Kudos to Elizabeth Gudrais for her article on Matthew Desmond and the victims of eviction (“Disrupted Lives,” January-February, page 38). However, Desmond should have spent some “immersion” time with the other victims of eviction—the landlords.
I have been a landlord for many years, and can tell you from experience that just from financial considerations, eviction is the last resort when all other options have been exhausted. Based on my experience, evicting a tenant costs the landlord at least the equivalent of six months’ rent (legal, carrying costs, repairs, etc.).
So when a tenant fails to pay the rent on time, the landlord usually tries to contact the tenant to resolve the situation by payment plan, moving-on help, etc. The breakdown comes after no response from the tenant or multiple breaking of promises or commitments.
And the author should note that anyone in the eviction process has at least received a letter from the landlord, and been legally served, and notified of a court date, and the judgment. So a tenant saying that they didn’t know about the eviction is either lying, or someone in their household is disposing of their mail.
And while it is unfair to make generalizations about evicted tenants’ character, these tenants often cause massive damage to the apartment. Or what about Desmond’s roommate, “Woo,” who had been jailed for delinquent child-support payments. Was he a hard-luck victim or an irresponsible and uncaring father?
I don’t pretend to know the solution to this problem. However, I would suggest some research be done on how to stop the household perpetrators of eviction who victimize so many of those who sadly depend on them.
Richard Odessey, Ph.D. ’74
My most recent issue arrived in my mailbox on Christmas Eve. I talked to at least two people yesterday who will soon be evicted from their homes. I had to tell them that there was nothing that I, as a legal-aid attorney, could do to stop it. The best advice I could give them was to start packing and see if they could store their belongings with family or friends. This happens on a daily basis for me and my colleagues at legal services and other social-services agencies across the country.
To Matthew Desmond and to Harvard Magazine, I have this to say: thank you for your important work, and for telling the stories of my clients’ lives, and for sharing these with the wider Harvard community.
Kathleen Flaherty, J.D. ’94
I appreciate this article and the sincere work that Professor Desmond does on a subject most would rather look away from. I would ask that sociologists direct more of their research, however, toward solutions, and that we spend more time talking to those in poverty about how poverty can be overcome and explaining how poor decisions lead to and can keep persons in poverty.
For those born into poverty, we need to communicate loudly and often that no matter what the circumstances or the macroeconomic environment, poverty can be overcome and/or avoided by doing three things: complete high school (at a minimum); work full time; and marry before you have children.
For those currently in poverty, we need to communicate loudly and often that this can be temporary if you make better choices. Choose to stay in school and earn your high-school diploma. Choose to learn a trade if college is not appropriate. Choose to take a minimum-wage job without benefits at a fast-food restaurant rather than remain unemployed. Choose to delay having children if you don’t have or earn enough money to support them.
I was born 50 years ago into a family on public assistance residing in low-income, public housing in a small town in Georgia. I was able to overcome this circumstance as did all my siblings. We need to spend less time, as this article seems to suggest, categorizing the poor as “victims” and assigning others blame for their state. I recommend we share more about what is possible when working with those in difficult situations. Life is a series of choices and one’s fate is predominantly self-determined. It is not just what I believe but what I know to be true.
Harold S. Lewis ’85
I would hope that the next article about Matthew Desmond’s work would examine the problems owners experience in dealing with tenants who boldly lie on their rental application, trash the property once ensconced therein, and work the system to avoid paying rent for which they are legally responsible.
John Purdy, M.B.A. ’62
“Disrupted Lives” was jarring. Kudos to Matthew Desmond and his colleagues for their courage to take an ethnographic research approach to exposing eviction as a significant source of degrading the poor further into a class tantamount to that of the homeless refugee. Moreover, this body of research throws a mirror up to the plethora of public-health issues that eviction generates, as well as our collective need to solve these problems in our communities.
As an aside, your readership may consider the ironic juxtaposition of the magazine’s front cover, “Eviction: A plague on America’s poor,” with the back-cover ad for Maserati, “The Key to an Extraordinary Life Is Quite Literally the Key,” in questionable taste. Frankly, it speaks volumes about the challenges we face as a “great society.”
Robert G. Denmark, M.P.H. ’92, S.D.M. ’94
Lafayette Hill, Pa.
Thank you for publishing the excellent article on eviction. I would just like to note a couple of additional ironies. In Massachusetts, if a family leaves its housing after receiving an eviction notice but before the sheriff arrives to toss its belongings onto the sidewalk, the state considers that the family left shelter voluntarily and so is not eligible for aid through the homeless assistance program. Most families, of course, are not aware of this Catch-22 and believe they are doing the right thing by leaving before undergoing the public humiliation (and public expense) of being physically expelled.
The article notes that sociologist Matthew Desmond advocates increasing access to free legal counsel for tenants to protect their housing rights. However, during the recent era of increasing rents, support for legal aid has fallen, not risen. One reason is that a major source of funding for legal aid is interest on lawyers’ trust accounts. Since interest rates have fallen drastically, legal-aid groups have lost up to 80 percent of the funds they receive from this resource. That’s how it seems to go with services for the poor in hard times: more need, less access.
Jane Collins ’71
Prior to studying the poor, Matthew Desmond, the sociologist in Elizabeth Gudrais’s article, wrote On the Fireline. There, he examines why firefighters “choose to enter such a risky profession, and how their upbringing socializes them to underestimate just how dangerous it is.” To promote firefighter safety, Mr. Desmond concludes that the U.S. Forest Service should “focus more on teamwork and less on individual responsibility.”
