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Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

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A favorite global warming chesnut is that human-caused climate change will make the planet uninhabitable for Homo sapiens (that’s us). The latest iteration of this cli-fi classic appears in this week’s New York Times’ coverage of the U.N. climate talks taking place in Lima, Peru (talks that are destined to fail, as we point out here).

Back in September, The World Health Organization (WHO) released a study claiming that global warming as a result of our pernicious economic activity will lead to a quarter million extra deaths each year during 2030 to 2050.  Yup, starting a mere 15 years from today. Holy cats!

That raised the antennae of Indur M. Goklany, a science and technical policy analyst who studies humanity’s well-being and the impact of environmental change upon it. Goklany detailed many of his findings in a 2007 book he wrote for Cato, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet.

As you may imagine, Goklany, found much at fault with the WHO study and wrote his findings up for the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF)—a U.K. think tank which produces a lot of good material on global warming.

In “Unhealthy Exaggeration: The WHO report on climate change” Goklany doesn’t pull any punches. You ought to have a look at the full report, but in the meantime, here is the Summary:

In the run-up to the UN climate summit in September 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) released, with much fanfare, a study that purported to show that global warming will exacerbate under nutrition (hunger), malaria, dengue, excessive heat and coastal flooding and thereby cause 250,000 additional deaths annually between 2030 and 2050. This study, however, is fundamentally flawed.

Firstly, it uses climate model results that have been shown to run at least three times hotter than empirical reality (0.15◦C vs 0.04◦C per decade, respectively), despite using 27% lower greenhouse gas forcing.

Secondly, it ignores the fact that people and societies are not potted plants; that they will actually take steps to reduce, if not nullify, real or perceived threats to their life, limb and well-being. Thus, if the seas rise around them, heatwaves become more prevalent, or malaria, diarrhoeal disease and hunger spread, they will undertake adaptation measures to protect themselves and reduce, if not eliminate, the adverse consequences. This is not a novel concept. Societies have been doing just this for as long as such threats have been around, and over time and as technology has advanced they have gotten better at it. Moreover, as people have become wealthier, these technologies have become more affordable. Consequently, global mortality rates from malaria and extreme weather events, for instance, have been reduced at least five-fold in the past 60 years.

Yet, the WHO study assumes, explicitly or implicitly, that in the future the most vulnerable populations – low income countries in Africa, Europe, southeast Asia and the western Pacific – will not similarly avail themselves of technology or take any commonsense steps to protect themselves. This is despite many suitable measures already existing – adapting to sea level rise for example – while others are already at the prototype stage and are being further researched and developed: early-warning systems for heatwaves or the spread of malaria or steps to improve sanitation, hygiene or the safety of drinking water.

Finally, the WHO report assumes, erroneously, if the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report is to be believed, that carbon dioxide levels above 369 ppm – today we are at 400ppm and may hit 650ppm if the scenario used by the WHO is valid – will have no effect on crop yields. Therefore, even if one assumes that the relationships between climatic variables and mortality used by the WHO study are valid, the methodologies and assumptions used by WHO inevitably exaggerate future mortality increases attributable to global warming, perhaps several-fold.

In keeping with the topic of bad predictions, check out the “Friday Funny” at the Watts Up With That blog where guest blogger Tom Scott has compiled a list of failed eco-climate claims dating back nearly a century. He’s collected some real doozies. Here are a few of the best:

“By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” -Paul Ehrlich, Speech at British Institute For Biology, September 1971

Some predictions for the next decade (1990’s) are not difficult to make… Americans may see the ’80s migration to the Sun Belt reverse as a global warming trend rekindles interest in cooler climates. -Dallas Morning News December 5th 1989

Giant sand dunes may turn Plains to desert – Huge sand dunes extending east from Colorado’s Front Range may be on the verge of breaking through the thin topsoil, transforming America’s rolling High Plains into a desert, new research suggests. The giant sand dunes discovered in NASA satellite photos are expected to re- emerge over the next 20 to 50 years, depending on how fast average temperatures rise from the suspected “greenhouse effect,” scientists believe. -Denver Post April 18, 1990

There are many more where these came from. To lighten your day, you ought to have a look!

David Boaz

The royals are coming, the royals are coming! In this case, the grandson of the Queen of England, along with his wife, who took a fairytale leap from commoner to duchess by marrying him. (Just imagine, Kate Middleton a duchess while Margaret Thatcher was only made a countess.) And once again Americans who have forgotten the American Revolution are telling us to bow and curtsy before them, and address them as “Your Royal Highness,” and stand when William enters the room.

So one more time: Americans don’t bow or curtsy to foreign monarchs. (If you don’t believe me, ask Miss Manners, repeatedly.)

