Letters from our readers.
June 8 1997 3:30 AM

Address your e-mail to the editors to letters@slate.com. Please include your address and daytime phone number (for confirmation only).


No Luddites in the Sierra

In "The Week/The Pawns," William Saletan's coverage of the Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue match, the author characterizes a perceived backlash against technology as "Sierra Club thinking." But Sierra Club hardly sees any threats to humanity arising from Kasparov's battle for greatest chess master with IBM's Deep Blue. The nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization could ill afford to see the world in such simplified Luddite terms.

Sierra Club embraces technological innovation. In addition to giving us lifesaving medicines and better products, science and technology are improving our ability to live in an economically robust nation using environmentally sound business practices. We depend on scientific methods and technology to assess the changing conditions of our planet. Science and technology are the tools that provide us with methods such as bioremediation for cleaning up oil spills, and data on the one-third of Americans who breathe polluted air.

What does merit our suspicion is a blind faith in the ability of machines and chemicals to make up for the destruction of the natural environment that ensures humankind has the clean water, air, and abundant resources we need to survive.


--Adam Werbachpresident, Sierra ClubSan Francisco

A Shade of Gray

Steven E. Landsburg's "Pay Scales in Black and White" ignores the simple fact that racism is nonrational. Managers do not say to themselves, "I am going to ignore the qualifications of this black person even though it will hurt my bottom line." Rather, a racist manager does not even see those qualifications.

Landsburg would do well to remember that, while mathematics is a wonderfully consistent, logical system of symbols, those very characteristics greatly limit its usefulness in describing the decisions we humans make on a daily basis. A computer may have beat a human at chess, but we have yet to make a computer that is capable of even the most basic human emotions that guide us.


--MichaelTerryColumbia, Mo.

The Vital Middle

I found Steven E. Landsburg's piece "Pay Scales in Black and White" extremely unconvincing. Saying that discrimination is not widespread in corporations because it wouldn't be in a CEO's best interest is like saying that waste in the federal government must not exist because it would be politically embarrassing to the president.

CEOs don't make hiring, promotion, and salary decisions for the vast majority of the employees in a large corporation. These decisions are made by middle management, who are free to indulge their prejudices, regardless of a calculation of what's best for the corporate bottom line.


--Mark CiccarelloKirkland, Wash.

Outer Space Economics

In "Pay Scales in Black and White," Steven E. Landsburg's back-of-the-envelope "proof" that discrimination doesn't exist (in any serious form) runs up against the hard fact that research shows it to exist. This is another example of abstract economic theory ignoring reality. After all, such calculations would prove that employers never prefer relatives or cronies' kids or pretty women, that they never goof off on the golf course and that they never waste money in general, because all these things would reduce their market performance.

It is a shame that at this stage you would cite The Bell Curve. It has been, by now, thoroughly discredited by a panel of the American Psychological Association and by several studies that reanalyzed the very same National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data that Herrnstein and Murray did--studies by, among others, Chris Winship at Harvard, a group at Brookings, and a group at Berkeley led by myself. The Wall Street Journal group of psychologists you mention who endorsed The Bell Curve are partisans of a now-anachronistic subfield in psychology, and are not representative.


--Claude S. Fischer Berkeley, Calif.

Vacuum Cleaning

While I do not presume to speak for all African-American readers of Slate, I am sure that the vast majority of us are not endeared to an otherwise excellent Webzine that insists on printing quasi-intellectual racist nonsense from Steven E. Landsburg, such as his latest article, "Pay Scales in Black and White."

Landsburg attempts, by economic sleight of hand, to argue that racism does not exist in corporate America because it would not be in its bottom-line interest for it to do so. By making racism into some financial decision on the part of rational individuals is not only wrong, but insulting. This sort of scientific objectivism is one of the major failures of applying the scientific method to economics. He sees the problem in a vacuum, instead of attempting to look at the entire picture.

The majority of African-Americans can't afford the same lifestyles and education as whites because they have not been allowed the opportunities in the past to take advantage of good jobs and good schools. Economists must remember that they are social scientists, not physicists (although they stole all of their mathematics from physics), that the representative agent does not exist in the real world, and that they must adjust their analysis accordingly. I do not mean that racism must be assumed and then disproved, although the track record of corporate America would almost make this allowable, but that assumptions must be thoroughly examined for all implications before even the first result is paraded about like the emperor's new clothes.