Next, Desmond studied the “involuntarily displaced,” explaining that the poor create “disposable ties” for urban survival. However, these disposable ties “fray or break off after a short duration.” Desmond also states that displaced children live “a transient existence that is known to affect children’s emotional well-being and their performance in school.”
Succinctly put, instability creates more instability.
The questions Desmond ponders in relation to firefighters are applicable to the poor as well: why do some people choose to engage in risky behaviors and does their upbringing socialize them to underestimate just how dangerous their behaviors can be?
Can the same remedy Desmond suggested for the firefighters work for the poor? Can society focus more on teamwork, i.e., the nuclear family, and less on the individual?
Gudrais and Desmond ignore the obvious instability of the nuclear family with the evicted poor. Who are the “relative” children with Danielle Shaw and Jerry Allen? Why are Shaw and Allen living together in the first place, especially since they are both so young and neither has a stable job? Where are their parents? Where is the husband of the woman who works two jobs, with two children, one of whom is two months old? How can Woo consider marrying someone else when he does not support the children he has with another woman?
No problem in society will be fixed while the family is broken. Period.
Beth Donofrio, Ed.M. ’94
Here we go again vilifying landlords—portraying them all as the scourge of society.
In 1962, my parents bought their first rental property, with one of the apartments occupied by a young widow and her two children. My parents leased the apartment to this widow for another 45 years and the rent was privately subsidized by my family the entire time. For over five decades, we have made similar long-term private-subsidy arrangements, leasing to a Catholic nun, Vietnam veteran, and functioning alcoholic, among others. It was our decision to take a 100 percent out-of-pocket loss of some rental income to keep these tenants housed and off public assistance. But the deal was the same in every situation: the rent was kept well below fair-market value and rent payment was expected in full each month. That said, we often made allowances and never sought eviction for overdue payments with our low-income tenants.
The average landlord can surely tell of how they have gone over and above for their tenants; how at times they have even taken a loss when tenants skipped out on rent because the assumption would be that the landlord was somehow at fault, guilty until proven innocent. In fact, the protections granted to landlords in this country are few, but there is one generally recognized under the law: the timely receipt of rent owed. The bottom line is that a landlord usually cannot allow any tenant to dwell rent-free for an extended period, much as any other businessperson would not be expected to provide goods and services without due compensation. How realistic is it to expect landlords to play the part of surrogate parent, personal financier, and social worker all rolled into one? Try as one might, the landlord’s only recourse may be eviction until the appropriate support systems come to the aid of all parties involved.
While I appreciate Matthew Desmond’s participant-observer approach, it seems his research consistently negates the landlord experience, dismissing any context for these people trying to make a living themselves. For instance, landlords in New York state—most of whom qualify as small-business owners—face the nation’s worst business climate based on taxation alone. Many important factors regarding the decision to evict should be considered, such as how landlords today are pressed to pay rapidly increasing business taxes, regulatory fees, and other required operating expenses. Sadly, millions of men, women, and children in this country have been hard hit by the prolonged economic recession, at all levels of society. As a society, we must also share a certain responsibility for tackling issues like the dearth of affordable housing and breakdown of the nuclear family. There is a common tendency for non-landlords to pass judgment on landlords, although simply denigrating them in the collective is part of the problem, not the solution.
Tessa M. Rudan, A.L.M. ’07
My wife (who is not a Harvard graduate) pointed out to me that the cover of the January-February 2014 issue is a photo labeled “Eviction: A Plague on America’s Poor” (the lead article), while the back cover is an advertisement for a Maserati. Um...
William S. J. Moorhead ’63
The juxtaposition of the January-February front cover photo and statement “EVICTION: A Plague on America’s Poor” with the back cover’s ad for Maserati, one of the most expensive luxury cars in the world, speaks volumes for the contradiction between the image Harvard tries to project (an institution concerned for/about the poor) versus what it always has been (an elitist institution) and will continue to be.
Hard to consider donating to an institution so conceived and so dedicated while the poor in America get poorer, and the rich, richer.
Edward Noel McIntosh, M.D. ’64, Sc.D. ’73
Bruceton Mills, W.Va.
Open a copy of the January-February 2014 issue of Harvard Magazine. Place the magazine face down on a flat surface. The resulting juxtaposition of the front and back covers strikingly highlights the issue of income distribution in America. Brilliant?
William D. Bryant ’76
While I read with some interest the article entitled “Disrupted Lives,” primarily about sociologist Matthew Desmond, I could not help wondering what “the point” of the article was….
I do not believe that there is anybody with any kind of powers of observation or any intuition, who would believe that “eviction” is not a traumatic event for those who are evicted. It would seem to me that that is a “given.”
Beyond that, is the point to make a “plurality person” with a job feel guilty? Is it to blame yet another societal problem on racism? Is it to inspire another minority opportunity to vote 98 percent for the next minority candidate for office, noting that in the president’s election and re-election, upwards of 97 percent of African Americans voted for him (isn’t that racism)? Are we, who may be current with our rent, to wonder why someone else, probably not on the Shaw lease, is using up the hot water and other amenities available in Ms. Shaw’s apartment, money that could go toward the rent? Is it to make us wonder why both Shaw and Allen were both at home on a Wednesday morning in August, obviously “up in the day,” since sheriff’s deputies came to the place during their workday, rather than out looking for work?
