By Evan Wilson, East Coast Bureau Chief

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, October 16, 2001 -- Soon after the events of September 11th, I thought I’d write a column suggesting what we ought to do. First, however, I decided I ought to read up a little on the Middle East, just to make sure I wouldn’t be sticking my foot in my mouth too much.

Over a month later, I continue to read and I’ve come to the realization that the largest contributing factor to this war -- on both sides -- is ignorance. Until we bridge that gap, all the bombs in the world will not end terrorism.

The conflict between Jews and Arabs is mostly the result of the disastrous policy of the Allies regarding what to do with the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

One of the most striking things I’ve read in the last month came from an American who visited Cairo before the attacks. One day while at a café, this American struck up a conversation with the owner, who, when he learned the American’s nationality asked: “Why do you Americans hate Arabs?” When asked why he felt this way, the gentleman went on to offer a laundry list of examples of the American government interfering in the region and the consequences on the ground for Arabs. The American patiently explained that a representative government means that Americans do not directly control their government’s actions. Further, although we have influence around the world, the American public has a tradition of looking internally unless there is a major foreign crisis.

After some discussing, the café owner invited the American home for dinner. When the café owner’s brother arrived for the meal, his first question upon learning of the American’s presence was: “Why do you Americans hate Arabs so much?” These were moderate Muslims in a Middle East country with more openness to the West than most. My reading, however, has taught me that this is a two-way street. I’ve discovered any misconceptions of my own regarding the Middle East and Islam. For instance, I had always thought that the conflict between Jews and Arabs was milleniums old. In fact, it is mostly the result of the disastrous policy of the Allies regarding what to do with the Ottoman Empire after World War I. And that policy, which resulted in the placement of arbitrary political boundaries was the result of almost complete obliviousness on the part of British “experts” about the desires of the indigenous peoples.

Many Arabs repeat the myths of their glorious past as if they were unquestionable truths.

I am beginning to read a book on Iran that suggests that we willfully undermined a democratically elected elected prime minister in the early 1950s and allowed the Shah to consolidate power to protect our oil interests. Similarly, we armed Iraq to combat Iran in the 1980s and armed Osama bin-Laden to fight the Soviet Union during that same decade. We may have forgotten these things (or turned a blind eye to them) but the people in the region have not.

We are certainly not the only people guilty of ignorance in this area. Many Arab governments willfully edit the news their people hear to maintain themselves in power. Religious zealots in the region “teach” a whole generation of children that the Koran is the only knowledge they need-and then they skew their reading of that Holy Book to emphasize fighting the infidel. Many Arabs repeat the myths of their glorious past as if they were unquestionably true. Further, many Arabs choose the US as a target for their anger because they are unwilling to look at their own flaws. For instance, it’s easy to blame the West for the Middle East borders drawn in the 1920s, but it’s disingenuous to stop there. Despite the supposed sense of community among all Muslims, there has been little attempt by them to redraw the borders since they gained their independence. In fact, the “umma” which many Muslims believe is a defining characteristic of their religion seems to relate more to a “us vs. them” mentality with the West then a sense of community within their religion.

With all this in mind, perhaps we need to realize that the war on “terrorism” is really a war on ignorance and misunderstanding. When moderate Arabs, like that café owner, can understand (and sympathize) with Osama bin-Laden, there is a real problem which we must address. There will always be zealots, but if we can find a way to reach the average citizen in the Middle East perhaps we can make the ground less fertile for fanatics. This will not be easy and George W. Bush is right, it will be a long war.

One of the problems we face is that there has been a long internal debate among Muslims about their religion and modernity. Currently, the fanatics have the floor, but as the recent election of a relatively moderate cleric for prime minister in Iran suggests, people eventually tire of fanaticism that doesn’t put bread on the table. Osama bin-Laden and his cronies really have no other social plan except the Koran, and as Iran shows, that isn’t enough when it comes to bread-and-butter issues.

We need to see the people of the Middle East as human beings with a rich and varied heritage, trying to find their way in a difficult world -- and we need to make sure they see us the same way.

