The Conversation

Readers respond to stories in our October issue on America’s monopoly problem and the plight of the substitute teacher.

Justin Renteria

America’s Monopoly Problem

In October, Derek Thompson explained that “America’s biggest companies are growing at the expense of the economy, even if they offer consumers good deals.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren and other reformers are calling for more-vigorous antitrust enforcement. While enforcement may stop further concentration, what else can be done about already highly concentrated industries?
Graduating the corporate income tax, like the federal individual income tax but with a higher cap, could play a significant role in reining in incentives to merge. When companies face a higher tax rate, some might actually split apart because several companies paying a 20 percent rate might be more profitable than a single company paying a 35 or 40 percent marginal tax rate. In this reformed tax scenario, even if companies did not split, their smaller competitors could compete more effectively. Giving companies a financial incentive to resist mergers could also help new start-up companies to compete more effectively.
Thompson points out that the share of businesses that are new firms has fallen by 50 percent since 1978. While it might be impossible to bring back the historical business start-up rate, the corporate tax code can stimulate the growth of firms by creating a corporate tax rate of 10 percent for up to $1 million in pre-tax income. Reviving antitrust actions against mergers that concentrate industries is long overdue and would be aided by a corporate tax system that encouraged more competition. And it might reduce the harm already done to our economy by excessive concentration across a multitude of industries.
Bill Parks, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Business Strategies, University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho

Bigger isn’t just “not always bad,” as Derek Thompson says; it’s increasingly irrelevant. Many upstarts can topple huge incumbents so long as they are able to get their product or service to market (indeed, the bigger the monopoly, the juicier the target!). Regulators instead should police barriers to entry, which—while often brought about by a firm’s bigness—might be much more the result of regulatory capture, frivolous intellectual-property litigation, or anticompetitive pricing than an industry’s actual concentration. We are living through a renaissance of craft beer, for example—despite, as Thompson noted, dominance in the rest of the market by only two firms.
Jason Bade
San Francisco, Calif.

Sophia Foster-Dimino

Pity the Substitute Teacher

In October, Sara Mosle reviewed Nicholson Baker’s Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids.

After reading Sara Mosle’s review of Nicholson Baker’s book on being a substitute teacher in Maine and how awful that was, I found myself wondering just what biases, along with his clear role as a curmudgeon, he brought to this assignment; and I pitied the poor students who were unlucky enough to have him be the Viola Swamp (of children’s fictional lore) in their classrooms.
After I “retired” in 2012, I began substitute teaching in my community of West Hartford, Connecticut—by reputation an affluent suburb, but in reality a very diverse community with many challenged students and a broad array of services for special-needs kids. I have subbed in nearly every kind of middle-school and high-school class, and done lots of one-on-one “minding” of high-need special-needs students, and I have never had a day like Baker’s reported unpleasant experiences.
I actually prefer “minding” assignments, as the special-needs students are easy to work with once their highly trained special-ed teacher has explained to me their “issues,” and these students are often grateful for the attention and know, better than many other students, when that attention is genuine.
Granted, my community has a fine school system, but I cannot imagine that the rich mix of students we have is very different from what Baker encountered in Maine. Yes, sometimes regular teachers leave relatively easy work for subs to do, but not always. Many times I have had to pay close attention to regular classwork that I was expected to administer, and I’ve had a few multiday stints that required my full attention to detail. I have had some classes, especially ninth-grade English, with uninterested students, and often the worst in 7:30 a.m. classes—that unfortunate start time should be changed, as not much learning goes on. Some of those ninth-graders just needed to go to the cafeteria to get some breakfast—which I let them do, one at a time. I have usually been able to eyeball unruly, uninterested students up close to build enough rapport to teach the class. And yes, every once in a while, I’ve hoped that a class would end soon. But I always come back.
Baker clearly had pre-conceived notions about how school should be, and I hope those notions had nothing to do with his apparently “raunchy” fiction. I think Baker should stick to fiction and not inflict his satire on hapless students. Or maybe he needs the income.
David Johnston
Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence
Hartford, Conn.

In my experience (40-plus years on staff in the department of integrated studies in education at a Canadian university), most substitute teachers are nothing more than convenient placeholders who attempt to keep the inmates in order. The majority of substitute teachers arrive in schools ill-prepared for the subjects at hand and simply try as best as possible to make it through the day with as little bloodletting as possible.
In far too many cases, subs are not credentialed practitioners and have been foraged from the community to fill a slot, as no classroom can be left unattended. The fact that these adults will not know the academic interests of the students, have no clue regarding overall academic plans, quite possibly be lacking in scholastic knowledge, and even perhaps harbor attitudes alien to the contemporary situation matters not a whit.
No other element in our society would tolerate such a contemptible situation. No community would hire a local mother to pinch-hit for a medical doctor, a convenient father does not sit in place of a judge, and a nonelected individual does not replace the mayor. Yet in hundreds of schools across North America every day, we inflict upon our youth untrained adults who demean the real work that classroom teachers actually do.
Jon Bradley
Montreal, Quebec

The Big Question: What is the most interesting family in history?

(On, readers answered December’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

5. Without the Tudors, Western history would be less exciting. The Enlightenment in England and Scotland would be in question; the British empire would be questionable. English would not be the world language that it is, and the United States would not be the country it is today.

— Kathleen Stewart

4. Cronus and his wife, Rhea, along with their offspring, Poseidon, Demeter, Hades, Hestia, and of course Zeus and his wife, Hera. When the children of Zeus (Apollo, Artemis, and the rest) are added to this celestial mix, we get unlimited tales of mischief and adventure, along with some of the greatest heroes of all time.

— Gary Kohl

3. The Mitford sisters: Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Deborah, Unity, and Pamela. Among them were famous writers, a Communist, a moderate Socialist, and Nazis—including Diana, who left her husband to marry Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists. Reportedly, their dinner-table conversations were fantastic.

— Holmes Brannon

2. Muhammad’s family and lineage are among the most influential elements in some Muslim societies. Kinship to the prophet of Islam can represent huge political privileges.

— Alessandro Columbu

1. That would have to be the House of Medici, the Italian dynasty that rose to power at the turn of the 15th century and spawned politicians, popes, and patrons of the arts.

— Anne-Marie McCartan

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