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Inequality for Everyone? An Exchange

To the Editors:

May I be permitted to offer a number of comments to Professor Hacker’s stimulating piece of March 20 [“Creating American Inequality”].

  1. The contents of the article, and more specifically the Bureau of the Census figures for 1978 extensively quoted, contradict the dark implications of its title. The American society as a whole is still plagued by a host of inequalities, but it is not engaged in the creation of new ones.

  2. On the contrary, the contours of the chart featured by the article show that income distribution in the United States is no longer frozen in the shape of a pyramid. As pointed out by Professor Hacker, the pyramid has been neatly turned over its head in the distribution of income per families, the largest group being found close to the top rather than at the bottom of the scale. The distribution is still very inequitable with reference to individual full-time workers; yet even in that case the pyramid has been replaced by the more hopeful contour of a Christmas tree.

  3. It had been long noted, and rightly deplored. that neither fifty years of social legislation with its related transfers of income, nor three decades of massive (though at steadily decreasing rates) economic growth had made a major dent on the structure of income distribution. In the light of the 1978 figures this is no longer quite true.

  4. The progress accomplished would have been unthinkable, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively (that is, in terms of better distribution of income as a result of occupational “upgrading”), without the liberating and energizing impact of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Economic growth made room for those changes, and mitigated the frictions as among groups which they inevitably engendered.

  5. In the few years following the recession of 1974-75 employment in the United States has steadily grown, creating almost ten million new jobs. In stark contrast with this stands the scandalous 40 percent rate of unemployment for black young people. This is of course a national disgrace. Such things as the age structure of our population, the effect of rising minimum legal wage levels, and the widening scope of the “submerged” economy, with its ramifications in the labor market. can be contributory but not determining factors. What can be done? It would be foolish to step where angels would fear to tread. I strongly favor every possible remedial approach, direct and indirect, with the highest degree of priority, but I am afraid—alternatively, hopeful—that it will take several decades to achieve major breakthroughs. In the short and perhaps also intermediate period I suspect that neither economic growth per se nor direct redistribution of income can do more than promote a favorable climate for the changes required in order to come to grips with the entire nexus of problems involved.

  6. …As more middle-class married women join the ranks of the working force the median income per family goes up, and distribution gets a tilt toward greater equality. On the other hand, the dramatic jump in the number and percentage of black families headed by a woman, which has been brought into sharp relief in Professor Hacker’s piece, appears to work in the opposite way….

  7. …Professor Hacker’s discussion of the little parable of Bobby (the lawyer’s son) and Jimmy (the janitor’s son) is flawed by the implied assumption of the context of a stagnant society, operating under the rules of a zero-sum game in that one man’s gain is another person’s loss. If I understand him correctly, justice would require a complete reversal of the initial position as a result of which Jimmy would join the ranks of the “winners” while Bobby would replace him as a “loser.” This is wrong, for we certainly wish that both boys may be “winners,” under rules of the game that allow for competition and even the display of what Keynes called its “animal spirits” but are not as iron-clad as those of the roulette table. Unless one advocates reverse discrimination in the name of justice—the fruits of which in Soviet Russia and Maoist China, to say nothing of Cambodia, are for all to see.

Bruno Foa

New York City

To the Editors:

I definitely agree with Professor Hacker when he says that “an egalitarian community would value compassion over competence” and “be more concerned to foster a humane way of life than organized efficiency” so that “a taxicab driver who does his job well should not suffer by comparison to a neurosurgeon.” I would hope that the can driver will attain the same honor, status, and wealth, and that, therefore, in such a society individuals would seek and get jobs on the basis of their own genuine talents and inclinations only, since nothing else would make one job more desirable than another. This is why I disagree with Professor Hacker when he bemoans Harvard’s installing a “quantitative reasoning requirement for all its students” and the Wharton business school requirement of a mastery of calculus. (Professor Hacker complains that individuals “with an intuitive flair for sales” would be eliminated. Let them receive full honors as sales geniuses, just as we would have the gifted teacher remain in the classroom rather than embark on an administrative career—and one good way to ensure the latter is to insist that the teacher receive as much recognition and as high a pay as the administrator.) It is my belief that most of us are ill equipped to perform the quantitative analyses required of us, even when it comes to writing for the NYR, and Professor Hacker himself makes my point.

Professor Hacker presents “Income Distributions, 1978,” for “families” and “full-time workers” and he notes that the family income displays a “scare-crow,” “top heavy” shape, completely unmindful that this heavy top is an artifact of how the families are grouped: in steps of $5,000 between $0 and $25,000 (with an average of 14 percent of all families in each of these groups), and then the one large group (24 percent of all families) covering the much larger income span $25,000 to $50,000. Had Professor Hacker decided to put the $15,000 to $25,000 families in one group he would have had to say then that the pyramid is middle heavy, and so on ad nauseum. Simple good quantitative sense mandates one compare only equal income spans and this reveals that the pyramid of family incomes is in fact bottom heavy.