So there is hope. What we need is a strategy that provides economic aid to the region along with carefully tailored “propaganda” which doesn’t portray us as the font of all good, but tries with a light touch to humanize us to people in the region. This won’t be easy, either; if the burning of American aid parachuted into Afghanistan by zealots is any indication. We need to be patient and committed to this effort for quite awhile.

We also need to realize that, ultimately, Muslims must come to their own solution regarding their religion and its response to modernity. We may not like all the decisions they make, but if we patiently cultivate the moderate elements, perhaps they will be able to reach the hearts of a new generation which will neither demonize the West, nor consider it the source of all good. The other half of the equation is education at home about our actions in the Middle East and their consequences. If we are going to insist on being dependent on oil, then we need to take a long-term approach to ensuring that all citizens of the Middle East benefit from the wealth oil brings to their country. We need to stop propping up repressive but stable regimes simply to keep the price of oil low. (I would argue that we ought to wean ourselves from the need for oil, but that is probably a pipe dream.) We need to help them develop multi-dimensional economies that can compete in the world and insulate their countries from the shocks that occur to the price of oil.

Ultimately, we need to see the people of the Middle East as human beings with a rich and varied heritage, trying to find their way in a difficult world -- and we need to make sure they see us the same way. If we don’t educate both sides, this war will continue and the terrorist will continue to find a ready supply of fodder for their attacks.

Mouth of Wilson Archives

AUSTIN, Texas, December 18 -- Was there ever a more ludicrous sight than George W. Bush proclaiming the need for bipartisanship in front of a Texas legislature shorn of its LIBERAL Democrats? (For those of you who missed it, only conservative Democrats who worked with Bush were invited for the President-elect’s acceptance speech.)

If I pursue my platform, Bush suggests, I'm following the will of the centrist population who sort-of elected me.

Yet this stage-managed event offers a great insight into exactly how Bush plans to succeed in Washington despite losing the popular vote (and probably the vote in Florida) and having to rely on 5 conservative justices on the Supreme Court to get him into office. What was important in Bush’s speech was his attempt to position himself in the center. The Texas democrats present wouldn’t have been willing to work with me, he suggests, if I had been too far to the right. If I’m in the center, he then implies, SO IS MY PLATFORM.

As a corollary, the platform of the Democrats MUST be left of center. Thus, if I pursue my platform, I’m following the will of the centrist population who sort-of elected me. And, it’s already apparent that many conservative pundits are trying to push this idea.

On Crossfire this past weekend, Robert Novak ripped into liberal Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone claiming that Wellstone’s idea of compromise is passage of a liberal agenda. Thus, when Wellstone criticized the proposal to eliminate the estate tax as a giveaway to the richest 2% of the population, Novak claimed that it would help farmers wishing to pass along their farms and that Wellstone didn’t want to help struggling middle Americans. Wellstone’s response was to suggest that other things could be done for farmers.

In the area of taxation, Wellstone suggested that there was room for compromise on the so-called “marriage penalty.” Novak, however, kept pounding away that elimination of the estate tax was in the interests of Middle America. But compare the two tax cut proposals above and tell me which you think is centrist?

And it appears that a tax cut will be the first item on George Bush’s agenda when he’s sworn into office. (Perhaps, to reassure the right that he’s not totally centrist…as if he ever were.) We haven’t seen the cut he proposes yet, so it’s not fair to suggest that Bush will abandon his “bipartisan” position. However, I won’t be surprised if his tax package leans heavily on the estate tax cut. In any case, a tax cut has already been sold as a centrist position. (Not to me, of course. One of Bush’s other “centrist” positions is to build up the military and I’ve already seen the predictable outcome of increasing military spending and cutting taxes. Ronald Reagan gave us a $5 trillion debt with that approach. Take the money from your tax cut and pay down the national debt, Mr. Bush!)

Bush's military and Social Security proposals will be dressed up as centrist, and Congressional Republicans will attack any Democratic proposal as "liberal."

I have seen other signs that this may be the approach Bush plans to take. A look at the recent election mess and Bush’s “performance” gives another clue. During the squabbling after the election, Bush took a very low profile, letting James Baker be his conservative pit bull. Thus, when it came time for his acceptance speech, Bush could talk about “healing” and “bipartisanship” without sounding hypocritical, because people didn’t identify the squabbling with HIM PERSONALLY.

