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Gregg Easterbrook’s new book, It’s Better Than It Looks, makes the rather astonishing argument that things aren’t as bad in the world as they seem. When he discusses crime, and how it’s decreasing, he’s somewhat convincing. “Since that peak year , all forms of violent crime are down 300 percent”—no matter how much Donald Trump and Fox News rant about an immigrant-caused crime wave. On the absence of pandemics, despite panic over everything from avian flu to swine flu to Ebola, he is also convincing. And on many other issues. But these arguments are marshaled in service of what is, in a sense, a neoliberal manifesto, arguing that the economic, social, and environmental trends of the past 50 years have all been, well, wonderful; and that is, frankly, hard to believe.
Easterbrook argues that what has made everything so wonderful economically is the magic of free markets. But aren’t these markets the same ones that have caused inequality to soar to the point where, according to a recent book by Walter Scheidel, the 62 richest people in the world own as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity, over 3.5 billion people? Here at home, we have well over 103 million poor and near poor people and six million with no income other than SNAP. But Easterbrook would doubtless counter that citing such facts amounts to seeing the glass half-empty. This is intransigent optimism indeed.
Though broadly neoliberal, this book is also heterodox; witness its championing of a universal basic income. Fundamentally, no matter one’s political orientation, support for a universal basic income, also called the right to exist, can be seen as radical. To address inequality, Easterbrook considers income limits, higher taxes on the well-to-do, and a universal basic income. Regarding income limits, he says of multimillion-dollar CEO paychecks: “Why CEO bonanza numbers like these are not viewed as white collar crime is hard to fathom.” Of these three curbs on inequality, Easterbrook concludes a universal basic income—as currently implemented in Finland, Ontario, Kenya, and many European cities—would benefit people the most, suggesting that the government pay $1000 per month to every citizen (not just head of household). “If the value of inventions and intellectual property continues to rise, while the value of unskilled labor continues to decline, a Universal Basic Income may become vital for justice.” He also calls for reducing the costs of public universities, community colleges, and junior colleges, for better child care, and for a substantial rise in living standards in the developing world.
For all his incredible optimism, Easterbrook is most astute when acknowledging problems. “It would be much cheaper to the taxpayer for the United States to provide public funding for elections, while banning donations, than to allow officials to squander large sums in return for the silver that becomes the campaign kickback.” But it is odd that in his discussion of debt, he does not mention the ghastly Bush tax cuts, which naturally ballooned the debt. It’s Better Than It Looks was written before a similar gift to America’s millionaires, namely the Trump tax cuts, became law, so Easterbrook cannot be faulted for not mentioning them. But it’s worth noting that Bush’s tax cuts benefitted the rich, pumped up inequality and starved the government, thus serving as an argument to cut entitlements for the poor: “Oh look, the government’s broke, because governments are always wasteful, so we can’t pay for Medicaid,” is how the argument has lately run in Republican circles. Trump’s tax cuts are expected to do approximately the same. Easterbrook is very concerned about the debt, but the tax cuts that expanded it do not get mentioned.
It’s Better Than It Looks refers to Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, and Paul Krugman as alarmists, thus eliding their very real contributions to the national political and economic discussion. If things are as wonderful as this book claims, then it’s hard to fathom why millions of millennials voted for Sanders. They did not do so just because they wanted to believe everything is going downhill, as Easterbrook would have it. Many, many of these millennials graduated from college bankrupted by debt, coming of age essentially indentured. Those voters—the future—evinced a deep disenchantment with capitalism and an openness to a newer, updated socialism, something certainly not discussed in this strangely Panglossian tome.