Middle East Studies
To the Editor:
I am writing to correct an egregious error in Efraim Karsh’s article about the controversy at Columbia University over allegations of classroom bias against pro-Israel students [“Columbia and the Academic Intifada,” July-August]. Mr. Karsh writes that “in December , faced with growing public indignation, Columbia’s president, Lee H. Bollinger, grudgingly announced the appointment of a committee to review student complaints. The committee’s composition gave a clear signal of Bollinger’s own disposition,” with “three of the five members [being] known critics of Israel.”
I was in contact with Bollinger on virtually a daily basis during the time the committee was formed, and I can testify that he was the opposite of “grudging” about creating an entity to investigate student complaints. The composition of the committee was determined through a very complex series of negotiations that had little to do with the subject of the Middle East and a great deal to do with the relationship between the Columbia faculty’s self-governance bodies and the administration. Indeed, it was not simply a technicality that the committee was formed by the faculty of arts and sciences, and reported to the vice president for arts and sciences and the provost rather than to the president of the university.
Contrary to Mr. Karsh’s implication, Bollinger is a true and devoted friend of the state of Israel. He has spoken out in defense of Israel on many occasions both in his former post at the University of Michigan and at Columbia. And he has been an avid and enthusiastic supporter of the expansion of Israel studies at Columbia, including through the creation of a new chair in the field, which was in the works before this year’s crisis broke out. (I chair the search committee.)
In general, the reporting on this whole matter has been dominated on all sides by ideological self-interest rather than a desire for accuracy. I hope that Mr. Karsh will correct his mischaracterization of Lee Bollinger’s stance.
Center for Israel and Jewish Studies
New York City
To the Editor:
We very much enjoyed Efraim Karsh’s overview of the controversy we were a part of at Columbia, but he misses the point in two important respects. First, he fails to recognize the role played by students. As the founders of Columbians for Academic Freedom, the student organization that led the protests, we are disappointed that he never once mentions the activism that forced the university to take its problem seriously. Mr. Karsh writes that “it will take more than a single student protest to undo the rot that has settled into the study of the Middle East.” He is right—it will take many.
Mr. Karsh also argues that the real issue at Columbia is not whether professors respect their students but “whether they should be permitted, under the guise of academic freedom, to pass off personal and open political partisanship as scholarly fact.” But the two issues are intertwined. The intimidation that Zionist students experienced did not occur in a vacuum. There was bullying because there is an environment of intellectual orthodoxy in Middle Eastern studies. When nearly an entire department holds that Zionism is racism, it becomes very easy to treat Zionist students as people who do not deserve a voice in the classroom.
Mr. Karsh and his sympathetic colleagues certainly do have an impact when they criticize their peers in the academy, but criticism from the pages of Commentary does not change—at least for the foreseeable future—the reality on Columbia’s campus.
New York City
To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh, our fellow member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, has written a refreshingly honest and scholarly appraisal of conditions in the field of Middle Eastern studies. He is undoubtedly correct that the teaching in Columbia’s department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) “is emblematic of the pervasive prejudice that has afflicted the field . . . for quite some time.” Would that only Middle Eastern studies were so afflicted! Unfortunately, the Israel-bashing that Mr. Karsh finds in such abundance in the published writings of the MEALAC faculty is widespread today throughout the humanities and social sciences, at Columbia as well as at many other universities.
Our late colleague Edward Said, the father of the academic intifada, was a professor of English and comparative literature. His claim that scholarship is merely an exercise of power has liberated his disciples and successors in many liberal-arts departments from the burdens of fact-checking and consideration of context. But without a commitment to bear those burdens, why have a university at all? Or at least, why pay university tuition?
In classes that have nothing to do with the Middle East, many professors bash Israel as an aside, as an example, or in tones of indignation and conviction; they do it to show their credentials as members of the academic club. Students who are knowledgeable (and foolhardy) enough to ask questions are routinely silenced, and in any case, the sheer volume of lies tends to overwhelm students’ resources.
Many students, even Jewish students, come to college with little knowledge of Israel; many cannot even find Israel on a map, and have no reason to question the views of the Jewish state that they encounter in their classes. The Columbia students who brought the abuses in MEALAC to light in the film Columbia Unbecoming were well informed, but even they faced self-doubt as well as hostility and denial from faculty, the administration, and other students when they tried to get a hearing for their grievances.
