Gregg Easterbrook

Exploiting the spill

May 27, 2010 15:07 UTC

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a serious problem, and could get worse if the capping maneuver being attempted by BP fails. But the spill is not “Obama’s Katrina” (Rush Limbaugh) or “destroying North America” (Chris Mathews) or “a national tragedy” (Robert Redford). Except for the 11 workers who died, and their families, is the spill even a “disaster,” as is being said by practically everyone?

The recent history of serious environmental events is that as they occur, their significance is drastically exaggerated in media and political commentary: then little attention is paid when supposedly “destroyed” areas recover rapidly. When Mount Saint Helen’s exploded in 1980, many scientists said the local biosphere would require centuries to return to life; pundits said this would never happen.

Instead it took the area about 10 years for most wildlife and plant life (except mature trees, of course) to recover. When the Exxon Valdez spilled about 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, commentators called that an unprecedented calamity. Considerable harm was done, and some residual problems remain to this day. But aquatic and intertidal life were mainly back to normal in less than a decade.

We forget that the biosphere has been conditioned, over the eons, to resist and recover from far worse than oil spills – comet strikes, ice ages, super-volcanoes. Life would not be here if it were not able to resist insults worse than any caused by people. That does not excuse BP – the company deserves strong public condemnation – nor forgive the Interior Department for being in bed with big oil. (Surely this will make you feel safer.) But the sense of perspective is missing.

“I heard someone say last night this well could give off oil unfettered for the rest of our lives on Earth,” Brian Williams supposed on NBC Nightly News on Tuesday. “That’s right,” his guest replied. There is no chance that’s right, unless you have some reason to believe the human experiment is about to conclude. If similar past events are a guide, the spill will do less total damage than now expected, while recovery will happen faster than expected. Eleven people are dead, Louisiana wetlands and Gulf of Mexico fisheries are damaged. That is awful, but not the epic calamity being depicted.

The Founding Fathers v. the Supreme Court

May 19, 2010 20:09 UTC

The Founding Fathers would be outraged about the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Not because of her personally – Kagan is eminently qualified. They would be outraged that Kagan soon may be awarded 20 years, or 30 years, or an even longer period of lording it over the republic as an unelected demigod answerable to no one. The Framers would be outraged at all recent appointments to the Supreme Court, owing to the evolution of the Court into an institution that vests tremendous power to unaccountable individuals for extremely long periods.

There’s a simple solution to this problem – a solution that would reduce contemporary stress, anxiety and political fist-shaking regarding high-court nominees of any background or party. The solution is Supreme Court term limits. Via Constitutional amendment, place a 10-year ceiling on the period a justice may serve on the Supreme Court.

The United States is the sole developed nation that confers lifelong status to its topmost court: all other countries have a tenure limit, or mandatory retirement age, or both. In the U.K., Supreme Court judges cannot serve past age 75; in Australia, the maximum High Court age is 70, and the longest-serving current member, William Gummow, is entering his 15th year. Contrast that to the United States, where Justice John Paul Stevens is stepping down at age 90 after 35 years of unelected, unchecked power over his fellow citizens.

Greek rescue more than everyday political monkey-business

May 13, 2010 05:00 UTC

Poof – above Europe, a trillion dollars just popped out of the air! The Greece bailout is even more impressive than the $700 billion that popped out of the air in September 2008, for the U.S. Wall Street bailout. It’s not just that politicians delight in distributing money like candy, knowing the invoice won’t come due until after they have left office. When gasp-inducing amounts of money pop out of the air, something more than everyday political monkey-business is at hand.

European Union nations decided they have an extra $1 trillion to spend because the Greek debt meltdown threatens not just Greece, but money itself. Currency, at heart, is a Ponzi scheme. Money has no inherent value. You can’t eat it or wear it: money is only good to the extent someone will trade you something for it. Nowadays most money can’t even be held in the hand, rather, exists entirely as numbers on electronic ledgers. If Greece failed financially, why should anybody believe government statements about money? That’s what had European governments spooked.

No gold ingots were offered to Greece, no satchels of unmarked bills — only some zeroes. “Your money problems are solved because we assigned you a bunch of zeroes:” that was the essence of Monday’s statement to Greece by the European Central Bank. The award to favored businesses of a bunch of zeroes was likewise the essence of the 2008 Wall Street bailout. Only by drawing ever-more people into an arrangement this nebulous can nations keep alive the notion that currency – digits on ledgers – holds great value. This is a Ponzi scheme on a scale that would make Charles Ponzi blush.

We cry over spilled oil, yet subsidize the production of ultra-polluting cars

May 5, 2010 21:33 UTC

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, coupled to the recent rebound in auto sales, remind us of something that even Republican oilman George W. Bush often said: the United States uses too much petroleum. Why then is the federal government forcing taxpayers to subsidize the manufacture of a 556-horsepower luxury car that gets 14 miles per gallon?

The public owns about 60 percent of General Motors, with around $52 billion forcibly extracted from taxpayers’ pockets to subsidize the company. General Motors builds the Cadillac CTS-V, a rich person’s plaything that retails for $62,020, does zero-to-60 in a racetrack-caliber 4.3 seconds – that is faster than a Corvette of the 1960s muscle-car era — has an outrageous 556-horsepower motor and posts a miserable 14 MPG. (Mileage references in this column will be the EPA “combined” figure that blends city and highway driving.) To boot, the CTS-V emits 13.3 tons per year of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. That’s far more than a typical car.

At the very time we are reminded of the fragility and environmental consequences of U.S. petroleum consumption, at the very time President Barack Obama and many in Congress want regulation of greenhouse gases, federally subsidized General Motors is using taxpayer funds to build an extremely wasteful, ultra-polluting car. The gas mileage of the CTS-V is so awful, it would have qualified – right off the assembly line – for destruction as a clunker under last summer’s “cash for clunkers” program. Manufactured and then immediately junked: the ultimate government program. Except these Cadillacs aren’t going to the shredder, they are on the street wasting gasoline and pumping out greenhouse gases, courtesy the taxpayer.