One reason I have made this criticism is that the above confusion seems to have led Professor Hacker into an overstatement as to how well off a family with both husband and wife working really is. Consider a man with a salary of $25,000 / year, a wife, and two children. With standard deductions the income tax would be $3,490, and counting $1500 for transportation, clothing, etc. he brings home a net $20,000 / year. If the wife gets a job at $15,000 / year (Professor Hacker cites figures to the effect that women earn 60 percent as much as men) the combined income would be $40,000, the income tax $8,495, the transportation etc. expenses an additional $1,500 and, on top of that, the family would have to purchase more child care and other services, say $1,000 / year. Thus the woman working just as hard as the man brings in $7,500, less than 40 percent as much as the man, and he could have done as well by merely working overtime for thirteen hours a week provided he gets time-and-a-half. It is a bitter irony indeed that besides facing discrimination at the work place, very inadequate child care facilities, inequitable social security and pension benefits, working women see their contributions to the family income devalued by the “progressive” income tax system. Surely something could be done to eliminate this feature of the tax laws.

Coming back to the matter of more mathematical proficiency being required for entering certain professions, I have no illusions that such proficiency is a guarantee of wisdom. On the other hand, much too often we see individuals who have been placed in positions of responsibility because they appear wise and generous delegate crucial decisions to subordinates who lack these qualities but are adept at “number crunching.” The level of proficiency I am talking about is not one which would necessitate a special talent but rather the person’s determination to master some elementary skills, and the earlier this is done, the easier it is. I do not think that Professor Hacker is right when he says that this can be done on the job. Under such circumstances people are made much too anxious by the pressure put upon them.

Charles Nissim-Sabat

Northeastern Illinois University

Chicago, Illinois

To the Editors:

Andrew Hacker’s thoughtful assessment of recent studies on the question of equality in American society deserves a wide audience. His argument, however, is not well served by his several references to Thomas Jefferson’s belief in essentially equal human “mental potential.” Compassionate individual and democratic politician that he was, Jefferson was emphatically not convinced of human intellectual equality, as a number of recent biographies and intellectual histories have amply demonstrated. In his own rather stringent analysis of Jefferson’s thought on equality, Garry Wills has made abundantly clear that Jefferson believed we are all “created equal” not mentally, but with regard to the “moral sense” which enables men and women to tell right from wrong and, in truly autonomous individuals, to choose right over wrong. Hence the example, cited by Hacker in another context, that Jefferson expected a plowman to decide a moral case as well, if not better, than a professor, “because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

Jefferson’s scientific bent and his emphasis on the essential equality of peoples did not, for reasons that historians like Merrill Peterson and David B. Davis have explicated in detail, extend to Blacks. Even Peterson, who makes a sympathetic case for Jefferson’s unwillingness to insist on Negro mental inferiority, refers to Jefferson’s “damning appraisal of Negro [intellectual] capacities” (Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, p. 264).

Michael Birkner

University of Kent

Lexington, Kentucky

Andrew Hacker replies:

American society,” Bruno Foa writes, “is still plagued by a host of inequalities, but it is not engaged in the creation of new ones.” One of the major themes of my review was that a society such as ours not only stresses existing differences, but is continually creating new ones. Among the most vivid are the so-called “aptitudes” supposedly revealed by tests, which permit us to rank people with mathematical precision.

Mr. Foa also takes me to task for assuming “stagnant society” in which “one man’s gain is another person’s loss.” That certainly seemed to be the position of the books I was reviewing. I doubt if we can make enough room at the top for all the Bobbys and Jimmys (and Carols and Alices) who think that is where they belong. Does Mr. Foa want a more “equal” society, or one with more places at the top? That they are not the same was a central point of my review.

I am sorry if I am not as expert in “quantitative analysis” as Charles Nissim-Sabat would like me to be. Still, I trust that the new Harvard-trained analysts will learn that any set of figures can be graphed in a variety of ways. In the end they will have to use their own judgment as to what comprises “equal income spans” for such ranges do not always coincide with identical dollar amounts. (That is why logarithms are often used.)

Mr. Nissim-Sabat also tells us of a $40,000 two-income marriage, where he says the wife’s earnings are disproportionately diminished as the couple rises to a higher tax bracket, needs childcare services, etc. Come now, that’s hardly a way to talk in 1980. Theirs is a joint income, and the husband’s $25,000 is just as responsible for getting them up there as her $15,000. Anyway, I am not going to shed too many tears for a family grossing $40,000.

I had a hunch my remarks on Jefferson would stir a reply such as Michael Birkner’s. There has been a lot of revisionism about Jefferson lately, making him out to be a lot less egalitarian than was previously thought. As it happens, Garry Wills’s chapter in Inventing America which discussed the phrase “created equal” dwells mainly on the Scottish philosophers who may have influenced Jefferson. Until more returns are in, I will stick to my reading that Jefferson shared the view held by Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith that we are all born with mental and moral qualities which are essentially similar.

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