Judith S. Jacobson
Neil S. Shachter
New York, New York
To the Editor:
I joined the faculty at Columbia as an assistant professor of surgery in September 2002. In an effort to reach objective conclusions about the MEALAC controversy, I attended meetings on campus of both the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel sides, read as much as I could, and spoke with many students. I also assumed that at a university like Columbia I would have the opportunity to hear from scholars who would educate me and challenge my long-held beliefs about the Middle East. To date, and to my disappointment, my beliefs have not been challenged; or rather, the challenges have not been terribly interesting or educational.
Take for example the recent “conference” sponsored by Qanun, the Middle East law students’ association at Columbia. At one presentation, Rashid Khalidi, director of the univerity’s Middle East Institute, commented that Israel “systemically prevents the growth of the Palestinian population.” It took less than three minutes on the Internet to learn from the websites of both the UN and the World Bank that the Palestinians have one of the highest fertility rates in the world—higher than that of Europe, the U.S., Iran, Iraq, and Egypt. Evidently, Israel is either not preventing population growth or is not doing a very good job of it. In his own remarks, Joseph Massad of MEALAC called Israel a “racist apartheid state” more than 35 times in less than twenty minutes. Ilan Pappe, the instigator of the failed British academic boycott of Israel, stated that Israel committed a “Holocaust against the Palestinians.”
In the wake of the MEALAC controversy, and perhaps to try and appease the faculty, the trustees of Columbia have decided to establish a chair in Israel studies. The problem is that the president has appointed Khalidi to be on the selection committee. Also on the committee is Lila Abu-Lughod, a Palestinian-American professor who signed a petition calling for divestment from Israel.
The Columbia students who stood up for themselves and for their beliefs should be applauded. The sad truth is that they have shown far more courage than most of their professors. I can only feel sadness, shame, and deep remorse at how we have failed our students and what a poor example we are setting for the greater academic community.
Marc S. Arkovitz
Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons
New York City
To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh’s excellent article neglects to mention that Columbia’s department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, along with seventeen other Middle Eastern studies programs on our nation’s campuses, is largely funded by the beneficence of the U.S. taxpayer. There was a specific legislative intent behind this gift of the American people to the American academy, but it has long been obscured in a vapor of political correctness.
The Middle Eastern studies programs (as well as their Asian, African, and Latin equivalents) are a result of Title VI of the 1965 Higher Education Act. During the cold war, Congress realized that our nation’s young people were woefully ignorant of foreign languages and cultures. It therefore set aside a pot of money, now over $100 million a year, for international-studies centers at which they could acquire the skills that would make them better able to serve America’s national-security interests.
What has resulted instead are departments around the country that view international studies through Edward Said’s paradigm of “orientalism,” with the United States as a colonial, hegemonic monster. Needless to say, these programs present the history of Israel in the most egregious light imaginable.
Legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), aimed at setting up an expert advisory board to ensure that students are exposed to a diversity of perspectives and that the objectives of the original Title VI funding are met. The academy, predictably, has responded with hysteria.
Sarah N. Stern
American Jewish Congress
To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh quotes the writings of Columbia professors Hamid Dabashi, George Saliba, and Joseph Massad in order to demonstrate their lack of academic objectivity. For instance, Dabashi’s account of a visit he made to Israel in 2004, published in the English-language edition of al-Ahram, descends into rank anti-Semitism—no fine sense of smell needed—that leaves one quite nauseated.
I have no doubt that Mr. Karsh is right about the trio, but surely the more important thing for a not undistinguished university is their paucity of scholarly publications, which leaves one to wonder how Columbia could have ended up with such a crew. It is not the least of the afflictions of Arab countries that they are often ill-served by academics who publish nothing but strident newspaper articles and Arab-nationalist polemics. The last thing needed in the United States is to import such standards of scholarship.
Mr. Karsh mentions a syllabus of Massad’s that contained but one work on Israel, by Maxime Rodinson, and complains that its title, Israel, a Colonial-Settler State?, betrays a lack of objectivity. Yet by Rodinson’s standards—though only his—that book is amazingly objective. Compare, say, his “Sionisme et Socialisme” in the February 1953 edition of La Nouvelle Critique, in which he describes the joyous freedoms of the Jews in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s benevolent rule before denouncing Zionist “criminal doctors” and, of course, Israel itself.
