, even if it were successful, since the act of aggression would kill the golden goose even as they seized it: foreign capital would flee immediately.

As to the points made by Graham Saunders, generalizing from the depressing record of extractive industries is unfair, since charter cities would not be built atop natural resources; further, the dysfunction of the Niger Delta flows from weak local governance at least as much as from greedy oil firms. The premise of charter cities is that the rich-country administrator will minimize rent-seeking by businesses and enforce fair laws, setting the stage for broad-based private-sector-led growth of the sort witnessed in Hong Kong.

Drug Repurposing

A factor that constricts the pharmaceutical pipeline but was not mentioned in Megan McArdle’s “No Refills” (July/August Atlantic) is drug “repurposing.” Simply put, repurposing is the process of finding a new disease for an old drug. Because this does not involve the synthesis of a new compound, it’s not reported as a new molecular entity and doesn’t appear in the pipeline. However, it does supplant a compound that would have been an NME and therefore yields an apparent reduction in the pipeline flow.

Medically, this route to a new treatment is as good as or better than the development of an entirely new drug. Economically, it has the potential to save Big Pharma and its customers (that is, us) a lot of money. Consequently, most large pharmaceutical companies now have whole programs dedicated to reexamining “side effects” of their existing agents, and other companies are partnering with newly formed drug-repurposing companies. In fact, some of the best-known drugs on the market are reincarnations of ones that were originally designed for a different purpose. The most dramatic example of this is thalidomide, a morning-sickness drug that was banned in the early 1960s because of the horrendous infant deformities it caused, but resurrected as thalomid, a treatment for leprosy pain. Less dramatic but more familiar examples are Viagra, Rogaine, and Zyban. Given repurposing’s potential effect on the bottom line, the narrowing of the pharmaceutical pipeline by repurposing is likely to continue and increase, but this won’t necessarily mean a reduction in the number of new treatments.

Dale E. Vitale
Chemistry-Physics Department
Kean University
Union, N.J.

The Debate Over Education Reform

I was chagrined to find, misplaced among a variety of thought-provoking ideas, David Brooks’s predictable jeremiad against teachers and the unions that represent them (“Teachers Are Fair Game,” July/August Atlantic). Mr. Brooks’s essay no more qualifies as a powerful idea than Senator Inhofe’s observations about snow in Washington, D.C., qualify as a challenge to the facts of climate change.

Mr. Brooks cites not one single fact to confirm his view that there has been “an absolute change in the correlation of forces” in the relations between organized teachers and the communities they serve. He mentions only two proper names (one of which is General Patton) and provides not one quote in support of his argument.

Let me briefly take a different approach. As an official with the National Education Association, I have watched with interest as the White House supported $4.5 billion for states with the Race to the Top program. We supported our state’s effort without in any way feeling a “lack of legitimacy.” We have joined with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama to help protect 300,000 teachers currently threatened with being taken out of the classroom in favor of inflated class size. And we look forward to working closely in the coming months with Congress and the administration to fix the problems that we (and many others) see in the No Child Left Behind Act.

It seems that Mr. Brooks so hopes for signs that President Obama will take on the bellicose swagger of a George W. Bush when it comes to the teaching profession that he has conflated that hope with truth. Perhaps that’s an error common among Beltway elites, but teachers have felt and continue to feel that the administration is on our side and accepts the legitimacy of our union’s efforts. The evidence demonstrates that clearly.

Keith McCrea
Communications Coordinator
National education association–New Hampshire
Concord, N.H.

David Brooks is at least nibbling at the truth in his comments about education reform. I’m not so sure about the necessity of a love connection for learning to take place, but teacher quality is crucial. Of course, like so many others who discuss education reform, Brooks is wont to dwell on identifying bad and mediocre teachers.

Fine. But doesn’t he wonder about how the bad apples get into the classroom in the first place, before they have slipped behind the evil union cloak? Who is responsible for hiring so many bad and mediocre teachers? Whence all these incompetents? And darn it all, don’t the good teachers—indeed, especially the good teachers—need union protection too?

I would suggest that instead of calling teachers “fair game,” we declare that teaching is the game. And how can government help? Simply by exalting the profession. For the time being, we have a president who speaks like an educated and intelligent man. He has the power to elevate the status of teachers, to get young people to aspire to be teachers, simply by reminding us, repeatedly, how crucial good teachers are to our nation’s quality of life. No new taxes required.

