Letters from our readers.
April 25 1997 3:30 AM

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"Who Cares if Johnny Can't Read?" by Larissa MacFarquhar is a truly stupid article, whose only point is that there is a big difference between basic reading and highbrow reading. But this is not a crucial distinction for people concerned about literacy in this country. There has been a palpable decline in literacy in America over the last 30 years. Even the average university student both knows less and, by common-sense measures, is less intelligent than his or her predecessors. And even if IQ has not declined on a mass scale (and I suspect that it has), there is a point at which lack of curiosity and sheer ignorance are indistinguishable from a deficiency of intelligence. This article was a good example of supposedly skeptical and revisionist garbage.

--Harvey Scodel

Lying Illiterates


"Who Cares if Johnny Can't Read?" by Larissa MacFarquhar is so off base that it is difficult to fathom that she really believes what she is saying. I am the president of the Literacy Council of Garland County, Ark., and I know that the functional illiteracy rate in our state is 52 percent.

Her data is obviously faulty. It is nonsense to ask an illiterate person if he's reading a book. Of course he's going to say "yes." The last thing an illiterate person wants to advertise is the fact that he can't read. Our culture is filled with ways to help people hide their illiteracy. Restaurants like Shoney's and Denny's feature pictures of their entrees on the menu so those who can't read can still order their meal. And people know who wrote Huckleberry Finn and other books because they have learned from television and the movies.

--Ann W. Schmidt

Lay Off the Lama


Thanks to David Plotz for giving me the link to the Dalai Lama's Web site in his "Assessment," "The Ambassador From Shangri-La." But other than that, it was a complete and utter waste of my time. Plotz thinks the Dalai Lama is merely cashing in on the West's romance with Eastern spirituality. The Dalai Lama is the only world religious leader who acts the way many feel a world religious leader should--speaking inclusively to people about his faith instead of trying to ban women from the priesthood and gays and lesbians from humanity in general. Maybe he is a feel-good optimist or maybe the answers are really simpler than our unnecessarily complex world would like to believe, but either way, the Dalai Lama is one of the few people in the world whom I can legitimately not feel cynical about. And David Plotz has dismally failed to change my mind.

--Al Cotton

Uncle Sam the Mooch

Jodie T. Allen's article "I Like the IRS" is based on an extremely dangerous and faulty premise: All income belongs to the government, and the portion we are allowed to keep is some sort of present. The flaw is best expressed when she refers to last week as "windfall week." As we all know, the money in a tax refund is money that the taxpayer earned and was kept by the government for up to a year without interest. Windfall? Incredible.


Allen's comments about "tax shelters" are similarly puzzling. Can she possibly mean that we should pay more in taxes than the law requires? She then goes on to extol the virtues of our beloved IRS, distracting us from the actual percentage of our income that is being taken.

As for her discussion of the graduated tax and the flat-tax proposal, she blithely opines that taxing higher-income individuals is OK because the dollars are "less precious," but she knows that we are talking about percentages of their total income, not a fixed amount. I think Slate's articles are usually insightful, the authors informed, and the viewpoints balanced, but Allen's article possesses none of these virtues.

--Charles Van Cleef

Amen to the IRS


I agree with Jodie T. Allen's argument in "I Like the IRS." The present tax system is pretty fair, and is certainly more democratic than a flat tax. The system of exemptions and deductions, although perhaps a little complicated, really means that one's tax obligations are custom tailored to one's specific circumstances. Paradoxically, the more we try to simplify the code, and the more "one size fits all" we try to make it, the less conforming to our individual needs the system becomes.

The problem is, we are always trying to have it both ways. We want all the breaks, and we want a simple system. The two approaches, unfortunately, are mutually exclusive. If we go to a flat tax and then people find out that they're paying more than others they perceive as less deserving, they are going to scream like stuck pigs. If people are unhappy now--thanks to contentious, self-serving news writers who are more bent on garnering attention through controversy than they are through enlightenment--they are going to be miserable when they realize what they have done to themselves.

My only complaint with the IRS is that they seem to be lagging in the computer area, a problem I attribute to the politicization of the IRS's top management. We get a new top person with each administration, and then it's a whole new ballgame--again and again. The heads of the IRS ought to be like the heads of the FBI or the chairmen of the Fed, above party, serving terms that transcend incoming and outgoing administrations.

--Collingwood Harris

Taxing Ambition

I beg to differ with Jodie T. Allen's "I Like the IRS." As a 24-year-old college graduate, recently married, I was one of those 25 percent that you spoke of who didn't get money back. But even if I had, this should not be viewed as a source of income or bonus. How about the fact that the government has held that money over the course of the year, preventing you from collecting interest or circulating it throughout the economy. There is no positive outlook in having the government hold on to your money so you can get a bonus check at the end of the year.

Moreover, your definition of rich is concerning. You feel that you can judge who values a dollar more based on community standards. However, we live in America, a country that was built on individualism. Taxes do not empower the individual, they empower the government and sucker people by taking their extra income to fund government-program flops.

What continues to baffle me about progressive taxing is why people care so much what Steve Forbes, Bill Gates, or I pay in taxes. We should trust the businessmen who turn $1 into $10 and make our economy stronger, improve our overall standard of living, and even provide jobs. These are the people that drive our economy. The more money you take out of their hands the more money you take out of the economy. Our current method only penalizes people for making more money. We have turned monetary success into a crime. It is no wonder our society is floundering around and the current generation is called Generation X.

--Tony Stanich

Put Dworkin's Argument out of Its Misery

In the "Dialogue" on assisted suicide, Ronald Dworkin holds that neither a woman aborting "her" fetus nor a "terminally ill patient killing himself" involves either "important interests of other people" or an action "horribly against the actor's own interests." I disagree.

The definition of humanity is not intrinsically questionable. For some, it is clear: From conception until death, human life is sacred. Dworkin reduces the ontological status of the fetus to an issue of ownership by calling it "her" fetus, using an assumption central to the validation of the master-slave relationship. He implies that killing is justified when it releases a willing victim from pain, a maxim that could lead to a justification of slaying the innocent to avoid any other painful social or personal dilemma.

Dworkin wishes to replace the moral teleology of law with obeisance to cultural prejudices, informing us that unjust acts may be countenanced when popular ideology asserts them to be "personal" and hence putatively free of legal restraint. But the better part of Western thought has always affirmed that the principles of law are ineluctably related to the principles of good.

--Steven A. Long

Teacher's Pet

I want to thank you for bringing the insights of Steven E. Landsburg and Paul Krugman to Slate readers. I'm a high-school economics teacher; their perspectives have enriched my understanding and challenged my students. They have made all of us really think, which should be the highest motive of an economist. Clearly, you have chosen two of the best.

I especially appreciate Professor Landsburg's accessibility. I have been able to carry on an e-mail dialogue with him regarding his ideas expressed in Slate and his book, The Armchair Economist. Through me, my students have participated in this dialogue. They think that's exciting, and so do I.

By providing this service, Slate has demonstrably increased my effectiveness in the classroom by engaging my students in a conversation with two leading economists. So I thank you and your Microsoft sponsors and ask that you continue the good work.

--Gary Nelson

Address your e-mail to the editors to letters@slate.com.