Columbia’s authorities missed the opportunity to toss out the offenders and replace them with more serious scholars, choosing instead to have them judged by their sympathizers and thus exonerated. Jews and Israelis, along with serious students of whatever origin or persuasion, including Arabs and Muslims, are well advised to take their studies elsewhere. There are better schools and better scholars. If the standards of Dabashi, Massad, and Saliba suffice, why not save hugely on tuition by studying in Cairo, a fascinating city full of warmly hospitable people and academics just like them?
Edward N. Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Efraim Karsh writes:
Michael Stanislawski tells us that Lee H. Bollinger, Columbia University’s president, is “a true and devoted friend of the state of Israel [who] has spoken out in defense of Israel on many occasions.” If this is indeed the case, then it is all the more regrettable that on the one occasion when speaking out would have made a real difference—not as a friend of the state of Israel but as a university head responsible for ensuring intellectual integrity in his own institution—Bollinger not only remained conspicuously mute but, in order to investigate the situation, permitted the formation of the most hostile committee conceivable. The committee’s report, a predictable whitewash, was then applauded by Bollinger as “a very thoughtful and comprehensive review that . . . help[s] sustain our trust in the absolutely critical norm of peer review.”
Mr. Stanislawski does not dispute the committee’s blatant bias, but he claims that Bollinger had little to do with its formation, done exclusively by the faculty of arts and sciences “through a very complex series of negotiations.” In his eagerness to exonerate his boss, however, he unwittingly exposes the pervasiveness of anti-Israel sentiment among the Columbia faculty. For if it took a “very complex series of negotiations” to produce so deeply prejudiced and dysfunctional a committee, hostility to the Jewish state must extend well beyond the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), whose professors were the subject of the committee’s investigation.
This in turn may help explain Bollinger’s reluctance to toss out the offenders and replace them with more serious scholars, a course suggested here by Edward N. Luttwak. It also raises a question about the real motives behind Columbia’s much-publicized decision to create a chair in Israel studies. Let us assume that this initiative reflects a sincere interest in the expansion of the field rather than a cynical ploy to pacify indignant students, alumni, and donors and fend off the inquisitive media. Given his weak and ineffectual handling of the MEALAC scandal, what guarantee is there that Bollinger will not be upstaged yet again by his faculty? None whatsoever.
As my correspondent Marc S. Arkovitz notes, of the six-member selection committee for the new chair, only two have done any research on Israel, while another two are harsh critics of the Jewish state: Rashid Khalidi, who considers Israel an illegitimate “colonial entity” and openly advocates its destruction, and Lila Abu-Lughod, a Palestinian-American professor who has joined in calling for university divestment from Israel. Still another member chaired the shambolic MEALAC committee. It takes no great imagination to figure out the likely results of this committee’s deliberations.
Moreover, even if the committee were to do the unthinkable and select a serious, bona-fide scholar, he or she would be operating virtually single-handedly in enemy territory. As evidenced by the MEALAC scandal, and as experienced first-hand by Columbia professors Judith S. Jacobson, Awi Federgruen, Ruth Raphaeli-Slivko, and Neil S. Shachter, Israel-bashing is endemic to the humanities and the social sciences at Columbia (as it is at numerous other universities throughout the United States and Europe), ensuring the greatest degree of conformity and suffocating dissent.
It is no mere accident that, as I noted in my Commentary article, the Columbia scandal was exposed by aggrieved students rather than by their professors. Indeed, much as Bari Weiss, Ariel Beery, Daniella Kahane, Aharon Horwitz, and their fellow Columbians for Academic Freedom are to be commended for standing up for their rights, their personal predicament is only the tip of the iceberg, the existence of which the Columbia authorities continue to deny.
The problem, to repeat, is not the professional misconduct of this or that individual; it goes without saying that professors should treat their students with due respect and that those who fail in this elementary duty should be disciplined. But even the most courteous and affable professor must not be permitted, under the guise of academic freedom, to pass off personal bias and open political partisanship as scholarly fact. Even if the offending MEALAC professors had forgone their derogatory asides and so averted exposure, Columbia students would still have been fed on a false diet of Middle Eastern and Arab-Israeli history.
