Gregg Easterbrook

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.

Once the Democrats no longer had full control of Congress, Clinton no longer could spend his time mediating disputes among the party’s interest groups – disputes regarding the various handouts and special deals various factions were demanding. Clinton needed to broaden his appeal and leadership style, plus acquire genuine concern for his opponents’ positions. He went from being president of the Democrats to president of the nation.

Losing the House was essential to the maturation of Clinton’s presidency. The same can happen for Barack Obama.

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!

Shooting through the head is more humane

Sep 16, 2010 14:43 UTC


A few days ago a despicable murderer named Cal Coburn Brown, who tortured a 22-year-old woman to death, was executed in Washington State, via a new technique that involves injection of a single chemical.

In June, Utah executed a murderer by firing squad. Other states and the federal government employ electrocution, hanging or multiple-chemical injection to impose capital punishment. Method of execution is a hot controversy right now in many places, and the controversy may increase if any of several current terror cases lead to the death penalty.

Method of execution is controversial because all current methods cause suffering by the condemned.

It’s time for Obama to stop declaring new recovery plans

Sep 7, 2010 17:29 UTC

Pundits are restless, an election looms – so this week, President Barack Obama is proposing yet another round of special favors, aimed at improving the economy. Prominent columnist Paul Krugman wants the plans to be “bold” and to involve huge amounts of money. Here’s a contrasting view: government should stop declaring recovery plans, bold or otherwise.

Maybe the constant announcing of new plans – especially plans backed by borrowing or tax cuts – is, itself, an impediment to economic growth.

Two years ago this month saw the beginning of the financial-sector meltdown that is the primary feature of the current high-unemployment, slow-growth mess. Since then, Republican and Democratic presidents and Treasury Secretaries alike have announced bold plan after bold plan after bold plan. Often the plans change week-to-week. Many of the plans are just political talking points, with no follow-through. Many are mutually contradictory, like advocating tax cuts and tax increases simultaneously.