Letters from our readers.
Dec. 20 1996 3:30 AM

Shrum's a Bum


What's the deal with the post-election editions of "Varnish Remover"? "Varnish" has quickly become one of the least interesting columns in Slate. I've always admired Bob Shrum in his multiple incarnations as political handler, pundit, writer, etc. I loved his deconstruction of the political ads; and he's good--as far as these things can go--in taking apart "commercial" commercials. But maybe you're not putting the guy's talents to the best use.

We may live in a consumer society, and our politics may be thoroughly commodified--but I just don't care about taking apart these ads. They're pretty transparent to start with! I hope you keep Shrum on as a contributor to Slate. But maybe "Varnish Remover" should be removed altogether--at least until the fall of 1998.

--Joshua Micah Marshall

A Plague on All Your Houses


The recent dialogue in Slate between Jon Cohen and Dr. Jerome Groopman, "Is the AIDS Epidemic Over?" begged the more important question of whether government scientists are concealing the true nature of the AIDS epidemic--particularly as the Gulf War Syndrome debacle unravels. The conclusion to be drawn from my nine years of reporting on the AIDS epidemic for the New York Native is a somber one: Patients, activists, and uncritical journalists have been led down a tragic primrose path.

In the last few years, compelling research has been published about a new, AIDS-related virus named Human Herpes Virus 6 that suggests this virus may be more important in causing immune collapse in AIDS than HIV is. Wouldn't it be ironic if Cohen were "obsessed" with finding a vaccine to protect against the wrong virus, and if Sullivan is turning himself into a protease-inhibitor toxic waste dump site with the help of well-meaning clinicians such as Groopman because Cohen failed to get the AIDS story right?

I suspect that not only will Human Herpes Virus 6 soon emerge as an extremely important pathogen, but there will be other surprises related to the AIDS epidemic yet to come for Sullivan, Cohen, and Groopman.

--Neenyah Ostrommanaging editorNew York Native


From Shell Game to Pie

I am generally a fan of Michael Kinsley's, but I must take issue with his recent article, "Social Security: From Ponzi Scheme to Shell Game." Kinsley fails to address the main point of the privatization argument: Social Security changes people's behavior. Most importantly, it reduces the incentive to save for retirement. If Social Security were changed to a funded scheme, where the payments would be used for real investment instead of being transferred for current consumption, the national savings rate would rise. (That is, Social Security taxes would be real savings instead of merely transfers. It would be equivalent to everyone saving for themselves.) The higher savings rate would raise the growth rate. The resulting larger pie could be split up so that everyone, both during and after the transition, is better off. (For a good exposition of this argument, see Martin Feldstein's address to the American Economic Association in the May 1996 issue of the American Economic Review.)

Social Security is an unfunded "pay-as-you-go" system--most of the payments into the system are transferred to current retirees for current consumption, not "saved" as government bonds. So, the argument that we would simply have to find new buyers for government bonds is beside the point in the short run--and irrelevant in the long run, when Social Security will stop running surpluses.

You can attack the privatization argument on two main fronts. Maybe the existence of Social Security doesn't really lower people's retirement savings. Or, maybe higher savings wouldn't really increase growth. But you cannot attack the argument for being a shell game. The point is that you are not merely slicing up the same pie--you are increasing the size of the pie.


--Ed Johnson

None of Ya Biz-Wax

With regard to Michael Johnson's "E-Mail to the Editors," I would like to suggest an addition to the "Slate 60" list: a new sublist, which could be titled "Top 10 Persons Donating Money Not Their Own," and which would, for now, be led by Mr. Johnson himself, who would like to spend $2 billion of Bill Gates' money.

I am not, however, in a position to decide whether the odd $5 bill given by Mr. Johnson out of his own pocket should be lumped with that money belonging to other people that he would spend--or whether it would entitle him to compete against Bill Gates' $27 million in the Slate 60 rankings.

Mr. Johnson did get one thing right, though: How other people spend their wealth is none of his business.

My heartfelt thanks for Slate.

--Felix Kasza