This stark situation has not improved one iota as a result of the Columbia fiasco, and is unlikely to change by the creation of a chair in Israel studies. Only when the rot that has settled into the study of the Middle East in Western universities has been eradicated will Israel stand a chance of getting a fair hearing, and students real value for their money.
In the Eurozone
To the Editor:
For a Central European of my generation (I was born in 1946) it has been especially painful to see the widening fissure between the U.S. and much of Europe since 9/11. Most of the blame can be ascribed to the European side—but not all of it. On the American side there seems to be an abysmal lack of factual information about Europe and about the European Union in particular, leading at times to blind anti-Europeanism. Unfortunately, Michel Gurfinkiel’s article on the rejection of the European Constitution by French and Dutch voters shows that even a magazine of Commentary’s quality is not immune to this trend [“Europe’s ‘No,’” July-August].
Consider Mr. Gurfinkiel’s treatment of the European Commission—the eternal bogeyman of ill-informed outsiders. Like others, he presents the commission as comprising unelected bureaucrats who foist their burdensome regulations on hapless European citizens. But its members are elected, and are impeachable.
What about the commission’s power? Mr. Gurfinkiel writes that it is in charge of setting wages and prices, and that it is in some respects more powerful than its constituent nation-states. This assertion is a tragic mixture of truth and falsehood. The commission has no power to set wages, except those of its own staff. Nor can it set market prices.
What it can do, following the general guidelines of the Council of the European Union, is manage import tariffs and subsidies to agricultural producers within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU. The CAP is indeed an abomination—just like farm subsidies in the U.S.—but it is a creation of the constituent nation-states and not of the commission itself.
The states gave the European Commission the power to enforce their commitments to each other. Once a directive or regulation is adopted by those states and the European Parliament, the commission can sue any state that fails to implement it. Any other arrangement would either make the EU a sham or open the door to endless bickering among states accusing each other of breaching the agreed-upon rules.
Describing the 2004 “Bolkestein affair” that reinforced sentiment in France to vote no, Mr. Gurfinkiel writes that Bolkestein, the EU’s market commissioner, “had issued a directive effectively deregulating the service sector”—as though he himself had promulgated a new law that was binding on all citizens in the EU. But Bolkestein had only proposed his directive to the member states and the European Parliament. And it was member states—France and Germany—that killed it.
In these dangerous times, we cannot afford such misunderstandings about the European Union.
Prague, Czech Republic
To the Editor:
Michel Gurfinkiel’s article provides a knowledgeable description of the thinking that guided the “founding fathers” of the European Union when they created the basic EEC institutions in the 1950’s. I agree with him that the French and Dutch voters’ rejection of the constitution was a belated reaction against the European elite’s tendency to impose new structures regardless of public opinion.
The evolution of EU institutions has been marked by uncomfortable compromises between liberalization and centralization. The constitution and the euro represent attempts to impose a centralizing, one-model-fits-all structure on a union consisting of 25 member states and 450 million inhabitants. But Europe is not a homogeneous entity, and developments across the Eurozone diverge. One fails to capture variety if one subsumes too much under the label “Europe.”
Mr. Gurfinkiel’s own economic analysis demonstrates how such generalizations prevent clarity. His statement that the euro has been a “prescription for zero growth” for the countries that adopted it, while countries that resisted it, “like Britain and Sweden, are in good shape,” is more than partly wrong and less than partly right.
True, the growth rates in real GDP of the UK and Sweden have been consistently higher than the Eurozone average, and their unemployment rates approximately half of the Eurozone average. But Ireland, which belongs to the Eurozone, has higher growth and lower unemployment than either country. Little of this is related to the euro.
Mr. Gurfinkiel’s conclusion that the prospects for continent-wide economic growth “can hardly be said to be bright” is too sweeping. Countries in “New Europe” have introduced flat taxes with low uniform rates. Relying on market forces, they have become magnets for international investment and have achieved growth rates rivaling those of China and India. The pressure of competition from Eastern Europe and East Asia has also forced Old Europe to act. Even in slow-reforming countries like France and Germany, one sees a lot of corporate restructuring. Decentralized wage-formation is spreading, and regulatory burdens have been lightened to allow companies greater flexibility to hire and fire.
Politicians like Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand may have had visions for Europe, but in their ambitions they were notoriously unconcerned about getting the economics right. That must change.