This is a republic. We do not recognize distinctions among individuals based on class or birth. We are not subjects of the queen of the England, the emperor of Japan, the king of Swaziland, or the king of Saudi Arabia. Therefore we don’t bow or curtsy to foreign heads of state.

Prince William’s claim to such deference is that he is a 24th-generation descendant of William the Conqueror, who invaded England and subjugated its inhabitants. In Common Sense, one of the founding documents of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine commented on that claim:

Could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first [king] nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, over-awed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions….

England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.—It certainly hath no divinity in it.

Citizens of the American republic don’t bow to monarchs, or their grandsons.

 

Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger

The mainstream media has lit up the past few days with headlines of “alarming” news coming out of Antarctica highlighting new research on a more rapid than expected loss of ice from glaciers there.

But, as typical with blame-it-on-humans climate change stories, the coverage lacks detail, depth, and implication as well as being curiously timed.

We explain.

The research, by a team led by University of Cal-Irvine doctoral candidate Tyler Sutterley, first appeared online at the journal Geophysical Research Letters on November 15th, about two weeks before Thanksgiving. So why is it making headlines now? Probably because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration issued a press release on the new paper on December 2nd. Why wait so long? Because on December 1st, the United Nations kicked off its annual climate confab and the Obama administration is keen on orchestrating its release of scary-sounding climate stories so as to attempt to generate support for its executively commanded (i.e., avoiding Congress) carbon dioxide reduction initiatives that will be on display there. This also explains the recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration speculation that 2014 is going to be the “warmest year on record”—another headline grabber—two months before all the data will be collected and analyzed.

This is all predictable—and will essentially be unsuccessful.

Missing from the hype are the broader facts.

The new Sutterley research finds that glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment region along the coast of West Antarctica are speeding up and losing ice. This is potentially important because the ice loss contributes to global sea level rise. The press coverage is aimed to make this sound alarming—“This West Antarctic region sheds a Mount Everest-sized amount of ice every two years, study says” screamed the Washington Post.

Wow! That sounds like a lot. Turns out, it isn’t.

The global oceans are vast. Adding a “Mount Everest-sized amount of ice every two years” to them results in a sea level rise of 0.02 inches per year. But “New Study Finds Antarctic Glaciers Currently Raise Sea Level by Two-Hundredths of an Inch Annually” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Nor does the coverage draw much attention to the fact that the Amundsen Sea Embayment is but one of a great many watersheds across Antarctica that empty into the sea. A study published in Nature magazine back in 2012 by Matt King and colleagues provided a more comprehensive look at glacier behavior across Antarctica. They did report, in agreement with the Sutterley findings, that glacial loss in the Amundsen Sea Embayment was rapid, but they also reported that for other large areas of Antarctica, ice loss was minimal or even negative (i.e., ice was accumulating). Figure 1, taken from the King paper, presents the broader and more relevant perspective (note that the Amundsen Sea Embayment is made up by the areas labelled 21 and 22 in Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Best estimate of rate of ice loss from watershed across Antarctica. The Amundsen Sea Embayment, the focus of the Sutterley study, is encompassed by areas labeled 21 and 22 (taken from King et al., 2012).

We discussed the King and colleagues study in more detail when it first came out. We concluded:

So King and colleagues’ latest refinement puts the Antarctic contribution to global sea level rise at a rate of about one-fifth of a millimeter per year (or in English units, 0.71 inches per century).

Without a significantly large acceleration—and recall the King et al. found none—this is something that we can all live with for a long time to come.

The strategically timed new findings being hyped this week do not change this conclusion.

References:

King, M., et al., 2012. Lower satellite-gravimetry estimates of Antarctic sea-level contribution. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature.

Sutterley, T.C., et al., 2014. Mass loss of the Amundsen Sea Embayment of West Antarctica from four independent techniques. Geophysical Research Letters, doi: 10.1002/2014GL061940

Nicole Kaeding

Earlier this week, I noted that some Inspectors General provide insufficient oversight of federal government activities. They should be more aggressive in uncovering waste and abuse in federal agencies.  

