Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

The decline of incumbency and the rise of third-party spoilers

Apr 4, 2011 19:57 UTC

USA-ELECTION/OBAMA

U.S. forces are fighting three costly, inconclusive wars; unemployment is 8.8 percent and the president’s new budget proposal would double the national debt in a mere 10 years. What a great moment for Barack Obama to declare for reelection.

Obama enters the 2012 race as the clear favorite. His poll numbers are weak but his public respect is solid; his money position is outstanding; even people like me, who think runaway federal borrowing is an error of historic proportions, admire the president. I can see myself pulling the lever for him in 2012, as I did in 2008.

Set aside zip code analysis and Electoral College positioning — what two leading indicators should give Obama pause? The decline of incumbency and the rise of third-party spoilers.

Presidential incumbency brings many advantages, not least of which is command of the nation’s attention. White House incumbents standing for reelection are 21-7 in American annals.

But recent trends matter most, and recently, incumbents have been on a mere 3-3 streak. Ronald Reagan (1984), Bill Clinton (1996) and George W. Bush (2004) were reelected. But Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H. W. Bush (1992) were defeated when standing for reelection with all the powers and advantages of incumbency. Once, Americans almost always voted to retain an incumbent chief executive. Not anymore. Lately voters have been ornery.

Why Western meddling in “Deathistan” needs to end

Mar 23, 2011 15:24 UTC

LIBYA/

Once again, Western bombs are falling on the sand-blown weapons testing range that is north Africa, the Middle East and the landscape of the old Great Game. The area stretching roughly from Morocco to Afghanistan west to east, and Syria to the Persian Gulf north to south — let’s call this region Deathistan — long has been contested. But in the last century, the region has been treated as a plaything by Western capitals.

The United States and United Kingdom, which boast of enlightenment, cause harm when they please in the Deathistan region. Less than a generation ago it amused the United States to encourage Saddam Hussein to slaughter Iranians; then conditions changed, so the United States started killing in Iraq. Right now the United States and NATO are taking lives in Libya and Afghanistan. In these places, U.S. and other Western armed forces in the main behave with high ethics. But their missions are to slay and destroy, and here’s the bottom line: Western meddling in north Africa, the Arab world and the Great Game territories has not worked.

Israel exists: that is the West’s principal achievement in the region, though for a comparatively small number of people. Cheap oil flows. Moscow quit Afghanistan. Otherwise, the last century of attempts by the United States and European powers to manipulate the Deathistan region rarely has come to good.

The danger of spent-fuel rods and the Yucca Mountain project

Mar 18, 2011 20:09 UTC

JAPAN-QUAKE/At the malfunctioning Japanese atomic reactor, attention has shifted from the cores to the spent-fuel pools as the real radiation threat — the spent-fuel pools contain far more uranium than the reactor cores. Guess where most spent-fuel rods are stored in the United States? In pools at atomic power stations: exactly the situation at the Fukushima power plant in Japan.

There are much safer alternatives. One is “dry cask” storage of atomic waste, which does not require constant circulation of cooling water. Failure of cooling water circulation caused both the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents.

Hardly any of the spent fuel at Fukushima has been transferred to dry casks — only about five percent. That’s why the current emergency is extreme. Some atomic waste in the United States has been transferred to dry casks — your columnist once visited such an installation. Most has not, because dry casks are more expensive than wet pools and incredibly, U.S regulations do not mandate this safety step.

Japan’s real disaster

Mar 15, 2011 19:45 UTC

JAPAN-QUAKE/

The situation in Japan is horrific — but because of the earthquake and tsunami, not because of the malfunctioning atomic reactor station. The earthquake and its awful aftermath killed at least thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands. That is an unspeakable tragedy. The damaged reactors at Fukushima haven’t killed anyone, and while posing a clear danger, especially to workers heroically fighting the malfunction, the odds are that any harm to public health will be minor, if public health is harmed at all.

Yet in the United States and European Union, what’s happening at the power plant is receiving more attention, and generating more anxiety, than thousands of innocents crushed or drowned.

Japan is the sole place nuclear weapons have been used: to see the Japanese suffer, again, from fear of the atom is heartrending. But the reaction to the power plant in Japan shows lack of perspective. Today’s Washington Post front page proclaims, in large type, a “FULL- BLOWN NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE.” The earthquake and tsunami were catastrophes; the power plant leaks may cause little harm, let alone represent a “catastrophe.”

The federal spending controversy

Mar 9, 2011 20:00 UTC

OBAMA/

With another federal spending controversy brewing on Capitol Hill, recall that in his 2010 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said, “We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year.” Now it’s next year — so what happened to the $20 billion in savings? Let’s follow the bouncing budget cut.

The “$20 billion” promise was not the sort of empty verbiage that dominates the federal spending debate. How many times have you heard a politician thunder about cutting spending but not cite even one specific reduction he or she supports? A year ago, the Office of Management and Budget laid out Obama’s proposed cuts in specific detail.

