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Poor Reflections

I was extremely disappointed in the reflections on the Occupy Wall Street movement offered in “Penn Perspectives on the 99 Percent” [Jan|Feb]. To assert that the country and the economy has been well served by the rapid expansion of the financial sector, as is argued in your article, is extremely short-sighted, ignoring the disastrous losses imposed mainly on lower-skilled, minority, and older workers by the Great Recession, whose depth and length is directly related to the risky behavior of the financial sector.

The extreme rise in income inequality—which is the target of Occupy Wall Street and which threatens health, economic mobility, and the foundations of democracy in the US—is not the result of impartial market forces. Is this the best that Penn can do in terms of engagement with these major issues? Penn economics had a proud tradition of careful research on the major policy issues of the day. What has happened to that tradition, and is the commentary in your article really representative of the best that the University can do?

Howard Chernick Gr’76 Brooklyn 

Get a Job or Go Back to School

I just finished reading your Jan|Feb issue and could not believe all of the space given to the occupiers in Philly and elsewhere. I think enough time and press has been spent on them—they need to get jobs or go back to school and clean up the messes/the crimes they are leaving behind in most cities.

Dotti Cahill Nu’75 Fleming Island, FL 

What Does Create Mean to Them?

I found the article on the “Occupy” phenomenon very interesting, partly for what the various professors stated and partly what was implied. The defense of the financial establishment might be amusing if it wasn’t so amoral.

“Wall Street creates wealth” was their argument.

What does create mean to them? I guess I am just too ignorant to understand their concept of creating. After all, I am just a simple PhD researcher in the natural (real) sciences. If a cobbler makes a pair of shoes, if a carpenter makes a shelf, if a chemist synthesizes a new drug, these are concepts of creating that I can understand. If a broker connects a buyer with a seller he may provide a service, but what did he create? If a financial wizard repackages a bunch of securities or mortgages into a new bundle, what did he create?

As for the value of this service, what happens if it is not adequate? If a plumber doesn’t do a good job, I don’t pay him. In the financial universe, if the project doesn’t work, the “creator” still gets a bonus. If I hire someone to perform a service, I get to decide how much I am willing to pay. In the financial universe the servant decides and I don’t have any recourse since I don’t deal with him.

In the real world, if I sell a package labeled cornflakes but fill it with shredded paper, I commit fraud and can be convicted and be sent to jail. In the financial universe, if I sell something that is not what I claim, I become a hero and get a bonus, because I am “creating wealth.” For whom?

By this reasoning, we should welcome the drug lords and gangsters, for they too create wealth. After all, if I sell “security” to a merchant or store owner, I am selling something real; no? And drug lords sell real merchandise, and I don’t buy it if I don’t want to. From where I stand, the billions made by drug lords or Wall Street wealth creators look equally “clean,” equally amoral, at best, equally immoral, and equally depraved at worst. They all profit from other people’s misery.

I have been around for a long time. I have all that I need, much of what I want, and I am in the fortunate position of being able to tell the difference. I don’t envy their wealth, but I am upset that this is obtained at the expense of tens of thousands of their fellow Americans who are being impoverished by their greed and arrogance.

Werner Zimmt G’81 Tucson, AZ 

Occupiers Have Been Conned

Once the obvious has been stripped away (the drugs, music, opportunity to “meet” like-minded partners, don’t want to miss out on another “event that defined a generation”), and some rules of economics are applied, the real protest here is based on the inability of the protesters to make a success of their lives.

From their childhood they have been drilled to believe that education by American institutions would deliver them to the promised land of a successful career and happiness. Yet those educational institutions, such as Penn, have abdicated their role as real educators and instead become bloated self-serving bureaucracies now defining themselves as “research universities” to capture the largess available from government and the “evil” 1 percent who have put their wealth into foundations rather than let it be taxed.

