Letters from our readers.
Dec. 13 1996 3:30 AM

Unplug Stephen Chapman


In "Unplug the DOE!" Stephen Chapman recommends that an empty symbolic gesture drive policy. What's more, he does it without apology or embarrassment.

What may be provocative copy for Slate is actually outdated discourse. The perennial argument for dismantling the Department of Energy doesn't succeed because it doesn't make sense. No proposal has ever identified clear savings for taxpayers from eliminating the DOE--at least, none that rivals the billions the department saved under the Clinton administration (by undertaking contract reform, cutting waste, privatizing, and streamlining operations).

Of his various arguments for redistributing our responsibilities, most disconcerting is Chapman's easy pass of DOE's nuclear-weapons responsibilities to the Pentagon. The decades-old "check and balance" relationship between the DOE and the DOD squares the needs of the people who are responsible for the safety, control, and stewardship of nuclear weapons with those of the people who decide whether to use the weapons.

Then-Defense Secretary Perry said last year, "With the new technical challenges of providing stewardship of the stockpile in the absence of underground testing, this is not a time to be fundamentally restructuring the management of these activities." And Energy Daily reported the Bush administration's energy secretary, Adm. James Watkins, as saying, "I think it would be a mistake to give [weapons functions to the] DOD," and that Defense Department officials may not understand the importance of rigorous--and expensive--nuclear-safety practices. Watkins described a DOD official who wanted to stonewall public concerns about environmental contamination and safety threats at DOE sites by exercising the government's sovereign-immunity defense against litigation. "And to hell with nuclear safety," he added.


So, Chapman wants to give weapons safety and cleanup to Defense? The people living near our nuclear sites around the country have seen progress both in openness and cleanup by the department. I don't think they would want this change.

Chapman's ultimate goal is actually one we share: ensuring that the American people fully understand the Clinton administration's success in reducing the size of government while increasing its effect. A better solution would be for columnists like Chapman to report the story. But that would be more difficult than covering empty symbols.

--Carmen MacDougalldeputy assistant secretary for communicationsDepartment of Energy



I remember seeing a piece by Michael Kinsley some years back on the absurdity of punditry. You know, the professional pundit, who is supposed to know whether (and how) we should have intervened in Rwanda, who should win the Oscar for best cinematography this year, what revisions should be made to the method of GNP calculations, what concessions the baseball owners should accept, and so on. Well, Slate has brought punditry to almost unimaginable new heights with its ongoing "Is There a God?" dialogue between Andrew Sullivan and Stephen Chapman. I suppose that keeping up with Alan Sinai's daily predictions of Dow movements does give one some authority on this matter; but, it still seems to me, musings on this subject (like those on solid-state physics, for example) should, if they are going to be published, be assigned to individuals who have had more than a little training in the matter.

One can, for example, read all the exchanges to date without knowing what either writer means by the word "God." We know that Sullivan believes in him (her? it? us?), and the other guy does not; and that Sullivan has "always" had this belief, while the other guy has lost his. But that's about it. Furthermore, while there have been no definitions or real elucidations, the discussions seem mired in the concept of a personal Christian-type deity, as though the ability to prove or disprove the existence of that sort of entity is in some way dispositive. I'm not sure if the correspondents realize that the Hindu concept of Brahman has been around considerably longer than Sullivan's cross-pollination of something like the following: a powerful (yet devout) bearded man, a cool breeze on a clear summer night, a John Lennon tune, and the Lion King.

Listen, I really don't want to criticize. Many of us struggle with these issues for much of our adult lives, and perhaps it's something we ought to do ... something that's good for us and for the world. It's probably therapeutic for Slate's two warriors to be taking time out from their inquiries into the House Budget or Travelgate to organize their thoughts on their place in the universe. And, although I got a Ph.D. in philosophy many years ago and have thought and read about these matters ever since, heaven (or whatever) knows I don't have too many answers that I feel confident about. These matters are both very difficult and (except for strict "Little Raft" Buddhists, who are interested only in the relief of suffering, not in metaphysics) very important. I don't mind, therefore, that your two gentlemen are interested, or that they aren't making much headway. I just resist the idea of punditry in certain spheres. I mean, is nothing holy?

--Walter Horn


Give Gates the Bill

Bill Gates ranks 10th in total giving on the "Slate 60" list, but here is some food for thought:

I heard on the radio that Sir Bill is worth around $21 billion now. My calculations may be slipping a zero here or there, but: If one divides $27 million [Gates' contributions to charity so far this year] by $21 billion, and uses that percentage to prorate what an American family with a net worth of $50,000 might give to charity, one would come up with an annual contribution of $51.43--about a dollar a week at the collection plate of the local church.

Don't get me wrong. Bill is entitled to do whatever he wants with his cash. But it is a little sad to see that he has not taken a little more aggressive approach toward charitable giving. His oft-stated goal of waiting until he retires to worry about giving away his money is nice, but extremely shortsighted.


A well-placed billion or two, especially when not burdened with the bureaucracy of the state, could well cure cancer, or AIDS, or otherwise profoundly alter the lives of millions of people. (Bill's family, like many families in the United States, has been directly touched by cancer.) It's sad to think that the epitaph on countless headstones over the next few decades will have this postscript: "I might have lived a full life if Bill had decided to retire just a bit earlier."

--Michael Johnson

Trickle-Down Campaign-Finance Reform

Why should the U.S. public accept the yardstick JacobWeisberg offered us for "measuring the Clinton foreign-contributions scandal" in his defense of the Democrats, "Does Everybody Do It?"? Weisberg makes the myopic error of defining "everybody" as the pustular ranks of Republicans and Democrats incestuously engaged in doling out political favors to their campaign contributors. There is little discerning power evident in Weisberg's relativist judging of the moral failings of Democratic campaigns against the most afflicted Republican examples. There are some politicians who don't play the campaign-finance game despite the odds stacked against them. Some are even members of the Republican and Democratic parties.

The current shock and horror over alleged large soft-money donations to the Democratic National Committee by foreign nationals (Koreans, Taiwanese, and Indonesians) in return for economic- and military-policy considerations by the Clinton administration is amusing--as if soft-money contributions made by domestic corporations and executives are somehow better, less sullied, more ethical. If such activity is considered bribery when foreign nationals engage in it, why is it any different when domestic entities put our campaign system of legalized bribery to use? This points to a moral duality in the current situation, which is troubling.

Campaign-finance reformers fixate too much on the demand side of this economic market. If we consider, for a moment, that the primary aim behind reform is the reduction of influence-peddling, then we can look at the present campaign system as a political-influence market: people making payments in return for policy favors. No matter whether it is $500,000 from a multinational corporation or a $20 check from an individual, a payment is made because someone feels certain government policies benefit him or her. Most reforms attempt to deal with the problem by placing limits on the demand side--that is, campaign-contribution limits, campaign-expenditure limits, etc.

Invariably, contributors find loopholes and skirt the limits--bending, even breaking, the laws. The record tide of campaign expenditure during this election cycle can be viewed as an index of the level of economic dependence of individuals and corporations--even foreign ones--on government policies. Is it any wonder that, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the economic marginal utility of U.S. foreign policy has skyrocketed and foreign entities are anteing up to the larger pot the United States has to offer? Demand-side proposals also run smack up against the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, something some fearfully consider abridging.

Addressing the supply side of the political-influence market may get us past some of the pitfalls endemic to campaign-kickback reform. A supply-side approach would focus on reducing the ability of government to dole out favors. Reduce the marginal utility of government influence peddling, and campaign contributions will take care of themselves. Reduce the stakes, and players will leave the table.

--Kris Lipman