Is it to make the reader wonder why someone did not come along and offer Ms. Shaw and/or her “partner” (partner in what?) a job that they would like and would show up for, if not offer (more) money (that they could then perhaps devote to the “young relatives, the children enjoying the last days of summer break”)? In other words, was the landlord to forgo a desire, or ignore a duty, to pay for maintenance, taxes, insurance, and any other costs attendant to ownership, so that Ms. Shaw and her “partner,” Mr. Allen, could stay at home in the middle of the week, enjoying the young relatives who were, in turn, enjoying the last days of summer break?
The above is to say, again, what was the point? The only things that I inferred from the article that might be helpful to the reader are that: 1) jobs are hard to get because everybody with “a buck” wants to spend it on (more) foreign-made products, or foreign nameplate products, rather than devote a little bit more for a domestic product—we shoot ourselves in the foot as “Consumers,” persisting in buying products that leave our workers or potential workers out in the cold; 2) people who “have money” do not want to pay a dime more in taxes (to devote to affordable housing for the downtrodden) than their money can persuade their representatives to legislate; and 3) “folks” will take advantage of any and all circumstances, and when it does not work out to suit them, we want to blame someone else, whether it be the landlord, another (larger) “plurality” human being, or the g-o-v-e-r-n-m-e-n-t!
Of course, there are some real tragedies among those who are “evicted” from premises for which they can no longer afford to pay. The article mentioned a few. Of course, many landlords are not charitably motivated. (By the way, if they were charities, they might well not have to pay taxes on the property.) Of course, there are those landlords who violate procedure—I hesitate to use “violate rights.” But, what are we getting at when the subject of the article (Mr. Desmond) “has seen dozens of cases where tenants don’t know their rights… .”? Are among their “rights,” as the sociologist sees them, the right to stay in someone else’s property without paying? Just wondering….
With that, we still want to wish everyone a Happ(ier) New Year.
C. Donald Wells, J.D. ’71
After reading Matthew Desmond’s perspective on eviction and poverty in America, I am impelled to write, to set the record straight regarding some of his arguments.
I have been working as a forensic psychologist for almost 30 years. Although I have seen many examples of inequities in the courtroom during that time, outcomes which favor the more well-to-do, because they can afford better representation or present with a less-troubled personal history, Desmond’s assertion that incarceration is a cause of poverty needs to be challenged.
Has he ever looked at the Board of Probation records (commonly known as “rap sheets”) of those who are incarcerated? I don’t think so. Because if he had, he would have seen that before anyone is incarcerated, he will have had countless appearances in the courtroom, and will have been charged with numerous (and varied) crimes; he will also have been found to be in default of the court and in violation of probation, on many occasions. In my experience, individuals do not get incarcerated unless they have run afoul of the justice system time and time again.
And nowhere in this article are reasons given for individuals’ inability to pay their rent, other than to blame incarceration or intransigent, greedy landlords. (How do tenants who face eviction allocate their funds on a monthly basis?)
If Harvard students are being nurtured on such biased data, I worry about the direction our society will take when they become our leaders.
At the same time, my family and I are looking forward to celebrating, with my husband, his sixtieth reunion from Harvard ’54, this May.
Carol G. Feldman
Los Angeles, Defended
While I commend Noah Pisner’s choice of university, persistence, and writing ability (The Undergraduate, “Goodbye, L.A.,” January-February, page 31), I take issue with serving reheated leftovers; namely, the dusty portrayal of Los Angeles as an intellectual and cultural wasteland full of illiterates is troubling. As a native Angeleno, I find that my fellow citizens do in fact read books and engage in the world of ideas. This may come as a shock to many of your readers who base their judgments, as the writer does, on mid-twentieth-century stereotypes of this fine metropolis, but I ask my fellow alums to take a leap of faith. Surely the rocket scientists at CalTech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or the folks at RAND, read books from time to time, perhaps even doing so without moving their lips.
Specifically, portraying Los Angeles as “only a refraction of America brought gently down to Earth” is a curious choice. While undoubtedly not the author’s intent, marking a multiethnic city and specifically the heavily Jewish entertainment industry as ignorant and un-American, an unreal, diminutive Other in our nation’s midst, is upsetting for obvious reasons. Los Angeles is a wonderful, challenging city with a rich cultural and intellectual life; I submit that it is the tip of the spear of American culture, not some foreign outpost.
Russell Schmidt ’01
I almost choked on my gluten-free cronut when I read that yet another intellect had defected to Harvard College from our Left Coast. And not because of the traditional reasons—poor public transportation, no seasons, general lotus-eating—but because too few people read. Though Pisner seems to have absorbed a great deal about this “terrifying” place during his year at USC and through the writings of Nick Hornby, I can assure your readers that many of us, filmmakers included, do indeed read books. At least the successful ones do; a lot of the others drop out of film school and we never really hear from them again. But, happily, they do visit us on vacation.
Daniel Steven Cooper ’95
Oak Park, Calif
A writer who acknowledges feelings of “inadequacy” at not being admitted to Harvard College on his first at-bat, while expressing jealous resentment of a “snotty-nosed harp prodigy who had gotten [sic] into Yale”—and losing no opportunity to disdain another top-notch university from which he had transferred—may expect to be referred to as a “Harvard twit.”