Nonetheless, many Inspectors General issue helpful reports that alert Congress and the public to wrongdoing. Here is a sampling of recent reports showing the widespread mishandling of federal tax dollars:

  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS): Tax fraud by incarcerated individuals amounted to $1 billion in 2012, growing from $166 million in 2007. One inmate defrauded the government of $4 million over a 10-year period.
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS): The Inspector General for DHS issued a new report highlighting 68 ways that the agency has wasted tax dollars. The list includes a $1.5 billion cost overrun for construction of the agency’s new headquarters, FEMA’s botched handling of relief for Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, DHS employees claiming unearned overtime, and insufficient oversight of DHS’s procurement processes.
  • Housing and Urban Development (HUD): According to HUD’s Inspector General, New York City misspent $183 million it received from the federal government to rebuild hospitals following Hurricane Sandy. The city used the funds for employee pay and benefits, which were not allowable grant expenses.
  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA): Over the course of 20 years, the DEA allowed an individual running a Ponzi scheme to conduct onsite investment training for employees. The trainer, Kenneth McLeod, used the seminars to solicit clients for his bond investment fund, which promised risk-free returns of 8 to 10 percent. More than half of McLeod’s 130 investors came from the DEA. The Inspector General cites DEA for numerous oversight lapses including failing to verify McLeod’s credentials.

Even with the recent politicization of some Inspector General reports, the reports can be useful to illuminate waste, mismanagement, and fraud within the federal government.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo

This week a Venezuelan judge indicted opposition leader María Corina Machado on flimsy charges of conspiracy to kill President Nicolás Maduro. If found guilty, she could spend up to 16 years in prison. Can she expect a fair trial from the Venezuelan judiciary?

Not at all, according to the findings of an investigation led by three Venezuelan lawyers and published in a new book, El TSJ al Servicio de la Revolución (“The Supreme Court at the Service of the Revolution”). According to their research, since 2005 Venezuela’s justice system has issued 45,474 sentences, but not once has it ruled against the government.

Machado’s fate thus depends entirely on the whims of Maduro and his entourage. The precedent of Leopoldo López, another opposition leader who has been jailed since February on charges of arson and conspiracy, does not bode well for Machado. 

Tim Lynch

Inside grand juries: Growing criticism over who controls the evidence

Here is a link to, “A Grand Facade: How the Grand Jury Was Captured by Government.”

Excerpt:

The prosecutor calls the shots and dominates the entire grand jury process. The prosecutor decides what matters will be investigated, what subpoenas will issue, which witnesses will testify, which witnesses will receive “immunity,” and what charges will be included in each indictment.

Because defense counsel are barred from the grand jury room and because there is no judge overseeing the process, the grand jurors naturally defer to the prosecutor since he is the most knowledgeable official on the scene. That overbearing presence explains the old saw that a competent prosecutor can “get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich” if he is really determined to do so.

And the reverse also holds true: If a prosecutor does not want an indictment, he can secure that outcome if he is really determined to do so.

Randal O'Toole

The Highway Trust Fund hasn’t worked, says a new report from the Eno Transportation Foundation, so Congress should consider getting rid of it and funding all transportation out of general funds. In other words, the transportation system is breaking down because it has become too politicized, so we should solve the problem by making transportation even more political.

Eno (which was founded by William Phelps Eno, who is known as the “father of traffic safety”) claims this report is the result of 18 months of work by its policy experts. Despite all that work, the report’s conclusions would only make matters worse.

“The user pay principle works in theory,” says the report, “but has not worked in practice, at least as applied to federal transportation funding in the United States to date.” Actually, it worked great as long as Congress respected that principle, which it did from roughly 1956 through 1982. It only started to break down when Congress began diverting funds from highways to other programs. Then it really broke down when Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided to spend more from the Trust Fund than it was earning from user fees. (It made the decision to spend a fixed amount each year regardless of revenues in 1998, but spending only actually exceeded revenues starting around 2008.)

Some argue that such breakdowns in the user-fee principle are inevitable when politicians get involved. This suggests that the government should get out of the way and let user fees work again. But Eno ignores that idea, and simply dismisses user fees altogether.

Eno suggests Congress has three options:

  1. Adjust spending to revenues, either by raising gas taxes or reducing spending.
  2. Fund some things out of gas taxes and some things out of general funds (which is more-or-less the status quo).
  3. Get rid of the Highway Trust Fund and just fund all transportation out of general funds.

“Any of these ideas would represent a dramatic improvement over the existing system,” says Eno, which isn’t true since the second idea is, pretty much, the existing system. But “based on our analysis, solution 3 is at least worth exploring.”

In fact, all of the problems with our transportation system are the result of politicians departing from the user-fee principle.

  • Crumbling infrastructure is the predictable result of political decisionmaking, because politicians would rather fund new infrastructure than maintain what they have.
  • Wasteful spending on grandiose capital projects that produce few benefits is the predictable result of giving special-interest groups more say over budgets than transportation users.
  • Increased congestion is the predictable result of the fact that so many of those special interest groups benefit from not solving the congestion problem.

