The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

October 31, 2006

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 30 Oct 2006 22:21:56 -0500
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: Left Margin:  The Return of the Bell Curve

Left Margin:  The Return of the Bell Curve
By Carl Bloice
Black Commentator Editorial Board

On more than one occasion over recent months I've heard
or read something actually defending inequality. After
a lifetime of hearing about the idea of "liberty,
equality and fraternity", I was hearing educated people
saying inequality is what keeps the system going - a
motive force propelling our society to ever new
heights. At first, I found it hard to believe what I
was hearing. Then, I thought perversely, if a little
inequity is good for us, a lot of it must be better.
After all, that seems to be the operating principle of
the people currently in power in the nation's capital.
They keep pushing in that direction.

"The accepted view in social science is that
inequalities are an inevitable condition of economic
success," economic professor, Jacques Mistral, a senior
fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government,
commented back in July. He went on to note that the
number of people in the U.S. without health insurance
is growing and poverty rates here are "the highest
among all Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development countries, in particular for children and

Earlier this summer, belittling those it says "who
would discredit American capitalism," the editors of
The Economist magazine wrote: "Any system in which the
spoils are distributed so unevenly is morally wrong,
they say. This newspaper disagrees. Inequality is not
inherently wrong." The editors went on to say
inequality is not wrong if the society as a whole is
getting richer; there is a safety net for the "very
poor" and everybody has the chance to climb up through
the system. Of course, that's not saying much positive
about the economic situation today - at least in this
country. The safety net is being shredded, and the most
tattered parts are those designed to help the very
poor. As far as everybody - "regardless of class, race,
creed or sex" - having the ability to move upward,
well, there's ample evidence it just ain't happening.

In June, The Economist did a special issue on
"Inequality and the American Dream." It described the
U.S. as a country "that tolerates inequality" and
concluded that "... every measure shows that, over the
past quarter century, those at the top have done better
that those at the bottom" and "the gains of
productivity growth have become increasingly skewed."
Simply put, the editors acknowledge that while more and
more wealth is being created, those who already have
are having more and those who have little are having to
make do with less.

But here we are - in the richest country on the planet
where one in five children lives in poverty. Where a
worker who earns the minimum wage takes in $10,700
which $6,000 below the federal poverty level for a
family of three. Sixty-one percent of minimum wage
earners are women, many of them single.

While corporate profits have soared, inflation-adjusted
wage growth has stagnated and the wages of the lowest
paid workers amongst us have not kept up with
inflation.  From 2001 to 2003, inflation-adjusted
income among households in the lowest 20 percent of the
population decreased 5.1 percent.

Much is being made by some commentators about the
income differences between workers at the lower end of
so-called middle class and those employed at the higher
level, more-skilled jobs. Much of this is statistical
mirage. Income inequality is growing for the 80 percent
of American workers who are characterized as
"production and non-supervisory." - that is, the
working class.

Between 2002 and 2003 the number of Americans in
poverty increased by 1.3 million and poverty rates for
African American and Latino workers stood at over 20
percent. At the same time, real income for the bottom
40 percent of African-American households fell by
nearly 6 percent

The income disparity of African American families as
compared to whites actually increased over the past

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently
observed, "economic disparities in New York, as in the
United States as a whole, are wider than they have been
since the 1920's."

Enter the "Bell Curve." That's the title of  the 1994
book by early neo-conservatives Charles Murray and
Richard Herrnstein's that asserts intelligence is
largely a matter of birth, that there is little chance
of altering that fact, and that poor people and African
Americans in particular, are thus overrepresented among
the unintelligent. Their screed was widely denounced
for its racism and sloppy scholarship. Reactionary
commentator Pat Buchanan, however welcomed it as
shooting "a hole straight through the heart of
egalitarian socialism which tried to create equality of
result by coercive government programs."

Those who would have us believe that inequality is not
only inevitable naturally return to this discredited
view over and over because its thesis advances their
idea of the inevitable rise to dominance of the
"cognitive elite" under conditions of advanced
technology and globalization. They maintain that the
U.S. is becoming a genetic "meritocracy."

