Day By Day

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Worst and Best of Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook has always been something of a rebel, unwilling to toe the party line, and has paid a steep price for his independence. Usually his contrariness results in perceptive and penetrating analysis -- sometimes, however, it produces an irrational screed.

The Worst of Easterbrook:

Back in 2003 Gregg Easterbrook wrote an extended review for the New Republic [subscription link] in which he, apparently piqued by watching suburban moms in SUV's picking up their kids at a school, declared the entire category of vehicles to be an "Axle of Evil." Jonathan Adler, responding in National Review describes Easterbrook's animus thusly:
Easterbrook's review... seethes with outrage over the popularity of large four-wheel-drive vehicles and drips with contempt for their owners. Each SUV is a deadly, "anti-social" (if not "sociopathic"), "pollution-spewing hog" — "Charon on wheels." Easterbrook finds the typical SUV owner is "insecure and vain," "frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood," as well as "self-centered and self-absorbed."
Easterbrook, Adler rightly concluded, was completely "off the rails" and had lost "his grip on reality." For Adler's point-by-point demolition of Easterbrook's charges see here and here. [Note to SUV owners, go to Adler's articles, read them, memorize their arguments, link to them, save them to disk, make hard copies, and whip them out every time some anti-SUV loon challenges your right to drive the vehicle of your choice.]

There have been other lapses of judgment, most notably his denunciation of hyper-violence in Hollywood that some perceived as being anti-Semitic.

But then there's the other side of the coin.

The Best of Easterbrook:

In a number of articles, and especially in his book, The Progress Paradox, Easterbrook has persuasively demolished major arguments advanced by the horde of doomsayers, especially the environmental extremists, who infest our political culture. He has charted the numerous ways in which life in America and around the world has gotten better, even as the Cassandras issue prophesies of imminent doom. This is Easterbrook at his best, and here he is damn good.

One theme Easterbrook has focused on in recent months has been air quality. Here he has on several occasions defended President Bush against his critics. Of particular interest in this regard was his widely-cited paper"Everything You Know About the Bush Environmental Record is Wrong" which persuasively argues that President Bush's environmental policies have been much better than has generally been acknowledged.

In today's New York Times Easterbrook returns to this theme in a particularly good discussion of the administration's "Clear Skies" proposal which would replace the "case-by-case" bureaucratic approach to air quality control mandated by the Clean Air Act with a "Cap and Trade" system. Bush would set broad industry standards and allow businesses to work out among themselves ways to meet those standards rather than having the entire process subject to bureaucratic management. [Parenthetically: This is yet another iteration of the central theme that has informed Bush's whole administration -- freedom.]

Easterbrook points out that the current system is cumbersome, costly, and time-consuming to the point where it has actually become counter-productive in many cases. Bush is proposing a far better, and well-tested system that would speed, not impede improvements in air quality. What is more, successful implementation of Bush's plan might possibly create a precedent upon which a workable compromise on global warming could be constructed.

This is where Easterbrook really shines. At his best he breaks the shackles of ideology, speaks truth to power, and points toward possible solutions of seemingly intractible problems. It's good to see him in the pages of the NYT. Let's hope that the readership gets his message.

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