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To Most People, Enron Is a Soap Opera


"The betrayed investor" (Cover Story, Feb. 25) was a great article. But I wonder if you overstated the case. The market is, after all, up. Our survey data at the Yale School of Management show individual investor confidence setting new highs.

Your highlighted survey question-- "Over the next six months, do you think you will probably invest in stocks or stock mutual funds?"--reveals that far fewer today think they will invest more. But your results show that the change occurred between November, 2000, and November, 2001, before Enron Corp. was an issue. Over that year, consumer confidence indexes collapsed, and the stock market declined substantially. I am inclined to think now that most people don't see any connection between their investments and Enron. To them, Enron is a soap opera. Only professionals make the connection that this event could harm confidence in reported earnings and thus reduce investment value.

It is significant that the people you showed in your vignettes were not a cross-section of the market. James J. Houlihan Jr. is an accountant. Heather Barr is a Manhattan attorney. Laurence Kramer is a lawyer. These are sophisticates, not random investors.

Robert J. Shiller

Cowles Foundation

Yale University

New Haven

Editor's note: The writer is the author of the book Irrational Exuberance. The recession we have been through was caused primarily by a dramatic plunge in corporate spending. There has been little change in consumer spending. That dichotomy creates risks to the recovery ("The surprise economy," Cover Story, Mar. 18). Companies have potentially crippling amounts of debt. And while consumers have lost large amounts in their security investments, they have not had to deal with declining housing values. Many may find they are overleveraged and housing will no longer bail them out, nor will a quick recovery in their stock portfolios--leaving them financially squeezed.

Alan E. Rosenfield

Scottsdale, Ariz.

Who loses, and who wins? Is the relevance of a recovery the higher pay, increased stock options, and greater employee investing? People who have a job will be the winners. But in all the zeal for increased productivity, how many of them will still have a job?

R. Lyman Ruth

Chippewa Falls, Wis.

"We may have come too far, too fast" (Cover Story, Mar. 18) valued the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index based on the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond. The yield that an investor would obtain with 10-year Treasury bonds does not include the deduction for income tax that would be paid on the dividends, whereas the earnings per share of the companies of the S&P 500 were earnings after income taxes had been paid. This adjustment in the numbers would make the S&P 500 slightly undervalued instead of slightly overvalued.

David J. Knapp

Montgomery, Ala. In "The next Web" (Special Report, Mar. 4) there were many illuminating details about the Semantic Web. But a few mistakes were made. The worst are in the subhead, which asserts that the World Wide Web will be replaced by the Semantic Web, "which will understand human language."

This subtitle perpetrates two of the main misconceptions about the Semantic Web. It will not replace the World Wide Web! The World Wide Web contains documents intended for human consumption, and those intended for machine processing. The Semantic Web will enhance the latter. The Semantic Web will not understand human language--a mistake that is repeated in the text! The Semantic Web is about machine languages: well-defined, mathematical, boring, but processable. Data, not poetry.

Other points: Development of the Semantic Web is not being funded mainly by the World Wide Web Consortium. It is mostly funded by research grants. Similarly, XML didn't need a lot of pushing from me; Tim Bray, Jon Bosak, Dan Connolly, and the rest of the W3C XML Working Group put a lot of momentum into it. Robert Cailliau was never my boss, and I didn't play Nana the dog in Peter Pan. I played the nanny, a bawdy old woman played by a man, a tradition in British pantomime. My wife and I were in different theater groups: We did not meet at the Little Theater of Geneva.

It is great that BusinessWeek took on documenting the Semantic Web. Explaining a new paradigm is difficult.

Tim Berners-Lee

World Wide Web Consortium

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Mass.

Editor's note: A Q&A with Berners-Lee appears on BusinessWeek Online at businessweek.com/berners.htm. As a former United Way staffer, I had a mixed reaction to "A better way to make a difference?" (Social Issues, Mar. 18) On the one hand, the vexing issues confronting our communities require convening and facilitating the work of community organizations in collaborative initiatives, and the United Way system is uniquely positioned to perform this vital role.

On the other hand, this is a federation of local organizations, not a single national enterprise. The United Way of America board can best support local community efforts by serving as a national advocate for health and human service needs, not by trying to become a corporate-style headquarters.

Michael Bisesi

Seattle

Editor's note: The writer is director of the Center for Nonprofit & Social Enterprise Management at Seattle University.

As a United Way organization that has been focused on outcome-based funding and community-building since the mid-1990s, we welcome and applaud Brian Gallagher's vision. We do not follow the older model of having "member agencies" that receive funding. Our community investment process involves many volunteers from the community who review applications based upon the outcomes model. In addition, we focus heavily on community-building. We engage residents and other stakeholders in sustained, collaborative, strategic efforts to improve conditions in our area.

Karen Bilowith

President

United Way of Schenectady County

Schenectady, N.Y.

Unfortunately, as United Way's local chapters have grown bigger and more prosperous, they have begun to consider themselves the gatekeepers and allocators of people's contributions. Many effective, responsible charities have been locked out of United Way but have formed their own member-oriented, self-governing federations.

We agree that donors, large and small, individual and corporate, should have a clearer idea of where their money is going and how it is being used. We don't agree that politically appointed committees should make those choices for us.

Stuart M. Deluca

Chairman

Another Way Texas Shares

Austin, Tex. Kudos for Kimberly Weisul's "Psst! Help wanted in the stacks" (Up Front, Mar. 18). She has it right: There's a shortage of librarians with master's degrees. However, we actually dropped the course in "shushing" and dispensed with the requirements to wear a bun in the early 1900s. The howls against stereotyping could be heard from Boston to Bimini.

James M. Matarazzo

Dean and Professor

Simmons College

Graduate School of Library & Information Science

Boston


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