Some years ago, my LA-born wife (B.A. in history with Phi Beta Kappa at UCLA and J.D. with Fulbright at UC, Berkeley) was lecturing at the Kennedy School. On a visit to WHRB we met a young announcer, who told us that she was at Harvard because she had not been admitted to Berkeley.
Terry Murphy ’59
“Cross-country by Ski” (New England Regional Section, November-December 2013, page 16F) wonderfully shares the joys of Nordic ski racing and Harvard’s role in the sport. To its account of cross-country skiing at Harvard, I would like to add the contributions of Graham Taylor ’49. After captaining the Harvard Nordic ski team as an undergraduate, Taylor returned as its head coach for several years in the fifties before devoting his life to coaching high-school skiers in the Boston suburbs—a task he continues to this day. Taylor’s dedication to the sport resonates in Harvard circles and beyond, and he ranks among the legends of New England ski coaches.
Chris Stock ’14
Captain, Harvard Nordic Ski Team
Fiscal Facts of Life
Regarding the “Fiscal Portrait” (January-February, page 28): As I read of Harvard’s “wider deficit of $34 million” in fiscal 2013, and its loss of $1.255 billion, resulting from speculative interest-rate swaps, “following the fiscal crisis in 2008,” my stomach is queasy. I contemplate my strategy for convincing a classmate to part with a hundred bucks or so for the Harvard College Fund. Invariably, my list contains several prospects with less-than-stellar records of contributing.
Unlike the feds, Harvard can’t simply turn on the printing presses. We cannot be all things to all people all the time. Of course, it’s exciting to create the frontiers of learning and teaching, our role since 1636. But how about a little fiscal restraint? After all, we still owe $5.7 billion (per that fiscal report). A billion here, a billion there. Pretty soon, it adds up.
Steve Susman ’57, J.D. ’60
In Adam Kirsch’s wonderful story about Robert Frost (“Extracting the Woodchuck,” January-February, page 44) there is a small error that has been known to inflame the passions of poets and proofreaders alike. The final stanza of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (written on a hot June morning) contains an insidious, incorrect serial comma. The first line of that stanza should read: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” The Oxford comma was introduced posthumously in 1969 by Edward Connery Lathem. Frost—who meticulously edited his own proofs—never intended it; Lathem added it without justification even though it alters both the sound and the sense of the line.
Donald Hall [’51]—who discusses this topic brilliantly and at length in The Atlan-tic Monthly (“Robert Frost Corrupted,” reprinted at www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=6740)—gets at the root of why the error proliferates: “But Lathem’s corrupted text of Robert Frost is increasingly taken as the true text. When a critic or anthologist writes Holt for permission now, permission is granted to reprint from Lathem’s edition.” Hall concludes by suggesting that a variorum edition of Frost’s poems be commissioned that would reinstate the poet’s original intent before we all become so accustomed to the altered poems that Frost’s own punctuation strikes us as a typo. Which is what compelled me to write you a letter at three in the morning about a topic some might view as picayune.
You can see a beautiful handwritten copy of the poem at www.loc.gov/exhibits/british/images/vc195c.jpg.
Alethea Black ’91
Editor’s note: Another correspondent observes that the 1923 Willa Cather novel cited in the article is titled A Lost Lady.
I enjoyed Adam Kirsch’s article on Robert Frost and shared what I take to be his initial dismay upon reading Oates’s short story. Two points about Kirsch’s article, however, occur to me.
First, I think Randall Jarrell deserves at least a tip of the hat along with Lionel Trilling for having brought attention to Frost’s true greatness (and darkness) as an American poet.
Second, and more significantly, I must take issue with your quotation of the line, “The woods are lovely, dark, [sic] and deep” from “Stopping By Woods...” Most sources that I have for the poem, including Complete Poems of Robert Frost (Holt, 1949), have the line as: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” All the difference in the world. The woods are not three things: “lovely” and “dark” and “deep”; rather, they are lovely because they are “dark and deep.” This punctuation (correct, I believe, if for no other reason than that it improves the poem) emphasizes the attractiveness of the “oblivion” and points-up the “doubleness” that Kirsch so rightly identifies as “key to the power of Frost’s work.”
Gary Blauvelt, M.A.T. ’63
Sometime in the late 1940s, Robert Frost gave a poetry reading at Wellesley College, which I much enjoyed. After the reading of familiar poems came a question period. One of my college mates asked Frost, “What promises?” I hope I never forget Frost’s reply, which I considered typically witty and enigmatic: “If I wanted you to know, I would have told you.”
Margaret Rusk, Wellesley ’48
Robert Frost’s year in England with his family, in 1912, starting with the discovery of kindred spirits and culminating in the triumph of A Boy’s Will, is surely the miraculous year in Frost’s life and well recounted by Mr. Kirsch—but would the triumph have happened without Frost’s engineering it, plaing the friends for rave reviews (and often dissing the one as he romanced the next)?
Isn’t this side of Frost part of the picture and necessarily part of any comprehensive biography, such as the authorized biography by Lawrance Thompson that Mr. Kirsch seems to think unfair? Sure there are bads among the goods—nothing monstrous but a pathetic pettiness (scheming, jealousy, backstabbing, and the like). How do we square the pettiness with the greatness of heart and wisdom that we find in the poems? Bernard DeVoto famously put it to Frost in a nutshell: “Robert, you are a good poet but a bad man.”
