Income is as Income Does?

By October 19, 2011Outreach and Events

Last week I was at the Lincoln Park Campus in McGaw Hall, my favorite building for intellectual stimulation. Home of the English Department, the Department of Modern Languages, and let’s not forget the UCWbL, McGaw has always struck me as a place for open discussion and challenges to standard practices everywhere. Thus, though excited, I was not surprised to see that a prominent and permanent “Free Books” table has sprung up in the atrium of this building.

It has become something of a tradition to see what benefactors have donated each week. I’ve gotten a Norton Anthology of American Literature and journals like The Milton Quarterly and the PMLA. For free. The free aspect is way exciting for me. Yes, it probably stems from my mother dragging a young me to garage sales, to Unique Thrift Stores (believe me, they’re less attractive than they sound), and through (groan) alley’s in the nice neighborhoods for “finds.” However, it may also have to do with the fact that to stay abreast in the literary community takes time and money.

Indeed, as I found upon glancing at the inside cover of a certain issue of the PMLA, there is an opportunity for membership, which gets you a yearly subscription and a chance to pay dues to the association. What I found so strange though, was that the cost of membership varies by income. If you make under $15,000, for example, your yearly membership fee is $25; at $50,000, you jump to $100 for membership; if you are making over $200,000, your membership costs you $280 big ones each year.

I find this strange, and I guess I just can’t put my finger on why. The politics seem muddled.

I’m all for taxing the 1% more. The purpose of taxes is to better the society we live in. If the poor are taxed too much, they will never get on their feet, while if the rich are taxed more, it won’t hurt them as much, and they will end up being a greater help to the society they live in, or so the argument goes.

However, the PMLA is not a government service. It is a good that is purchased. Should it really be more expensive for some and less expensive for others? Is this gradation of price, dare I say, too liberal? I’m still really not sure because one could certainly argue that the PMLA is bettering society (just as taxes are), and therefore, should be set at a different price for everyone. I mean tuition is adjusted for income, is it not?

But, but….doesn’t food better society? And clothing? And rent? And cable? Why are these things not priced on an income-based scale?

I have one last concern about this income-based dues situation. Don’t consumers have a right to keep their income private? Indeed, if the salespeople at Lori’s knew how much I made each year, I would never have the nerve to set foot (ha) in their store. Why is it any of the PMLA’s business how much money I don’t make?

I guess I can take comfort in the fact that they don’t know because I don’t have a subscription. The income-based price scale was not liberal enough for some at DePaul; they just gave it to me for free. I suppose this is a pay system that I can’t complain about at all.

Is it fair or unfair to have income-based prices for certain goods? How about for educational ones? What do you think?

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Neil S. says:

    On my grad student budget even $25 is quite a bit. That’s food for a week…or more. And with most sliding scale income memberships, it’s self-reported–you pay whichever level you choose. You don’t have to send them your pay stub or something like that.

    Sliding scale incomes makes memberships like this not just easier but actually possible for folks who are working or lower class.

  • David S. says:

    LIz, you bring up so many interesting points! So interesting that I’d like to comment on them myself.

    I love McGaw, too, and I think the open vibe of the building has a lot to do with the departments there, but the very layout of the building with its big glass walls and atrium suggest “letting the light in.” I believe it was originally built as a library for the seminary that predated DePaul, so the vibe is intentional.

    I’m guessing the faculty in the building receive these books all the time, and the free books table is their way of recycling ideas as well as paper. I think you should feel free to take as many books as appeal to you, and return them if you wish.

    A lot of organizations have different membership fees for different people. The income part is strange to me in that the categories are unusual. A lot of organizations have a “student” category, a “regular membership” category and a “donor” category that carries a tax deduction, but these are usually offered for personal choice rather than tied to income. Really, are they going to check that you REALLY make less than $15M?

    It seems that with the economy, publishers are moving away from print editions to online subscriptions, but they still need to cover their personnel and tech costs. Educational publications should not necessarily be free, although they can have a wealthy underwriter to cover the costs.

    I agree with you that income-based pricing seems fundamentally un-American. I think the hearts of the people at the PMLA are in the right place, but their appproach is not well thought out.

  • Mallory G. says:

    Interesting post, Liz! I guess I’m trying to figure out why they’d do this and maybe the idea is that selling subscriptions funds further scholarship? So if you buy a PMLA you are, in one sense, helping the journal to keep publishing scholarship about a topic you have some interest in? I don’t know, but maybe they’re counting on their readers to be philanthropic about the arts.