March 2014
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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. I have gotten into the habit of leaving out full names and email addresses; I have had too many people think better of something they said fifteen years ago. If you want your name and email included, let me know. Flames, however, will be published with full name and email address.

Dear Jonathan:

Apropos of Shame or Rage:

You write 'Everyone knows the saying, "the most beautiful trick the devil ever played, was to persuade you that he does not exist," but most of us think its from the movie The Usual Suspects. The writers were quoting Charles Baudelaire, Le Joueur Genereux, from Petits Poemes en Prose (1864).'

Actually, they could have been quoting from any of a number of secondary sources, e.g. Huysman's "La Bas" or C.S.Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters" - and that last would have been the most likely one for them to have encountered. As for its origins, it is quite possible that it was circulating before Baudelaire and that he also borrowed it.

You also write "Back when houses were $20,000, what my parents paid for a three bedroom house in Flatbush, Brooklyn in 1959, that would likely have been a year's salary even for middle class people making very comfortable money at the time. Everyone bought a house on a deal on which they had thirty years to pay--that's what a mortgage is."

No, that's what a long term mortgage is. For a very long time, U.S. banks only issued short term mortgages that had to be rolled over continually, which they were under no obligation to do. That relates to the kinds of loans they were allowed to make (short term loans secured on commercial activity that would soon become liquid, which could stretch to cover short term mortgages on farms but not really on residences), which is why only other institutions issued long term mortgages (like building societies in the U.K.). That was probably no longer the case in the U.S.A. even as early as 1959, but the mortgages you are thinking of simply never did have much of a track record behind them.

"In the history of the world, a declining middle class has always been a symptom of a fatal disease for any nation, from Sparta onwards".

No, ignoring for the moment the more subtle gradations, Sparta's decline was marked by a declining upper class (the Spartiates), not its middle class (the Perioeci) or underclass (the Helots).

"The goal of a democracy always must drive towards an expanding middle class; nations are most stable when almost everyone is included".

No, it's when most people are included but there is also a material underclass they can look down on to give them a stake against redistribution; the important feature is that the underclass has to be weak enough to be repressed, which generally involves not being very numerous, while still numerous enough to lift the others materially higher than they would have been without it (age structuring can come into this as well as class structuring). You may be able to find video of a sketch by John Cleese, Ronny Barker and Ronny Corbett that amply illustrates this.

"Push a Libertarian hard enough, and you eventually get to the real explanation: the world is unequal, some people who have more than you will use that leverage to acquire even more at your expense, so suck it up, its just the way the world operates".

You are obviously not familiar with the whole range covered by "Libertarian", possibly only with the Koch/Cato Institute variety. For wider examples, try the less right wing, more broad church Lew Rockwell variety (see and or the outright left wing Center [sic] for a Stateless Society (see and

Apropos of that, I haven't yet caught up with bringing out similar things from other articles of yours from recent months. Would you like me to, maybe organised as an article?

Yours sincerely,


Dear Jonathan:

I’ve enjoyed your site and am copacetic to your way of thinking and your sensibilities. But I’m dismayed that you think “rage” is the answer.

It’s an understandable response if a depressingly familiar one. We see it from the Tea Party and from the “Christian Conservatives” as much as from the Occupy activists. But its self-evidently of no greater purpose than to energize the concerned.

Behind but also beyond the dry theories of the marketplace there are some strong assumptions about how information is generated, understood and shared. Succinctly, for a market economy to work in an way that doesn’t ultimately generate the massive social frictions (those “rages”) we now see, we require honest, reliable and easily obtainable information, and we require the ability to deal with it.

The first set of requirements does imply a high degree of supervisory examination and wilful dissemination about our business and our lives, so far as we interact with the wider “public”. (There’s a role for government when the private sector won’t embrace or support that need). In public matter (any matters involving interactions where there is some exchange of value or utility) we need much more transparency and accountability that we currently have. And yet, in an age of information overload, we know that without the ability to process and evaluate this information we are mere innocents. Yet our educational institutions seem wholly unfocused on the job of educating us (not just our youth) for life in this hard modern environment. (This is clearly different from merely providing and environment for an academic cadre, or from simply equipping us for “jobs”). Why otherwise would we be so credulous, so susceptible to “spin” or “narrative” from our institutions and our politicians.