Some highlights: End production of the C-17 cargo plane, $2.5 billion saved. End federal funding for local hospital construction, $338 million saved. End the Save America’s Treasures program, $30 million saved. (The new book “Triumph of the City” by Edward Glaeser of Harvard argues that programs such as this actively backfire by slowing urban rebirth.)

Why unions are out of touch with reality

Mar 1, 2011 18:25 UTC

USA-WISCONSIN/PROTESTS

The public-sector union showdowns in Wisconsin and Ohio are proceeding as if it was the 1950s. Democrats and liberals call labor oppressed, and want the unions to win; Republicans and conservatives call labor a threat, and want unions broken. That’s the wrong way to think about the entire situation.

Labor unions and collective bargaining are important tools. There are good reasons to form unions. But unions must be reasonable. If the customer is not happy with a union’s performance, or if the cost of doing business becomes too high — whether the customer is the state of Wisconsin or otherwise — then unions must make reasonable compromises.

Collective bargaining is, after all, about negotiation.

Half a century ago, when most members of unions worked in dangerous conditions for low pay in factories or mines, it was fair for labor to demand justice. It is still fair for unions representing the mistreated, such as those who work as hotel maids or clean offices, to demand justice.

The spy novel-like case of Raymond Davis

Feb 23, 2011 17:10 UTC

PAKISTAN-US/SHOOTINGRaymond Davis, an American who shot and killed two men in Lahore, Pakistan, under disputed circumstances, has just been revealed to be a CIA contractor. What a mess. And it’s a mess that makes me reflect on when I lived in Lahore, in the late 1980s.

Lahore is the cultural capital of Pakistan, home to writers, artists and intellectuals. Variously ruled in recent centuries by the Mughals, the Sikhs and the British during the Raj, Lahore is the great ancient city of the Punjab. There is magnificent old architecture, crazed and crowded marketplaces, sprawling slums. A sense of intrigue is part of the city’s lore, as one would feel in Marrakesh or Kathmandu.

Driving in the old-city areas of Lahore is unlike anything experienced in the West. Roads are bumper-to-bumper, drivers flagrantly disobey traffic laws — roaring the wrong way down a one-way street is practically normal. Davis said his car was wedged in by traffic, a common problem in the city, when he was approached by two men with guns. Having driven in the old-city areas of Lahore, I am sure that being in a wedged-in car and approached by armed men — roving thieves plague Pakistan, and there is nothing equivalent to the reliability of 911 — would be frightening. Whether Davis was justified in opening fire is something the courts must determine.

Family rule is under siege, at last

Feb 18, 2011 17:15 UTC

TUNISIA/

Dictatorship is under siege throughout the Arab world: fingers are crossed that democracy will prevail. Something else is under siege, too — the notion of family rule. This is among the oldest, and most harmful, concepts in human society. Is it about to vanish at last?

For centuries, in some cases for millennia, regions and nations have been ruled by families — either formally as royalty, or de facto via warlords, khans and shoguns who in most cases inherited their positions. As recently as a century ago, families still ran most of Europe, all of Russia and Japan, while an assortment of warlord-like figures with inherited standing ran much of what’s now South America and the Middle East, and kings and emperors controlled the subcontinent and most of Africa.

Today family rule has been vanquished, or reduced to constitutional status, in most of the world. The big exceptions are Cuba, North Korea, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Pakistan. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, following a 30-year warlord-style rule — and the unlikelihood that his sons will inherit control of the country, as Mubarak planned — represents a major subtraction from the remaining portion of the globe under family control.

Rethinking hiring and employment

Feb 10, 2011 15:18 UTC

In all respects save employment numbers, the United States economy is back to normal. Real growth in 2010 was 2.9 percent — not spectacular, but any developed nation would take that figure. The adjusted U.S. GDP just rose back above its prior peak of late 2007 — meaning U.S. economic output has never been higher than right now. Sales numbers are good across most industries, corporations are sitting on ample cash, banking and equity liquidity is fine, no primary resource is scarce and the index of Standard & Poor’s 500 earnings per share is at an all-time high.

That’s a healthy economy — except for unemployment. Job numbers have improved somewhat but are nothing to write home about. Even considering that hiring usually trails a recovery by several months, unemployment numbers are spooky. President Barack Obama just implored the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to “hire and invest”.

Let me propose an uncomfortable notion. Namely: two mainly unrelated phenomena happened at once, the recession and a job contraction. Though the former triggered the latter, they actually had little to do with each other. The job contraction would have happened regardless.

Obama, don’t fear change in Egypt

Feb 1, 2011 21:11 UTC

EGYPT-USA/Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has announced he will not stand for reelection in the fall, Reports are that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak will not stand for reelection in the fall, and one reason for Mubarak’s decision is that President Barack Obama privately urged this course.

That’s a step in the right direction — but President Obama needs to go much farther. He should publicly, and enthusiastically, back the protesters who are demanding a new dawn in Egypt.

Yes, many things could go wrong if there is sweeping change in the world’s oldest nation. But many things could go right, too. America’s highest ideal is freedom. The United States strongly supports freedom for itself, for Europe, for China and Japan. Why not for Egypt?

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