Undergraduate education, that “bargain” at a sticker price of $250,000 and climbing, is dangled (especially at a prestigious Ivy) as the route to success. No one bothered to tell the undergraduate that it is the stepchild of the faculty. What of the stepchild education all that money buys? It is obvious from the interviews with the Occupy protesters that they cut the economics courses. It is also obvious that they didn’t read much history or literature about character, heroes, leadership, or constitutional government. Perhaps they were lured into one of the cutting-edge majors, such as environmental science, green energy, women’s studies, etc. In my day it was “City Planning.”

Upon graduation, they have a piece of paper, a real-world sizeable loan to pay off, and a view of the job world divided for them by their educators into “profit” and “not for profit.” The loan payments bring reality to bear quickly. “Wall Street” is to blame only in the sense that there are few jobs available to these debt-burdened students.

The US has, since the idealistic Sixties, been on a campaign to drive business to foreign shores. From my perspective, the “environment” was cleaned up by the mid 1980s, yet the environmental job-killing fanaticism has ratcheted up. Class-action lawsuits, labor unions, and employment law add significant risks and disincentives to business and hiring. Mindless, complicated government regulation adds sizable costs to do business and arbitrariness. Warrantless media “coverage” can destroy established brands. Finally, and unfortunately for the US job market, the Internet has opened up the world and its people to compete with the US and its high-cost anti-business environment.

With regard to this last point, China has no excessive environmental laws, no OSHA, no trial attorneys, no employment law, no mindless regulation, no media hype, low taxes, no unions, and hordes of people eager to work. It may be “Communist,” but is also hard-core capitalist. It now owns most of the world’s manufacturing jobs. They aren’t coming back soon. 

What the occupiers are really protesting is that they have been “conned.” Conned by the education system that charged them a fortune to teach them about a utopia that cannot exist. Conned by people “helping” them but really only enriching themselves at their expense: politicians, educators, trial lawyers, labor leaders, government regulators, and the media. 

They continue to be conned by the same people who now tell them that “Wall Street” is to blame. After all, that is consistent with what their college professors taught them. 

John L. O’Shaughnessy W’71 Chesterfield, MO 

Thank You, Occupy Wall Street

After reading the comments of Penn faculty about Occupy Wall Street, I appreciated their intelligent comments and analysis of the movement. Still, I was frustrated by the abstract, disengaged nature of the discussion. I think it’s essential to study the context in which Occupy Wall Street happened. Gar Alperovitz, in his book America Beyond Capitalism observes that the distribution of wealth in the US at this time is the most extreme that it has been since feudal times in Europe. Thomas Jefferson wrote clearly that he believed that a concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few individuals would make the survival of the democracy impossible. 

The so-called “conservative” agenda of cutting taxes, shrinking government, and the free market is based on a simple paradigm of gambling. In my opinion, the so-called “conservative” movement has engaged in an overwhelming propaganda campaign to get citizens to believe that they can get something for nothing. It is not for nothing that President Obama stated that people on Wall Street treated the funds of American citizens as if they were running private gambling parlors. Such gambling parlors were only made possible because of the laws prohibiting government oversight of financial institutions. Throughout human history, when people avoid transparency, it is because they have an agenda to take what is not theirs.

Naomi Klein, in her book Shock Doctrine, does a masterful job of exposing the literally insane bases of the “free market doctrine.” The notion that any human endeavor could be self-correcting is patently absurd. It goes against the universal law of entropy—that the universe tends over time to become more simple, not more complex. The reason that cars have steering wheels is because the act of driving requires constant readjustment and redirection. Why anybody should think otherwise is beyond me. Yet letting the world economies run themselves without oversight in the name of a “free market” philosophy is potentially lethal.

