November 2011

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Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. Send your comments to me at I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. If you want the letter published, but without your name attached, I will do so. I will not include your email address unless you ask me to. Flames are an exception. They will be published in full, with name and email address. I have actually had people follow up on a published flame by complaining that they thought they were insulting my ancestry privately. Nope, sorry.

Dear Jonathan:

I want to make a few comments on Respect in the October issue. First, I agree with you on the scope of the loss of respect for others in the current world. However, I'm not sure if it is a cause or an effect. I would probably argue that it is an effect of other things, like the decline of education and the supportive and disciplining nuclear family. As other causes, I would add the individualism of rock music and the exhortations by broadcasters to "turn it up," the balkanization of society (as expressed by multiculturalism) that has led to the diminution of the unifying effects of an American culture, and things like that.

Second, I've been thinking of your concept of "murder is the theft of life" from the opposite direction. In a certain view, theft is murder. Imagine a career thief or a drug addict who steals over the long term to support a habit or a Wall Street banker who makes lots of money disappear. If you add up the value of everything stolen, eventually, it will total the value that an average person can earn in a lifetime. That means that all of the productive hours of a person's life have been taken by such a thief. At that point, shouldn't the appropriate punishment be the same as for murder?

Third, I agree with you that capitalism is not evil per se. It can be a very useful economic tool. The problem with it in our current world is that capitalism uses its economic power to assert political control. Once we can remove capitalism and business completely from the political arena, it could then be viewed as something positive in society.

Bruce Clark

Dear Jonathan:

Congratulations on your latest essay, the latest in a fine series of your holdings-forth on key matters of concern. Some time ago, I forgot to compliment you on your much earlier (1998?) essay on Leadership.

At the outset you define respect as treating people as ends rather than means. Indeed, but the means/ends [M/O] dichotomy will need more attention from you in the future and I know you'll due it justice. One simple view of people lacking respect is that they do not receive justice; e.g., people in prisons.

As for M/O, my experience of having been involved in politics for 40 years is that politics is one major area of life where people are viewed as means, not as ends. This is at the root of the political and sometime economic corruption of our declining democratic republic. Your view on this seems similar.

Thanks again, PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., International Consulting Economist and 2010 Republican primary candidate for Congress in NH CD 1. Responses welcome to

Dear Mr. Wallace:

In Why I am not a Libertarian, you wrote:

Murray ... acknowledges that "what becomes of those who are helpless, or luckless, or perhaps simply feckless, must deeply concern any human being worthy of the name." But, right on the heels of this insight -- which I am certain is not shared by many who call themselves conservative or libertarian -- he says: "There can be no such thing as a society free of human suffering."

You're "certain" that conservatives and libertarians are unconcerned about the plight of "helpless, or luckless or ... feckless." So the conservatives and libertarians you know are marked by a tendency toward an uncharitable spirit? You are aware, aren't you, that several studies show that self-described conservatives give more of their own money -- even more blood -- to causes than self-described liberals, right?


Dear Mr. Wallace:

I had the opportunity the other day to watch most enlightening program broadcast by UCTV. The one-hour program was called "How Unequal Can America Get Before We Snap?" presented by President Clinton's former labor secretary Robert Reich.

"Inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity in America is wider now than it's been since the 1920s, and by some measures since the late 19th century. Yet the nation seems unable or unwilling to do much of anything to reverse these trends. What happens if we allow the trends to continue? Will they "naturally" reverse themselves? Or will we get to a point where disparities are so wide that we finally find the political will to take action? Alternatively, will the disparities themselves grow so wide as to discourage action, by fostering resignation among the losers and indifference among the winners? And if the latter, where will it all lead?" SOURCE: Goldman School of Public Policy UC, Berkley

The presentation made excellent use of economic graphs to demonstrate how large of a gap has developed between the upper class and the middle class (not to mention the lower class) with regards to income, wealth, and opportunity in the United States between the years 1962 to the present. The trends are alarming to say the least. The speaker correctly points to birthright as the beginning of the disparity that allows for advantages in everything from diet and healthcare to education and connections. Being born into a middle-class family myself, I have truly benefited from my birthright in terms of these advantages right from the starting gate. Some people would argue that many a poor person has risen up by their "own boot straps" but I would argue that in today's society, most (not all) poor people can only rise up with a good pair of athletic shoes or a willingness to sell drugs. Otherwise they have to remain content with working in the service industry for comparatively lower wages than their upper-class counterparts. Mr. Reich further points out that one of the elements keeping our society glued together is the belief or perception by the lower class that opportunity in this country still exists and that if one is willing to work hard, they can be successful.

The speaker talks of two potential outcomes for this growing disparity. He uses the metaphor of the rubber band to illustrate his point. Our society will either "snap back" with a series of reforms supported by all three classes and the government to regain a sense of fairness when it comes to income, wealth, and opportunity in the United States. This has occurred at least once before in the history of our country during a time referred to as the progressive movement. The other potential outcome is for our society to "snap break" whereby this country exists with two entirely different societies. The problem with the latter outcome is that it often leads to the arrival of a demagogue who plays upon the emotions of the middle and lower classes all for the hidden intention of personal gain. We have seen this all too often in history with the likes of Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin etcetera. Mr. Reich suggests somehow that the upper class are not a group with malicious intent but rather are nothing more than a naive self-indulgent class of people who don't know any better. Here I beg to differ. I believe the upper class is guilty of a careless disregard for their fellow countrymen. They have the arrogance to believe they are superior and deserving of extravagance regardless of how they attained it and regardless of how it affects the rest of society. Once again, history shows us what happened to those monarchs who behaved the same way. Do I think there will be a violent revolution in this country? I hope not. Do I prefer a new progressive movement over even a peaceful revolution? Absolutely. My fear however, is that we are already rapidly approaching the point of "critical mass" beyond which there is no turning back. The question today before the American people is what are YOU prepared to do?

Joe Bialek