To the Editor:
Michel Gurfinkiel writes that “it is not the constitution itself that the French and the Dutch were bent on rejecting” with their no vote, “nor was it even the concept of European unity. Rather, it was the impact on their lives, direct and indirect, of actual EU governance under the Maastricht regime.” This is probably true, but I would add to it.
Many French conservatives (and some radicals) deeply need a patria, a fatherland, to identify with. Europe could become a state, perhaps even a world power, but could it become a country? To French conservatives, the Europe proposed by the constitution seems like an absurd “community.” It lacks a common territory, a common history, and a common culture, and its notion of political correctness bans the Judeo-Christian tradition and makes it blind to the problems posed by Islamism.
At the same time, French radicals, following Rousseau, believe that political freedom is achieved only by the creation, through the “social contract,” of a single sovereign, in whose activities all citizens may and ought to take part equally. Those in France who favor such an arrangement would be willing to participate in a radical European republic, but such an entity being impossible, they prefer to go no farther than a radical French republic.
Conservatives dislike the EU’s liberal ethic and political correctness. Radicals dislike the EU’s free-market and free-enterprise principles. Combined, the two groups outnumber the Europhiles.
To the Editor:
Michel Gurfinkiel describes Europe’s “Islamist threat” as a “crushing problem” that looms “in the background” of the no vote on the European Constitution. On a recent trip to Europe, I found the Islamist threat very much in the foreground for the intellectuals I met.
Of all the decisions taken by senior European officials in recent decades, few have been as historically consequential as the one permitting the entry of large numbers of Muslims, many of whom reject assimilation into their host countries. In a widely discussed 2004 interview in Die Welt (Hamburg), Bernard Lewis stated that “Europe will be Muslim by the end of the century.” Other observers see a possible Muslim majority in France by mid-century. Already, the Muslim population’s influence can be seen in the EU’s foreign policy, especially vis à vis Israel, as well as in domestic politics. As Mr. Gurfinkiel concludes, Europe’s prospects for escaping “from its massive, self-inflicted harm” are not very bright.
Richard L. Rubenstein
To the Editor:
Michel Gurfinkiel’s excellent article affirms the popular wisdom in the vote on the European Constitution. The form of the constitution foretold the content, and its content the downfall.
A product of the French bureaucracy, the constitution was swollen with no fewer than 448 articles, differentiating areas that are the exclusive competence of the European Union (like monetary policy, common commercial policy, and the customs union), areas that are the exclusive competences of member states (like industry, health, education, youth, culture, and civil protection), and areas that are “shared competences.” What is behind the third category? This provision: “Member states shall exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has not exercised, or has decided to cease exercising, its competence.”
In other words, with regard to things like security, transportation, energy, social policy, employment, the environment, consumer protection, and other matters, the European Union could make decisions without the states. What patriot, of the Left or the Right, could agree to this? What socialist could give such a free hand to the elites who would rule?
University of Paris
To the Editor:
Michel Gurfinkiel’s article features a crucial insight that is worth underscoring. “The problem of Europe,” he writes, “was that Monnet’s twist—economics first—led to a bizarre, quasi-political arrangement.” The reference is to Jean Monnet, the planning commissioner of postwar France and a strong advocate of a “United States of Europe.” Indeed, Monnet worked to erect an economic house of Europe that, he hoped, would in time be crowned by a political rooftop.
Despite the extraordinary accomplishments gained through this pragmatic method, it contained a paradox that is now proving fatal to the project. As the “Common Market” tried to turn itself into a political entity, it encountered the sovereign will of the peoples of Europe, who had generally assented, but never consented, to the changes being wrought in their name. Having finally been consulted, the French and the Dutch have now toppled the entire edifice.
Michel Gurfinkiel writes:
Pavel Bratinka groups me with “outsiders” on European issues, so I should probably begin by pointing out that I am a citizen of France, born in Paris in 1948 and still living there. As for my familiarity with the workings of Europe yesterday and today, let us proceed to test it.