On October 5, The Economist returned to the subject of
inequality in a special edition titled: "The Search for
Talent." In it, the term "Bell Curve" appears twice. In
an editorial comment, ominously titled "the Dark Side,"
the magazine said:

Competition for talent offers many benefits--from
boosting productivity to increasing opportunities, from
promoting job satisfaction to supercharging scientific
advances. The more countries and companies compete for
talent, the better the chances that geniuses will be
raked up from obscurity.

But the subject is strewn with landmines. Think of the
furor that greeted Charles Murray's and Richard
Herrnstein's book "The Bell Curve," which argued that
there are differences in the average intelligence of
different racial groups; or the ejection of Lawrence
Summers as president of Harvard University because he
had speculated publicly about why there are so few
women in the upper ranks of science. It would be
wonderful if talent were distributed equally across
races, classes and genders. But what if a free market
shows it not to be, raising all sorts of political
problems? And what happens to talented Western workers
when they have to compete with millions of clever
Indians who are willing to do the job for a small
fraction of the price?

Notice that the Indians are not described as smarter,
only more "clever" than the "talented Western workers."

Then, in the main article, titled "The Revenge of the
Bell Curve," the magazine continues:

The second factor that links talent and inequality is
that members of the talent elite are good at hogging
"human capital." They marry people like themselves. In
the heyday of "company man," bankers married their
secretaries; now they marry other bankers. They work in
jobs that add to their intellectual capital. They live
in "talent enclaves," away from ordinary middle-class
suburbs, let alone inner-city ghettos. Above all, they
pass on their advantages to their children. Students
from the top income quartile increased their share of
places in elite American universities from 39% in 1976
to 50% in 1995.

None of this is peculiar to America or other rich
countries; the same thing is happening in the
developing world in even starker form. Members of the
talent elite there live in gated communities, some of
them with American names such as Palm Springs, Napa
Valley or Park Avenue, that boast international
schools, world-class hospitals, luxury housing and
splendid gyms.

"... The talent war is producing a global meritocracy--a
group of people nicknamed "Davos men" or "cosmocrats"
who are reaping handsome rewards from globalization.
These people inhabit a socio-cultural bubble full of
other super-achievers like themselves. They attend
world-class universities and business schools, work for
global organizations and speak the global language of

Countries that still insist on clinging to
egalitarianism are paying a heavy price. Sweden, for
instance, finds it hard to attract foreign talent. And
across Europe, egalitarian universities are losing out
to their more elitist American rivals.

The answer, then, to rising inequality is to cease
"clinging to egalitarianism."

Most of the world's main problems today are inseparable
from the dynamics of rapacious globalization and the
so-called market economy. Without some fundamental
changes, the future under this system will see
increased poverty, more environmental degradation, and
what writer Ronald Aaronson has termed "ever more
uneven distribution of resources and the undermining of
traditional societies and ways of life, for a culture
dominated by marketing, advertising and uneven global

The market economy - in all its aspects: production,
service, education, housing, etc.) is driven by the
pursuit of profit. It is that drive, and not some
exorable drive toward a mythical "meritocracy" arising
from technological change. One might think that in a
world of expanding production and wealth creation there
ought to be more not less job security and prosperity.
Instead under the present setup, the already well-to-do
and their progeny get more security and prosperity and
working men and women and their families get less. That
may be how the system works but it ain't right and it
doesn't have to be.

There is no reason why the United States with its great
wealth and resources cannot decide to launch major
redevelopment of our crumbling physical infrastructure,
rebuild and retrofitting highway bridges and railroads
thus providing jobs for the unemployed; come up with a
massive plan to overhaul and upgrade the nation's
school systems, with emphasis starting with inner-city
schools that are failing our young people so miserably
today; create a single-payer system. It should be clear
that the reasons such projects are not undertaken is
because they are not at the service of "market forces,"
that they do not produce vast profits for the
profiteers, and that they would spread the wealth

We are not faced with scarcity, limited resources and
declining production but growing wealth and
productivity. Under these circumstances, every working
woman and man should earn the right to never be afraid
of not having quality medical care, never being afraid
of having no security in retirement, never being afraid
of being rendered homeless and never being afraid that
their children will not have the best education the
society is able to provide. Without such
pre-conditions, talk of a level playing field or an
earth made "flat" by internet technology is just so
much foolishness.

