Email To The Editors

Unproven Pay Parity

Pay Check

I was rather dissatisfied with Jonathan Chait’s “Crapshoot” regarding the “pay gap” for servicemen. He states:

The 13 percent “pay gap” represents the difference in the growth of military versus civilian wages since 1982–that is, civilian wages have grown 13 percent faster. This does not mean that soldiers earn less than civilians, because it does not take into account the pay differential from 1982. If my wages have increased by 100 percent during the past five years while Bill Gates’ have increased by nearly 50 percent, this does not mean that I am earning 50 percent more than Bill Gates, since he was making more to begin with.

Does Chait really mean to imply that servicemen made a lot more money in 1982 than their civilian counterparts? The only evidence he offers for this position is that military members got a big raise in 1981. However, if memory serves me, the 1981 raise was designed to provide a “catch up” to bring military pay back to parity with civilian wages after a decade of lagging pay increases. It seems to me that military and civilian pay in 1982 should have been comparable. If this is true, the military may have since lost ground, because some of the annual raises since ‘82 have lagged the inflation rate.

He also cites studies from the Congressional Budget Office and the RAND Corp. that indicate that “enlisted service members” make more money than their civilian counterparts. I can’t speak about the CBO study, but I’ve seen the one from RAND, and its conclusions are more complicated than he suggests–that junior enlisted servicemen are overpaid compared to their civilian counterparts, senior enlisted are slightly underpaid, junior officers moderately underpaid, and senior officers seriously underpaid. So, does Chait advocate pay table reform rather than an across-the-board increase in pay?

The bottom line is that after reading this article, I’m no smarter than I was before about whether there really is a pay gap, since no evidence was offered that addressed the actual salaries of either the military or civilian population. A little more research would have been helpful here.

Geri Peters

Chesapeake, Va.

Fiddling With History

In “The Impenetrable Mr. Lapham“, Chatterbox writes, “the hallmarks of Lapham’s style are a magnificent contempt for mankind’s folly and an apparent conviction that the United States is reenacting the last days of Rome.” And Chatterbox cites Lapham’s mention of “the Roman mob familiar with the expensive claques traipsing after the magnificence of the Emperor Nero.”

Nero was emperor until 70 A.D. In that year, there were four emperors (Nero, Otho, Galba, and Vespasian), and the secret of the Roman Empire–that in a time of turmoil, a provincial commander with an army could march on Rome and become emperor–was revealed, but Rome’s decline was a long way off. The situation stabilized with Vespasian, and the second century A.D. is often considered the golden age of the empire (Gibbon himself says that the time of Marcus Aurelius–late second century–was the best time to live of all in history). Around 300, the empire split between east and west. The empire in the west finally collapsed in 476. In the east, it lasted until the 15th century.

So, if these times in the United States are like the time of Nero, we have (by analogy) at least 200 more years, including another century of greatness, and perhaps another millennium. This is not a criticism of your amusing article on Lapham, but of Lapham’s apparently poor grasp of actual ancient history.

David Margolies

Oakland, Calif.

Wrong Turns

I thought it might be worth attempting to correct some misstatements and mistakes made in Steve Chapman’s “Speeding While Sober.” Chapman writes, “The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that after the repeal of 55-mph speed limits, fatalities rose by 17 percent on interstate highways where the limit was raised.”

Hopefully Chapman is aware that the IIHS is an industry group whose members directly benefit from the imposition of a national speed limit. Further exploration would have turned up studies by the University of Georgia (if memory serves) and American Automobile Association showing either no increase or decrease in fatalities on roads where the speed limit was increased. Looking state by state, the same lack of a pattern emerges: There simply is no good data, counterintuitive though it may seem, to link “speeding” with accidents. Although deaths per passenger mile did indeed decline when the 55-mph limit was imposed, they have declined every year since statistics have been kept and are continuing to decline in the wake of the revocation of the national speed limit.