Under present provisions, the members of the European Commission (EC) are not “elected,” as Mr. Bratinka contends, but rather nominated by the various member states and then formally appointed by the European Council, the main decision-making body of the EU. They are then confirmed or rejected by the European Parliament: this is a comparatively recent dispensation, reminiscent of the screening of judicial nominees by the U.S. Senate. Nor are they “impeachable,” but merely subject to review by the Parliament. One commission in the past—chaired by Jacques Santer of Luxemburg—was so damaged in the reviewing process as to resign en masse.
I did not say that the EC was in charge of setting wages and prices, as Mr. Bratinka maintains. On the contrary, I acknowledged the EU’s “longstanding commitment to a single, highly competitive European market.” Nevertheless, by enforcing unified VAT rates throughout the EU and similar measures, the commission does exert considerable leverage on the economies of member states, including wages and prices.
Mr. Bratinka’s remarks about the so-called Bolkestein directive do not comport either with my own words or with the facts. EU directives and regulations are usually engineered by the EC, then approved by the Council. Although not laws in their own right, they must be passed into law by the member states, and once formally promulgated they take precedence over existing domestic provisions. True enough, the Bolkestein directive was stopped by the government of France—but only after a French Euroskeptic, Philippe de Villiers, made an issue of it, as I explained in my article. More often than not, directives are passed with little debate or no debate at all, no matter how disruptive or blatantly absurd they may be.
I do indeed believe that, in Mr. Bratinka’s paraphrase, “the commission is in some respects more powerful than its constituent nation-states.” This, after all, was the main point of my essay. As I wrote, Jean Monnet and the other founding fathers of Europe had to reconcile the need for immediate European cooperation in the postwar period with the unfeasibility of an early political federation or confederacy that would have included Germany. They therefore deliberately “circumvented politics,” i.e., the normal workings of democracy, by devolving as much power as they could to the EC. Their strategy worked quite beautifully for a time, but in the long run it undermined the entire political culture of Europe, and is largely accountable for the severe difficulties the European nations are facing today. Both the French and the Dutch “no’s” to the draft European Constitution were essentially an attempt to restore sovereignty to the European peoples.
Peter Stein raises a very interesting question about Ireland. A Eurozone member, it is currently as prosperous as Britain and Sweden, which stayed out. Does that mean, as Mr. Stein asserts, that the economic squalor of most other Eurozone countries, France and Germany included, is unrelated to the single currency, and that other factors are at play? In theory, yes. In practice, no.
The euro is basically a very tight, deflationist currency. It may work in Ireland, which by European standards is a libertarian paradise with a small government, few regulations, low taxes, very limited welfare, no industrial tradition, and no unions. It cannot work at all in continental Europe, the locus classicus of big government, regulations, taxes, welfare, industry, and unions.
Where the state pays for a lot of things, you need a flexible currency. If you don’t have it, you either collapse or end up fudging your real figures on inflation and the deficit. France, Germany, Italy, and others are both deteriorating and fudging.
The secret dream of some euro-fanatics is to force continental Europe overnight into a drastic conversion to economic libertarianism. As committed as I am to market freedom and to reform, I do not think this is a practical option. Regarding “new Europe,” I am prepared to share some of Mr. Stein’s optimism. Still, with the possible exception of Poland, these are very small countries. And, mind you, they are still out of the Eurozone.
Henri Hude’s remarks about the patria deficit in the European Union are very much to the point. So are Richard L. Rubinstein’s stern comments on the Islamicization of the Old Continent. Many Europeans feel there is a correlation between these two trends, and would like both of them to be resisted.
I thank Yves Roucaute and Laurent Murawiec for their readings of the European constitutional crisis, which complement mine, only with greater alacrity and talent.
To the Editor:
Bruce Bartlett has written a useful and mostly accurate assessment of the evidence concerning intergenerational income mobility in America [“Class Struggle in America?,” July-August]. But there remain several issues that he treats inaccurately or does not discuss.
Contrary to what he writes, the research documented in the book Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success (which I co-edited) does not support either of two points he attributes to the New York Times’s recent series on class in America. First, the idea that “although individuals may appear to demonstrate income mobility over the course of their lives, eventually they end up in the same . . . income class as their parents” is quite far from the truth, and I do not know of any competent researcher who would assert it. In fact, children of families in the middle of the national income distribution are almost equally likely to end up in any income decile; for them, there is virtually no inheritance of economic position.