Oh, they try to scare us with threats like foreign
competition, immigration and an aging population. But
that's all so much bunk. Sure, adjustments must be made
but they don't have to involve ever-increasing
institutionalized economic and social inequality.

The Economist editors concluded their survey speaking
of "the risks of a backlash against the talented
elite." Yes, there must be, and surely will be, a
backlash. It is already underway across the globe. But
it is not, nor should it be, against those who have,
through their efforts and talents, legitimately reaped
success. Simply put: it's the system that's at fault.
We should not turn our backs on that idea just because
the rich and powerful and their theorists say it is
misplaced altruism and that the reality is that
inequality is good for us.

Left Margin appears in BC every other week.

BC Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in
San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating
Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for
Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a
healthcare union.



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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 31 Oct 2006 11:45:52 -0800
From: Florence Chee <>
Subject: [Air-l] Clifford Geertz 1926-2006

I am sure that many on this list have been influenced by Clifford Geertz and
would wish to know about the passing of this amazing scholar. He will be
missed by many, I am certain.

>From the Institute for Advanced Study:

PRINCETON, N.J., October 31, 2006 -- Clifford Geertz, an eminent scholar in
the field of cultural anthropology known for his extensive research in
Indonesia and Morocco, died at the age of 80 early yesterday morning of
complications following heart surgery at the Hospital of the University of
Pennsylvania. Dr. Geertz was Professor Emeritus in the School of Social
Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he has served on the
Faculty since 1970. Dr. Geertz's appointment thirty-six years ago was
significant not only for the distinguished leadership it would bring to the
Institute, but also because it marked the initiation of the School of Social
Science, which in 1973 formally became the fourth School at the Institute.

Dr. Geertz's landmark contributions to social and cultural theory have been
influential not only among anthropologists, but also among geographers,
ecologists, political scientists, humanists, and historians. He worked on
religion, especially Islam; on bazaar trade; on economic development; on
traditional political structures; and on village and family life. A prolific
author since the 1950s, Dr. Geertz's many books include *The Religion of
Java* (1960); *Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and
Indonesia* (1968); *The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays* (1973,
2000); *Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali* (1980); and *The
Politics of Culture, Asian Identities in a Splintered World *(2002). At the
time of his death, Dr. Geertz was working on the general question of ethnic
diversity and its implications in the modern world.

Peter Goddard, Director of the Institute, said, "Clifford Geertz was one of
the major intellectual figures of the twentieth century whose presence at
the Institute played a crucial role in its development and in determining
its present shape. He remained a vital force, contributing to the life of
the Institute right up to his death. We have all lost a much loved friend."

Dr. Geertz's deeply reflective and eloquent writings often provided profound
and cogent insights on the scope of culture, the nature of anthropology and
on the understanding of the social sciences in general. Noting that human
beings are "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animals," Geertz
acknowledged and explored the innate desire of humanity to "make sense out
of experience, to give it form and order." In *Works and Lives: The
Anthropologist as Author* (1988), Geertz stated, "The next necessary neither the construction of a universal Esperanto-like
culture...nor the invention of some vast technology of human management. It
is to enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite
different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet
contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it
is increasingly difficult to get out of each other's way."
Dr. Geertz is survived by his wife, Dr. Karen Blu, an anthropologist retired
from the Department of Anthropology at New York University; his children,
Erika Reading of Princeton, NJ, and Benjamin Geertz of Kirkland, WA; and his
grandchildren, Andrea and Elena Martinez of Princeton, NJ. He is also
survived by his former wife, Dr. Hildred Geertz, Professor Emeritus in the
Department of Anthropology at Princeton University.

A Memorial will be held at the Institute for Advanced Study. Details will be
announced at a future date.

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