Another innocent mistake is comparing “speed-related” deaths to “alcohol-related deaths.” Chapman writes, “But speed comes in a very respectable second, killing 13,000 Americans annually.” The national database in which this information is kept allows officers at the scene to code multiple reasons for an accident; they do, indeed, tend to cite “excessive speed for conditions” as a contributing factor quite frequently. However, if you were to pull the number of accidents where speed was the sole factor cited, the number declines precipitously. Keep in mind, again, that the data are not good to begin with; this is simply the opinion of an officer who arrived on the scene after the fact.

The radar gun was invented to allow civil engineers to determine “85th percentile speed,” or that speed that 85 percent of drivers will maintain on a given piece of road. In more sensible times, that’s how speed limits were set: Build the road, time traffic on it, determine the speed most people are comfortable driving at, and post that as the limit to encourage uniform speeds, which, unsurprisingly, minimizes accidents. A national speed limit, by being completely separated from local conditions, actually encourages unsafe behavior, as people will vary in their speed significantly. On many roads, driving at or below the limit puts you well below the speed of most traffic, thereby greatly increasing the chances of an accident.

So, no; rigid enforcement of a national speed limit with draconian penalties for violating it will not save thousands of lives. Nor would repealing the freedom of the airwaves act (the federal legislation that permits radar detectors and any other listening-only devices) be a good idea merely to protect the various municipalities’ right to collect revenues from motorists. It may not be sexy or simple, but setting speed limits on a case-by-case basis at sensible speeds would do much more to reduce speeding and accidents than any of the measures Chapman proposes. Since even the Department of Transportation estimates that better than 80 percent of Americans speed, it might make more sense to look at why, rather than simply demanding that they all stop.

Or maybe Chapman thinks the current “war on drugs” is a good idea, too.

Simon Kennedy


Schooled in the Past

While it is always good to have some historical perspective on modern trends, I think David Greenberg misses a couple of subtle distinctions in his piece on the violence of schoolkids in years past (see “Students Have Always Been Violent“). Let’s stipulate that high-school males of yesteryear were a rowdy, school-stoning, carriage-tipping, teacher-beating, horse-whipping, liquor-soaked bunch of devolved maniacs. That is, after all, about the deepest level to which Greenberg’s analysis descends, and having once reached it he turns and angles for the bright sky of the story he wants to tell.

The kids in Littleton, Colo., murdered their classmates in cold blood. They found a 17-year-old girl weeping under a table, shouted “Peekaboo,” and killed her. At close range. And they apparently enjoyed it. “Look at this black kid’s brain! Awesome, man!” is what one was reported to have exclaimed. They stood in front of another girl, asked her if she believed in God, and shot her in the head when she answered yes. They had no goal; no end in mind beyond destruction. They weren’t trying to restrict a rival gang, enforce a political ideal, or overthrow authority. They appeared to revel in death and blood and hate for its own sake alone.

So, I ask Greenberg: Would you be comfortable lacing up the old athletic club breeches, rubbing a bit of pine tar on your trusty ball bat, and heading down to P.S. 121 with a few of your friends to teach these ruffians a lesson?

If Greenberg can’t detect the differences in these situations, then he is part of the problem. I too read a lot of history, but unlike Greenberg I think you have to go back a bit farther to find truly analogous behavior. The Dark Ages should prove fruitful. And by the way, it’s misleading to place the sentence “occasionally children were put to death” at the end of a list of the things teachers did to keep students in line. Does Greenberg mean to suggest this was the tool of last resort? He is referring to the fact that some teen-aged “children” were occasionally executed for crimes (the crime of murder in the period to which he refers, or perhaps for stealing hare from the king’s wood in earlier times). Not laudable, but definitely irrelevant to his argument. Just a bit later in the piece he makes the point himself that teen-agers were considered adults in the time he is examining. Or were we executing 9-year-olds back then?

Mark Betz

Parsippany, N.J.

Slate’s White Lies

I enjoy Jacob Weisberg’s writings on art, but in his review of the Whitney’s “The American Century” show (see “The Whitney on Prozac“) he conflates two of the museum’s most controversial shows. The buttons saying, “I can’t ever imagine wanting to be white,” by artist Daniel Martinez, were in the 1993 Biennial–not, as Weisberg writes, the Black Male show.

Robin Cembalest

Executive Editor, ARTnews

New York

Jacob Weisberg replies: I stand corrected.