Charles Shurcliff ’65
For those who want to ignore reality, the Keystone pipeline is a bad thing (Letters, January-February, page 4, commenting on “Forum: The Keystone XL Pipeline,” November-December 2013, page 37). For the rest of us, it just represents one of many options.
Prohibition did not result in eliminating drinking. Making alcohol, marijuana, opium, heroin, cocaine, speed, and other drugs illegal did not prevent their sale. It just forced buyers and sellers to alternative and more expensive (and dangerous) choices.
What will happen if the pipeline is prevented is the following:
1. The oil will travel by rail to the Gulf ports. It will cost three or four times as much to ship it by rail. The likelihood of environmental damage from spills will be higher.
2. A Canadian pipeline, in Canada, run by Canadians, will ship the oil to the Great Lakes, where it will travel to whatever point is appropriate.
3. Canadians may decide it is better for them long term to build a pipeline network to the west coast, aimed at selling to the Chinese. They might decide that shipping to the east coast of Canada might be better, because they can get higher Brent Crude prices, instead of WestTexas Intermediate prices. This would be environmentally positive, especially if the Chinese burn less coal and use the Canadian crude instead.
At present, the Keystone pipeline is the best economic choice. I do not think that forcing people to use inefficient economic choices will help anyone—and the Canadian crude will still get to market.
Nolan Perreira, M.B.A. ’81
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Professor McElroy’s essay was disappointing because of its narrow focus on whether this pipeline would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” When the question is put in this manner, it is analogous to asking whether a particular straw broke the camel’s back. The answer is a foregone conclusion. We cannot attribute significant carbon pollution to this pipeline any more than we can say that global warming produced typhoon Hayian.
The more relevant context for evaluating this pipeline arises from, as George W. Bush put it, our addiction to oil. As any enlightened addict would put it, one more fix is one more step deeper into the mire of addiction. What we need to do is reduce carbon pollution without waiting for the last drop of oil to be wrung from the earth. When do we kick the habit?
The XL pipeline has received a lot of attention because, among other matters, hydro-fracking has the appearance of polluting groundwater, and shale oil is particularly nasty. Ironically, while these features draw attention to this project, they obscure the question of whether to extract more oil, regardless of immediate negative consequences, or start making the transition to carbon-free energy. Resources that are put into the XL pipeline are lost opportunity costs; we could devote those resources to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, sequestering carbon, developing renewable sources of energy, and undertaking other projects not yet invented. We have perhaps 250 more years of coal in the ground. Should we burn it all up and then shift to carbon-free energy?
James L. Weeks, S.D. ’80
What was really interesting in the six letters you published on the Keystone Pipeline was that five long ones were misinformed, tunnel-vision diatribes from tree-huggers and Ph.D.s, and the only other opinion was three sentences from an M.B.A. at the end. I’m not sure if that says something about your letter selection process or represents a true cross-section of the responses to the McElroy article on the subject. It seemed like you were selectively trying to trivialize one common-sense response as the minority view. That couldn’t have been the only such letter.
That writer simply pointed out that Canada is going to sell tar-sands oil to someone if not us. In fact, it has apparently come to the same conclusion with respect to its western natural gas reserves. Since our western states don’t want LNG (liquified natural gas) “in their back yards,” Canada is moving forward on its own with facilities to export LNG to Japan, Korea, and China. Meanwhile, this country’s intelligentsia continues to insist the world’s energy should be supplied directly by the sun and that we need to shut down the global fossil-fuels industry. Good luck with that.
Brian Barbata, M.B.A. ’75
McElroy’s article on the Keystone XL pipeline made me uneasy, not because of the facts and reasoning within his frame of reference, but because my perspective seems so different to begin with. He did not mention, for example, the tar-sands oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, or the increased cost of alternatives to the pipeline. A forum of experts in climate science discussed “Can Keystone pass the President’s climate test?” and decided it could not.
In a larger frame of reference, the Keystone issue is both small and large—small because the climate crisis is so large and yet large because it can add to the momentum of other efforts to make fossil fuels pay more of the real cost to the whole economy, one that includes both monetized and nonmonetized economic values. Consider proposals for new coal plants—any one plant stopped by protest is not much, but so many have been stopped, it begins to make a difference. By the same token, approving the XL is part of ramping up large-scale production of the world’s dirtiest oil.
While stopping the pipeline alone may not stop development of tar sands, that is a red herring. The more important perspective is that is makes such development a little more difficult, and is part of a larger process to make it a lot more difficult.
The sure path away from both dependence on foreign oil and climate change is to shift away from fossil fuels altogether. Using up U.S. oil reduces dependency only in the short run, increasing it in the long run. By contrast, it is already clear that miles driven can go up while gasoline consumption goes down, and that economic product can go up while energy use goes down. Market incentives and technological innovation can grow the whole economy. It is more cost-effective for Canada to reduce greenhouse gases directly rather than using so much energy to make a really dirty, high-carbon resource less bad.
Rhetoric about potentially unstable foreign sources of oil should be a reason to reduce oil consumption altogether, although, for that matter, disruption is unlikely given decades of stable supply from diverse sources. If we need some fear-mongering, other threats seems more worthwhile.
We don’t need to minimize environmental damage when we can avoid it altogether. Even if Keystone is stopped, the U.S. is doing far too little to achieve economic progress. It is easy to belittle any one source of alternative energy, but taken together over time they can do the job. One of the most overlooked of alternatives is urban reform. It took the U.S. roughly 90 years to create dispersed, destructive, car-dependent suburbia, and reversing that trend would make us and the planet healthier.
