Letters to the Editor

Will the free market reward art and education? Plus: Gauging "the Philadelphia effect"; Americans are fat because we're lazy and eat bad food.


Letters to the Editor
November 17, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)


Black and right

BY RAY SAWHILL
(11/10/99)

Thomas Sowell has a point when he speaks about looking at public policy in terms of what is being rewarded rather than the benevolent intent of the law. However, Sowell is putting a polite face on what conservatives seem to have a magical belief in: the unregulated market. There are too many arguments that start out on "libertarian" principles speaking of lofty "choice" and then end up with the reason XYZ corporation should be able to do exactly as it pleases, with no regard for the public good, as that would limit "choice."

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The market has its own system of rewards and punishments. The market doesn't have many rewards for people who provide health care for disadvantaged children, while the plastic surgeon to the wealthy will find rewards plentiful. The market rewards what makes money. What about culture, art, education, the environment? These might not find the rewards of the market but are surely desirable to create a civil society.

A civil society is one that would balance the needs of individuals and the public good -- not one in which "cosmic justice" is imposed from above (Marxism) or one in which some concept like "the market" or "choice" is held sacred despite what might be in the public interest. Isn't liberalism the middle ground between an unregulated market and a collectivist society? And don't we have democratic government to strike a balance between the two?

-- Stephen Sacco

Surprisingly, conservative Thomas Sowell offers a very strong argument
against so-called welfare reform -- an argument so strong I'm surprised
that nobody on the left seems to have used it. He states that only 1 percent of
the American population remains in the bottom-fifth income bracket for 15
years, and only 3 percent for eight years. Welfare recipients, obviously, are in the
bottom fifth. If so few of them remain in the bottom fifth after a few
years, then the specter of widespread, long-term dependence on welfare must
be a myth. And if so few people stay on welfare, there's no need for laws
kicking people off it.

-- Tom Davies

Takoma Park, Md.

Does Sowell mean to imply that the owners of these units should
admit the homeless at their own expense? If rent control is repealed, the landlords of buildings "that are boarded up as a consequence of economic protectionism" will upgrade them so that not only will the homeless not be able to afford them, but most New Yorkers will be shut out as well. What will that have accomplished for the denizens of the streets?

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-- Bill Meyer

Thomas Sowell and Raymond Sawhill urge "young liberals," in the most condescending
way, to value empirical evidence over ideologically inspired goals.

To emphasize this point, Sowell claims (with no attribution) that there are four times
as many boarded-up housing units in New York City as there are homeless. He
is offended by these facts (facts which I very much doubt, but let's give him the
benefit), and seems to blame rent-control for homelessness. This is, of
course, insane. Lots of factors contribute to homelessness, but the nominal increase
in housing units and decrease in costs that would accompany abandoning rent control is
far from a panacea. There's a case to be made that rent control hurts the working poor, but the idea that the homeless in New York City would substantially benefit from doing away with rent control is
the flimsiest bit of reasoning I've ever come across -- a clear case of ideology trumping
rational explanation.

Then Sowell claims that essentially nobody (or less than 3 percent of Americans) spends
more than eight years in the bottom quintile of the income distribution, and asserts that "it's a
tremendously fluid system." Again, he's wrong. All responsible studies in this issue show that closer to half of families starting in the bottom quintile are still there a decade later. Studies that give results that Sowell cites inevitably only look at individuals, and start tracking them very early in life -- often as early as age 16. Of course many of these people -- middle-class teenagers and college students -- experience tremendous gains in income as they age, switching from working at a college bookstore to full-time career employment. This isn't income mobility, it's growing up. Compared to other industrialized countries, America performs poorly (always in the bottom half) in terms of mobility of family incomes.

-- Josh Bivens

New York

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The Sowell interview was a puff piece.
I doubt that Salon readers, as the interviewer stated, believe that all
Republicans are racists. I also give no credence to people who swing from
far left to far right (or vice versa), those who claim to have been Marxists
in their youth and now are conservatives as they gain wisdom. Maybe they
have been wrong their entire lives as they flipped around the political spectrum
trying to gain attention for their point of view. What they really seem to
have gained is a personal bitterness for having been dismissed. It is the
David Horowitz-style of politics for those who feel they have been politically
and personally victimized by the so-called intellectual elite.