--Milton Christopher Appling

Steven E. Landsburg replies: Michael Terry has missed the point completely. Of course racism is nonrational. The point is that nonrational behavior becomes less likely as it becomes more expensive. So to determine the likelihood of employer discrimination, it's certainly relevant to figure out how expensive it is. If the answer were "5 percent of corporate profits," irrational racism would be pretty plausible. Because the answer is "150 percent of corporate profits," the plausibility falls dramatically.

Mark Ciccarello has a more interesting observation, which is that the people who make hiring decisions in large corporations might not have the interests of the CEO or the shareholders foremost in their minds. The question then is whether the CEO or the shareholders would be likely to take action to improve the performance of middle management. And again, the answer depends on how expensive it is to ignore such improvements. Nobody is claiming that corporations operate rationally or efficiently all the time. The claim is that irrational and inefficient behavior is more likely to disappear when it is very expensive--and in this case it is very expensive.

Claude S. Fischer's bald assertion that employer discrimination has been shown to be a significant factor in explaining black/white wage differentials is false. I note that he gives no citations.

In the same deceptive spirit, Fischer claims that a similar calculation would indicate that employers never prefer relatives or cronies' kids, or that they never goof off on the golf course--even though he makes no attempt to supply that calculation. I do not believe he can do so. There is no doubt that nepotism and golfing are costly, but to suggest that they are costly at anything like the level of 150 percent of corporate profits is just ridiculous. Fischer objects also to my citing The Bell Curve, despite the fact that I did not cite it with approval.

Finally, while I'm reluctant to respond to anybody who thinks that the laws of arithmetic can be "quasi-intellectual racist nonsense," I note that Milton Appling switches sides in the middle of his letter. By citing differences in educational opportunity he offers an alternative to the employer-discrimination theory of racial wage differentials. That's just what I was calling for in my column.

People Look Better in Profile

As a security officer at Microsoft, I would like to respond to Charles Simonyi's "I Fit the Profile."

America is a wonderful country. All over the world, people are subjected daily to the most appalling humiliations--their bodies and possessions searched, their livelihoods threatened, their very safety jeopardized--by obnoxious, petty, corrupt representatives of brutal, repressive regimes. Worst of all, they must suffer in silence, knowing that a callous nation cares little about their miserable fates. But America is different: Here, even a pampered multimillionaire can gripe about having his luggage inspected at an airport, confident of a sympathetic hearing. When it comes to righteous outrage, this nation is truly blessed.

I suspect that it was the randomness of Dr. Simonyi's search and not its sinister "profile" implications that really bothered him. Profiles, after all, don't usually target wealthy software executives, whereas random checks can't distinguish a Simonyi from a Simon.

--Dan SimonRedmond, Wash.

Hacking Away

Slate's attempts to discredit Col. David Hackworth mentioned in Michael Kinsley's "Medal Detector" item in "Readme" will not impress those of us who form our opinions on defense affairs from sources other than military publicists and their media allies.

Hack's crime is making a noise in behalf of the ordinary working soldier, and criticizing the complacent consortium of military bureaucrats, defense contractors, and their media sycophants who are all feathering their own nests at the expense of those who will risk their lives on our behalf. As far as decorations are concerned, one Medal of Honor is conferred for one act of bravery. Respect is due but it does not outrank a lifetime of proven courageous service. If you want to help preserve American military integrity I suggest you investigate Hack's charges instead of shooting (at) the messenger.

--W.D. Grissom

Survey Says

I wish to dicker with two of Luc Sante's assertions in his piece on Robert Hughes' New Yankee TV Art Wagon, "Master of All He Surveys." First, Martin Puryear has been covered all over the place and so the question of whether his copy is "hot" is one that depends entirely on an assessment of where the art world is, exactly, and who's copy is cold. Second, I really don't think we have to worry about Hughes steering clear of Hilton Kramer's opposition to postmodernism. Hughes, though he likes not much of what he has seen lately, at least does not jerk his knees in response to all new cultural production.

--Matthew DeBord

Draining the Pool

Michael Kinsley's argument in his capital-gains "Dialogue" that the tax does not affect the capital pool--is false. The assertion is that whether the transaction takes place or not, the amount of capital held between the buyer and seller remains constant. True, and utterly meaningless. A market-driven economy runs on transactions, not cash held in buried coffee cans. It is the exchange of value between two parties which provides the fuel (profit) for growth. Where Kinsley sees a constant balance of capital between buyer and seller, I see a house that was not sold, a transaction that did not take place. When that transaction fails to take place, a host of third parties fails to benefit from it. Each of these parties, from lawyers to accountants to gardeners, will then not spend the income that they did not earn when the transaction failed to take place.

--Mark Betz

Address your e-mail to the editors to letters@slate.com. Please include your address and daytime phone number (for confirmation only).