Winter 2012 Correspondence

Income inequality article is wrong

CommonWealth is wrong about the policy implications of income in­equality (“A have and have-not world,” Fall ’11). To the extent the magazine discusses income inequality as a matter of concern in and of itself, it fails to take into account the degree to which non-productive actors (in the sense of adding to the country’s net worth) account for skewing at the top. This group includes entertainers, professional athletes, and others who by virtue of modern technology are able to sell their services for much higher prices than was the case even a few years ago.

Incidentally, I don’t leave out investment bankers, Fortune 500 CEOs, hedge fund managers, and the like, but in most of those cases they only make the really big bucks if their clients and stockholders (including pension funds, foundations, and non­profit endowments) do, too. Also, in­come figures do not take into account the considerable movement of Ameri­cans up and down the income scales during the course of their lives. It’s really hard to keep making $100 million a year unless you are like Warren Buffett and have created productive wealth that throws off that $100 million every year.

If people are really concerned about economic policies that derive from the fact that some Americans have more, even much more, than others, they should begin with wealth distribution, the proportion of wealth held at the top (say, by the 1 percent) and the resiliency of the very wealthy to stay wealthy.

It turns out that the figure for wealth held by the top has been declining (small uptick coming out of the Clinton years) since the beginning of the 20th century. Moreover, the population has grown dramatically in a century. The number of people in the 1 percent today vastly outstrip the number a century ago, and they are wealthier (as are we all) to boot.

There is no question that Ameri­cans are less confident in their ability to achieve the American Dream these days, but not because they’ve lost sight of it. Why shouldn’t they be less confident when personal income has deteriorated so dramatically over the last few years, especially when that decline reflects a decline for, unfortunately, mostly the middle class? But it’s in the middle-class’s heart where the American Dream has always beat so confidently. It still does.

I can’t speak for Alan Wolfe, but I think, in your quote of him (Editor’s Note), he is wrong and, if we could spend some time together, he might well amend his observation to say: “As far as politics is concerned, there is no longer a belief in an American Dream by many of our elite leaders because they cannot agree on what it means to be an American.” That’s the real policy question.

Harvey E. Bines
Attorney, Sullivan & Worcester Boston

Newspaper decline needs coverage

Congratulations to you and your staff for a stellar report on the vulnerable state of the newspaper industry in Massachusetts (Anniversary Issue ’11). The problem is, the industry is not covering its own decline, and efforts to educate citizens on the decline’s deleterious effect on democracy are not only welcome, but necessary.

Bill Mills
Editorial Page Editor
Cape Cod Times

Community colleges are path to American Dream

Reading the fall edition of Common­Wealth (“The American Scream”) made me think about the time I had the opportunity to walk up the same steps at Ellis Island that my father traveled as a child coming to Amer­ica. It was a significant and powerful experience for me. At the top of those stairs, you enter the Great Room. To the right you see the Statue of Liberty and, to the left, the skyline of a nation. One can only imagine what it was like for those who walked those steps in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Far too many in our nation now know the fears and frustrations that are inevitable as the doors to opportunity are closing. It’s as if a gate with a “Do Not Enter” sign is placed across that stairway of aspiration at Ellis Island. Hopelessness is the outcome.

With a majority of the nation’s wealth limited to a small percent of the population, joblessness still increasing, housing and health care in crisis, and the cost of education soaring out of reach for most, the United States is moving toward a two-class system. Our middle class is in trouble.

Fortunately, community colleges continue to offer hope for America’s future. My college offers an excellent case in point. Its graduates are proof that, with opportunity and hard work, America’s dreams are still alive.

GCC held its commencement this past June. In that graduating class, there were many moms and dads juggling family, work, and their college education. There were men and women who lost their jobs and then entered GCC eager to retool and re­start. There were veterans who came to GCC after serving their country. Many who graduated that day were in the middle of life’s transitions. Some came to our community from villages and communities around the world. And in that class, just as in all of the GCC classes before, vast majorities were the first in their families to attend a college.

Forty-five percent of GCC graduates over the past five years have transferred on to the college of their choice and 70 percent of those who graduated in one of our professional/ career programs are employed or continuing their education within a year of graduation.

The pathway in our community to the American Dream does pass through the doors of Greenfield Community College. This fall, GCC opened its doors to 2,510 new and returning students. We welcomed each into something much more significant than our new building; we opened the doors to opportunity. There might not be a replica of the Statue of Liberty welcoming all who enter, but there might as well be. With the pursuit of their dreams, they are achieving the dream that our nation holds out for each of them. In so doing, they are holding out the lamp, illuminating a path, so that others may follow.  Each student is illuminating a path of hope traveled each day by the 12.4 million students who walk through the open doors of America’s 1,167 community colleges.

Robert L. Pura
Greenfield Community College