Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 24 1998 3:30 AM

ASK PRUDENCE

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Prudence, drawing on her rich experience of life, will answer questions submitted by readers. She will respond to questions about manners, personal relations, politics, economics, and other subjects. Questions should be sent to Prudence@slate.com. They should not exceed 200 words in length. Please indicate how you wish your letter to be signed, preferably including your location.

Dear Prudence,

Is there a cure for unrequited love? Also, could you fully explain the law of diminishing returns? And, while you're at it, please share your opinion of the plays of Tom Stoppard.

--Too Much Time on Her HandsSeattle

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Dear Too Much Time,

One cure for unrequited love is requited love. There are other cures also, such as devotion to the study of the Finnish language. If you are reflecting a personal problem, remember that unrequited love is not fatal. As someone said, "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love." This applies to women also.

The law of diminishing returns says that if the amount of one input applied to a production process is increased, the yield will not increase proportionately. For example, if your boyfriend sends you a 2-pound box of candy, he will get more return than if he sent you a 1-pound box, but not twice as much return.

When I was young I felt it necessary to pretend that I understood and liked the plays of Tom Stoppard. I no longer do.

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--Prudence, diminishingly

Dear Prudence,

You have wisdom. Please tell me: Do you see an end to human suffering? If not, why? If so, how will it unfold?

Sincerely,--Jil Christina

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Dear Jil Christina,

That much wisdom, or that kind of wisdom, I don't claim to have. My judgment, for which I make no serious claims, is that there will not be an end to human suffering. You can look at it in an evolutionist kind of way and say that suffering is the stimulus to adaptation and there is no reason to foresee an end to adaptation, or if the adaptation of humans is complete, they will have ceased to be humans. You can look at it in a religious way and say that humans were destined to suffer for some sin, such as Adam and Eve's. But these religions typically hold out the prospect of an end to suffering, either for individuals or for the species, although they then cease to be humans.

Maybe suffering is a definition of "human." But adaptation and hope are also definitions of human. Suffering need not overwhelm. To go to the mundane, I quote from Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.

Taking stock of what I have and what I haven't,

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What do I find?

A healthy balance on the credit side.

--Prudence, brightly

Dear Prudence,

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Why are politicians who are so opposed to poverty programs in this country so in favor of bailouts for crippled economies all over the globe? Especially at a time when welfare recipients are being forced off the rolls and told that the government will no longer subsidize those who refuse to help themselves. And at a time when citizens of the District of Columbia are being further disenfranchised because their elected officials are accused of being poor public servants and bad financial managers.

Now I read that South Korea's economic crisis was brought on by corruption, nepotism, bad loans, poor financial management, and people living above their means on borrowed dollars. Am I missing something here? If not, why are all these politicians and financial types, who've turned a cold shoulder to our own poor and the District government, falling all over each other to rush cash to Seoul and roll over their loans? After all, the "lazy," "poor," and "inept" District officials are having to pay for their sins.

Is this a global repeat of the S & L fiasco? Does everybody pay except the guys who built those glorious houses of cards, and the bankers whose reckless loans allowed them to do it?

--JoeFort Washington, Md.

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Dear Joe,

You ask hard questions, and Prudence is not sure that even she can answer them to your satisfaction. However, she will try.

Despite the recent changes in the welfare system, federal, state, and local governments will still be spending large amounts of money to assist poor people--not only through welfare but also through Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The reason given for the recent changes in the welfare program for families was that the program as it was, promoted self-destructive behavior--dropping out of school, dropping out of the work force, and having children with no father present. New conditions were imposed on the receipt of welfare in the belief that these conditions would lead to behavior that was better for many of the people who would have received benefits under the former system.

We don't know yet how valid that belief is, but there is sufficient evidence to support the view that it is valid for some people. Probably the best guess is that under the new system some people will be better off and some worse off, and no one knows the relative numbers. We shall see. Prudence hopes and believes that if the number of people significantly worse off turns out to be large, adjustments will be made in the program.

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Now, as for assistance to foreign governments: You should recognize that despite all the attention "foreign aid" receives, expenditures for it in the whole postwar period have been tiny relative to the size of the federal budget. Only a small part of the aid now being extended to Korea will come out of the U.S. budget, and that aid is being provided in the form of a loan and in the expectation that it will be repaid. Like the changes in the welfare program, the aid to Korea is being provided on the basis of certain beliefs that may or may not turn out to be correct. In the case of Korea the belief is that there is danger of a panic, a flight from the Korean currency in which the Korean economy would be forced down to a level far below its true potential. The thought is that if the panic is averted by the provision of temporary help, the Korean economy will recover to a level at which it is able to repay its debts.

This, also, may turn out to be a mistake. There are well-informed people who think that the world economy would be better off if no aid was provided and the Koreans and the international investors who lent money there were forced to make their own adjustment. Prudence doesn't know which of these views is correct, but she understands the thinking of those who conclude that the risks of not giving help are greater than the risks of giving help.

There are some inescapable losses in the Korean situation, and the foreign bankers who invested there will share in those losses. But the hope is that the aid will avoid losses that are caused only by irrational panic.

--Prudence, tentatively