Eno never considers the possibility of getting the federal government out of the transportation business, most of which is not interstate and doesn’t need federal involvement. The only mentions of “devolution” in the report are in a case study of United Kingdom transportation, which only involved a partial devolution and is far from committed to the user-fee principle as petrol taxes all go into general funds.

The report only mentions substituting vehicle-mile fees for gas taxes in order to dismiss it by saying that it would “require Congress to raise taxes.” Actually, it wouldn’t because those fees would be charged and collected by state and local agencies and private parties that own and operate the nation’s highways, roads, and streets. The only reason why the federal government is involved at all is because the federal government can cheaply charge taxes on gasoline at refineries and ports of entry, a benefit that disappears if we switch to mileage-based user fees.

Eno’s solution would take us out of the traffic jam and into total and complete gridlock. Politicians would merrily allocate funds to projects that enriched their pals and campaign contributors while doing nothing for mobility. Cities and states would eagerly propose the most wasteful projects they can find in order to get “their share” of the federal largess. Anyone daring enough to complain about congestion and deteriorating infrastructure would be told that it’s their own fault for using politically incorrect modes of transport. Those who really care about the nation’s transportation system need to look deeper than the authors of Eno’s report.

Randal O'Toole

The White House has applauded Portland, Ore., and 15 other local governments as “climate action champions” for promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the White House should have waited to see whether any of the communities managed to meet their goals before patting them on the back.

Portland’s “modest” goal is to reduce the city and Multnomah County emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Planners claim that, as of 2010, the city and county had reduced emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels. However, this claim is full of hot air as all of the reductions are due to causes beyond planners’ control.

Almost two-thirds of the reduction was in the industrial sector, and virtually all of that was due to the closure in 2000 of an aluminum plant that once employed 520 people. The closure of that plant hasn’t led anyone to use less aluminum, so all it did was move emissions elsewhere.

Another 22 percent of the reduction was in residential emissions, and that was due solely to 2010’s “anomalously mild winter” and below-average summer temperatures, as 2009 emissions were greater than those in 1990. Only 7 percent of the reduction was in the transportation sector, for which Portland is famous. But all of that reduction was due to the recession, not the city’s climate plan, as transport-related emissions grew through 2005 and the city didn’t record a reduction until 2009. 

Portland doesn’t have many more large factories that it can put out of business to achieve its climate goals. Nor can the city count on a continued economic depression to keep people from driving or an anomalously mild climate to keep people from turning on their heat or air conditioning.

The lesson here is that cities and counties are the wrong level to try to reduce emissions of something like greenhouse gases. This is a lesson we should have learned already based on our experience with toxic pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

In 1970, Congress required urban areas with dirty air to write transportation plans that aimed to reduce air pollution. Since then, total tons of transport-related air pollution (carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, lead, and particulates) have declined by 83 percent—and all of that decline came from making cleaner cars. If anything, too many regional transportation plans have made air dirtier by focusing on trying to get people out of their cars and using increased congestion as a tool for doing so. Cars pollute more in traffic congestion, but planners didn’t built that into their models, so they could claim that their plans would work when they actually didn’t.

Despite this failed record of trying to reduce air emissions at the city and county level, the White House is very grateful to Portland and other local governments for writing greenhouse gas reduction plans that make promises they won’t be able to keep. They will, however, be able to use those plans to increase transportation, housing, and other consumer costs. The cities consider that a small price to pay to be declared a climate action champion.

Nicole Kaeding

The federal government has a long history of “green energy” failures. Many states have also foolishly subsidized green energy, including Mississippi.

KiOR biofuels launched several years ago with much fanfare. The company was supposed to turn wood chips into liquid hydrocarbons for use as fuel and promised to revolutionize the energy industry. Its chief investor, Vinod Khosla, described KiOR’s refinery as “an amazing facility.”

The company benefited from a federal biofuel requirement that mandated refiners use 16 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2022. It then sought out state subsidies. The company decided to locate in Mississippi after the state offered a $75 million, no-interest loan. In exchange, the company promised to create 1,000 jobs by December 2015.

Yet the company had financial problems that were apparent from the start. Operating costs  ran $5 to $10 a gallon. The Washington Post reports that court papers estimated KiOR’s revenue at just $2.25 million but losses of $629.3 million.  

Production issues also plagued the facility. The system that fed wood chips into the plant frequently malfunctioned. The process converted less than 40 percent of its inputs into gasoline or diesel, leading to higher costs.

The problems were too much for the company to overcome. It filed bankruptcy in November and  still owes Mississippi $69.5 million.

This loan is just one of the many types of energy subsidies that Mississippi provides to green energy companies. The state exempts some green energy manufacturers from taxes. It has provided grants and loans to multiple companies.

Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour was in KiOR’s “cheering section” and drove Mississippi’s foray into green energy subsidies. Khosla leveraged Barbour’s central-planning approach to energy policy to benefit KiOR and ventures. Khosla invested in at least three other companies that received subsidies from Mississippi, including Soladigm (now View Inc.) and Stion. Khosla is no stranger to energy subsidies. Several of his other investments, including Range Fuels and Coskata, were also failures that benefited from loans from the federal Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture.

KiOR is not the first of Mississippi’s green investments to fail. Twin Creeks Technologies, a solar firm, received a $26 million loan from the state before it filed for bankruptcy.

Energy subsidies waste millions in state and federal dollars annually, but sadly policymakers have not yet learned their lesson.

Chris Edwards

There are many types of federal government waste. Perhaps the most glaring is spending on projects that simply do not work. The money is spent, but taxpayers receive no benefit.

From the Washington Post:

Social Security officials have acknowledged that the agency spent nearly $300 million on a computer project that doesn’t work. The agency, however, is trying to revive it. The program is supposed to help workers process and manage claims for disability benefits.

Six years ago, the agency embarked on an aggressive plan to replace outdated computer systems overwhelmed by a growing flood of disability claims. But the project has been racked by delays and mismanagement, according to an internal report the agency commissioned.

As a wild guess, let’s say that skilled computer techs cost $150,000 a year in wages and benefits. Apparently then, about 333 of them have been paid for six years, yet have made little or no progress on this mishandled Social Security project.

Here’s a much larger taxpayer black hole, also reported in the Washington Post this week:

One of the first casualties was the Crusader artillery program, which was canceled after the Pentagon spent more than $2 billion on it. Then there was the Comanche helicopter debacle, which got the ax after $8 billion. More than twice that amount had been sunk into the Army’s Future Combat System, but that program got killed, too.

In all, between 2001 and 2011 the Defense Department spent $46 billion on at least a dozen programs—including a new version of the president’s helicopter—that never became operational, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Any organization will go down some wrong paths when it comes to advanced technologies, but $46 billion is a remarkable amount to have sunk into dead-end projects. Let’s say that engineers, machinists, managers, and other workers at defense firms earn an average of $200,000 a year. The $46 billion lost would be like having a small city of 23,000 such high-skill people beavering away for a decade on projects that all end up in the trash bin. I’m not an expert on procurement, but I do know that is a lot of human talent for the government to waste.

Emma Ashford

Today at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federal Assembly. The speech made the news for its antagonistic tone and, in particular, for Putin’s comparison of Crimea with Jerusalem. But for all the hype surrounding the speech, it said little new, emphasizing instead the impasse that Russia and the West find themselves locked in. Putin’s message was clear: Russia’s foreign policy is not changing.

The foreign policy narratives pervading the speech were strongly familiar, reiterating the points made by Russian leaders and state-owned television throughout the last year. Yet the twisted worldview presented bears little resemblance to reality.

Putin argued that Russia is being persecuted for seeking only to peacefully engage with the world. He presented Russia as a key proponent of international law, describing the annexation of Crimea as the result of a peaceful self-determination vote. In contrast, the United States was portrayed as a meddling hegemonic menace that, he insinuated, aids Russia’s enemies, foreign and domestic. Putin even implied that European states are vassals of the United States:

Sometimes it is even unclear whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors.

The speech went on to describe international sanctions on Russia as illegitimate, with Putin arguing that sanctions are largely unrelated to Crimea or to the ongoing conflict. Instead, he insinuated, sanctions are an attempt by the United States to curtail Russia’s growth and power:

I’m sure that if these events had never happened… they [the US] would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities.

These points aren’t true or accurate, but they are certainly consistent with the narrative advanced by the Kremlin. This is one key reason why Putin’s approval rate is still a massive 85%, with many Russians blaming the West for Russia’s woes. Putin thus spent much of the speech deflecting blame. In particular, he focused on Russia’s faltering economy, and while he touched on key economic concerns—the collapsing ruble, the falling price of oil, stalling economic growth, rising inflation—he largely glossed over them, focusing instead on blaming the West. 

But while the content of the speech was predictable, the tone offered more insight into Russian intentions. Putin’s tone remained defiant, signaling no change in policy. The speech invoked historical struggles, reminding citizens that they survived “containment” once before, during the Cold War. On the economic front, Putin highlighted new programs encouraging entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency in manufacturing and technology, as well as promising amnesty for capital returned to Russia from abroad. He even suggested that Russia may engage in import-substitution industrialization. 