And his speech was a distinct attempt to identify him with the average American. (A major stretch if you think about it, but most observers suggested his speech was “genuine.”) Thus, I expect Bush’s presidency to look something like this:

1) He continues to position himself “above” the fray. He will not, for instance, directly criticize Congressional Democrats for stalling his programs. Those criticisms will come from Congressional Republicans and occasionally, Dick Cheney, to remind Republicans just whose side Bush is really on.

2) Bush’s cabinet will look very center of the road. Keep and eye on who the UNDER-Secretaries are, however, because this is where he’ll try to sneak a strong right-wing bias into the process.

3) Fairly (but not totally) conservative nostrums on education, the military and Social Security will be dressed up as centrist and Congressional Republicans will attack any Democratic proposal as left of their suggestion and therefore "liberal." [horrors! ... ed.]

4) The one place where Bush will HAVE to compromise will be the Supreme Court. Most Americans believe the Court handed him a Presidency he didn’t win, so Bush doesn’t want to remind them of that. Despite pressure from the right, he will choose a moderately Conservative justice to placate Republicans.

5) If the economy tanks and the Democrats have succeeded in stopping Bush’s tax proposals, Republicans will do there best to blame Democrats for scotching the one thing that would have kept the economy afloat.

Although many observers have suggested that the 2002 election look to be a Democratic landslide, it’s way too early to say that. (As my Republican friend [I have a feeling I know who you're talking about ... ed.] found out twice when he predicted a Bush win after the Gulf War and a Clinton loss after Whitewater.)

It’s unfortunate, but true, that election success depends a lot on how you spin the events that have occurred. If Bush plans to adopt the “stealth” conservative approach I’ve outlined, that Democrats will have to find ways to make the conservative nature of Bush’s presidency show up on the national radar.

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, November 8 -- You have to be amused by the results of the Presidential election. Bush wins the Electoral College [maybe... ed.] but loses the popular vote. Think he's going to lobby the Electoral College to change their votes to reflect the "will of the American people?" (After his staffers suggested they would do that had he lost the Electoral College and won the popular vote!) What a hypocrite.

No, this election is not cause for rejoicing on the right and mourning on the left.

Some people around here are projecting doom and gloom, but I see Bush in an incredibly weak position as President. He's campaigned as an "outsider" who will bring integrity back to Washington, but he failed to win a mandate (even if he pulls ahead in the popular vote, which doesn't appear likely).

Worse, a good deal of his support came from the far right in the South and they're going to expect him to tow their line, particularly with a Republican controlled Congress. But, his margin is so narrow in Congress that he MUST keep the moderate Republicans happy or lose their votes to the Democrats. He has no cachet to work with with ANY of those in Congress because he's an "outsider." Throw in the fact that he may be a political lightweight and I think he and the far-right are in for a big surprise in the next six months to a year. He'll need to be a great politician to get anything done.

If the economy tanks in the next two years, the whole Republican party will get tarred for it because it happened when they controlled both branches of government. No, I'm afraid this recent election is not cause for rejoicing on the right and mourning on the left. Instead, what Bush should do is concede the election!

Here’s the scenario as I see it unfold. Bush wins the recount in Florida by 1,700 votes. However, that election will remain tainted in many people’s minds because of the 3,407 votes Pat Buchanan supposedly got in Palm Beach County. Buchanan registered under 1,000 votes in all the surrounding counties, even the normally conservative ones. Many suspect that people voting for Gore mistakenly filled out the box for Buchanan because the voting boxes were misaligned with the candidate listings. Perhaps 3,407 people did vote for Buchanan, but there’s no way to prove whether they did or not. So the recount stands.

But Bush now owes his Electoral College win to a questionable election. So he’s in even a weaker position in Washington. Any mistakes he makes early in his Presidency and everyone will be saying, “I doubt Al Gore would have made that mistake…and he should be the President.”

If Bush concedes, however, look what happens. He comes out and says, “Yes, I could be your President, but I won’t take the office because I won a tainted election that gave me an Electoral College win. The American public as a whole cast more votes for Al Gore. He should be your President.”

