Gregg Easterbrook

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.

North Korea needs endless conflict for its ruling family to stay in power. Both Germanys wanted their conflict to end. South Korea wants the Koreas conflict to end. The United States, Russian Federation, China and Japan want the Koreas conflict to end. Kim Jong-Il does not want the conflict to end — without it, he and his son would be tossed from power. Conflicts are hard to end when one major player (think Hamas) has a self-interest stake in endless misery for the many combined with power and riches for a few.

There was no Korean War treaty. A 1954 armistice stopped the shooting, but no peace treaty ever was signed. This is deceptively important. Even former dictatorships, such as imperial Japan, respected the peace treaties they signed: while international agreements including the 1975 Helsinki Accords, on human rights, helped begin to dissolve the old Soviet system. No peace treaty to tie the knot on the Korean War exists, and the belligerents have long since stopped trying for one. This means no liberalizing treaty requirements bind Pyongyang, while the fact that the state of war technically never closed helps Kim Il-sung, and now Kim Jong-Il, maintain an internal condition of xenophobia.

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?

Why a Republican House will make Obama a better president

Nov 11, 2010 11:00 UTC


If you are a Barack Obama supporter — as I am — you should be glad the House of Representatives is changing to Republican. For this is likely to make Obama a better president.

Bill Clinton was ineffective in the first two years of his presidency, with Capitol Hill debacles on health care and the forgotten BTU tax. Then Clinton’s party lost the House in 1994: and his performance as president began to improve.

Sure, there was some kind of fuss between the White House and the House regarding somebody named Monica. But all of Clinton’s signature achievements — welfare reform, the Good Friday Agreement, conversion of federal deficits into surpluses, the Camp David summit — came after the Democrats lost the House.

China should not be our next whipping boy

Oct 28, 2010 11:00 UTC


Here we go again.

With a sort-of withdrawal from Iraq in progress, and a scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan approaching, Washington needs a fresh adversary. How about China?

China is big and getting bigger. Its wealth and power is increasing. It’s inscrutable, whatever that means. (Just try understanding the United States.) And according to super-secret intelligence reports, China is pursuing national interest. This can’t be allowed — we’ve got to confront them!

Of course it is a standby of politics for governments to create international adversaries, in order to deflect criticism away from themselves. There’s a theory – best expressed in the great spoof Report From Iron Mountain — that while dictatorships can issue orders, democracies need enemies in order to prevent free men and women from saying, “To heck with central government.”

Ethanol a “stealth tax” on drivers

Oct 20, 2010 13:57 UTC

Substituting ethanol for petroleum – what could be wrong with that? A lot, it turns out, including a cynical “stealth tax” on drivers.

A few days ago the Environmental Protection Agency announced that soon gasoline can be made from 85 percent petroleum and 15 percent ethanol, up from a current limit of 10 percent ethanol. Such a move to replace imported petroleum with home-grown ethanol sounds great — until you examine the details.

Ethanol is the king of subsidies. Ethanol from genetically engineered dwarf trees or tall grasses holds tremendous promise as a cost-effective, greenhouse-neutral fuel. But for today, nearly all ethanol sold in the United States is made from corn. Domestically produced corn-based ethanol is subsidized via federal payments to grain farmers, by refinery tax exemptions for fuel containing domestic ethanol, and by tariff barriers intended to prevent Brazilian sugar-based ethanol from entering the country. Annual federal subsidies to corn ethanol cost around $5 billion. Are the benefits worth that?

The skinny on Social Security benefits

Oct 14, 2010 11:00 UTC

On Friday, the Social Security Administration is expected to announce that for the second consecutive year, there will be no Social Security cost-of-living increase. That makes perfect sense, since the cost of living is not rising. But this being an election year, there may be intense political demand for a special bonus to retirees, like the $250 bonus checks issued — regardless of need — to all senior citizens in 2009.

It is imperative that President Barack Obama, and Congress, resist demands for bonus payments to senior citizens. The federal budget — and long-term projections for Social Security — are in bad enough shape as is. If Washington can’t resist handing out bonuses, there is no hope the national red ink ever can be stopped.

There’s no “right” to higher Social Security benefits.
In 1972, Congress created a COLA system to increase Social Security benefits (and the threshold level of Social Security taxation) in sync with the rising cost of living. Each year from 1972 to 2009, Social Security benefits rose, owing to inflation. Seniors became accustomed to the first check in January of any year containing a boost. Some surely believe that law requires their benefits to rise annually.

Gay suicides and media hype

Oct 7, 2010 13:51 UTC


The story of Tyler Clementi brings tears to the eyes. The Rutgers University freshman jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after a video of him having sex with a man was posted on the Internet, probably by a classmate. Not only did a promising young life end — it’s 2010, and even college students still exhibit malicious anti-gay bias.

Yet does his awful death mean there’s a “trend” of suicides by young gays and lesbians. That has been a television theme in the last week. It’s clear there have been suicides in which young homosexuals kill themselves at least in part owing to harassment.  Each instance is heartbreaking. But people who aren’t gay, or don’t belong to any group that has been subjected to prejudice, take their own lives. Does the occurrence of a gay person’s suicide show any larger trend?

In 2007, there were about 42 million Americans aged 15-24. The self-inflicted death rate for this group was about one in 10,300. That comes to roughly 4,000 suicides a year by those of teens-to-college age — a horrible figure. That suicide is a leading cause of death for young people is, itself, horrible.

Many toxic waste threats are history but Superfund lives on

Sep 29, 2010 19:56 UTC

The Obama Administration wants a new corporate tax to support the Superfund program, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently said she backs the idea. Monday, New York City received a major Superfund designation. San Francisco is expected to receive one soon.

What is Superfund? A “temporary” federal program enacted 30 years ago on an “emergency” basis. Its original purpose long since having expired, Superfund lives on.

Superfund is an object lesson in how government programs simply never end. A thousand years from now at the Mare Erythraeum on Mars, the city of New New Orleans will be demanding “temporary” Superfund money.

Death of the middle class? Think again

Sep 23, 2010 21:27 UTC

Elizabeth Warren, just appointed a special advisor to President Barack Obama for consumer protection, says we are witnessing the “death of the middle class.” Slate’s Timothy Noah, a terrific writer and thinker, believes the rich are running away with the country. This new Census Bureau report, showing a nearly 5 percent decline in middle-class household income, received banner-headline treatment, with news stories suggesting typical people are being clobbered.

Middle-class life is the soul of the American experiment. Are things really so bad?

All the angst is focused on pretax income — not after tax.
Stated in today’s dollars, median household income was $45,000 in 1985, peaked at $52,500 in 2000 and is $50,000 now. (Absurd precision such as the “$46,269” median for 1991 doesn’t appeal to me.) Nearly all the decline from $52,500 to $50,000 has occurred since 2007 — that is, during a recession. Most likely that loss will bounce back.

On cars and climate change

Sep 17, 2010 16:49 UTC


For months, claims that Toyotas could not be stopped from accelerating, putting millions of drivers and passengers in danger, were a front-page and prominent evening-news item. Lots of exaggerated stories appeared, all skipping experience with a similar scare two decades ago about Audis, which ultimately showed that pressing the gas pedal instead of the brake was the real problem.

In the end, federal regulators found no evidence of electronic defects though Toyota admitted that gas pedals did stick on floor mats. The worst-case claim was that 93 people were killed by Toyota defects — an awful number, though the toll is likely not that high, since it comes from plaintiffs’ lawyers seeking fees and awards.

My point here is that the mainstream media gave enormous attention to a claim that 93 people in cars might have been killed. Then it turned out 3,298 people in cars were not killed. And that’s no story!