Despite the slow-motion collapse of the ruble and other economic problems, the Kremlin has no intention of backing down on the issue of Ukraine. Instead, it will attempt to mitigate the economic crisis domestically. None of this is surprising, but it does highlight how unsuccessful U.S. strategy toward Russia has been over the last year. The poor performance of the Russian economy is at least as much the result of falling global oil prices as it is of sanctions. Yet neither has served to alter the foreign policy incentives of Russian leaders. 

Now is the time for a new approach to the Russia–U.S. crisis. Conflict over Ukraine serves the interests of neither side. Rather than adding to already ineffectual sanctions, U.S. policymakers should seek a negotiated settlement with Russia to end the crisis. Otherwise, the impasse will continue. 

Jim Harper

A couple of years ago I wrote here about the Supreme Court case denying that a person could collect damages from the government under the Privacy Act based on mental and emotional distress. It’s a narrow point, but an important one, because the harm privacy invasions produce is often only mental and emotional distress. If such injuries aren’t recognized, the Privacy Act doesn’t offer much of a remedy.

Many privacy advocates have sought to bloat privacy regulation by lowering the “harm” bar. They argue that the creation of a privacy risk is a harm or that worrisome information practices are harmful. But I think harm rises above doing things someone might find “worrisome.” Harm can occur, as I think it may have in this case, when one’s (hidden) HIV status and thus sexual orientation is revealed. It’s shown by proving emotional distress to a judge or jury.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) has introduced the fix for the Supreme Court’s overly narrow interpretation of the Privacy Act. His Safeguarding Individual Privacy Against Government Invasion Act of 2014 would allow for non-pecuniary damages—that is, mental and emotional distress—in Privacy Act cases.

It’s a simple fix to a contained problem in federal privacy legislation. It’s passage would not only close a gap in the statute. It would help channel the privacy discussion in the right way, toward real harms, which include provable mental and emotional distress.

Chris Edwards

 

In his new book, Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley argues that Congress should abolish the entire federal aid-to-state system to save money and improve American governance. A recent Cato study shows that there is substantial public support for reforms in that direction.

In “Public Attitudes toward Federalism,” John Samples and Emily Ekins review decades of polling data to discern views on federal policymaking vs. state/local policymaking. They find strong support for state/local primacy in many policy areas, including education, housing, transportation, welfare, and health care.

The authors find that Americans have become more strongly in favor of state/local control—as opposed to federal control—since the 1970s. For example, when asked whether “major decisions” about housing policy ought to be made at the federal level or state/local level, just 18 percent favor federal today compared to 28 percent four decades ago.

The political opening here is obvious: reformers on Capitol Hill should push to reduce the federal role—by cutting spending and regulations—in those areas where the public has a clear preference for state/local primacy. From constitutional and good governance perspectives, many federal agencies and programs ought to be eliminated, but the Samples/Ekins study indicates areas that reformers should target first.

Why is reviving federalism a politically appealing reform? Because the public has a much more favorable view of state/local governments than the federal government. Samples and Ekins find that 58 percent of people have a favorable view of local government, compared to just 32 percent for the federal government. Asked which level of government provides the most value for their tax dollars, 33 percent said the federal government and 67 percent said state/local governments. Asked whether government provides “competent service,” 31 percent agreed with regard to the federal government and 48 percent agreed with regard to local governments. On average, Americans believe that the federal government wastes 60 cents out of every dollar it spends.

The Samples/Ekins results show that self-identified Republicans have a stronger belief in decentralized policymaking than do Democrats. So reviving federalism is a ripe opportunity for the incoming Republican majorities in Congress.

***

George Will reviews Buckley’s book today in the Washington Post, and you can read more about federalism here.

Jason Bedrick

Over the weekend, Florida’s Sun-Sentinel editorialized against Florida’s scholarship tax credit law. But, as I detail at Education Next today, the editorial was rife with errors, distortions, and omissions of crucial context. Here’s just one example of many:

Rather than put the scholarship tax credit law in the context of Florida’s overall education spending, the Sun-Sentinel compares it to… Iowa.

“No state has a bigger voucher [sic] system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.”

Setting aside the fact that the state of Florida did not “spend” even one red penny on the scholarships, this comparison is misleading. Do the editors at the Sun-Sentinel really believe that Iowa has as many students as Florida? If so, why haven’t they decried the fact that Florida spends more than $25 billion on its public schools while Iowa spends barely $5 billion? Perhaps because Florida has more than five times the number of students?

Comparing apples to apples, fewer than 10,500 students received tax-credit scholarships in Iowa last year compared to more than 69,000 in Florida. And while the tax-credit scholarships are larger in Florida than Iowa – about $4,660 on average versus about $1,090 on average – they are dwarfed by the more than $10,000 per pupil spent on average at Florida public schools.