Second, Unequal Chances makes no claim that “whatever the degree of mobility in American society, it is no greater now than it has been in the past.” Rather, it presents strong evidence that the degree of mobility has been severely underestimated in past studies, which did not have the benefit of detailed data that have become available in the past decade.
To give a flavor of the actual numbers (taken from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, consisting of a representative sample of 6,273 white and black families observed over 32 years and in two generations), the correlation between parents’ and children’s income is a modest .42, but the child of a family in the top decile has a 22.9 percent chance of remaining there while the child of a family in the bottom decile has only a 1.3 percent chance of moving to the top. Similarly, the child of a family in the bottom decile has a 31.2 percent chance of remaining there while the child of a family in the top decile has only a 2.4 percent chance of moving to the bottom.
My point is simply this: even a fairly high degree of mobility on average is compatible with extreme inequality between the relatively poor and the relatively well-off. This is a serious social problem. It is not fair that the accident of one’s birth family entails a fifteen-fold difference in one’s probability of attaining success. In a decent society, individuals are not so severely handicapped by the vagaries of birth.
Mr. Bartlett disagrees. “What is truly important for a society,” he writes, “is how people in general perceive their circumstances”—as opposed, presumably, to what those circumstances really are. But the way middle- and upper-class people feel about their circumstances cannot be averaged in with the objective circumstances of the poor.
It is time that conservatives took the plight of the poor seriously, and proposed effective measures to reduce our society’s extreme disparity in rates of success. The assertion by conservatives that poverty is caused by welfare is in part true, but only in part. Appropriate redistributive policies can promote self-reliance and can isolate the minority of families that are truly incapable of caring for themselves. The absence of a dialogue on the Right focused on this problem only reinforces the stereotype that conservatives are hard-hearted and uncaring.
Santa Fe Institute
Santa Fe, New Mexico
To the Editor:
Bruce Bartlett rejects the idea that the rich have gotten richer while the poor have gotten poorer, using income and polling data to validate his argument. He points out that due to widespread home ownership and the vast run-up in real- estate assets, “aggregate wealth has become much more evenly distributed” in America. This is correct, but therein lies the problem.
The wealth effect from the current boom/bubble in real estate is what keeps our spend-without-saving economy muddling along. We are spending 80 percent of the world’s savings and borrowing $2 billion every day from savers outside the U.S. to keep our standard of living at the top of the heap.
Incredibly, Mr. Bartlett comments that if we “base our calculations” about living standards “on expenditures rather than savings,” then “living standards are much more equal among rich and poor.” I always thought that what made someone rich was the size of his bank account, not the number of cars or cell phones in his possession. Is someone who has a million dollars in the bank but lives in a modest home worse off than his counterpart living in a four-carport mansion with a million dollars in credit-card debt? With over $37 trillion in total debt and rising, we are heading for a serious economic decline, with the poor likely to bear the brunt of the fallout.
Consumers are taking out home-equity loans, sometimes with interest-only payments, and using the proceeds to purchase more consumables. If we get to a point where the housing bubble bursts, the middle class and the poor, many of whom have borrowed to the hilt, will find themselves in a deep financial crater. The gap between the rich who are not leveraged and all others will become enormous, and the disequilibrium could lead to social unrest and dissatisfaction among a great majority of the population.
I am as much opposed to high tax rates as is Mr. Bartlett, but if we are going to lower taxes across the board, fiscal policy-makers should encourage a diminution of government spending and foster a policy that encourages the less well off to pay down their debt loads rather than the opposite.
New York City
To the Editor:
Bruce Bartlett claims that “it is clear that Americans continue to believe in the Horatio Alger model, according to which everyone, no matter how humble his beginnings, has a chance to make it big.” But this model for upward mobility in today’s America is flawed. Vast advances in technology have not translated into wealth for every individual. The cost of living in many of our metropolitan areas has soared, making it difficult for the middle class and for new immigrants to climb the economic and social ladder. From New York to San Diego, real-estate prices continually reach new highs, making it hard for first-time buyers to purchase a home.
Mr. Bartlett’s assertion that the wealthy will provide “the capital that will eventually raise productivity and wages across the economy” is largely untrue. The new phenomenon of outsourcing, and the flight of our manufacturing industry to Asia and Latin America, has had negative consequences for American workers. Wages in this country have remained stagnant for the past five years, and the minimum wage still hovers at an embarrassing $5.15 an hour. Gallup tells us that only 3 percent of Americans describe the economy as “excellent,” and only 33 percent describe it as “good.” The wealthy invest in globalization, not in America. Upward mobility seems like an unreachable dream for many people.