What a groundbreakingly bold political maneuver this would be. Bush ran on a platform of bringing integrity back to Washington. By conceding he immediately creates uncontestable credibility for himself. Yes, he’s not the President, but he’s now a moral force to be reckoned with. No one gives up a Presidency they could have taken without courage. That cachet could extend to his party if they back him up. Bush could then win any election in which he chose to run in 2002. Moreover, the cachet for his party would give them more clout in Congress where Al Gore would find it difficult to get anything he wanted.

Assume the economy tanks, and Gore gets blamed for that, too. A Republican president, whether it be Bush or not, would be a good bet in 2004 along with gains in Congress.

Will it happen? Not a chance. Why? Because no one in Washington has that kind of political courage any more [maybe my memory's failing me, but I don't remember when anyone did... ed.]. Even if Bush conceded, his party would disown him. Instead of having cachet, he’d be out on his tush. Worse still, the American public would end up participating in it.

Americans are obsessed with a winner -- regardless of how the person won. Bush would be seen as a loser for not taking the brass ring when it was dropped in his hands. Americans complain about the cynicism they see in politics, but they’re cynical themselves so they have no one to blame about the mess in Washington except themselves. Knowing that Americans have a minuscule attention span, no one advising Bush would ever recommend his conceding, assuming -- probably correctly -- that Americans would forget how bold and brave a maneuver conceding was long before the next election came around. One can only hope, but it looks like four more years of gridlock in Washington. (And four more years for all those social and environmental problems to get worse without being dealt with. Sigh....)


NFL Realignment: A Radical Proposal

10/13/99: Well, the mavens that run the National Football League have finally decided to take Houston’s blood money rather than wait for Hollywood producer Michael Ovitz to twist (ie. break) enough arms to finance a new stadium in Los Angeles. It’s about time. McNair has had a sensible, completely financed plan set to go for well over a year, but the NFL still thought they could do better in LA because of the large TV market. (Never mind the fact that no one watched the Rams and the Raiders when they were there…and no one would watch a pitiful expansion franchise either.)

The NFL has left Houston mogul Bob McNair twisting in the wind so long, he ought to tell them “Thanks, but no thanks,” now that the NFL owners finally have come to their greedy little senses.

So now what to do. NFL owners have agreed that the new Houston franchise will be in the AFC. They’ve also agreed to realign each conference to have 4 divisions of 4 teams (thus theoretically eliminating the wild cards, but given the NFL’s greed I doubt they’ll eliminate a week of wild card playoffs just for simplicity’s sake.)

The new realignment will also require one team to switch from the AFC to the NFC. This seems stupid to me. Just put the new Houston team in the NFC. Their fans won’t care and there’s a natural rivalry with Dallas which used to only occur during the pre-season when the Oilers were around. Oh well -- no one said that there were brains running the NFL.

Dallas -- that great Eastern city?

The problem with realignment, of course, is how do you preserve the natural rivalries which have grown up over the years. Actually, having looked at it, it isn’t so hard, since the gradual expansion of the NFL over the years has resulted in teams being placed in divisions which have little to do with their geographical location. Add a little geography and things work out well.

Thus we have my suggestion for realignment. First of all, the team that moves from the AFC to the NFC ought to be Baltimore. The Ravens, assuming they stay in Baltimore, are fairly new in town but have had trouble attracting fan support. A move to the NFC East, where they could play the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins twice a year, would establish a nice rivalry.

The rest of my realignment would look like this:

AFC East: Buffalo, New England, New York Jets, Indianapolis

AFC Central: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Tennessee

AFC South: Jacksonville, Miami, Houston, San Diego

AFC West: Kansas City, Oakland, Denver, Seattle

NFC East: New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore

NFC Central: Green Bay, Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit

NFC South: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina

NFC West: Dallas, Arizona, San Francisco, St. Louis

The only questionable aspect of this geographical realignment is in the AFC West. It seems just as fair to keep San Diego out west and move Kansas City to the AFC Central (and push Tennessee into the South). I didn’t do this, however, because the rivalry between Kansas City and both Denver and Oakland is so intense.