Sherman Lewis ’62
Professor emeritus, California State University, Hayward
I had to write to express my considerable surprise that a Butler professor of environmental studies at Harvard—Michael B. McElroy—recommended approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Given the flawed analysis that professor McElroy provided, I am left to wonder what environmental studies at Harvard means.
Missing from his analysis was an accurate weighing of the true long-term damages to our ecosystems that recovery and use of tar-sands oil presents. Dr. James Hansen and 17 other well-established and respected scientists and economists, including Jeffrey Sachs, recently published an article in PLOS One on December 3 saying that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent a year, starting immediately (or by 15 percent annually if we wait until 2020) if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
The only way we can meet such dramatic reductions is if we conserve energy, use carbon-free energy, and leave the majority of fossil-fuel reserves in the ground. Whereas, the building of the Keystone XL pipeline would expand exploitation of the Canadian tar sands, one of the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive forms of fossil fuel on the planet, resulting in the exact opposite of what well-respected scientists and economists are telling us is necessary if we are to avoid warming the planet to a catastrophic extent.
Not only has professor McElroy’s analysis left out considerable understanding of how Earth functions, but his moral calculus is quite disturbing. Are the ivory towers of Harvard so far removed from what’s actually transpiring in our world that the best they have to offer is essentially, ‘Well, someone’s going to do it anyway, so it might as well be us!’ I would like to expect more from a Harvard professor of the environment. If we are to have any hope of leaving anything other than a severely wasted planet to our children and future generations, substantive changes are asked of us, not just arguments for making the dirtiest reserves a little less bad by reducing the carbon footprint of their extraction.
Even subject to the conditions professor McElroy stated in his article, increased exploitation of tar sands is far too dangerous for our planet. We desperately need strong leadership on climate at the federal level, and a first place to start is by President Obama rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, not approving it with conditions!
Joseph Rotella, A.L.M. ’10
I’m sure I’m not the first person to write in to tell you that I’m a little disappointed that a university that is ostensibly socially minded and cutting edge is publishing articles in support of prolonging the environmental disaster caused by carbon pollution.
One very important fact McElroy’s article fails to mention is that the cost of extraction from the tar sands is too high for the oil companies to profitably ship the oil overseas. While yes, much of the tar-sands oil will end up in the U.S. market if Keystone is built, but as was pointed out in a recent article in MIT’s Technology Review, much of the oil will also go to foreign markets, effectively making the pipeline a handout to oil interests. If there’s such an oil crisis in the U.S., then why are we a net exporter?
McElroy also fails to acknowledge one of the most significant reasons environmentalists wish to keep the tar-sands oil in the ground, which is of course the public-health cost (mostly footed by you and me) for a wide range of conditions such as asthma, skin cancer, and possibly many more conditions such as autism that are suspected to be linked to diesel and gas emissions.
Many of these health problems are already at epidemic proportions, a sad fact that to any reasonable human should mean that future oil shortages should be addressed from the demand side, not the supply side.
I hope Harvard Magazine will publish articles in the future with twenty-first-century solutions to these energy and environmental crises.
Neal Eckard ’00
Port Orange, Fla.
Divestment and Fossil Fuels
Here is a copy of a letter I have just sent to President Drew Faust. I hope it will speak for itself, and motivate other alumni to join the divestment movement:
Dr. Drew Faust, President
Dear Dr. Faust,
I am a Harvard alumnus, having taken my Ph.D. degree there in 1944. I also was a Visiting Professor during the academic year 1967-1968; and for several more recent years I was an adjunct professor at the Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School. As a result, I have a strong sense of identification with Harvard and an abiding desire to help it in any way I can.
At the moment, I am writing to take issue with your refusal to give serious consideration to divesting the Harvard endowment from investments in fossil fuels. As you must know, the corporations that own the largest proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas have under their control so much fuel carbon that, were it all to be burned, the resulting increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases would cause an irreversibly catastrophic rise in global temperature, far beyond the two degrees Celsius accepted, by international agreement, as the maximum increase the world can tolerate. It already looks extremely difficult to hold ourselves to that limit, and international action is urgently necessary.
What are the implications for Harvard? Huge though its endowment is by many criteria, you are right in arguing that the amount invested in fossil fuels is too small to make, in itself, a significant difference. You seem to view such divestment, therefore, as a meaningless gesture that might be costly to the great institution under your direction.
I disagree for several reasons, including some that are moral or logical. Today, I want to focus on very practical economic matters. There are signs that the business and industrial community is becoming aware that the dangers of climate change are real and that the effects are already costing our economy many billions. HSBC, Citibank, and the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s have raised concerns about the financial stability of fossil fuel companies. Big investors and their advisors, including HSBC, the London School of Economics, Aperio Group, and Impact Asset Management, are beginning to see that remedial governmental actions like a carbon tax are coming, as the electorate begins to see through the lies and confusion tactics of the climate-change deniers. In that case, fossil fuel companies may be overvalued by 40 to 60 percent. On Jan. 30, a dozen foundations with assets of more than $1.8 billion announced that they are divesting from carbon-heavy stocks and are putting their money into the clean energy economy. Much of the business community now see that as the consequences of inaction grow more obvious and more expensive, governments will be under increasing pressure to interfere with the suicidally short-sighted business plan of the fossil fuel industry. The carbon bubble, as many are starting to call it, will burst, and the value of many investments will start to fall. Once that begins, it is likely to feed on itself and accelerate. Late divestors will find ever fewer buyers.