Until we put ourselves behind some new initiatives to support more public (private to private in the marketplace as well as “public institutional”) transparency , and accountability, and until we attend to the failures of our educational institutions and environment-in the large- we will simply go on perpetuating opportunities for the quick and the ruthless to exploit the ignorant and the credulous, leaving many stuck (at best) in that futile rage you’ve manifested.

I don’t know if this is a good response to such rage but there has to be a better response stemming from an approach based on reason, surely?


This letter is in response to the articles covering the 50th Anniversary of the War On Poverty.

With all the debate recently for amending the United States Constitution in favor of certain issues and/or those constituencies, perhaps a more appropriate amendment should guarantee each citizen of the United States the right to food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Poverty is defined as the condition of being poor or lacking the necessary means of support to live or meet needs. Today we read of enormous corporate tax breaks, outsourcing of jobs overseas and outrageous salaries "earned" by athletes/entertainers. More recently came the revelation of the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. on two wars. In the meantime, the number of those in poverty continues to increase. The Old Testament of the Bible often makes references to the promised land flowing with milk and honey. All one has to do in this country is take a trip to the grocery story or department store and bear witness to the fact that if anywhere was close to exhibiting the characteristics of "the promised land", this country is it. Yet somehow we are still unable to meet the four basic needs every citizen has. Some would argue that this proposal is an extension of Socialism/Communism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Socialism/Communism is a political or economic theory in which community members own all property, resources, and the means of production, and control the distribution of goods. No one is suggesting the replacement of Capitalism; an economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately owned, and prices are chiefly determined by open competition in a free market. What is being suggested is that in this land of surplus "milk and honey", there is absolutely no reason why the four basic needs of every U.S. citizen cannot be met. Some would argue that food stamps, thrift stores, public housing and Medicaid already meet these needs but in the words of President John F. Kennedy, "this country is divided between those who have never had it so good and those who know we can do better". I think we can do better. Resolved, it shall be the right of every United States citizen (in order to further guarantee the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) to receive food, clothing, shelter and medical care that is adequate to meet their basic needs.

Now, that being written {uh oh here it comes} everyone in this great country of ours would agree that the most effective anti-poverty solution is gainful employment. This Administration {along with Congress} didn't take it's eye off the ball; didn't drop the ball and certainly didn't fumble the ball. They kicked it down the road in the form of a onside kick. It has now mutated into the form of a hot potato that no one wants to touch.

Well folks, it's time to prime the pump. One solution is Workfare whereby those able bodied citizens are required to perform some type of labor in order to receive assistance. This will help restore their dignity {as they continue to search for even more meaningful work} while at the same time allowing a large group of people to start purchasing various goods and services.

As for getting people back to work the solution is not as complicated as it may appear to be. We need to bring back a agency similar {but not identical} to the Work Progress Administration {WPA} which should take a two-pronged approach. One is the most obvious; hire people to perform the very services {and more} that the private sector will never engage in simply because it is not profitable to do so. The second approach is a wee bit more complicated but can be successful by utilizing private-public partnerships. Let the governments {at all levels} develop a plan to share {temporarily} in the salary expense of unemployed people so that they could work full time, re-gain their lost skills and eventually retain a full time position paid by the private company. This would result in a immediate restoration of lost government revenues as well as help to “prime the pump” for the new found consumer demand. Increasing demand will result in the need for increased supply and hence a increase in production which will result in increased employment. You could think of this “stimulus” plan as a rocket booster that slowly fades away as the economy picks up. Isn’t this what government is supposed to do beyond providing safety for it’s citizens? Is it too late now? I hope not; but to continue to waste time over which side wins {while the rest of the country goes to hell} risks moving America’s dissatisfaction with government to the disbelief of the legitimacy of those who do govern. The question before us all is this: how far down must this country sink before it becomes clear and apparent that current government officials have forfeited their right to govern?

Government was never intended to be a ongoing circus act of constantly handicapping the next election while nothing gets done due to this self- perpetuating form of gridlock. I strongly suggest that members of both branches and parties start making a better effort to get to know each other more personally. Whether it be over breakfast, lunch or dinner on the golf course, in a restaurant or the local disco tech you the leaders of our nation need to familiarize yourselves with what is at stake in the other person's life and realize that compromising on a policy is not the same as compromising your values. Ladies and gentlemen, let's get to work by getting this country moving again. And no, I'm not running for office but I am Joe Bialek and I approve this message.

Joe Bialek