Gregg Easterbrook

So long and thanks for all the fish

Dec 28, 2011 17:49 UTC

Pundits, columnists and editorialists are good at saying who and what they don’t like. But what is it that they do like? All opinion-makers should be required to pen regular accounts of who and what they admire. As my two-year stint as a Reuters weekly columnist concludes – you’re not out of the woods, I may pop up occasionally – let me offer an incomplete accounting of ideas, organizations and people I view as worthy of praise:

World Vision: Many Christians conveniently ignore Jesus’s teachings about the poor. Many Americans don’t care about the billion people globally who are impoverished. World Vision, an evangelical organization, combats both problems by working to end poverty in developing nations. World Vision has done more to help the global poor than most governments, is pragmatic regarding economics, and its staffers don’t proselytize. There are few organizations one can admire without reservation: World Vision is one.

Barack Obama: His “next year we will get serious about the national debt” act is wearing thin. But in the main, Obama has been a good president – and Americans are turning post-racial so quickly that already we seem to shrug about the incredible historic significance of an African-American in the Oval Office.

Obama took command of the country at a low point: a deep recession, a costly quagmire in Iraq. If he’d come onto the national stage under the conditions encountered by the previous two chief executives – Bill Clinton took the White House at the start of an economic boom, George W. Bush took the White House just before 9-11, which ensured him a five-year honeymoon as the nation rallied – Obama might already be viewed as a great president. And he might still cross that threshold. ObamaCare was a major legislative achievement, and though it has bureaucratic-nightmare potential, bear in mind that few of its advantages have yet taken effect.

Doctors Without Borders: In the parts of the developing world where there are medical emergencies, workers of Medecins Sans Frontieres are viewed as saints walking among men. That’s the way I feel, too.

Really, really big questions

Dec 23, 2011 17:37 UTC

Physicists in Switzerland just reported they are closing in on the “Higgs boson,” a hypothesized ultra-small unit that may be the building block of subatomic particles. Let’s hope they are right, so European taxpayers get a return on the $10 billion complex built to look for the Higgs boson.

Whether this particle is found will not affect your life in any way. But the search for abstract knowledge is part of the human quest.

Last year as the holidays approached, I reviewed the state of understanding of the size and age of the cosmos. This year for the holidays, the topic is what science knows (or thinks it knows) about some fundamental questions of nature.

Who would Obama rather run against: Mitt or Newt?

Dec 15, 2011 15:44 UTC

By Gregg Easterbrook
The opinions expressed are his own.

Conventional wisdom says the Republican presidential nomination will go to Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich. This could change – don’t be surprised if it changes more than once. But suppose conventional wisdom proves correct. If you were Barack Obama, which would you rather run against?

A follower of polls might say, “Of course Obama wants to run against Gingrich.” An Obama-Gingrich race could end with a walkover for the incumbent, as happened in LBJ-Goldwater of 1964 and Nixon-McGovern of 1972.

Gingrich, some thinking goes, has a borderline personality. His past is full of strange diatribes on a weird range of subjects. As Ronald Reagan sometimes confused movies with reality, Gingrich confuses science fiction novels with reality. He threw a temper tantrum about his seat on Air Force One. Hardly anyone likes him personally. He was a transparent opportunist with Fannie and Freddie, organizations that voters hate. Gingrich is proficient at bloviating, and the one time in his life he held actual responsibility as Speaker of the House he did a terrible job. Would you trust the nation’s budget to a man who ran a $1 million tab at Tiffany?

A tax on both their houses

Dec 8, 2011 20:40 UTC

By Gregg Easterbrook
The views expressed are his own.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just struck a deal with his state legislature for a long-term tax increase on the well-off, while California Governor Jerry Brown recently said he wants a November 2012 voter referendum aimed at raising the state’s top tax rate.

Conservatives predictably are in a tizzy, liberals in a transport of delight. Moderates might simply be glad to learn that California and New York are dealing with budget deficits on their own, rather than demanding a bailout.

Both states are moving to raise their top-rate taxes on personal income, making the rates border on confiscatory when one combines it with the federal and local taxes. Yet both are holding property taxes down. In June, Cuomo persuaded the New York state legislature to impose a cap on property taxes. California is entering its fourth decade of property taxes capped at a low level for most homeowners, under Proposition 13, passed in 1978.