Unfortunately, it’s this traditional sense of rivalry that is likely to preclude such a radical rearrangement of teams. Somehow, I doubt that the NFL powers-that-be would like to break up such classic match ups as Dallas-Washington, Dallas-NY Giants, Miami-NY Jets, or even New Orleans-San Francisco. Under MY realignment, I’d preserve these matchups using home-and-home scheduling as is done by the NCAA. For at least 5 years, these classic matchups would be played once a year alternating from one city to the other.

Instead, I expect the NFL to adopt a much less radical realignment. The team most likely to move to the NFC under this scheme is Jacksonville. The realignment might go like this:

AFC East: Miami, New England, NY Jets, Buffalo

AFC Central: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Tennessee

AFC South: Houston, Baltimore, Kansas City, Indianapolis

AFC West: Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Oakland

NFC East: Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas, NY Giants

NFC Central: Green Bay, Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit

NFC South: Carolina, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Arizona

NFC West: San Francisco, Atlanta, New Orleans, St Louis

This scheme generally preserves the existing divisions, each of which would give up one or two teams to create a new division.

One of the problems with such a realignment (and this will become an issue), is that the teams in the new division are forced to create rivalries (which boost interest in games), while those in established divisions can sit back and bask in the interest of established rivalries.

FIBs vs. Cheeseheads

By adopting a more radical realignment based on geography, the NFL could put all teams in the same boat, having to create rivalries. Moreover, these rivalries might become very intense, as the cities will be generally close to each other. [This is a good observation, as anyone in the upper Midwest can verify, judging from the intensity of the Bears-Packers rivalry, where you've got a lot of rabid fans of each team in the same area -- even when the Bears can't beat Columbia's JV, as has been the case in recent years... ed.]

In any case, it ought to be fun to see the different schemes that will be proposed before realignment takes place (in 2002 if I’m not mistaken). Equally entertaining (if appalling in a way) may be the squabbling among NFL owners that realignment creates.

The Net: it's Way Kewl

6/24/99: I admit to being a recent initiate to the Internet. Lacking a new enough computer of my own (15 year old Macintoshes just don't cut it these days), I had to wait until 6 months ago when I got a job with access. Now I spend far too much work time goofing off on the Internet, but that's a different story.

I think my initial reaction was probably similar to a lot of others. "Wow, there's so much stuff here." I spent a whole day smiling when I found A whole website dedicated to a somewhat obscure (historically and musically) and generally canatakerous German composer of the early part of the century--amazing. (Since then, I've had less luck finding and but I suppose you can't have it all).

My second reaction was, "geez is it difficult to actually find specific things on the Web." Perhaps I'm using them wrong, but search engines seem to produce endless lists of "Matches" but never what I'm really looking for. Add a keyword to the search, and the list gets LONGER!! (I guess the engine thinks I want something with X or Y, but most people mean X and Y.) I suppose I should take a class, but really that's no fun.

Instead, I've found that my desire to "surf" has declined and I mostly stick to sites I've already found. Among those sites are several bulletin boards on These have given me some insight (probably small) into the quality of discussions on the Net. For the most part, that quality is pretty BAD. The quality of public discussion these days is pretty bad, as well, so it shouldn't be surprising. However, many have lauded the Net as a major improvement in the free exchange of ideas so reality is very disappointing. The anonymity of the Net appears to have let many with marginalized philosophies come out of the woodwork. In theory, this is good. In practice, a lot of these people are revealing WHY they are marginalized. (As a side light, people on the Web ought to proofread their entries!!

The grammar and spelling are appalling, making it difficult to figure out what is being said). As an example, I'll use a Civil Liberties board I log on to (run by a person I knew in college--my prime reason for visiting). Generally, the range of comments on the bulletin board range from "I agree" to "I wholeheartedly agree."

To see what would happen, I've taken the gadfly role (not difficult since I'm no Libertarian). The results were eye opening. First off, many people are simply uncivil. If I politely disagree with their point of view, I get called names or told off in rude terms. This probably isn't very different from a face-to-face political discussion, but it certainly taints the image of the Web for free exchange of ideas.

