Letters to the Editor - September 2017

Economic Woes

This Is Not Your Parents’ Economy” (July/August) examined research on the declining percentage of children earning more than their parents.

With regards to the Chetty-Grusky study of the relationship of inequality and upward mobility, there are several flaws
in their basic premise. The most significant is the comparison of someone born in the early 1940s to someone born in the 1980s. The 1940 birth cohort was born in the final years of the Great Depression. We were as low as we could get before the jolt of WWII got people back to work again. Those of us who were born then benefited from the huge postwar recovery that carried economy, income and wealth to higher levels. By the time we were in the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s, 92 percent of us were easily making more than our mostly single-earner parents did in the 1930s. Those born in 1980 had no such deep economic depression to recover from. So 50 percent making more than their parents is probably not that bad, particularly considering the weight of the administrative state on the economy that existed in 2010.
Bill Prescott, MBA ’67
St. George, Utah

It appears that both the author and Kim Weeden, speaking for the Center for the Study of Inequality, confuse the ideas of equality of opportunity and income inequality. In our current social discourse, the term “income inequality” is bandied about when referring to the gap between what the top earners make and the bottom. The problem here is that the term itself suggests that ideally incomes should be equal. Unequal and equitable are two completely different concepts! When we talk about equality of opportunity, or equality before the law (equity or fairness), we mean that everyone should be given the same chance and be seen as the same. When we use the term “income inequality,” do we mean that incomes should be the same? I suspect not, at least for most of us. 

Instead we should be talking about “disparity,” or the gap between what top earners make and the rest of society. Incomes should not be equal; the jobs some people do are worth more to our society than the jobs others do. So when the author points out that a more even distribution of incomes, as in the past, produces greater upward mobility, she should be clear that this is an argument for reducing the disparity between high earners and low earners, not an argument to make incomes equal.
John Hankerson, ’75, MA ’76, MBA ’89
Sammamish, Washington

Your article seems to have ignored issues that, I would argue, are equally large contributors to the current generation’s failure to achieve the “American Dream.”

First is the degeneration of the nuclear family. A single parent’s ability to move up the income ladder is severely restricted. Conversely, successful two-parent families can divide the responsibility for advancing careers while at the same time creating a safe and nurturing home environment. Don’t forget—healthy, well-adjusted children and grandchildren are part of the American Dream too. 

Second, I don’t believe that current generations pursue the American Dream as intensely or passionately as we baby boomers and our parents did. Millennials seem to value job satisfaction and a balanced life over the absolute value of their compensation and net worth. This is not necessarily bad, but to a certain extent they are redefining the dream.
Arlan Emmert, MS ’74
San Marino, California

Rebecca Beyer describes a renowned study that focuses on the question of how to “preserve America as a land of opportunity for all.” Having outlined the study’s findings, she quotes one of the researchers, David Grusky, as saying, “And now that we know, it’s up to the people. That’s how democracies work.”

In a nation where electoral power has been placed firmly in the hands of corporations and the wealthy; where office seekers use gerrymandering to customize their constituencies; where entrenched racism shapes the election process and much political discourse; where the tax structure tips the scale of opportunity entirely in favor of the wealthy; where privately owned media actively conceal data that’s inconvenient to the rulers by distracting the masses with trivia; where the inept, racist behavior of law enforcement agencies goes unchecked; where industry regulators lunch with regulatees; where the Electoral College trumps the will of the people, one wonders just how the system might create a real-time, hands-on state in which the choice of who shall govern and administer the law might be said to be “up to the people.”

According to Grusky’s aphorism, either democracy does not work, or this is not a democracy.
(Robin) Kevin Brown, ’66
Kaunakakai, Hawaii 

In the early 1980s, it was decided to use the tax code to redistribute America’s wealth from the people who create and spend the wealth, the workers, to the people who manipulate the wealth, investors. Roughly 90 percent of the new wealth was given to 10 percent of the people, under the rationale that these 10 percent paid most of the taxes. No one asked if the richest 10 percent bought 90 percent of the cars or bread made in America, or if they bought 90 percent of the Gucci bags or million-dollar yachts. Imagine how vibrant, and upwardly mobile, our economy would be if 90 percent of the new wealth had been given to 90 percent of our people.
David J. Dumin, PhD ’65
St. Petersburg, Florida

To assert that the decrease in upward mobility is caused by contemporaneous income inequality makes as much sense as saying that, because North Korea’s ICBM program was developed during the same period as the decline of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Lakers’ fall led to Mr. Kim’s rise.

