Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

The phony-as-a-$3-bill debt deal

Aug 1, 2011 15:55 UTC

Maybe Washington can start paying invoices with $3 bills — because the “dramatic” agreement to “reduce the national debt” is as phony as a three dollar bill.

Weeks of nearly round-the-clock negotiations among the White House, House and Senate have led to an “historic” debt deal that consists almost entirely of fluff, doublespeak and empty promises.

The politicians involved get to claim victory, and presumably will be rewarded with votes and campaign donations from the special-interest groups that, pretty much across the board, were spared any pain. Young people of the United States once again are hammered. If the deal becomes law, the national debt will rise again dramatically, while there’s no guarantee any cut will materialize — and the bill for this recklessness will be passed along to those under age 30.

Consider:

* The closest thing to a tangible “saving” in the agreement is $1 trillion in caps on discretionary programs, spread over 10 years. The new national-debt ceiling allows borrowing to rise by $2.4 trillion, with a plan to pay back less than half that amount over 10 years.

Get it? A huge surge in spending now is called a “spending cut,” while actual cuts don’t take effect for up to a decade. And that’s setting aside that inflation means the present value of money spent today sharply exceeds the value of smaller cuts many years in the future.

With bin Laden dead, why doesn’t the U.S. leave Afghanistan?

May 11, 2011 19:28 UTC

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq citing two justifications: to depose Saddam Hussein and to destroy Iraq’s banned weapons program. Within a year, Hussein and his accomplices were imprisoned, and it had been discovered there was no Iraqi banned weapons program. Having achieved its goals, why didn’t the United States leave? Seven years later, this question haunts the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, citing two justifications: to find Osama bin Laden, and break up al Qaeda. Bin Laden is now dead, and al Qaeda broken.

So why doesn’t the United States leave?

By autumn, American forces will have spent a full decade in Afghanistan — conducting patrols, bombing the heinous, bombing the innocent. The United States has roughly 100,000 soldiers and air crew in Afghanistan, almost as many as the peak force in Iraq. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan constrains the Taliban, and the Taliban are an awful group. But the Taliban are a central Asian problem afflicting Afghanistan and Pakistan — their existence does not in any way threaten the United States’ national interest.

Why Obama should pay more in taxes

Apr 20, 2011 13:44 UTC

President Barack Obama wants to increase taxes on the wealthy, and surely is correct that this must be part of any serious plan to control the national debt. Consider the case of a wealthy couple who made $1.7 million in 2010, yet paid only 26.2 percent in federal income taxes — though the top rate supposedly is 35 percent, and the president says that figure should rise to 39.6 percent. The well-off couple in question is Barack and Michelle Obama, whose tax returns, just released, show they paid substantially less than the president says others should pay.

If Obama is in earnest about wanting increased taxes on the wealthy, then he should send the United States Treasury $182,998. That’s the difference between his Form 1040 Line 60 (“This is your total tax”) and what he would have owed at the higher rate (plus limits on itemized deductions) he himself advocates.

So why doesn’t he tax himself more? The Form 1040, after all, only stipulates the minimum tax an American must pay. More is always welcome. Obama should write a check to the United States Treasury for $182,998.

One way to help the national debt: a carbon tax

Apr 13, 2011 19:52 UTC

The budget compromise that averted a federal government shutdown nearly foundered upon the rocks of Republican riders, one of which would have stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Speaking as someone who favors greenhouse restrictions, I wish the Republican rider — dropped just before the clock struck midnight — had succeeded.

The EPA is trying to restrict greenhouse gases using a 41-year-old statute intended for another purpose. Republicans are right to object to this.

Of course, most Republicans don’t want any greenhouse gas regulation at all — though greenhouse regulation is now justified by a strong body of science, including by statements from George W. Bush’s Climate Change Science Program. Greenhouse regulation probably will not cost anywhere near as much as current estimates. All previous programs to control air emissions have proven significantly cheaper than expected. Republicans are correct, though, that the EPA is going about this in the wrong way.

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.

Why Western meddling in “Deathistan” needs to end

Mar 23, 2011 15:24 UTC

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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 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.)

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.

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.

China should not be our next whipping boy

Oct 28, 2010 11:00 UTC

CHINA

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.”

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