As a sidelight to this, I've noticed that Web discussions frequently lack the contextual clues that one gets in a face-to-face discussion. Several times I've tried to be droll or self-deprecating with my comments only to find people taking me completely seriously. (One woman was almost driven to tears--or so she said!!) Without tone of voice, facial expressions or body language to work with, I suppose people need to take things seriously. (Unless I start putting ;-) next to all jokes--but I'm loath to do that.)

Really, I just wish people would read things with an open mind!! For those who aren't uncivil, I've found a great lack of depth to many of their comments. Maybe they are at work and must rush off a comment, but it seems to me many are simply knee-jerking their reaction. (Again, not different from modern political debate, but disappointing.)

As a sidelight here, I do find it amusing to track discussions to see how off-track they get. Most end up miles from their initial starting point and often after only a few replies. While some might see this as a crucible where all ideas are allowed, it strikes me as a lack of focus and concentration on the part of those participating. Rather than addressing the issue at hand, they address THEIR issue whether it's relevant or not. I have had a few good discussions, though, so I guess that makes up for the bad. (I've also chastised a few people for uncivility!!) Ultimately, however, I guess I like face-to-face discussions better. I think they tend to be richer and more focussed. But I could be wrong. Check back with me in a year or two and I'll let you know what ELSE I think about the Net.

You won't catch me in that Net!

News Item: Nasdaq sinks as Net stocks crumble

January 21 -- I'm sure many investors woke this morning with a major hangover, having participated in the bloodbath that was the bursting of the Net stock "bubble."  Once again, Wall Street has come to its senses -- long after anyone with a brain would have.

The ironic aspect of this particular headline, found on the MSNBC Web page, comes farther down in the story, however.  "Fueling the slide in Net stocks was news that Barton Biggs, the influential chairman of U.S.-based Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Investments, had called the rapid appreciation of Internet stocks a 'bubble,' and that it was close to its end," notes the story's author. "Speaking in Tokyo, Biggs said the rally may be running out of steam."

And so, Mr. Biggs (a name just too rich in irony) says the bubble will explode, and lo and behold, the bubble explodes.  This is the kind of nonsense which occurs on Wall Street every day.  Reality means nothing in this bastion of capitalism.  Only the perception of reality counts, and that perception depends completely on the ability of CEO's to spin their story right.

I take as my example a large bookstore chain (whom I recently worked for) and their competition with an on-line firm whose name should be obvious.  [In case you've been asleep for the past year or two, he's talking about -- ed.]

The large chain produced results in 1998 which well exceeded their profits for 1997.  However, because the 1998 profits failed to meet its and Wall Street's expectations, the company saw its stock actually drop in value by half over several months.  This is how the geniuses on Wall Street reward better sales.

If even better sales don't jar Wall Street's attention, I'm sure the management of the company will look to that other tool for making investor's smile -- they'll close less profitable stores to boost their margin.  And no doubt, Wall Street will applaud and the stock will rise.

(As an aside, I once saw a TV business analyst announce with glee that a major company had finally cut 10,000 jobs as they knew they should have done years ago.  Said analyst made no mention of the tribulations of the 10,000 people out of work.)

Now for the on-line company.  Despite the fact that it lost huge quantities of money yet again this year, its stock price shot up to nearly $200 a share.

Like many Web firms, this company must discount its products to make up for the cost of shipping.  The problem is that the book business has always been a narrow margin business. The sales figures needed to make up this narrowing of their margin are enormous and difficult to obtain.

Now it is possible that the on-line book business will thrive in the future--possibly by changing its focus or maybe the sales will come. For now, however, the economics of the situation aren't good. Any investment firm worth its salt should know this.

So what does Wall Street do?  Investors climb all over each other throwing money at the company because its the latest thing.  It's a hot stock.  The idea sounds cool.  Never mind that the economics may not work out.  Here, take our money and spend it to cover your huge losses.  And so on and so forth.

Certainly some speculation is needed to keep entrepreneurship alive.  But Wall Street is now so driven by greed and the lure of huge returns that no one really cares about reality.  Those who took a beating in the last few days will be forgotten when the next hot stock appears.