-- S. Bain

The consumer's always wrong
BY MARK GIMEIN

(11/10/99)

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Mark Gimein was just a few quick pieces of
journalistic homework away from finishing his story. First, while the Zagats may have a cute term and amusing anecdote with "The Philadelphia Effect," the fact is Philly also gets enormously high ratings
from respected national critics, and several Philadelphia restaurants are
perennial list-toppers in Cordon Bleu and other critics' havens.

Second, while questioning Rolling Rock's No. 2 place
in Deja.com's beer list, he glosses over the fact that the top-ranked beer,
Yuengling, is also a Philly product. Did Gimein know this and not
mention it, or just not bother to find out?

The actual story here might be more about Net use
demographics in Mid-Atlantic States, or even the passing of New York's
historical moment as the epicenter of all things. Or, maybe, that a writer with
a quick-pitch point in mind finds an easy target in Philadelphia -- what did we
ever do to Mark Gimein?

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-- Brian Glaser

Philadelphia

Mark Gimein dismisses the survey that named Philadelphia as having the
best restaurants in the country, based solely on his own opinion and that of
Tim Zagat. He errs even further in supposing that Philadelphia won primarily
because its restaurant patrons have low standards.

As Gimein predicts, Philadelphians will certainly disagree. But so will anyone
else who goes beyond the fashionable dismissal of Philadelphia to actually
taste the food. I grew up outside of New York, lived in Boston and
Philadelphia, and finally moved to Washington. While Philadelphia can't
match the other East Coast cities for ultra-expensive dining, it wins easily
in providing fantastic affordable food for normal people. The reason is not
low standards, but high ones. Philadelphians do not accept the chef's
reputation, the pedigree of the customers or a fancy menu as a substitute
for a quality dinner. Where overpriced (or simply bad) restaurants survive
in other cities based on hype or a fortuitous location, they don't survive in
Philadelphia. As a result, Philadelphia is surely the best place on the East
Coast for a normal person to get a quality meal at an affordable price.

-- Will Martyn

Arlington, Va.

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Gimein writes, "Keyes' popularity is no statistical fluke. At last count, 1,971 people put in scores for Keyes -- fewer than the nearly 4,000 who expressed an opinion about George W.
Bush -- but a very respectable sample pool nonetheless."

Wrong. If that many opinions had been obtained in a
truly random sample, then that would be an excellent
sample pool, but they were not. As a starting point, the
pool itself (Deja.com users) is not representative of
the country as a whole, and then the "sample" of opinions
was self-selected instead of being randomly selected.
Worse yet, we have no way of knowing whether any of
the people in that pool voted more than once. That
"poll" is statistical garbage, and you should point this out.

-- David Chase

Belmont, Mass.

What scares me about the "consumer ratings" sites popping up here and there on the Web is that I have not as yet seen any mechanism for verifying the truth of statements made on them. If a person writes to a newspaper making some claim of bad service, wrongdoing or other negative comment about a company, the newspaper has an editorial staff that is likely to make some attempt to verify the truth about the claim -- otherwise it might be subject to a libel suit. For this reason, most newspapers also don't publish anonymous letters.

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Web sites, on the other hand, are very easy to fool -- you can send e-mail from multiple accounts, send anonymous e-mail and in many other ways post a review or opinion that may be true or may be totally bogus. If someone wanted to really hurt a company, he could very easily get e-mail accounts from a couple of hundred of the free e-mail account providers on the Internet, and use those accounts to post completely spurious stories of how he had been "done wrong" in a number of different ways. Users relying on these Web sites for unbiased reviews of products or companies would very probably stay away in droves, based on reviews that might be completely untrue.

Deja.com does say in their policy that they employ "anti-spam bots and other security measures to maintain the integrity of the data and information offered on the site," so at least they are trying. I'm just not sure how much I'd rely on these sites.

-- Kerry Vosswinkel

Buy low, sell high, sez Bard
BY RON ROSENBAUM

(11/11/99)

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What with all the foofarah Ron Rosenbaum justly raises about "Shakespeare
In Charge," I wonder why he doesn't mention their treatment of Iago. After
all, with more soliloquies (six to one!) and more appearances than Othello,
coupled with a single-minded drive to succeed, Iago would seem to be more
successful than Othello -- he all too often steals the show. Or was that
too obvious for Rosenbaum? (Worse, too subtle for Augustine and Adelman?)

-- Brian Yeoh

It is actually Rosenbaum who attempts to limit the
possibilities in interpreting Shakespeare in a very narrow,
unimaginative way.

-- Peter Ban

Davis, Calif.

