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Sunday letters: Capitalism leaves little room for civility

Civil discourse | Jan. 17, Perspective story

There's little room for civility

An ancient Chinese legend holds heaven and hell as very similar places. In both, rice-eating people were provided with chopsticks that were too long to feed oneself. The attitude of the people made all the difference.

In hell they were very angry because they could not feed themselves and used their chopsticks to steal their neighbor's food. In heaven they were all happy because they used their too-long chopsticks to feed their neighbor from their own plate.

The fundament of civil discourse is the conviction that each one of us has unique assets to share with the community and that only in a community (a family and a village) can we find full expression of our unique talents, that is, of our sacredness. Only as a community can we redeem the raw material we are handed and transform it into a communal asset.

Capitalism, and its political manifestation, elective democracy, uphold as supreme values productivity and power. As such, they have no room for civil discourse. The incentive for an elected prosecutor is to have the accused found guilty, rather than to pursue the truth. For an elected governor, it is to sign as many death warrants as popular hatred asks, rather than recognize the condemned's culpability.

The series goes on. The pharmaceutical industry is interested in producing the medications that will deliver more money rather than those that may save life. The lawyers for big corporations are more interested in protecting the tax loopholes that enrich their clients than promoting the delivery of services to the needy.

The best we can expect from democracy is political correctness, that is, a degeneration of civil discourse.

Lodovico Balducci, Tampa

Words worth repeating

Thank you for printing that marvelous message. I am so frustrated with politics, even at the grass-roots level. Rude is seemingly considered intelligent. I am delighted Jim Leach is making a "civility tour." I am sorry I missed his Florida presentation.

Can you reprint the article and publish it as an insert or as a poster? The article should hang in every meeting room in the United States.

For those who missed the article, please look it up on the Times Web site.

Mary MacKenzie, Pinellas Park

Are we stupid to trust the Fed? | Jan. 17, David Leonhardt column

A vested interest can distort perceptions

David Leonhardt describes the reason Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke failed to grasp the housing bubble as "more psychological than economic": that "entirely human mistake" of failing to question assumptions that have acquired the status of conventional wisdom. They convinced themselves that house prices wouldn't materially decline, because they never have. But that's just an intellectual failing.

I agree with Leonhardt that there's a psychological explanation for why the Fed chairmen, along with virtually everyone else, got it wrong. But the true, pernicious psychological root of this self-deception has never, to my knowledge, been brought to light. That is that all those who might have made a difference owned homes that were wonderfully appreciating in value during the housing bubble. When you have a vested interest in rising home values, you tend to become sanguine about the subject. It's an entirely human psychology.

Kenneth T. Barnes, Clearwater

Bubbles and crashes

A good portion of last Sunday's Perspective section was devoted to articles and reviews on the housing bubble and the subsequent economic meltdown. And it was interesting that no one mentioned the root cause: easy mortgage credit given to unqualified buyers, often with no documentation of their ability to repay the loans.

I'd fault Congress for this, not the prior president, the same way Bill Clinton was not responsible for the tech bubble bursting, just because it happened while he was in office. Lending standards were relaxed at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by Congress, and not much has apparently been learned, as their loan caps have recently been loosened. The rating agencies certainly played a role, and the banks packaged this garbage as a safe investment, but it wouldn't have happened without the "raw ingredients" provided by Fannie and Freddie.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is often praised as a student of history for his research on the Great Depression, but he sure missed this bubble. The Times' chart goes back to 1990, and clearly shows how home prices relative to household income got out of whack by 2005-2006. Professor Robert Shiller of Yale has tracked similar data (housing prices and inflation) going back to the 1890s, and forecast the housing crisis before it happened — the same as he did before with the bursting of the tech bubble. He's written books on both events, both of which are worth reading.

Bernanke and his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, got too wrapped up in the "cheerleading" that believed housing prices would never go down, which is ludicrous. The Fed needs to admit its role in this mess, and Congress shouldn't be too quick to reappoint Bernanke to another term as Fed chairman. Personally, I'd prefer a responsible adult like professor Shiller.

Peter Ford, Tierra Verde

Centuries of folly scar half an island | Jan. 17

Haiti's suffering

Finally, an article that tells the full story of Haiti and not just the recent disaster. Large though that earthquake disaster was, it is only one of the many disasters — both natural and political — that Haiti has suffered since it became free of European influence more than 200 years ago.

While it is popular to praise the historical overthrow of colonial rule, especially in America, the effect on Haiti, which became ruled by an uneducated population, was irreparable. And as Susan Taylor Martin points out, America's on-and-off-again aid to Haiti since then has done little to put it on a steady path to genuine improvement.

What is required is another large U.N. effort over a long period to revitalize the part of the country that the earthquake destroyed.

W.H. Riddell, Tampa

Biblical rebuke

Jesus speaks out on health care from a contemporary interpretation of Matthew 25:42-46.

Jesus said to the right-wing politicians, "I was hungry and you would not feed me, I was homeless and you would not provide me with shelter, I was sick and you would not care for me."

And the politicians said to Jesus, "When did we see you hungry, homeless or sick?"

Jesus said to them, "If you have denied any person food, shelter, or health care you have denied me." Then he said (King James verse 46), "These shall go away into everlasting punishment …"

John Rindahl, St. Petersburg

Sunday letters: Capitalism leaves little room for civility 01/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 4:53pm]
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