But this cannot go on forever. Eventually reality will intrude and then we all better watch out. Eventually, the gradually declining middle class will figure out that they're not really sharing in the Wall Street profits. It will dawn on them that they are having to work longer hours to maintain their standard of living. Their jobs are being downsized so that they can be shipped overseas.

But, like most people, they don't want to see that.  They want to be told things are great. So everyone looks to Wall Street to explain how the economy is doing.

Our government is considering investing some of our Social Security money in the market because it's doing so well. Business leaders make corporate decisions solely based on the performance of their stock.

But how well is it doing?  We'll never know, because reality doesn't count. Is this any way to run an economy upon which nearly 300,000,000 people depend?  I think not.

[The editor replies: You're certainly right that is nowhere near making a profit -- and that, in fact, they may never make much money selling books.  However, their long-term strategy looks to be diversification; they've made a number of investments that make it appear that five or ten years down the road, they'll look more like an on-line Wal-Mart than an on-line version of a big bookstore.  In fact, Wal-Mart has a lawsuit pending against Amazon for hiring away a number of key employees.  We'll see how it turns out.  In any case, though, Meg and I are hooked on the convenience of buying books on-line, profitable or not.]

Socc-it to me!

Just a comment about your column on soccer ("Soccer -- can you kick it?," June 23).  I recently heard a radio jockey who got it right with respect to soccer in this country.  He suggested that it's wildly popular among the junior set because it's fun to play.  Add in the general lack of talent and you get enough scoring to keep the parents watching. The problem is that what is being played isn't really soccer, at least not as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

I enjoy soccer because although it's a simple game, it can be played in many different ways.  Compare the Nigerian team with the Germans and you'll see what I mean.  Soccer is a chess match writ large.  In a way, Nigeria vs. Germany is comparable to Kasparov vs. Karpov.  And that's only the beginning, because then you can add the individual styles of the players into the mix.

My favorite match in recent history was the quaterfinals in '94 which pitted the Dutch against the Brazilians.  Brazil went up 2-0 and it appeared that the Dutch had no chance.  But Denis Bergkamp lifted the entire Dutch team on his shoulders and tied the game.  It was Jordanesque in its beauty.  Brazil eventually scored to win the game, but it was gripping from beginning to end.

The average American simply isn't interested in the beauty of soccer.  (It's much like a pitcher's duel in baseball; the average fan hates that as well.) To them, nothing is happening, but that is only because they aren't looking closely enough.  When the '94 World Cup ended in a 0-0 tie (prior to the shootout) everyone said that it was the perfect demonstration of what was wrong about the game.  In fact, it was a demonstration of the malleability of the game.  Had the beat up Italian team tried to play Brazil straight up, they would have lost badly.  Instead their patient control of the midfield gave them a chance to win.

Americans are impatient and the result is 3 straight losses and general embarassment.  Me, I'm rooting for Denmark, a country about the size of Massachusetts, which has its team in the quarterfinals, because they know the value of patience.

The Perils of the Proletariat

Gee, what a shock that companies won't pay employees what they are worth ("Tech workers of the world, unite!," June 2).  What is appalling is that employees allow themselves to be exploited and worse actually serve as their own wardens.

A friend of mine went to work for a big shoe company a few years ago.  (One that was making money hand over fist).  She started out at $17,000 a year to service retail accounts -- i.e., local stores.  In her department, people were hired for 40 hours a week, but everyone routinely worked from 7am to 7pm, in order to get all their work done.  Those who didn't were not considered "team players" and were looked at with anger by those who worked the extra hours.  As a result, everyone worked from 7 to 7.

For the amount of money they were [not] paying my friend, the company could easily have paid for several other workers to make sure that everyone could get their work done in the "allotted" 40 hours.  But why bother.  If everyone was willing to stay extra, why should the company discourage that.

One hears alot about being a "team player" in business today but very little about whether the team is worth playing for.  Companies can afford to ignore their workers because they know that most of them are caught up in the material society we live in, are in debt, and therefore, must have a job.

