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.

The wonder of the universe

Dec 22, 2010 19:24 UTC


Tuesday morning, I rose at 2 A.M. and stood for an hour in the freezing cold to watch a total eclipse of the full moon, occurring on a solstice: a conjunction that last occurred in 1638, and won’t occur again until 2094. Standing there, I wondered if this exceptional moonglow would give me a superpower — nothing to report yet. The sense of awe I felt right away.

The more astronomers look out into the universe, the more vast and majestic it is understood to be. As the holidays arrive, and the year comes to a close, it is well to ponder this.

Many generations ago, our ancestors gazing up at constellations and eclipses believed the cosmos bounded by such stars as could be seen unaided by the eye. Just a century ago, even after people considered themselves advanced owing to developments like powered flight, it was not known that any other galaxies existed. Our Milky Way was considered the totality of creation.

The good and bad of 2011

Dec 15, 2010 17:54 UTC

With 2011 around the corner, what big developments might be expected in the coming year? Here are a few possibilities, bad and good:

Bad: Freshwater shortages. China is depleting its aquifers at an alarming rate in order to grow rice, the most water-intensive cereal. Freshwater supplies are approaching critical in much of the Middle East.

Discussion of climate change has focused on rising temperatures, which in and of themselves aren’t a threat and have some positives (such as lowering winter heat demand). As UCLA geographer Laurence Smith shows in his important new book The World in 2050, nearly all our globe’s surface freshwater is in glaciers and snowpack. Warming is causing “more of the world’s water to leave the mountains to run to the sea,” warns Smith, and “no amount of engineering” can reverse this loss in the short term.

Tax cuts and giveaways won’t save the economy

Dec 8, 2010 03:05 UTC

“If we don’t take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could …  jeopardize our recovery.”

–President Barack Obama, January 2010.

“Next year [I will] start presenting some very difficult choices to the country” on debt reduction.

–Obama, June 2010

Bartender, giveaways for everyone!

–Essentially what Obama said, in so many words, December 2010.

Barack Obama pledged to reduce the national debt during his presidential campaign, but instead has added $2.7 trillion to that debt so far – more than the entire national debt in the year 1975. Throughout 2010, he repeatedly promised there will be no more treating the Treasury as a cookie jar. Now, suddenly, there will be $900 billion in new giveaways, financed entirely by borrowing.

What we should be taxing: greenhouse gases

Dec 1, 2010 21:30 UTC


Bravely, international diplomats, United Nations officials and environmentalists are meeting in Cancun this week to demand that other people use less fossil fuel. Bravely they met in Copenhagen a year ago to make the same demand, after also bravely meeting in Bali, Montreal and similar resort locales in prior years.

I will skip the obvious point about the greenhouse gases emitted by the jets and limos that bring the participants to these annual confabs, where preaching-to-the-choir is the order of the day.

Most of what happens at the annual international conference on climate change has been decided on in advance, so the greenhouse emissions could be avoided by a tele-meeting. But then the delegates won’t get a paid trip to Cancun!

Only the Koreans can end their conflict

Nov 23, 2010 23:10 UTC


For a generation, the arc of international events has been mainly positive — the Cold War concluded, the Germanys reunited, apartheid is over. But a few conflicts refuse to end, and one became worse today as North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery fire, killing two South Korean soldiers. It’s not yet clear how the incident began. Presumably the United States, which has substantial forces in South Korea, Japan and Guam, is at the moment watching closely.

South Korea is prosperous, reasonably free, a budding democracy, and supported by the most powerful government on earth. North Korea is impoverished, repressed and alone. Nearly all North Koreans would benefit immensely if the wall separating their country and South Korea was the world’s next wall to tumble. So why does the conflict between these two states refuse to end?

North Korea is the last truly closed society. The old Soviet Union, and then Mao’s China, were able to keep their populations cowed by blocking nearly all outside information, then depicting the larger world as a nightmarish place. Once Russians of the 1970s and 1980s, and Chinese of the 1970s and 1980s, knew what the larger world was like, the clock began to tick on their nations’  dictatorships. Today’s global information flow is far from ideal, but North Korea is the last nation in which the average person takes a big risk by trying to find out what’s happening in the world. This allows North Korea to be the last secret-police state, and means little internal pressure against its corrupt, paranoid autocracy.

One of the world’s most significant documents

Nov 17, 2010 16:27 UTC

This morning (Wednesday, November 17) I am in Washington moderating the launch of the United Nations Human Development Report 2010, one of the world’s significant documents. Most of what we hear on the news is a noisy blur of specifics even the participants can’t remember a week later. This annual report details The Big Picture: the economic, social, educational, political and health care situations of the world’s nations. The report is roughly 10,000 times more important than the Wall Street data, political polls and sports stats we obsess over.

Perhaps you assume that as a product of the United Nations, the report is political hot air. Quite the contrary: the report is candid, factual and rational, because it’s written at the United Nations Development Programme, which functions independent of the General Assembly and Security Council. United Nations population forecasts and agricultural analysis have high standing among experts. So, too, does the Human Development Report.

And perhaps you assume that any United Nations document is alarmist cant. Again quite the contrary: the 2010 Human Development Report is mainly optimistic about the developing world. It paints, in fact, a far more sanguine picture of most of the human family than is found in the mainstream media. When the United Nations says something depressing, coverage is always assured. Today, the United Nations says something hopeful – will the world pay notice?