Second, absolute poverty has been declining worldwide for the past century. This matters far more than whether my son (who already outearns my best year) will outearn Bill Gates.
David Altschul, MA ’76
Nashville, Tennessee

I agree that the American Dream has been in peril for many decades. However, an important contributor to this problem was not mentioned. The Federal Reserve creates economic conditions that favor the wealthy while hurting the poor. For decades, the Fed has been printing ever-increasing numbers of dollars for the purpose of driving down interest rates. For corporations, low interest rates make it easier to buy robots to replace employees, benefiting stockholders but not the workers. Low interest rates typically drive up home prices, and people with good credit can get low interest rates to help buy increasingly expensive homes, but for those without good credit these increasing prices simply make homes more unaffordable. Low interest rates typically drive up the value of stocks and real estate owned by the wealthy, and drive down interest rates for savings and CDs owned by the poor and retirees. So, while the Fed touts slogans about full employment, their creating money out of thin air hurts the poor.
John Axtell, ’76 
Wichita, Kansas

Maker Lab

Readers remembered their work with Dave Beach in the Product Realization Lab (“Magic in the Making,” July/August).

Thank you for your profile of Dave Beach and his Product Realization Lab. In the early ’80s, Mechanical Engineering 103: Manufacturing Technology was not only the practical heart of the School of Engineering’s product design program, it was for me the most useful and influential class in my entire academic career. It provided a practical foundation that helped a young engineer earn the respect of curmudgeonly Silicon Valley machinists with decades of experience. Even today, it gives an active patent attorney a deep and authentic connection to designers and engineers, founded on a shared appreciation for a beautifully realized prototype, the smell of machine oil and some honest dirt under the fingernails.
Ben Langlotz, ’84
Plano, Texas

I met Dave Beach when I started at Stanford in autumn of 1969 and have admired him ever since. Ask any of his students to name the class in which they worked the hardest, learned the most about themselves and produced their finest results. Chances are excellent they will name a class taught by Dave Beach that included work in the PRL. 

The PRL and Dave’s inspired teaching have acquainted countless students with the wonders of fabricating products. Untold numbers of Stanford product design graduates are successful because they learned the importance of knowing what it takes to actually make their designs. Other students changed the direction of their education and their very lives due to enlightenment found in the PRL. 

However, it is remarkable that Stanford supports the PRL and Dave’s long-term employment without the PRL crawling with PhDs and postdoc research contracts.

How long will this unique and wonderful Stanford enterprise go on should Dave decide someday to shuffle off his mortal coil? Why not elevate manufacturing in importance at Stanford by creating a center for product design and manufacturing and leading a resurgence in the practice of actually building great products in the USA? Can Stanford somehow make permanent the practice of opening students’ minds and eyes to the joy and importance of actually making things?
Dave Lima, ’73, MS ’78
Gilroy, California

Candor or Bigotry?

Readers responded to an interview with controversial Somalian activist and Hoover Institution fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali (“To Change People’s Minds,” July/August).

“To Change People’s Minds” touches on the use of accusations of [insert name of group]-phobia to stifle discussion of actions disproportionately emanating from certain ideologies or groups. Specifically, it notes that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s outspoken concerns about the spread of Sharia and political Islam—and what she believes is the associated reduction in women’s autonomy—are often considered offensive and Islamophobic. Brandeis University revoked its honorary degree and invitation to speak; this is in addition to Hirsi Ali living under the stresses associated with a fatwa calling for her death! The general attitude is: Because her statements are considered offensive, they are unacceptable. Whether they are accurate or not is of little relevance. Not surprisingly, the converse is also true: Positive but unsubstantiated statements about a group or ideology are often accepted—and questioning the veracity of the statements is considered offensive.

I fear that campaigns such as “hate has no home here” are serving as proxies to suppress legitimate concerns. In “The Threat from Within” (Stanford News, February 2017), former provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, expresses concern about characterizing “those with opposing views as evil or ignorant or stupid, rather than as interlocutors worthy of consideration.” 

I think accuracy/truth should be the most important determinant of the acceptance of an argument. (Whether it is offensive or not should still be considered in how one reacts, but this should be secondary). When I say accuracy/truth, I do not mean cherry-picking facts and data to support a preformed opinion; rather, I mean a rational review of all of the data and logical extrapolations from it.