It has been stated that our laws have been based on 19th century concepts of how to manage information, while computer technology has brought us full speed into the 21st century. Nowhere is that more true than with the unsupervised trading of derivatives. Trillions of dollars were and are whirling around the globe at the speed of light. Derivatives have been traded so fast, without oversight, that the ownership of the money has been lost. That is what is meant by “toxic assets.” There has been, in my opinion, criminal negligence in permitting financial institutions to destroy the integrity of data that traces ownership. If nobody knows who owns “toxic assets,” then who gets stuck cleaning up the mess? To date, nobody on Wall Street—Hell, they keep on giving themselves obscene bonuses at taxpayer expense. Try telling a person who has been wrongly evicted from a family home that it was all a mistake, because nobody really knows who owned the mortgage at the time they were evicted.

I believe that we must be grateful to those who are active in the Occupy Wall Street movement for challenging the existing order of things. If we neglect to join in the conversation to balance our nation’s financial and governmental problems, I fear that Lincoln’s words that our nation may perish from this Earth will come to pass.

David H. Herman G’71 Elkins Park, PA 

Where Was SP2 Perspective?

I read with interest the Penn faculty discussion about the “99 percent.” While the views of historians, economists, and Wharton faculty made important contributions to clarifying the Occupy Wall Street movement, I missed the perspectives of the faculty of the School of Social Policy and Practice. It seems the concerns and expertise of that school’s faculty are focused on the issues raised by the Occupy movement.

David G. Gil SW’58 GrS’63 Waltham, MA 

Cheer the Women

After reading Molly Petrilla’s wonderful article about the Penn Glee Club [“Glee at 150,” Jan|Feb], I realized that she had left out the important role that women have played in its history. I was a member of the Glee Club in 1956, Bruce Montgomery’s first season. I only lasted one year (Bruce and I decided it was better to put my energies in Mask & Wig, since I spent most of the concerts sweating and with my ear in the next guy’s mouth, trying desperately to sing “my part.”) Our incredible accompanists that year were Edie Herman CW’60 (now Saltzberg and still a close friend) and Meryl Ettelson. Edie stayed with the club her four years at Penn, and Meryl stayed for two before transferring to another school to study music. I also noticed there are women in the photo of the club on page 34, so I assume they are also accompanists. So let’s cheer the women who have helped make the Glee Club the success that it is.

Herb Katz Ed’59 Rochester, NY 

No Argument Here (Thanks, Though)

I enjoyed reading “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Bars” [Jan|Feb] by Caren Lissner Matzner. However, in the pantheon of fictional nerds, it is not Dalton but Dilton Doiley who is Archie Comics’ brainy outcast. (Only a true nerd would know this and feel compelled to point it out.)

Jeff Krell C’82 Los Angeles 

At Last, Some Skepticism

The article on the book, Climate Crises in Human History, by A. Bruce Mainwaring C’47, Robert Giegengack, and Claudio Vita-Finzi, was a pleasure to read [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb]. At last some scientists are at least skeptical enough to want more than data, and both data and history before they are convinced that they know the “truth.”

Arthur S. Jensen Ed’38 G’39 Gr’41 Parkville, MD 

Enough Thought?

For Emily Goshey to choose Islam as her religion [“Notes From the Undergrad,” Jan|Feb], one wonders if she gave enough thought to its dictates that subjugate women and deprive them of generally accepted human liberties. Beyond that, and less tolerable, are the thousands of lives around the world that have been lost due to Islamic terrorists fulfilling jihad based on their interpretation of the Qur’an. And finally, although Goshey portrays the Philadelphia contingent of Muslims coexisting peacefully, this is certainly not the case in several European cities where they are a significant part of the population. Their reluctance to assimilate and the trouble they are causing has been well documented.

S. Waud C’63 New York 

More Moon Art Than You’d Think

When I saw the title, “To the Moon, Artist!” [“Arts,” Jan|Feb], I was expecting an article about Paul Van Hoeydonck, the artist who created the 3-inch aluminum sculpture, Fallen Astronaut, which was placed on the lunar surface on August 1, 1971 by the crew of Apollo 15 to commemorate the astronauts and cosmonauts killed during the space race—making it, and not Lowry Burgess’ Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture, “the first non-scientific payload taken into space by NASA,” as the article claims.

