The President’s threats to increase the taxes of Americans who make more than $250,000 a year have exposed the ugly underbelly of the shame of a nation: Law professors.

Already, under pressure of budget cuts at the University of California, law professors have gone public with their working conditions ($200,000 to $300,000 a year, tenure, light teaching loads) and argued that the best way to save money would be to lay off, as Kristin Luker points out, “anyone but professors.”

Now, the proposed tax increase has brought more suffering out of the shadows. A University of Chicago law professor with a household income of $400,000 has sketched so powerful a portrait of what John Edwards called The Two Americas that his testimony has been picked up by the New York Times’ Paul Krugman. Krugman quotes from a post about this professor written by Brad DeLong.

[Todd Henderson] knows of one person with 20 times his income. He knows who the really rich are, and they have ten times his income: They have not $450,000 a year. They have $4.5 million a year. And, to him, they are in a different world.

And so he is sad. He and his wife deserve to be successful. And he knows people who are successful. But he is not one of them–widening income inequality over the past generation has excluded him from the rich who truly have money.

Is this America? I’ve searched my library for any account of degradation in this country comparable to what we’re beginning to glimpse in these testimonials. I had to go to Italy — to Danilo Dolci’s 1959 Report from Palermo — to remind myself what Henderson and his family must be undergoing.

I read Krugman’s account of Henderson’s situation to Mr UD. He shook his head. “He’s fallen so low,” he finally said, “he thinks 4.5 million is rich…”


In a dark and drear room on the quad
Sits a man quite abandoned by God:
“We make half a million
But not a gazillion.
Dear Lord, can you hear me? It’s Todd.”

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13 Responses to “Two Americas”

  1. theprofessor Says:

    The definition of rich to the typical member of the professoriate is “someone who makes $10,000 more than I do.”

  2. david foster Says:

    Problem is, top-notch lawyers who are *not* professors can make so much money, if they are with the right firms, that salaries like this are probably necessary for retention purposes. One of the real issues facing our country is the extreme diversion of wealth and talent into the legal profession and, to a lesser but still significant extent, finance.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    david: Given the excess of lawyers in this country, and the bad employment statistics for many recent graduates of even the best schools, we can expect downward pressure on those salaries.

    As for the salaries of law professors themselves — Keep in mind that in states like California, suffering from a huge and growing number of unemployed attorneys, taxpayers are supporting extraordinarily high compensation for people who are adding to the state’s unemployed. At least medical school professors generate employable people. Eventually the they-can-earn-so-much-more-in-the-private-sector argument will weaken, for this and other reasons.

    It’s also worth pointing out that these law professors have chosen to work at a public university.

  4. Lincoln Says:

    The NY Times of June 22, 2010 had an article on law schools arbitrarily raising grade point averages to improve chances for graduates to find employment.
    “One day next month every student at Loyola Law School Los Angeles will awake to a higher grade point average….The school is retroactively inflating its grades, tacking on 0.333 to every grade recorded in the last few years. The goal is to make its students look more attractive in a competitive job market.”
    What is it about people in the law profession that they need so much attention?

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Yes, I saw that article, Lincoln. It’s remarkable that the school thinks it can fix outcomes by fixing grades.

  6. J. Fisher Says:

    It is sheer uncanny coincidence that St. Elmo’s Fire happened to be on this past Saturday afternoon. The movie has not aged well at all. (In fact, I don’t think it was ever very good.) This particular quotation, though, seems pretty relevant. It’s been an interesting twenty-five years.

  7. J. Fisher Says:

    To be clear, it’s the quotation in the box at the top of that page with all the quotations.

  8. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Joe: Love it.

  9. DM Says:

    It is, I think, a general rule that people consider as “rich” folks who are at least one bracket higher than they are.

    To a worker making a living for a whole family on minimal wage, a couple of university professors is “rich”.

    To a university professor, a fancy lawyer is “rich”.

  10. University Diaries » Scathing Online Former Law School Dean Says:

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  11. Ruviana Says:

    For a SLAC professor in a rural outpost, a University professor is “rich.”

  12. University Diaries » Piling Higher and Deeper Says:

    […] the law professor at the University of Chicago who got into all sorts of trouble and enraged thousands of people because, with a household income of around $450,000, he complained […]

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