Mark Metcalf
Sutton, Neb.

The Secret Life of the American Teenager

Caitlin Flanagan shines a light on a subject that is murky for those of us who are older than 35 (“Love, Actually,” June Atlantic). It is unimaginable that we have allowed our children to be indoctrinated into the idea of sex as porn. A vibrant sexual life is every young woman’s birthright, but our culture has instructed girls that in order to engage in sex, they must check their authentic selves at the door. What angers me about this state of affairs is that we adults don’t seem interested in educating young men about the horrors of degradation. We still seem content to believe that “boys will be boys” and there is no use in attempting to educate them about compassion, respect, and intimacy. Indeed, our culture seems to teach boys to be cold, unfeeling, and aggressive.

Flanagan does not help counter this condition by concluding her article with this advice: “I would encourage every parent of a teenage girl to give her a copy of Testimony … It offers girls the exact kind of story they want to read, and it sets that story … in the midst of the very real pressures and temptations they are trying so hard … to resist.” For eons, we have placed the onus on girls and women to choose to stay safe. It is time to broadly and affirmatively educate boys and men about their own capacity to choose the depth of human contact over the cheap titillation of sexual objectification.

Kate Kissingford
Denver, Colo.

I’d much rather my mother had sneaked up behind me while I was washing the dog, as Caitlin Flanagan’s mother did, to initiate talks about sex, than hand me a novel explicitly describing objectifying group-sex parties. As a teenager, I would have freaked out. We forget that while statistics show that half of high-school students are having sex, the remaining half are not. Adults like to project our own sexual preoccupation on teenagers, when a lot of high-school-age girls are not emotionally ready for or interested in a sexual relationship and are more concerned with keeping their noses clean, getting good grades, and going to college. Testimony may be a compelling read for some people, but seems a rather bad prescription for “every teenage girl.”

Taliatha Holmes

Buhler, Kan.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

Kate Kissingford’s letter proceeds from an assumption I share wholeheartedly: sexual encounters unmoored from affection, trust, or commitment are extremely damaging to adolescent girls. But are boys to blame for the increase in such encounters, including even those that are initiated by girls? No. Boys have been taught that girls are their equals in every regard. If a boy were to resist a girl’s proffer of sex on the sole grounds that she was inherently ill-equipped to handle the psychological consequences of such an act, he would be derided as a tool of the patriarchy that Kissingford abhors. Clearly this mode of thinking about adolescent sexuality belongs in the dustbin of bad ideas along with Communism and home permanents.

Boys don’t owe girls a “vibrant sexual life,” nor should they be expected to channel their own sexual energies toward helping girls to reveal their “authentic selves.” We are raising a generation of girls in a world in which vulgarity is the highest aspiration of popular entertainment; in which modesty and restraint are no longer valued as goals for young women; in which the nuclear family (firmly established as peerless in its ability to protect girls from all forms of sexual exploitation) is in a state of rapid decline; and in which millions of parents refuse to protect their daughters from the pornography and exhibitionism of the Internet. To blame boys for any of these forces, or for the ruinous effect they are having on girls, is obscene.

Taliatha Holmes’s statistics on teenage sexuality are wrong, but her assertion that mothers are the best people to teach daughters the facts of life is right on the money. She should not, however, feel shortchanged if she didn’t get The Talk while she was shampooing a dog—my essay was not intended to imply causality. Any kind of pet will do.

What Google Knows

I took particular pleasure in Nicholas Carr’s article, “GoogleThink” (July/August Atlantic), because I recently noticed a fascinating and entertaining result of Google’s efforts to anticipate what I was searching for and suggest the likeliest topics. After I typed in the word average, Google’s top auto-fill suggestions were penile length, IQ, salary, and weight. It seems that Google’s attempts to read a user’s mind are telling us more about what others are thinking than about ourselves.

Marta Lindsey
San Francisco, Calif.

Hanna Rosin’s July/ August cover story may have documented “The End of Men,” but more than two-thirds of letters to the editor about that story and Pamela Paul’s companion piece, “Are Fathers Necessary?,” came from male readers. Here’s the breakdown.