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I'm obese, you're obese

BY STEVEN A. SHAW
(11/10/99)

While the BMI method of defining weight class does seem suspect (it's the same for men and women, even though the distribution of weight in fat and muscle differs between the sexes), and I think consideration has to be given to the specifics of an individual body when deciding whether one is overweight, I feel compelled to protest these recurring essays bemoaning those who have a problem with the bloating of America.

Providing anecdotal evidence that non-overweight people can also have heart attacks doesn't equate to showing that overweight people suffer no negative health effects from their condition. If there is prejudice to attribute an overweight person's heart attack to their condition, it seems likely that this has developed from a greater incidence of these attacks among the overweight. Sure, you can point out isolated incidents of average-weight people keeling over, but it's slim pickings.

And what a vivid picture of those free-spirited Europeans: "They eat until they're full, drink until they're sated, smoke lots of cigarettes and engage in physical activity only when it's fun (you never see anybody, except an American, going for a run in Paris). Yet they live longer than we do."

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Europeans are comparatively thin because, setting aside the unfortunate trend toward "Americanization" (meaning hamburgers from McDonald's and pizzas from Pizza Hut), they actually eat a healthy diet consisting of a range of foods including fresh vegetables and fruits. They aren't gorging themselves until stuffed; in my experience, European meals are composed of reasonably sized portions that can be completely consumed without gluttony. And Europeans actually do excercise, walking much more frequently than Americans and engaging in various sports. There are plenty of gyms in Europe, too.

The author derides the AMA for relying on "lame old mantras of diet," but there is little doubt that our contemporary diet of fat-filled processed foods is a major contributor to expanding waistlines. It seems like there is a confusion between using the word diet to mean the types of food we consume each day and using it to mean the types of crazy fads that don't really do much to help anyone.
Obviously, "diets" offer cruel promises that are rarely fulfilled, but that doesn't mean that a sensible diet and exercise can be disregarded as pointless so that the author can feel satisfied with his weight.

-- Bjorn Thoresen

Steven A. Shaw tells us that one in four Americans is obese. How many are ignorant?

He writes, "Take your weight in kilograms and divide by the square of your height in
meters. Just kidding -- the government maintains a Web
site that will perform this computation for you."
Hmm, let me see. Assuming, like most Americans, you
think of your height and weight in inches and pounds,
you'd have to do two simple conversions, square a
number and do a division. And he needs a Web site for
this? Try a pocket calculator -- or even a pencil and
paper.

The AMA may be right that his body needs
exercise, but clearly his mind needs it even more.

-- Paula Berman

Return of the ugly American
BY BRUCE SHAPIRO

(11/10/99)

The appointment of Moseley-Braun as ambassador
to New Zealand could be viewed as particularly tasteless in view
of the following: New Zealand was hosting the 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government
conference when Saro-Wiwa was executed by Nigeria's
Gen. Abacha; and Saro-Wiwa's son was in Auckland, New Zealand, pleading for
support for his father from Britain's John Major and other
leaders at the conference. New Zealand played an important part in the expulsion of Nigeria
from the Commonwealth at that time, and strongly supported the sanctions imposed.

The appointment of Moseley-Braun as ambassador to anywhere
is contentious. Appointment as the New Zealand Ambassador
seems particularly insensitive.

-- Graeme Dykes

The article calling ex-Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun a foe of human rights is one of the most vicious, slanted, racist articles I have read in a very long time. The charges lodged against Moseley-Braun in reference to her relationship with her Nigerian ex-fianci and her visit to Nigeria during the regime of Abacha have been exaggerated out of all proportion. She has acknowledged that her visit there was an impolitic thing to do and could be construed as support for a regime that was openly a dictatorship.

But if Bruce Shapiro is so concerned about the people of Nigeria and the fact that they suffered under the Abacha regime, why has he not talked about the role the U.S. government has played in not only propping up Abacha but all of the other dictators that have permitted the multinational oil companies to devastate Nigeria in every conceivable way. Does Shapiro go after the majority of legislators in the U. S. Congress that support the denial of human rights through the legislation that they pass? What a hypocrite!

-- Vida Gaynor

Silver Spring, Md.

Bruce Shapiro's article is marred by the author's tactic of labeling Jesse Helms a
"racist." Despite Helms' unpopularity with liberals, I believe the
record shows him to be a principled man, albeit with conservative principles.

Shapiro himself gives good reason why the former senator from Illinois
should not be an ambassador. Isn't Jesse Helms allowed to see the same truth?
After all, he worked with her in the Senate; surely he knows what she is made of.

-- Clayton N. Chevrier


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