I understand the fear: Blind, irrational hatred has caused the death of millions over the course of history. But I do not believe suppressing negative statements is the answer. We are most likely to have harmony and fairness in our society if we allow all viewpoints to be expressed openly. At this point, an honest vetting can occur. 

A positive statement is not always correct; a negative statement is not always inaccurate. As Hirsi Ali says, “[I]f you’re critical of this set of ideas, you’re not phobic: You have an opinion.”
Michael Mackaplow, MS ’91, PhD ’96
Chicago, Illinois

The fact that you chose to provide two full pages of print space to an interview with the internationally (in)famous Islamophobic bigot Ayaan Hirsi Ali says a lot about you, your magazine and, sadly, the state of affairs in our nation today. Hirsi Ali’s entire claim to fame is propounding virulent anti-Islamic hate speech wherever she goes. In this globally orchestrated campaign she has many cohorts, enablers and supporters, now reaching all the way into the shiny white corridors of power. “Islam hates us,” says Mr. Trump; Hirsi Ali and Co. applaud, at least in their hearts. She, like Trump, distills down a highly complex, multicultural faith tradition with a 1,400-year history into “a set of ideas” of her own making and then proceeds to vilify that faith tradition and thereby its 1.8 billion adherents living in nearly 200 countries across the globe. Trump and Co. attempt to disguise their bigotry by using code-word qualifiers like “radical” and “extremist,” while Hirsi Ali and friends throw out terms like “political Islam” and “fundamentalist.” The effect is the same: the legitimization and spread of xenophobic anti-Islam, anti-Muslim fervor across the world, in particular in the U.S. and Europe. 

Deeply disappointed and offended.
Saif M. Hussain, MS ’84
Woodland Hills, California

I walked into my apartment complex to find the current issue of Stanford magazine at my doorstep. The front cover read “Rising Worries: How inequality is putting the American Dream in peril,” and with a beaming smile, I opened it immediately to read how my alma mater is actively pursuing research to address an issue plaguing our current society. I was reassured of the university’s commitment toward cultivating, as President Tessier-Lavigne describes in his column, purposeful leadership “involving a focus on improving the human condition.” As I continued to read through the magazine, I was astounded by the sharp contrast of “To Change People’s Minds” with the president’s words of global citizenship and responsibility. The article portrayed Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a champion of Islamic reform. I am a Muslim immigrant and my dream of dedicating my life to “improving the human condition” by furthering medicine and engineering was made possible by Stanford. My choice of attire in my practice of Islam has taught me to struggle for that dream through professors’ asking my neighbor to “help the poor girl out with her question” while directly addressing all other questions raised in a class of 300, to patients’ asking me whether I was “carrying any guns today or not.” The current sociopolitical climate continues to add to that struggle, and on a recurring basis, I face reduction of years of work toward becoming a surgeon-scientist to the image of an entity to be feared. Under such circumstances, to witness Stanford endorsing an individual whose agenda is focused on claiming that Islam’s acceptance in the Western world is contingent upon changing its fundamental tenets because they are at odds with the views of Western civilization was both overwhelming and disheartening. Her words have inspired hate and Islamophobia for years, as exemplified by the parallel of her rhetoric—“People don’t see that Sharia has spread from its heartland all the way to the West”—with the claims spread by hate groups across the country. By affirming her ideology, you as an institution are supporting the opinion that my faith, which forms the foundation of my identity and my inspiration toward attaining knowledge for “improving the human condition,” has no place in the U.S. without change—that I have no place in the U.S. without change. I would like to know why her viewpoint was chosen to be portrayed as the model for Islamic reform over countless well-respected authorities of Islamic scholarship.
Rowza Rumma, ’10, MD ’15
Everett, Massachusetts

Props to Stanford for its interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Back in my student days, I was not a fan of the Hoover Institution, which I saw as a bastion of right-wing anachronistic thinking. But I was delighted to read in your latest edition that Hirsi Ali is now one of its fellows and a part of the Stanford intellectual community. She is a controversial figure and I imagine you will get a mailbox-full of complaints for publishing the interview. But I, for one, applaud your allowing her the opportunity to explain, in her own words, her views on political Islam. In my opinion, she is a hero.
David Leidner, ’91
San Luis Obispo, California

