Gregg Easterbrook

Obama must say ‘no’ to federal spending

Jan 26, 2011 03:58 UTC

obamaSOTU2011President Barack Obama’s conciliatory tone in his State of the Union Address was exactly what the country needs at this moment. And once again, Obama showed he is the best political orator since Ronald Reagan.

On tone and feeling – which matter a great deal in politics – the president deserves high marks. So too do members of Congress who for once behaved in a bipartisan manner, not like squabbling children.

Substance? That’s another matter.

In the address there was a lot of talk about jobs and innovation, both obviously important: but issues that no president controls. There was talk of better access to high-speed Internet and of regulatory and tax-loophole reform: not one single person opposes either. There was dream-world talk of high-speed rail and energy in the year 2035. But there were precious few specifics regarding what will be done right now to address runaway federal debt. And runaway federal debt, which suggests the U.S. future may be less bright, is a major issue holding the economy back.

The president proposed a five-year freeze in discretionary federal spending, which he acknowledged is a mere 12 percent of the federal budget. A freeze in 12 percent of future spending – that’s all you got?

The president vaguely mentioned cuts in “community action,” giving no details. Obama endorsed the military budget cuts proposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and those cuts are well-advised. But note the wording: “The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.” Gates has the right idea, but no Secretary of Defense can “agree” to “cut” even a dollar from Pentagon spending – Congress controls the military budget. Obama created the impression that cuts have already happened, leaving open the door for Congress to reinstate spending.

Undisciplined spending in the name of defense

Jan 20, 2011 11:00 UTC

AUSTRALIA-FIRES/Defense Secretary Robert Gates just proposed cutting the military and security budget  by $78 billion over five years — perhaps only a downpayment on coming further reductions. Secretary Gates’s list of proposed cuts includes high-profile projects and weapons. But he does not mention the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an exemplar of undisciplined spending in the name of defense.

Never heard of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency? You’re not alone. A fair guess is that nine of 10 Washington pundits and political insiders don’t know the NGA exists, while perhaps one in 100 can describe its function.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has 16,000 employees — nearly as many as Google  — and a “black” budget thought to be at least $5 billion per year. The NGA is building a new headquarters complex with the stunning price of $1.8 billion, nearly the cost of the Freedom Tower rising in Manhattan. That new headquarters, near Fort Belvoir, Virginia, will be the third-largest structure in the Washington area, nearly rivaling the Pentagon in size.

Cars on the catwalk

Jan 12, 2011 19:46 UTC

Every year at New York’s Fashion Week, models strut in dresses that are flamboyant, expensive and wildly impractical. The concept cars on display annually at the North American International Auto Show are the same, only made of metal rather than fabric.

Hardly anyone ever wears the dresses flashed during Fashion Week, except perhaps on television shows. Hardly anyone ever drives concept cars. Marketability is not the point. The point is to generate excitement about product lines, drawing buyers to department stores, or automobile showrooms, to purchase the sensible wares.

That the models standing next to the concept cars at the auto show are in some cases wearing attire from Fashion Week completes the circle nicely.

American exceptionalism and the DMV factor

Jan 6, 2011 17:48 UTC

Everyone’s mad at public-employee unions. Republicans in the House and Senate are denouncing them. Republican governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey are blaming unionized public workers for state budget woes. Even new Democratic governors including Andrew Cuomo in New York and Jerry Brown in California are saying public employees are overpaid, or retire too early with too-lavish pensions, or both.

Some public employees do make too much or hold featherbedded jobs, while the California situation — $325 billion in unfunded state and local retirement liabilities, often for $100,000-a-year-plus pensions for government workers who retired in their 50s — ought to outrage anyone.

But what’s really going on here is the DMV Factor.

When does the typical person come face-to-face with a government worker who belongs to a public-sector union? Not at the Department of State or the Department of Agriculture. Unless you have a child in public school, your most likely face-to-face encounter with a government employee is at a Department of Motor Vehicles.