Reporter's Notebook

Your Answers, Questioned
Show Description +

Our special series “A&Q” inverts the classic Q&A, exploring the complexity of some of the most frequently posed solutions to policy problems. We invited readers to weigh in with their own As and our reporters responded with Qs.

Show 2 Newer Notes

Does America Really Need More Entrepreneurship?

My recent A&Q on entrepreneurship in the U.S. questioned several common ideas for increasing the number of startups, such as cutting taxes, building a safety net to reduce the risk of leaving a company to start one’s own business, and investing in regional clusters. The following reader proposes another solution, followed by my reply:


Most startups fail. The success rate for venture capital funded companies is about 10 percent. And those are the ones that got funded. For each of those, there are about 100 proposals. For more ordinary businesses, the typical lifespan of a new restaurant is under three years. So it's not clear that more startups help much.


Why do we need startups if most startups fail? Well, suppose this were a question about species and longevity. Why must species adapt if most of them go extinct? The answer is that evolution serves an excellent purpose for later generations of life, because the surviving species tend to be stronger, healthier, and more resilient than their ancestors.

A number of readers have responded to the A&Q I wrote on the gender wage gap, including the following reader, who says the disparity is largely due to different career choices:


The often-quoted salary difference between men and women is based on the median numbers provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The word “median” means midpoint; 50 percent of people are above and 50 percent are below. It does not mean “average.” And there is a lot more to understanding salaries in the U.S. than meets the eye.

Pointing out that men and women are paid different salaries tells us that men and women are doing different jobs within the same job classification. For the most part, research has identified a relatively small difference in salaries when comparing large groups of male and female lawyers, accountants, or engineers with similar education and years of experience. Looking more carefully at the data, one will see that the so-called “pay gap” of 21 cents per $ is largely due to different career choices between men and women.


Is using salary averages really the right way to go about this?

While I concur that there’s more to evaluating salaries than just comparing the median salaries of men and women, statisticians use that measure for a reason: It is much more representative of what a typical American worker (male or female) in an industry makes than the average, precisely because it’s well-known that salary data is not evenly distributed, with a very long tail at the higher end.

But let’s say you compare the averages instead. What would you find?

In response to the A&Q I wrote on political polarization, this reader wondered why I didn’t mention congressional term limits as a possible solution:


One potential solution you failed to explore is term limits on members of Congress. We place term limits on the president to avoid too much power accruing to one individual. However, when you have members of Congress sitting in the same seats term after term, in some cases for decades, that allows those individuals and their backers to retain disproportionate influence in the political process as well.

When you couple this issue with the fact that members of the House of Representatives are running for re-election every two years, you have large portions of Congress who are fund-raising more than they're governing.

My suggestion would be two-fold. First, limit members of both chambers of Congress to two terms. Second, extend the terms of members of the House of Representatives to three or four years.


Are term limits feasible, and would they help reduce political polarization?

My recent A&Q on middle-class stagnation questioned these proposed solutions to the problem: build more housing to bring down the cost of real estate, raise taxes on the rich, reduce the size of the social safety net, bring back unions, repeal NAFTA, and use the Fed to keep interest rates extremely low. The following reader proposes another solution, followed by my reply:


The problem isn't that workers aren't being paid fairly; it's that they don't have the skills needed to get paid more. We need a national apprenticeship program starting in high school so that people will be valued workers even without a college or technical degree.


Is America’s skills gap for real?

On the one hand, you would think so, with tales of star computer programmers pulling down vertiginous salaries in the Bay Area. This is exactly what one would expect from a skills shortage in any occupation. That job's wages would gallop ahead of the rest of the country, as business demand for a skill outpaces supply of workers who can do it.

But nationwide, programmer salaries haven't grown much more than average, even when you zoom into Boston, Dallas, or Austin. More computer scientist majors are graduating than the labor market is placing in jobs. In short, there just isn't much clear evidence of a skills shortage that would be easily repaired by forcing lots of marginal liberal-arts graduates into a vocational program for coding.

“Judge a man by his questions, rather than his answers,” said the great Voltaire, according to, and, and, and a thousand other places across the Internet.

But where did Voltaire say this, or write it? Pursue that question a short distance, and you’ll come across Wikiquote, which says the source of this expression wasn’t, in fact, Voltaire, but a book of maxims by Pierre Marc Gaston de Lévis. And sure enough, there it is: “Il est encore plus facile de juger de l’esprit d’un homme par ses questions que par ses réponses.” (“It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.”)

The Internet is filled with answers to life’s conundrums. Many of those answers are helpful, and a great many are suspect, or insufficient, or just wrong. How to figure out which is which? Perhaps by taking the answers as a starting point, rather than the destination.

Over the next few weeks, we’re trying a spin on a long-loved format for journalism: the A&Q. We’re taking the classic Q&A and turning it on its head, beginning with some of the most frequently posed solutions to pressing matters of policy and complicating those answers with thoughtful questions. Here are the first eight, published today:

You can peruse all the A&Qs (as well as forthcoming topics to be addressed) here. If you know of a good answer we haven’t questioned, send it along: And if you’d like us to take on more topics in this format, send us those ideas too.