The far-sighted will profit greatly by getting their money out of the financial instruments of the fossil fuel industry before the less canny. Indeed, the research firm S&P Capital IQ found that by one measure, endowments would have been better off had they divested 10 years ago. This firm calculated the total returns of the U.S. market as tracked by the S&P 500 index, with and without the biggest corporations singled out by gofossilfree.org. An endowment of $1 billion that excluded fossil fuel companies would have grown to $2.26 billion over the past 10 years, but an endowment that included investments in fossil fuel companies would have grown to $2.14 billion.
It is your plain responsibility to be among the most far-sighted academic administrators, and to recognize that your fears that Harvard will suffer financially have little basis in reality. Certainly, it is desirable to maintain small holdings in fossil fuel corporations to be able to speak out against their destructive policies; Harvard can still set an example for more timid universities to act on environmental and moral considerations by divesting all but token amounts. As the university with by far the largest endowment, Harvard has a special responsibility to take the lead. And you can be sure that it will be noticed!
If you do not find these considerations and the referenced documents fully convincing, I urge you to attend the Intentionally Designed Endowment Conference, to be held April 3-4 at Hampshire College.
Sincerely and hopefully yours,
Robert R. Holt
Professor Emeritus, New York University
Taxes and Fossil Fuels
The article “A Taxing Liability ...The Fix in Fossil Fuels” (January-February, page 12) talks about tax breaks but fails to mention that these breaks may have been given because the U.S. tax codes are structured to a “bookkeeping” system that incorporates depreciation concepts. Money is invested but there really is no profit (income) until the investment is repaid. However, the tax code requires that only a small portion of the investment be recognized (and written off) every year. The result is that when cash does flow from the project, it may not be real profit but still it will be defined as a profit and taxed. If the project has to be abandoned, the part of investment that has not been depreciated is a loss, and “written off” against other income of the company. Foreign petroleum projects are usually undertaken where taxation does not begin until after the investment has been recouped.
For a large company with many projects, the accounting system and the derivative tax regime is a “wash” since annual investments are usually balanced against annual depreciation. Thus the tax system which is based on the current accounting rules is a convenient barrier that protects existing companies from new competition. Professor Aldy’s suggested remedies could eliminate over-investment by individuals, but large operators would not likely be affected.
Bernard Heiler, S.M. ’71
Tributes to Teachers
Erin O’Donnell’s article on the three-volume Virgil Encyclopedia reminded me of an encounter with Robert Fitzgerald, my favorite teacher, on a street in Cambridge in my senior year, 40 years ago. Professor Fitzgerald was not teaching that year, and I was surprised to see him, because I thought he spent his time away from Harvard in Italy, in Perugia. I knew he had been working on a translation of the Aeneid. He told me that he was “in Cambridge, but not of it,” and he expressed relief and satisfaction that he had indeed completed the translation, after a period in his life of some fragility in his health, and some doubt, apparently, that he would be able to complete the work. He was a wonderful, tolerant teacher and transmitted his love of language in his classes. Learning from him was a lasting, enriching experience.
Mark Perkins ’74
Leonard Nash taught the best course I took at Harvard: Chem 6—Physical Chemistry. It was with some emotion, therefore, that I discovered his name among the Harvard Magazine obituaries. I would have expected to find him in the Faculty section, but there he was with the undergraduates instead.
I didn’t know that he was a summa cum laude graduate of the Class of ’39, or even that he had a daughter, Vivian, in my own class of ’69! I think we have a difficult time imagining our professors outside the classroom. I picture him there still, running up and down the aisles, waving his hands, explaining statistical mechanics—wonderfully. I salute all the great professors I had at Harvard, including Dick McCray (astronomy), Andrew M. Gleason (who taught Math 55—my hardest course), and Edwin O. Reischauer (who enlightened me about the history of Japan).
J. Richard Gott III ’69
Professor of Astrophysics
At page 72P, the January-February issue contains an obituary of David Hubel, Enders University Professor emeritus. He was my Ph.D. mentor at Harvard Medical School. The obituary erroneously states that “he joined the Harvard Medical School faculty in 1954.” In fact, it was 1959.
Jonathan C. Horton, M.D. ’80, Ph.D. ’84
University of California, San Francisco
A Harvard course, selected in the “shopping period” at the beginning of a semester, can lead to unexpected outcomes many years later. I took a course like this in 1968, Biology 104, which was taught by Professor Richard Evans Schultes.
I was surprised recently when I discovered that copies of the term paper I wrote for Professor Schultes’s course in 1968 are now being sold online for $39.95 per copy by a major publisher, Springer. In 1970, this term paper, titled “Plant Poisons in Shakespeare,” had been published in a botany journal, with the notation, “This article was a term paper in Biology 104 (Plants and Human Affairs) at Harvard College in 1968.”
When I found out that Springer was selling copies of my term paper, I ran a Google search and discovered, also to my surprise, that today I am being cited by many Shakespeare websites as an authority on plants in Shakespeare’s plays on the basis of this same term paper, even though my career is in a completely different field. The paper is also listed as extra reading in a Wikipedia article.