The Sun-Sentinel owes its readers and the public a full and detailed retraction.

Ian Vásquez

Over the past couple of decades, a consensus has emerged among development practitioners and over a broad ideological spectrum about the need to legally recognize and protect the property rights of the world’s poor. Yet land tenure and the holding of other forms of property of billions of poor people remains informal.

As Peter Schaefer and Clay Schaefer explain in a Cato study released yesterday, one reason there has been little progress in titling or registering the property of the poor is that powerful interests in developing countries block reform. And in countries that have particularly predatory governments, there may be little actual demand to title property. Why would you publically register your property if the result will be confiscatory taxation, political persecution, or the need to pay bribes to avoid complying with prohibitively expensive regulations?

The authors propose a novel, bottom-up approach to registering property that gets around those problems: using a simple, hand-held GPS device, individuals in poor communities can inexpensively map their property claims in an informal community registry that is publically accessible on the internet. In the vast majority of cases, there is already a consensus about what informal property belongs to whom, so disputes on boundary issues that might arise are typically not significant and are readily solved. This community mapping approach is already partly being employed in parts of Africa and India. Because such registration is voluntary, it would only take place where people actually demand it; and because it is informal, it need not rely on unreliable government bureaucracies to make it happen.

Were communities to create “live” documents of their registries on the internet, as the authors propose, they would increase tenure security by providing useful information to investors, neighbors, multinational corporations and even governments. As Peter and Clay Schaefer note, “When a community achieves a critical mass of registered users, it will be very difficult for their governments to ignore the claims that have been recorded.” That approach will also make it more politically feasible for poor people to negotiate with the authorities and gain formal title to their property.

Christopher A. Preble

Although the rollout was messy, and the official announcement is still pending, the White House has settled on Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. I have a piece just up at The Daily Caller explaining Carter’s long list of challenges: 

He will be expected to manage several ongoing wars, at a time when the public wants to kill bad guys without necessarily using U.S. ground troops to do it. Carter must also oversee numerous major new and costly weapons programs (especially nuclear weapons) in an increasingly tight budgetary environment. The Pentagon’s base budget (excluding the costs of the wars) remains near historic highs in inflation-adjusted terms, and personnel expenses are likely to remain high despite some reductions in the numbers of men and women serving in uniform. The just-released draft budget implements modest cost controls, but The Military Times reports that these “are likely to irritate outside advocates who pushed against any pay and benefits cuts.” Absent significant reform, military pay and benefits will place additional downward pressure on both new weapon R&D and normal operations and maintenance.

On top of all this, the rancor surrounding Hagel’s departure has shone new light on the White House’s tendency to micromanage foreign policy from the West Wing. It is reasonable to ask “Why would anyone want this job?”

Most of the piece focuses on the presumption that Carter will be more hawkish than his predecessor, based on his earlier support for a harder line against Iran (.pdf) and his call, in 2006 with William Perry, for so-called “preemptive” military strikes against North Korea.

But, as I explain, the hawks’ celebration might be premature. Hagel wasn’t unequivocally anti-war, and Carter will have his hands full with the wars U.S. troops are already fighting, plus the looming budgetary train-wreck. And those aren’t the only things constraining the new SecDef’s supposed hawkishness. Americans harbor deep doubts about replaying the past decades’ nation-building adventures in Iraq and Syria, and the nation’s senior military officer – JCS Chair Martin Dempsey – seems to share at least some of their concerns.

I conclude:

Given all of the things on Ash Carter’s plate, a logical division of labor would put him in charge of managing the Pentagon’s budget, and Dempsey in the forefront explaining how these resources should be deployed. The hawks in and out of Congress are reluctant to criticize the judgment of uniformed military personnel, and Americans remain wary of sending U.S. troops into the middle of distant civil wars. If Dempsey advises against greater U.S. involvement in such wars, he might have a bigger impact on the course of U.S. foreign policy than any of his civilian counterparts – Ashton Carter included.

Read the whole thing here.

 

Kat Murti

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, ending our nation’s failed experiment with alcohol prohibition. Yet, 81 years later, modern-day prohibitionists continue to deny the laws of supply and demand, attempting to control what individuals can choose to put into their own bodies.

The War on Drugs is a glaring example of contemporary prohibitionism, but nanny-staters have even attempted to ban substances as innocuous as “too-large” sodas or gourmet cheeses.

This Friday, join the Cato Institute for a look at prohibition 81 years after the repeal of the 18th Amendment.

