If you know anything about the Energy Department, it’s that most people don’t know anything about the Energy Department—up to and including what it does. A famous example was provided when Rick Perry intended in a 2011 presidential debate to propose the elimination of the department—but could not remember the department’s name long enough to propose eliminating it. As you’ve heard somewhere, Perry is now department secretary.
Does Perry understand the department’s mission even today? Based on Michael Lewis’s reporting in the September issue of Vanity Fair, that seems a bit doubtful. In “Why the scariest nuclear threat may be coming from inside the White House,” Lewis assesses the Trump administration’s history of engagement with the department from Election Day 2016 until now. It’s quite a survey. The Trump administration sent no one to the department for a briefing until after Thanksgiving—and even then sent only one individual, a corporate-funded nobody whose main interest was in compiling an enemies’ list of department officials sympathetic to climate remediation. Later, the administration sent “a handful of young ideologues” who “mainly ran around the building insulting people.” Aside from that, the administration’s only “concrete action” was to fire every single Obama appointee—including the department’s inspector general, who turned out not to be a political appointee and had to be re-hired.
Things haven’t gone much better since the inauguration. Trump is now proposing a budget that might force the national labs to lay off 6,000 workers. Trump’s budget de-funds all climate research. It eliminates ARPA-E, the department’s funding mechanism for cutting-edge technologies.
Certain Bulletin readers may lose interest during Lewis’s abbreviated grand tour of the Energy Department. They may skip past his tellings of well-worn stories such as the “Broken Arrow” incident that almost obliterated part of North Carolina in 1961, or the infamous kitty-litter caper at New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Nonetheless, Lewis ends his article on a strong—if depressing—note:
“[I]f you are seeking to preserve a certain worldview, it actually helps to gut science. Trump’s budget, like the social forces behind it, is powered by a perverse desire—to remain ignorant. Trump didn’t invent this desire. He is just its ultimate expression.”
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