Perhaps I should be grateful to Springer for selling this term paper on the Internet, even though they had not informed me. Seeing this term paper for sale 45 years after I wrote it has brought back memories of Professor Schultes’s office in the Harvard Museum, of my days working in the reading room of Houghton Library with books published before 1600, and of learning how to write a scientific paper in a Harvard course.
Edward Tabor ’69
I enjoyed Castle Freeman’s masterfully written and elaborated document life of Edward Everett (Vita, November-December 2013, page 44).
In his opening sentence, however, he states, “History has not been kind to Edward Everett.” In what sense? Despite his sterling CV, he seems to have been a remarkably self-indulgent man (as demonstrated by his mind-numbing, two-hour speech at Gettysburg). How was it possible for the audience to have endured that harangue?
Of course, the day after Gettysburg, he had sufficient insight to write Lincoln, saying that he had better captured the essence of that occasion in two minutes what it had taken Everett two hours to say.
Gilbert R. Cherrick, M.D. ’54
Editor’s note: Speeches that long were in fashion in that era, and in fact Everett routinely delivered them, as Freeman notes, to great acclaim (usually from memory). And Lincoln was not always so succinct; in his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, the initial speaker had 60 minutes, followed by a 90-minute rejoinder, and then a closing 30 minutes for the first man to talk.
On Supporting Higher Education
The November-December issue prompts me to suggest that Harvard should tithe 10 percent of its new capital campaign to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
The article about Dr. Wilson and Morehouse College highlighted the irreplaceable value of HBCUs. Morehouse shaped Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where people would be judged “by the content of their character.” It was largely students in the HBCUs who sparked the civil-rights movement with sit-ins, and students and graduates who became the bulk of the movement’s leadership. Of course, the role of the HBCUs in creating a more just and equal society goes back well before that era, and, as the article makes clear, continues to this day. The article also makes it clear that these institutions face grave and urgent difficulties now, especially since their financial underpinnings are so weak.
The account of the state of HBCUs was a pointed aside in an issue dominated by news of Harvard’s $6.5-billion capital campaign. This amount is five times the total endowment of all HBCUs. There are many reasons why Harvard can raise such vast sums and the HBCUs cannot. Some of these justly make us proud of Harvard, but others are bound in our nation’s racial history and some are of a piece with the growing inequality in our country. Even without an additional $650 million, Harvard will still be the greatest and by far the richest university in the world. For the HBCUs this infusion of funds would make a profound difference, allowing them to continue with a mission that has done so much to make this a better society.
Mark Cane ’64
New York City
Dealing with Death
The Reverend Sharon K. Dittmar, M.Div. ’97 (“Letters,” January-February, page 9), whose age is unknown, regularly notices in her pastoral duties “how bad most of us are at aging and dying” and prescribes a regimen of “noticing” our declining physical and mental powers. This emphasis on dwelling on decay and impending death is reinforced by her strange belief that “aging and dying…is the one part of life we all have in common.” Leaving aside the universal experience of birth, statistics and the obituary pages suggest that most of us do not experience the effects of declining physical and mental powers before dying.
At 77, I do not want to join the cult of the celebration of dying. I am not unfamiliar with death and have witnessed my youngest sister’s, mother’s, and father’s deaths as well as being present at the deaths of too many friends and clients who believed that my view of their death was a benefit to them. I was raised in an Irish Catholic family where “wakes” were held at home and have slept on several occasions in homes where coffins were open and vigils held for three days at the corpse of the deceased. Death has been a part of my life since the age of five. No one in my large family ever seemed to have the “human nature to rush away from our spiritual, mental, physical, or emotional experiences,” contrary to Rev. Dittmar’s view. Neither did we spend much time investing death with a meaning other than its patently obvious one.
We are given life and a self-consciousness with which to relish and develop it, and soon we realize that it will be snatched away at any time. We are born to live and not to keep report cards on our mental and physical decline. I tend to side with Dylan Thomas when he admonishes, “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” I can’t see the benefit of sitting patiently and keeping score as it plays tag with me.
Kathleen G. Heirich-Casey ’59
Hollywood and Nazis
Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration argues that Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal Pictures, had not been sufficiently strenuous in his efforts to counter Nazi Germany’s attempts to censor the strong antiwar message contained within All Quiet on the Western Front (“Markets and the Movie Industry,” November-December 2013, page 10). Laemmle’s acquiescence during lead-in negotiations prior to the filming of Erich Maria Remarque’s much-lauded novel was aimed to appease watchful gatekeepers that held sway over unrestricted access to profitable German audiences. Such claims are at odds with contemporary press reports from the period when Germany re-gestated into a warmongering entity under Hitler. For instance, Guido Enderis’s “Nazis Renew Fight on Remarque Film,” a special opening-night cable from its Berlin correspondent to The New York Times, reported on 10th December 1930 that he remained unsure whether the unaltered or German version of All Quiet had been premiered. Germany’s chief censor calmed a barrage of anti-American, anti-Jewish, and anti-pacifist sloganeers who had also released snakes in the cinema by agreeing to examine both films to decide on the showings being allowed to continue.
In a Times interview published on the 6th October 1929, Laemmle frankly concedes that “the sentiment of the nationalist is so strongly against this book that already in Germany we have been notified by one of the largest theatre chains that they will have nothing to do with the exhibition of such a film in that country.” That sort of honesty would be unexpected from a Hollywood mogul keen to conceal any underhanded, commercially driven collaboration with Hitler and Company.
Associate professor, University of Queensland