Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

Behind the hurricane hype

Aug 26, 2010 14:13 UTC

STORM-GULF

The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the mild hurricane Danielle tracking toward Bermuda, turns thoughts toward cyclones.

In May, before the current Atlantic hurricane season began, forecasts were for Armageddon. This year’s hurricane season could be “very active” (Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) or “very very active” (CNN) or “a hell of a year” with “quite high” numbers of intense storms (William Gray, head of the hurricane prediction center at Colorado State University).

What has actually happened so far? A below-average season of two hurricanes, neither one intense.

The totals should change, though. September can be the peak month for Atlantic hurricanes. But three of the last four years have shown below-average hurricane activity in the Atlantic, and 2010 is shaping up as another below-average season.

What’s going on here? Wasn’t global warming supposed to spawn ultra-monster hurricanes? That’s what Al Gore started claiming five years ago. Similar assertions have been heard from other quarters, too.

China as number one? Remember Japan in the ’80s

Aug 18, 2010 21:27 UTC

An Asian nation with a roaring economy will eclipse the United States … America has entered a cycle of decline, while the sun is rising in the East … soon all our products will be made overseas and America will falter … doom is at hand.

The above paragraph does not describe Monday’s news about the expansion of the Chinese economy — this is what opinion-makers were saying about Japan in the 1980s. And how’d that work out for you, Tokyo?

“Experts,” the New York Times intoned on Monday, are impressed by “China’s clout” and believe “China will pass the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy as early as 2030.” If experts think this, then it’s certain not to happen.

Aug 18, 2010 21:26 UTC

POINTS THAT DIDN’T QUITE MAKE THE MAIN COLUMN:

1. Rejecting the idea of Japan-as-number-one

My friend James Fallows’ 1989 book “More Like Us” was prescient in rejecting the idea of Japan-as-number-one. Jim wrote the book book while living in Japan. Some of the reaction to his book was critical scoffs — doesn’t he know Japan is invincible! The content of this book has done well on the test of time. Fallows’ thesis was that Americans would never wish they were like the Japanese, whereas the Japanese someday would wish they were “more like us.” So far, that’s happened.

Yet even this paean to the United States spirit had as its subtitle “Making America Great Again.” Today, commentators speak wistfully of the 1980s as the good old days when America was great, but at the time, publishers thought America was terrible. In 20 years, it will be common for politicians and pundits to refer, wistfully, to 2010 as the time when everything in America was fine.

2. Signs of global warming

Many commentators are asking whether 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures in Moscow, record flooding in Pakistan and a series of intense thunderstorms knocking out power around Washington, D.C., are signs of global warming. This seems a strong possibility.

The 40 super-rich aren’t necessarily giving away half of their wealth

Aug 6, 2010 19:48 UTC

superrichUSETHISIt must be sweet to be super-rich and also bathed in public adulation, as were the 40 super-rich people who just pledged to give away at least half their wealth. This was prominent news around the country, and most coverage was sheer hero worship.

What the coverage missed and should have reflected is disdain. The super-rich being showered with praise — such as John Doerr, Paul Allen, David Rubenstein — haven’t necessarily given away half of their wealth. They only said they planned to make fantastic donations in the future. The media coverage suggests something important has happened. All that’s happened is promises.

Congress plans to cut the deficit. Practically everyone plans to lose weight. FORTY PEOPLE ANNOUNCE THEY WILL LOSE WEIGHT IN A FEW YEARS would not make any front page. Yet the super-rich — who already enjoy too much of what society has to offer — are now warmly being praised for the trivial act of saying they might do something admirable at an unspecified future date.

The ultimate challenge to Detroit culture

Aug 4, 2010 21:24 UTC

OBAMA/

Last week President Barack Obama visited a General Motors factory to proclaim the auto bailout a success, and today calls at a Ford Motors facility to proclaim the car industry recovered. Sales of U.S.-made vehicles are rising, while Ford – which, bless its internal-combustion heart, refused government money – just announced a $2.6 billion second quarter profit. That makes it time to assess the car companies.

The country benefits from the saving of GM, but at the cost of yet more debt.
Converted to today’s dollars, the 1979 Chrysler bailout – hugely controversial at the time – cost $4 billion. All of it was repaid within three years. The current General Motors/Chrysler bailout – enacted with almost no debate in Congress – has cost about $110 billion, when subsidies to both companies, their parts makers, finance arms and pension plans are taken into account.

Taxpayers are on the hook for General Motors and Chrysler warranty claims should either company still fail, which might cost nothing or many billions. Plus, General Motors received a hidden handout of tax exemption for the first $16 billion of future profits. That brings the current auto bailout to around $120 billion – 30 times the inflation-adjusted expense of the 1979 bailout.

Aug 4, 2010 21:22 UTC

POINTS THAT DIDN’T QUITE MAKE THE MAIN COLUMN:

* This column has been harping on the themes that electric cars are heavily subsidized and that average people are being taxed to support battery-powered luxo cruisers that will be marketed to the well-to-do. Since my latest table-thumping on same, the press has noticed this issue – must have been on the agenda at the latest Media Conspiracy meeting. (Knock three times, the password is “swordfish.”) See here and here and here. But where’s the populist outrage against taxpayers being compelled to subsidize electric playthings for the rich?

* General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner, ousted during the 2009 restructuring, received $11 million in taxpayer money as a severance bonus: had the company dissolved, he would have received nothing. Wagoner did one of the worst jobs in management history – General Motors lost about $65 billion in his final three years. Wagoner invested billions in one of the worst ideas in corporate history, the Hummer brand: a ridiculous rolling gimmick that had no long-term sales prospects even if gasoline was free. (The last Hummer was built in May, and good riddance.) For a spectacularly poor job, Wagoner was handed $11 million forcibly extracted from the pockets of taxpayers whose median family income is around $53,000. Why did the Obama White House approve this obscene tax-funded reward for failure? Why was there no populist outrage?

* Blame some of the near-collapse of Detroit on auto reviewers.
Traditionally, they swoon for high-horsepower, low-mileage cars that offer acceleration and top speed that is irrelevant – or even dangerous – in real-world driving. Because auto reviewers fixated on speed, carmaker executives paid too much attention to horsepower, not enough to manufacturing quality, MPG and safety. The excellent 2002 book High and Mighty by Keith Bradsher not only offers what reads, in retrospect, as a prescient warning of Big Three arrogance and slipshod management. The book also contains a hysterical description of an auto-reviewers’ junket during which Big Three publicists lavished favors on reviewers who, wagging their tails like lap dogs, later wrote press-release-like “stories” exalting the huge engines of the most wasteful new models.

  •