Only when workers begin to realize that they are not better off then they were four years ago (to quote a certain president), will this situation change. But don't count on that soon.  People would rather believe advertisers and slick politicians than really take a hard look at their lives.  So we will continue to slip into a divided society of a few rich and many slipping middle class people who are afraid to stand up for something. It's really too bad.

Big salaries for execs, not for people who do actual work

Amen (to "Staffing Crisis? What staffing crisis?, May 5), but you know it's not simply the technology industry that has this problem.

I work in the retail industry and it occurs there every day.  Recently I dropped a line to our company newsletter in reply to an ongoing debate about employee salaries.

The executive who was writing about the salary issue insisted that our product was a "fixed price" item and as a result the company could not afford to raise it's worker's salaries.  Besides, he pointed out, even if they took away all the management salaries and spread the wealth, it would only amount to a small change in the average worker's salary.

Two paragraphs later, the same executive insisted that the market establishs executive salaries and that we had to "pay the piper" if we wanted to have quality leadership.  Amazing isn't it?  Economic factors keep the salaries of the people who actually do the work low, while pushing the salaries of the leadership up.

The obvious ridiculousness of this position was completely lost on him.  The problem is that American corporate leaders indulge in this type of "doublethink" all the time.  In fact, I'd submit that it's a requirement for advancement in most companies.  Those who point out such contradictions are not the ones considered for advancement.  When I tried to apply for a meagre assistant manager position, I was told that the only thing keeping me back was my attitude.  "You're not saying the things that the people above you want to here."  Never mind that I do a great job every day.

If companies promote the people who say what the executives want to hear, why should we be surprised by short-sightedness in corporate management?  In fact, since the executives of America are the ones who set their own pay scale (not market forces, as they would have you believe), why should they promote anyone who challenges that viewpoint?  And so we get the same blind and stupid leadership that produces a staffing crisis in the technology industry.  The fact that they whine about it indicates that level of their blindness.

Eventually, one can only hope, the workers of America (the people who actually produce things--as opposed to those who produce higher stock prices) will catch on and realize that we're not better off than we were ten years ago, but some people are!!

Why are only speeders ticketed?

I agree with your general idea ("Taxation by ticket is tyranny!," March 24); I'd just like to raise another beef.  Why is it that the police have no trouble giving tickets for speeding, but they cannot ticket any other form of unsafe driving?

I cannot tell you the number of times I've observed drivers rolling through Stop signs, changing lanes arbitrarily with nary a glance in the rearview mirror, and making left-hand turns in front of traffic, never mind the many more boneheaded things I've seen.  Yet, any cop who happens to be nearby placidly watches it go on.

I think the problem is simple.  Most cops don't really know the rules of the road.  Watch the average police cruiser for a little while and you'll see what I mean.  (If the cops want to arrest people for speeding, they ought to ticket themselves first!)

Alas, I don't think there's a solution to this dilemma short of confiscating cars from bad drivers.  Oh well, that's just part of the price you pay for the freedom to drive.

Show me the money

I'd like to reply to your columns on basketball and political commercials in that order.

Basketball ("Not Basketball Anymore," February 24) has gotten to be a ridiculous sport, quite frankly, where atheleticism (i.e. who can jump higher) is more important than having any skill. What has really killed the game, however, is money.  When teams are willing to pay average players millions of dollars and are thereby forced to pay so-called superstars mega-millions, what's the incentive to get better. Sure, every once in awhile you'll find someone with pride enough to want to improve, but most of today's young players think that because they're being paid millions they're experts at what they do.  So get used to 35% shooting, point guards with 3 assists and 8 turnovers a game, and big men who wouldn't know what a turnaround jumper was if it bit them.  They're being paid, what do they care.

As for political commercials ("Speak for yourself, or don't speak at all," March 3), hear hear to your idea.  The only idea that I would add is to limit the number of commercials any candidate could air. I'm not opposed to free speech, just repetition.  Alot of modern political commercials adhere to the idea that if you throw enough crap some will stick.  If you want to say I'm a scuz bag, great. You have one week to do it, no more. Of course limiting campaign spending on commercials is pretty pie-in-the-sky when you consider whose job it is to enact such laws.  Oh well...