It is a measure of how acceptable bigotry has become that an interview with a person who avows contempt for a world religion is depicted as an exercise in thought-provoking free speech. All religions include hypocrites and violent extremists because they are, after all, human, not divine institutions. But we respect religions for their ideas, inspiration and contributions to society. I don’t think you would run an interview with a Jewish Holocaust denier, or a Muslim who called Christianity a gutter religion of infidels, or a white supremacist who claims that black men are inherently violent and must be “reformed.” The Hirsi Ali interview condemns an entire world religion without specifics and relies on images of wife beating, honor killing and the like. But I venture to say that we have more domestic violence, family abandonment and male chauvinism in our Judeo-Christian culture than the entire Muslim world combined. As a publisher, I appreciate you for publishing various perspectives, but this interview was bigotry made to look interesting and acceptable.
Cynthia Cannady, ’72
Altadena, California

Out of Control

Rob Jackson, chair of Earth system science, wrote about a course in which his students consider how and whether to control nature (“Controlling Nature,” July/August).

When I read that a course entitled Control of Nature is currently offered at Stanford, I wondered: Humans are part of nature. How well do any of us control our thoughts, feelings and actions? If we’re short of controlling these phenomena with which we’ve so much intimate experience, how well can we control larger, more distant parts of nature?

Seventy-five years ago, Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the first “controlled” sustained nuclear fission reaction. Forty-four years later, operators of a Chernobyl power plant discovered that their “control” of another very similar nuclear fission reaction was less than they’d thought, and rendered a thousand square miles of Ukraine unsafe for human habitation for millennia. What kind of control is this?

When Professor Jackson suggests that we might “twiddle” the climate like a thermostat, he risks inviting readers to confuse a system with a control, and to overestimate our capabilities to shape the world to our liking.
Jen Bayer
Palo Alto, California

The entire global warming effort has been misfocused on carbon, ignoring methane and rainforest depletion. The focus should be on changing eating habits to vegan, which will do more for global warming than completely eliminating all uses of hydrocarbons. Might even save people from a few heart attacks.
Stephen Keith, ’72, MS ’72
Aurora, Colorado

Educational Progress

Learning from the Experts” (July/August) looked back at 100 years of work at the Graduate School of Education.

Your article did not link the contributions of GSE scholars and researchers to progress in educational outcomes—perhaps because there has been so little progress in literacy and math proficiency among U.S. students. (Since the National Assessment of Educational Progress began measuring student proficiency in those fields in the 1970s, results have remained virtually flat among high school seniors.) Imagine if Stanford prepared graduates in computer science, engineering, business or medicine for fields in which productivity and outcomes remained almost static for 40 years. What would we think of Stanford’s work in those disciplines if it had failed, over generations, to deliver meaningful gains to society? 

The article notes how GSE researchers have documented the adverse impacts of poverty on student achievement. Let’s acknowledge, though, that poverty can also result from low student achievement. Does the work at GSE foster the progress in student achievement that our world requires?
James Mills, ’78
Walnut Creek, California

An Uplifting Call

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s July/August column discussed how Stanford can cultivate “purposeful leadership.”

I congratulate President Tessier-Lavigne for his institutional commitment to form university students focused on “improving the human condition” and reducing human suffering through selfless service. At a time when egocentric behavior and rampant violence are too common in our world, it is truly encouraging to hear his uplifting call for the best in the next generations of Stanford graduates. His reference to Jane Stanford’s words in her opening-day address reminded me of the inspirational time I spent at the Memorial Church reading her statements engraved on the walls, viewing the superb stained-glass windows and listening to quiet organ music. Thank you!
Humberto M. Rasi, PhD ’71
Loma Linda, California

‘Honesty and Courage’

May/June essay by Brooke Vittimberga, ’17, challenged the messages she received that as a cancer patient, she was “strong.”

Brooke Vittimberga omitted two important attributes in what she lists as her strengths: honesty and courage. Only when one enters the complexity of the conglomerate of “cancer” and experiences one or more of the multitude of treatments can one identify with another person in the cancer world. The well-meaning but usually awkward response of those who don’t understand (and, as Brooke felt, may choose not to understand) often places the person undergoing treatment on the defensive and, more often than not, ends a conversation, leading to an enhanced feeling of being alone. Her courage in relating the agony, physical and emotional, of the treatments and her rejection of being told that she is strong reveal the reality that is so often concealed. May she flourish in her studies and in life.

Ann Kent Witztum, ’61
Beer Sheva, Israel