To The Editors:

Wallace Roberts's "The Dimming Down of America," [September 24-October 9, 2000] sheds light on the growing problem of poorly thought-through deregulation of electric utility systems.

Because of limited power transmission capability, deregulation afforded a realistic prospect for substantial competition to only a few large consumers of electricity. Deregulation has been promoted by large customers seeking lower rates at the expense of smaller captive customers, and by utilities beguiled by the prospects of recovering "stranded costs," raising rates to captive customers, and engaging in unrestrained diversification. Under deregulation, utilities have sold off generating capacity at high prices that reflect the market power purchasers are obtaining in transmission-constrained power supply markets.

The resulting diversion of utility management from the prosaic tasks of system building has led to neglect of needed facility expansions. Reliability is suffering and customers are stuck with rapidly rising prices.

When market power can be exploited, regulation is needed to restrain prices and improve service to consumers.

Sheldon L. Bierman

Washington Grove, MD

David F. Stover

Arlington, VA

To The Editors:

I wish to commend you for publishing Wallace Roberts's article on electric deregulation, shortages, and price hikes.

Although the article was excellent in its coverage of recent causes and effects, I wondered if Mr. Roberts was aware of the California Energy Security and Reliability Act of 2000, signed into law on September 6. This law is intended to provide customers with the ability to obtain energy self-sufficiency by unplugging from the electric grid--a solution that should provide new options to California consumers of electricity and natural gas.

Don Schultz

Sacramento, CA

Wallace Roberts Responds:

While I am aware of the possibilities for renewables, distributive generation, and the latest changes to the California law, I believe that however wonderful the technology, there will still remain tens of millions of Americans for whom it is not a realistic possibility; they will remain captives of an unregulated oligopoly.

Deregulation is a political problem, and it cannot be fixed with a technological solution. The major power companies are merging very quickly, and the challenge we face is not to buy everyone fuel cells and such, but to curb the political power of these companies before they and their investment banks suck us dry of the little cash we have left.

Should Jews Be Parochial?

To The Editors:

Michael Massing's piece "Should Jews Be Parochial?" [November 6, 2000] begs the age-old question, What or who is a Jew? Evidently for Mr. Michael Steinhardt, it's not adherence to the Jewish religion. His vocal opposition to intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews might suggest a racial definition. But of all people, the Jews have suffered the most from the ideology of racial "purity." Surely that cannot be the goal of the Jewish philanthropist! This leaves "cultural identity" (severed from religious roots) as the remaining definitional criterion. But this apparently means nothing more than collecting antique menorahs, visiting Israel as a tourist, and having nostalgic recollections of a few Bible stories. That is very thin secular gruel. Why should anyone care if this kind of attenuated "Jewishness" suffers the same dissipation and assimilation as, say, "Irishness" in the U.S. melting pot?

H.E. Daly

Hyattsville, MD

Michael Massing poses the question, "In subsidizing trips to Israel and funding Jewish day schools, are Jewish philanthropists retreating into narrow tribalism?" And he calls it a "real risk" if this is the case.

Jews face a greater political risk by not strengthening our commitment to Judaism. It is a learned opinion. The answer to the question "Should Jews Be Parochial?" is yes. The study of Torah is equal to all other commandments because it leads to performing other commandments, among them the sort of social services Mr. Massing fears are not being stressed in this alleged renaissance.

Most of Steinhardt's basic ideas for stemming assimilation are well supported. Says the American Jewish Congress: "Studies repeatedly indicate the high correlation between intensive Jewish education and Jewish continuity."

On the other hand, Mr. Steinhardt's Judaica collection would look much better in a synagogue than housed like dead relics in an atheist's private museum.

Laurie Joseph

Brownsville, TX

Why I'm Not a Populist

To The Editors:

Paul Starr's article "Why I'm Not a Populist" [September 24-October 9, 2000] may put populism in its historic context, but he misses his own identity with its cultural essence in the American psyche. Populism in its day was a form of class struggle, of independent farmers against the railroads--a class expression against money-driven dominance and corporate exploitation.

Populism grew at the same time that socialist ideas emerged. While both had "class" content, socialism became more prominent as the base of national production shifted from agricultural to industrial. Nevertheless, populism has become an axiom expressing opposition to corporate control of our destinies, in every level of capitalist development. In this sense, Paul Starr belies the title of his own article; he obviously is against corporate control of government and regulations. Welcome aboard.

The center is moving toward the left. Since Seattle and now Prague, class struggle has emerged as a striving for universal human values that has subsumed populism, socialism, and other humanistic and religious ethical values.

Sidney J. Gluck

New York, NY

To The Editors:

I always thought that "liberal elitism" was a right-wing myth. But Paul Starr's recent article on populism may have changed my mind.

Starr's column regurgitated a caricatured view of nineteenth-century Populism based on analysis nearly 50 years old, a view presented most notably in Richard Hofstadter's Age of Reform (1955).

From the Progressive Era through the Great Society, liberals like Starr have (belatedly) embraced much of the populist agenda. Additionally, populist pressures have often encouraged liberals to act more boldly. For example, they necessitated Franklin Roosevelt's fabled shift to the left in the "second" New Deal of 1935, which gave us Social Security, among other measures. Like Starr, I dislike the anti-intellectual stance of many populists and the ease with which populism can co-exist with racism and anti-Semitism. Yet, these charges can hardly be leveled against Ralph Nader or his supporters. Furthermore, I believe that, in the final analysis, it is impossible for a person to be both for democracy and against populism.

For 30 years, the right has thrived by depicting progressives as "elitist, limousine liberals" who refuse to listen to "average" Americans and their (legitimate) concerns, concerns often expressed through the language of populism. Unfortunately, The American Prospect has now given conservatives further evidence supporting this assertion.

George Rising

Via e-mail

Paul Starr Responds:

In "Why I'm Not a Populist," I was trying to distinguish the general world view of populism from more limited liberal efforts to limit corporate influence in politics and government. Sidney J. Gluck misses the distinction. His confidence that "class struggle" is on the rise sounds like a view formed long in the past that has somehow not caught up with the world. And, yes, George Rising, it is entirely possible to be for democracy and against populism. The simplicities of populism are just the sort of thing an intelligent democrat ought to be skeptical about. Hofstadter understood that, even if some later historians didn't.