 

I will be moderating a panel featuring Cato Senior Fellow Walter Olson, editor of the nation’s oldest law blog Overlawyered.com; Stacia Cosner, Deputy Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy; and Michelle Minton, Fellow in Consumer Policy Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Panelists will discuss modern prohibitions—from the Drug War to blue laws, and from tobacco regulation to trans fats—drawing connections with their earlier antecedent.

Alcoholic beverages and other commonly restricted refreshments (bring on the trans fats!) will be served following the discussion.

What better place to celebrate the 81st anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition than the Cato Institute? Space is limited, so make sure to register for your chance to go home with a commemorative door prize.

Not in D.C.? The panel will be live-streamed and questions may be submitted via Twitter using #CatoDigital.

#CatoDigital (formerly #NewMediaLunch) is a regular event series at the Cato Institute highlighting the intersection of tech, social media, and the ideas of liberty. Email Kat Murti at kmurti [at] cato [dot] org to get future event updates and more.

Ilya Shapiro

For decades, courts have been struggling to reconcile two conflicting theories of what constitutes unlawful discrimination. The first theory, often called “disparate treatment,” reflects the commonly understood meaning of “discrimination.” Under this theory, a government action discriminates—violates the principle of equal protection or equality under the law—if it explicitly or implicitly treats members of one race or other special group differently from others. Examples of disparate treatment include Jim Crow’s black codes, university admission caps and quotas, and policies excluding women from certain positions.

The second theory, known as “disparate impact,” argues that the definition of discrimination should be much broader and include laws and policies that, while neutral in their application and operation, disproportionately harm members of a specific group. An example of a rule that would be considered discriminatory under this theory, but not under disparate treatment, would be a requirement that all soldiers in a particular unit be over six feet tall—because, as a statistical matter, far fewer women would be eligible than men. In several other cases, Cato has argued that allowing disparate impact theory claims against government bodies is problematic because a government can assure that a rule doesn’t accidentally produce statistically unequal outcomes is to engage in intentionally discriminatory policies—like quotas—that can ensure a specific outcome.

Here is the case that proves this point: Buffalo makes promotions within its fire department on the basis of both merit and seniority. Firefighters who wish to be considered for advancement have to pass a set of exams. Those who are successful are placed on a list of candidates eligible for promotion within a set time period. If a candidate isn’t promoted within that period, however, the promotion qualification expires and he’s forced to re-take the exams.

During one administration of the exam, the only successful candidates were white. Because that was statistically unlikely given the racial makeup of the department, the city feared that if it promoted the successful candidates, it would be sued for having a policy that had a disparate impact on non-white firefighters. Its solution was to make a racially based decision not to promote any of the qualified candidates, allowing their promotion-list placements to expire.

In a litigation battle that has progressed in fits and starts over many years, Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and other concerned groups on a brief reminding the New York Court of Appeals (that state’s highest court) that allowing government to engage in disparate treatment to avoid accusations of disparate impact simply trades one form of discrimination for another. And, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a Supreme Court plurality back in 2007, the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

The New York Court of Appeals will hear argument in the case of Margerum v. City of Buffalo on January 6 in Albany. For more on the “war between disparate impact and equal protection”—in the context of a previous firefighter-promotion case—see this prescient essay by Kenneth Marcus in the 2009 Cato Supreme Court Review.

Brink Lindsey

Here are the final five essays in the Cato Institute’s online forum on reviving growth:

1. Reihan Salam wants to end the bias in favor of corporate debt – and expand school choice.

2. Peter Howitt calls for flat taxes on consumption and wealth.

3. Ben Wildavsky thinks we are subsidizing the wrong college students.

4. Philip Auerswald targets barriers to home healthcare delivery.

5. George Selgin explores alternatives to the monetary policy status quo.

 

 

 

 

Chelsea German

According to a recent Gallup survey, the majority of Americans think that crime is on the rise. This misperception persists year after year. Only 21 percent of Americans realize that crime is actually falling. Consider murder and rape alone:

Murder and rape are not the only crimes that are falling. The downward trend in U.S. crime rates also holds for simple and aggravated assaults as well as robberies. Crime, in other words, is falling across the board.

 

 Furthermore, the fall in crime is not limited to the United States. Globally, crime is down. For example, consider the homicide rate in Europe over the last century:

 

Why do most people perceive the world as increasingly crime-ridden despite statistical evidence to the contrary?

Harvard professor and HumanProgress.org advisory board member Steven Pinker provided a number of reasons for our deeply ingrained pessimism during a recent Cato event, “If Everything is Getting Better, Why Do We Remain So Pessimistic?” which can be viewed here. His book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, offers a more in-depth look at the decline of violence.

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