Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

The federal spending controversy

Mar 9, 2011 20:00 UTC

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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.)

Cut the Homeland Security Activities budget of the Environmental Protection Agency — the EPA fights terrorism? — by $35 million. Cut $1.5 billion in tax favors to Big Oil. Eliminate numerous overlapping education-grant initiatives. Cut $20 million from the critical, crucial, vital Right-Size Component Personnel Travel program. A litany of specific federal spending or tax-favor reductions were proposed in 2010 by the White House. The total saved came to $23 billion, more than the president promised.

Here’s what happened: nothing.

The spending cuts the president requested in 2010 were part of his fiscal 2011 budget proposal — and Congress never voted on the FY11 budget. Since October, the country has been operating on “continuing resolution,” meaning the budget of fiscal 2010 is frozen in place:  including billions of dollars in spending that even a liberal Democratic White House considers improvident.

Family rule is under siege, at last

Feb 18, 2011 17:15 UTC

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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 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.

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.

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