Books that deserve a list of their own

Dec 1, 2011 16:30 UTC

Gift-buying season is upon us. And so are books-of-the-year lists. Here are some new books that have not necessarily made it on to any book list, but which are nonetheless good reads and good gifts:

WINNING THE WAR ON WAR by Joshua Goldstein

This is the most important political book of the year. It deserves substantial attention and is worthy of awards. Goldstein, a professor emeritus at American University, shows in meticulous detail that Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are terrible exceptions to what is otherwise a trend of steady decline in incidence, intensity and severity of human combat. Cable news creates an impression of general carnage: yet with each passing year, nations and tribal groups harm each other less, both directly through war and indirectly through conflict. “Book trailers” are a mixed blessing; the trailer for “Winning the War on War” is worth watching.

Steven Pinker, a better-known writer, also published a book this autumn about the decline of violence. Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is also worth reading or giving. Pinker concentrates on the evolution of morality (how violence has gradually come to be seen as wrong), whereas Goldstein’s focus is politics (the policy choices that reduce conflict and prevent harm).

The super committee fails so let’s go on a spending spree

Nov 23, 2011 19:05 UTC

The super committee has predictably failed – maybe there was green kryptonite hidden in its meeting room. Months of nearly round-the-clock debate about reigning in the national debt, conducted at the highest levels of government, come to a close with nothing done about the problem. This is the essence of contemporary Washington: lots of empty talk, interest groups appeased, all difficult decisions indefinitely tabled and the national interest ignored.

What comes next? Most likely, Congress will make the national debt even worse.

Republicans want to extend the George W. Bush top-rate tax cuts. Democrats want to extend the Barack Obama payroll tax cut, and enact yet another bonus extension of unemployment benefits. One or all may happen by Christmas as both parties switch to full-blown pandering mode.

If the costs in the December 2010 stimulus bill are any guide, a package of extended tax cuts for the well-off, payroll tax cuts for everyone and bonus payments to the unemployed will add around $700 billion to the national debt.

The shock awaiting if the ‘super committee’ fails

Nov 17, 2011 17:19 UTC

Action by the debt-reduction ‘super committee’ is due in less than a week. You will not be surprised to learn the super committee may only announce grandiose goals, while “deferring” specifics to some unspecified future point.

If, after months of hype, the super committee turns out to be a Potemkin committee, taking no action against the tide of government red ink, here is what will happen: Absolutely nothing.

That’s why falling dangerously arrears on national fiscal policy is so seductive – in the short term, nothing happens. Greece, Italy, Portugal – their governments made irresponsible decision after irresponsible decision, and nothing happened. So the irresponsible decisions continued.

Romney touches third rail – and lives

Nov 9, 2011 21:37 UTC

Increasingly, Mitt Romney seems the Republican candidate who has given serious thought to governing – to what specific policy actions he would take if he became president. The other Republican candidates seem mainly concerned with self-promotion and applause lines, while Newt Gingrich’s “Day 1 Project” seems more like a dress rehearsal than a real concept for governing.

If Romney is the serious challenger to President Barack Obama, then his fiscal policy speech a few days ago bears inspection. It was notably better than most campaign speeches, and contained both gold and dross. Here are some highlights:

Gold: “We cannot with moral conscience borrow trillions of dollars that can only be repaid by our children.” Reckless borrowing, with the invoice passed to our children – nobody in power in Washington right now will be asked to repay the national debt – is not just numbers, it is a moral issue. Romney recognizes this.

Rick Perry + Al Gore ≠ global warming logic

Nov 3, 2011 20:06 UTC

When Al Gore was in the White House, global warming was a disaster of the first order. Republican presidential candidates are now saying it is anything from a fraud to trivial.

Both sides claim sound science, and both are wrong. In politics, “sound science” means whatever supports your preconceived positions.

For American voters, climate change is an issue offering lessons in how to reject political nonsense on the extremes, and find the middle. If we can’t find the middle of a generation-long concern like climate change, one where modest steps are sufficient for the moment, how will we ever tackle immediate issues such as jobs, debt and the looming retirement of the Baby Boomers?

Politicians should stop crying “fire!”

Oct 27, 2011 20:52 UTC

The Senate just rejected President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on millionaires in order to “create or protect 400,000 jobs for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other first responders.” Whether the country needs more teachers and police is a fair question for debate. But firefighters? Firefighting is already featherbedded.

With stricter building codes, built-in sprinkler systems and the near-universal use of smoke detectors, incidence of structure fire in the United States has declined dramatically in the past generation. In 1985, there were about 2.5 million reported fires in the U.S. Since then, fires have declined steadily, down to 1.3 million last year. The report also shows that fire deaths are down from 6,000 in 1986 to 3,100 in 2010. That’s a 48 percent decline in both fires and deaths caused by fires.

Over that same period, the number of career (not volunteer) firefighters has risen from 238,000 in 1986 to 336,000 in 2010. That’s a 41 percent increase in publicly paid firefighters during the same period that safety technology has been able to decrease the occurrence of fire.