While Fallen Astronaut remains on the Moon, and so wouldn’t qualify as art that has “gone with NASA to outer space and back,” I would certainly think there are many such other examples that have made the return trip. Each Apollo astronaut was allowed five pounds of items in his personal-preference kit in the Command Service Module, and half a pound in the Lunar Module, and many items taken I would consider to be art, such as medallions. Gemini and shuttle astronauts have also been allowed to take personal items on missions, and NASA missions have long included official flight kits as well, containing a variety of non-scientific and sometimes artistic items.

Paul Eric Menchen EAS’92 Longmont, CO 

Hazy on Homecoming

I’ve never understood Homecoming [“Homecoming 2011,” Jan|Feb] or why it seems so important to some. What is the deal?

Joe Deegan C’67 Philadelphia 

Homecoming formally debuted in 1952. Here’s the explanation from our September issue of that year:

“The out-of-town alumnus who returns to Philadelphia for one football game during the fall season is usually not delighted with the location of his seat in Franklin Field, despite the fact that there are few really poor seats in Pennsylvania’s stadium. The reason is that the best vantage points go to students, season-ticket purchasers and the visiting school. The out-of-towner naturally wants to attend a particularly good game, one for which the ticket demand is exceptionally high to begin with.

“The solution: Homecoming Day.

“Arrangements have been made to supply organized alumni groups with fifty-yard line tickets for the Army game on November 15. The plan, which was initiated by the students, provides that alumni clubs, classes and graduate fraternity groups that apply for blocs of tickets will be seated in the best student sections in the South Stand. Students that have to be displaced will be transferred to the West Stand for the game.

If the expected keen interest in Homecoming Day develops this year, it will be made an annual affair, centering around a particularly attractive football game.”

Seating isn’t so much of an issue these days as in the pre-Ivy League era when Penn was a national football power, but the event, which has added a focus on campus arts & culture in recent years, proved enduringly popular. What is now Homecoming Weekend has grown into Penn’s premier Fall celebration and is the time when the Alumni Awards of Merit—Penn Alumni’s highest honor—are bestowed.—Ed.

More on Less

Having read Kathy Mayo’s letter in the Jan|Feb issue [disagreeing with a previous letter-writer’s suggestion that Gazette articles be shorter], my comments are two: 1) Polonius said, “ … since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief,” and 2) more recently, the writer Eric Hoffer noted: “We need few words when we have something to say, but all the words in all the dictionaries will not suffice when we have nothing to say yet badly want to say it.”

Unlike Ms. Mayo, I cherish brevity!

Leon W. Zelby EE’56 Gr’61 Norman, OK 

Memories Preserved

I enjoy receiving the Gazette and especially so when I don’t see my name in the obits (just a little sick senior-humor). It was interesting to read the article by Steven Heller and Gino Segre, describing their serendipitous meeting many years after sailing on the same ship to escape the Nazis [“Elsewhere,” Nov|Dec].

World War II was a prominent part of my early childhood. I was six when the Pearl Harbor attack took place. My parents emigrated from Scotland in 1930, and they followed closely the events in Europe, especially Great Britain. During the war, my mother collected clothing from the neighbors and mailed “Bundles to Britain” to relatives still in Scotland. She also boiled eggs from our chickens and mailed them in a metal box. Those relatives were living in the Glasgow suburbs, and the River Clyde was targeted by German bombs to destroy the industrial and ship-building areas. My three cousins were in the US Army Air Force, serving in the Pacific. Fortunately, all came back. They refused to talk about their experiences.

For several years I have been collecting articles from my local newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, of WW II memories of those whose lives were affected, either in military service or as Holocaust survivors. Your article will be added to the rest. It is very important to me that those people and those tragic years be remembered for generations to come.

Isabel Govan Lang Nu’57 West Palm Beach, FL

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