Astoria, New York
To the Editor:
Bruce Bartlett presents impressive data to refute the New York Times’s assertions in its “Class Matters” series. If I have any criticism of his article, it is that he does not sufficiently focus on the illogic inherent in the Times’s reporting in order to expose the fallacy of its reporters’ conclusions.
Perhaps the most egregious example occurred in the article titled “When Richer Weds Poorer, Money Isn’t the Only Difference.” This article highlights the marriage of Cate Woolner, a relatively wealthy woman, and Dan Croteau, identified as a member of the lower middle class. Woolner had met Croteau and asked him out for coffee provided he was “not involved with someone, not a Republican, and not an alien life form.” (How the Times goes about finding these “representative” subjects could make a fascinating article in itself.)
Both spouses have children from previous marriages, but the article depicts Woolner’s sons as having many opportunities that Croteau’s daughters do not have. One of her sons took “a couple of semesters away [from college] to study in India and to attend massage school while working in a deli near home.” He “fantasizes about opening a brewery-cum-performance-space, traveling through South America, or operating a sunset massage cruise in the Caribbean.” In general, the sons are “easygoing young men, neither of whom has any clear idea what he wants to do in life.” In contrast, one of Croteau’s daughters “is in graduate school in educational administration at the University of Vermont” while the other “is working three jobs while in her second year of law school at American University.”
The article unintentionally makes clear that the supposedly disadvantaged daughters are in a far better position to improve themselves economically and in other aspects of their lives than the relatively privileged but unfocused sons. The daughters are excellent examples of the upward mobility that is possible in American society, yet the reporter repeatedly portrays them as somehow trapped by their class.
Falls Church, Virginia
Bruce Bartlett writes:
I am pleased to see Herbert Gintis point out that income mobility has tended to be underestimated in past studies. His statement that a high degree of income mobility is perfectly compatible with a high degree of income inequality is, of course, correct. But, as Anthony Shorrocks and others have shown, there is a huge difference between an unequal society in which there is no mobility and one in which there is a high degree of mobility. As Shorrocks puts it, “the existence of mobility causes inequality to decline.”
Mr. Gintis also argues that conservatives should take the plight of the poor more seriously. I heartily agree. But the issue of inequality and the plight of the poor are not the same thing, though they are often assumed to be. Policies that would improve the lot of the poor by increasing the rate of economic growth, for example, are often opposed by people like Mr. Gintis because the rich would benefit too much, thereby increasing inequality even as the poor are made better off. I think an effective strategy of helping the poor would concentrate on their absolute level of well-being and not worry about their relative position. I do not think the poor are helped in any way by policies that simply punish the rich for being rich. You cannot eat Gini coefficients.
Fred Ehrman concedes I am right in saying that the vast increase in housing wealth has disproportionately benefited the middle class, thereby improving the distribution of wealth. Yet he dismisses the point with an irrelevant discussion of national saving. He also dismisses my point about standards of living being based on levels of consumption rather than income. Somehow, he seems to think that how people actually live is meaningless to their well-being.
What seems to matter to him is how they theoretically should be living based on their income. But this is fallacious for several reasons. Many of those in the bottom income quintile have little income but live quite well. This includes the elderly, many of whom live in homes that are completely paid for; those just starting out in life, with no job but bright prospects; and those who have suffered a temporary income loss and are either borrowing or drawing down savings to maintain their living standards. Such people are not poor in any meaningful sense. But Mr. Ehrman assures us that they are.
Nick Gatsoulis says that saving and investment are irrelevant to productivity. He is entitled to his opinion. But a contrary view will be found in every economics textbook ever published. He further states that the gains from growth do not accrue to everyone. Of course that is true. But it does not follow that we should be unconcerned about growth. Clearly, it is the essential precondition for betterment of the human condition. The fact that all will not necessarily share in the bounty or to the same degree is a poor reason to deny all the rest an improvement in their living standards. Moreover, where are we going to get the resources to aid the poor through governmental programs if we do not have a high level of growth?
I thank Paul Rothstein for further exposing the illogic of the New York Times series on class.