In response to:
They'd Much Rather Be Rich from the October 11, 2007 issue
To the Editors:
Andrew Hacker is entitled to feel discomfited by my findings about the underside of economic growth in The Challenge of Affluence [“They’d Much Rather Be Rich,” NYR, October 11], so I will restrict my response to accuracy, and not deal with interpretation. It is difficult to discover from the review what the book is about and what its argument really is. He accuses me of saying that being poor is better than being rich. But there is no endorsement of poverty in the book, and a good deal about its detriments. Hacker casts doubt on the findings by saying: “[Offer] can get his figures wrong.” No author can hope to be completely accurate, but the only example he gives is an alleged one that cohabiting couples have less sex than their married counterparts. I say the opposite: “Cohabitees reported more high-frequency sex than any other group.”
Hacker also writes, “Strangely, The Challenge of Affluence has little to say about education and its outcomes.” But chapter eleven discusses the social effects of education (and some of its costs) extensively. The word “education” occurs in that chapter 111 times, and schooling is shown to be the source of massive and largely positive social changes, especially in the options and life choices of women. This chapter (and others too) also describes the benefits and satisfactions of rising real incomes.
Hacker implies that, unlike Galbraith, I neglect distribution, but the whole of chapter twelve (“Inequality Hurts”) is devoted to this issue. Hacker says that Nigeria and Lebanon provide me with statistical links between income and family bonds. But the statistics in question (several sets described on pp. 347–348) are about something else: they show that the prevalence of mental disorder rises with average income per head, and they cover many countries, including the US. If family bonds have also weakened with rising incomes (suggested by the prevalence of divorce), that association is not presented as a statistical finding—I merely say there that low-income countries “might be assumed to have a stronger legacy of family bonds,” which might protect against mental disorder. The phrase “intoxicating short-term dissipation” is not (as suggested) a lament about the decline of youth deference, but refers explicitly to the shortage of alternatives to alcoholic recreation for young people in Britain. What I say would foster “reciprocity and commitment” (his quote elsewhere from the same sentence, also out of context) is not less wealth, but less alcohol, and among youth, not generally.
Hacker writes, “I wish Offer had tried to say more about motives.” One could always say more, but chapters three and four lay out a psychological model of myopic choice which accounts for self-defeating behavior, and is demonstrated with many examples. Likewise, chapter fourteen, about family breakdown, builds on a psychological model of childhood attachment. There is more inaccuracy, but it would be tedious to go through every point. In one instance, Hacker even gets my first name wrong, and calls me Alvin.
Chichele Professor of Economic History
All Souls CollegeUniversity of Oxford
Andrew Hacker replies:
Yes, I read Avner Offer’s chapter where he says the word “education” occurs 111 times. (By my count it’s 90, and rises to 132 when “educated” and “educational” are included.) But his discussion covers familiar terrain: how schooling interacts with income, gender, parenthood, and status. My focus was quite different: in what ways does college change the people who attend? One sister goes to work straight from high school; the other obtains a bachelor’s degree. At age twenty-five, are there palpable differences in how their minds work, how they view the world, how they make personal decisions? Considering how much we invest in higher education, can we say for sure?
On page 332 of The Challenge of Affluence, Offer writes of cohabitors, “about half of those had no sexual relations or very limited ones.” Yet the study he cites shows that 56 percent had sex at least twice a week. When those partaking “a few times a month” are included, it’s over 90 percent.
On additional points he raises, I leave it to other readers to judge if I misread his book. But “Alvin” was inexcusable. I apologize.