Arithmetic

As a college teacher in these depressing times for college teachers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cost of education and its value. Why, for example, does an adjunct teaching a single course at my university earn only $3,800 when my salary, for teaching five courses per year (and doing research and sitting on committees and advising dissertations and planning new classes) is much more than five times $3,800. Indeed, an adjunct teaching six classes at this rate would earn $22,800/year. How is that close to a salary?

Still, this inequity is nothing compared to larger inequities. Recently my husband pointed out to me an article on David Tepper, the hedge fund billionaire. He’s just given $67 million to Carnegie Mellon. I am in favor of such donations, of course: higher education depends on donations from philanthropists and large donations like this one are a testament to the power of college.

Tepper lives in Short Hills, New Jersey, just down the road from me. Last year he earned $2.2 billion dollars. That’s a lot more than I earn: about 25,000 times my annual salary, in fact. That's right. Not 10 times; not 100 times. This man, who lives a few stops down the commuter rail from me earns twenty-five thousand times my annual salary. No wonder he can be so generous.

I’m not a good capitalist. I made a choice, many years ago to pursue a Ph.D. rather than go into consulting or law and it’s a choice that I’m happy with, mostly. I always was fine with the notion that many many people with my education and intelligence and privilege would make much more than I, but 25,000 more? That kind of inequity at the top end makes me terrified for the poor, and for those far less fortunate than I.

I was thinking about this the other weekend as I stood with other members of my church, putting slices of ham, cheese, lettuce, and tomato into rolls, wrapping the sandwiches, adding fruit and cookies, and getting these hundreds of sandwiches ready for delivery to the homeless who congregate at Newark Penn Station, just down the road from my house—and his.

Unlike the hedge fund capitalists down the road in Short Hills and unlike the homeless, I have a little weekly money and, every week in November and December, I try to hold back some of the $60 my husband and I each budget for coffees and lunches. My goal is to get to $100 so that my daughters and I can “adopt” a family and give them the Christmas presents they otherwise couldn’t afford. These are the kind of calculations that keep me grounded and worried. These are the kind of calculations that the very wealthy may no longer be able to fathom.

Essex County, New Jersey has tremendous economic inequity, but it took a little arithmetic and a few sandwiches to make me see it intensely again.

So for all that we might want to give thanks to the philanthropist who gives a substantial amount—but a small portion of his annual salary—to a university, I am thinking about a revolution. Things are out of whack. This year, I’m giving thanks and preparing to get onto the barricades.