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David Boaz

Fifty years ago today, the actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater. It came to be known to Reagan fans as “The Speech” and launched his own, more successful political career.

And a very libertarian speech it was: 

This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.

Video versions of the speech here.

For libertarians, Reagan had his faults. But he was an eloquent spokesman for a traditional American philosophy of individualism, self-reliance, and free enterprise at home and abroad, and words matter. They change the climate of opinion, and they inspire people trapped in illiberal societies. And these days, when people claiming the Reagan mantle push for wars or military involvement in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and other danger spots, we remember that Reagan challenged the Soviet Union mostly in the realm of ideas; he used military force only sparingly. George W. Bush, whom some call “Reagan’s true political heir,” increased federal spending by more than a trillion dollars even before the financial crisis. We watch the antigay crusading of today’s conservative Republicans and remember that Reagan publicly opposed the early antigay Briggs Initiative of 1978 (featured in the movie Milk).

And in those moments libertarians are tempted to paraphrase the theme song of All in the Family and say, “Mister, we could use a man like Ronald Reagan again.”

Would that the current assault on economic freedom would turn up another presidential candidate with Reagan’s values and talents. More on Reagan here and here

Ilya Shapiro

Cato and the Constitutional Accountability Center have filed another amicus brief in a marriage case, this one challenging Louisiana’s restriction of marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples and its non-recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages. Filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit—where last month we filed in a case out of Texas—this is an appeal from the only ruling to uphold a state marriage law since the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act. (A federal judge in Puerto Rico also recently upheld that commonwealth’s law.)

Our previous briefs, including in that Texas case and also regarding the marriage laws of Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Wisconsin in the TenthFourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits, respectively, focused on the original public meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and its guarantee of “equality under law” for all. Here, however, we focus on federalism, democracy, and why states shouldn’t automatically get judicial deference when they pass legislation.

That is, the Fourteenth Amendment significantly reworked the constitutional order such that the U.S. Constitution now protects individual liberty against state infringement (which wasn’t the case before the Civil War). When the district court held that Louisiana was free to deny loving, committed same-sex couples the freedom to marry because the state “has a legitimate interest … for addressing the meaning of marriage through the democratic process,” it empowered the people of the states to use the democratic process to oppress disfavored minorities and thus overturned the constitutional order we’ve had since 1868.

Since the ratification of the Reconstruction-Era amendments, the Constitution has required states to respect fundamental constitutional principles, curtailing the power of majorities to violate individual rights. Consistent with these first principles, the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that constitutional guarantees that protect the individual from abuse by the government cannot be left to the democratic process.  As it said in the foundational case of West Virginia v. Barnette (1943), “[o]ne’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” The right to equal protection of the laws similarly trumps majoritarian rule. Indeed, if majority approval were enough to make state-sponsored discrimination constitutional, the Fourteenth Amendment would be a dead letter.

Nobody doubts, as the district court recognized—and as Cato is the first to trumpet—that federalism is a “vibrant and essential component of our nation’s constitutional structure.” Federalism “is more than an exercise in setting boundaries between different institutions of government for their own integrity,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in his unanimous opinion in Bond v. United States just three years ago. But state sovereignty “is not an end in itself: Rather, federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.”  

In other words, where constitutional limits apply, state prerogatives necessarily end. As a long line of Supreme Court precedent makes clear, even when states act in an indisputably state sphere, they can’t use the democratic process to write inequality into law and deny to some people core aspects of liberty.

Instead of applying these well-established constitutional precepts, the district court deferred to the outcome of the “democratic process,” suggesting that any other result would be to “read personal preference[s] into the Constitution.” But there’s no “marriage exception” to the Fourteenth Amendment. Equal rights under law is not a policy preference; it’s a constitutional mandate. By allowing the people of Louisiana to impose a class-based badge of inferiority on committed same-sex couples and their children, the district court misapprehended the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection—which protects all persons from state-sponsored discrimination, including the plaintiffs in this case and all gay men and lesbians who wish to exercise their right to marry—and disregarded vital principles of constitutional supremacy.  

The Fifth Circuit will hear argument in Robicheaux v. Caldwell later this year.

Steve H. Hanke

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his annual Wastebook this past week. It contains a laundry list of doozies. The U.S. government’s gold-plating operations included $190,000 to study compost digested by worms, $297 million for the purchase of an unused mega blimp, and $1 million on a Virginia bus stop where only 15 people can huddle under a half-baked roof. These questionable (read: absurd) expenditures only represent the tip of the iceberg.

Just consider the following: the Speaker of the House currently receives an annual salary of $223,500, and will receive a payment of roughly that amount, depending on the years of service, for life. An annual payment of this magnitude amounts to about five times the average annual wage in the United States. But that’s not all. For those who have had different positions in Congress, their retirements can be augmented. For example, Nancy Pelosi will not receive $223,500 for life, but roughly double that. Why? Because she is a member of Congress, currently the House of Representatives’ Minority Leader, and a retired Speaker of the House. For purposes of computing retirement pay, Congress adds and accumulates. They do not net.

In addition to supporting members of Congress and civil servants, U.S. taxpayers support welfare recipients. And they support them lavishly, too. Hawaii, Massachusetts, and D.C. residents receive sizeable welfare payments (read: salaries). Indeed, the magnitude of these payments exceeds the average salary of an American teacher, as well as a soldier deployed in Afghanistan, by at least $10,000 per year.

The public can forget all the clap-trap they are hearing about austerity. Indeed, a fairly dull knife could cut billions of dollars from the U.S. government’s largess. 

Steve H. Hanke and Matt Sekerke

The long-awaited audit of the Corporate Commercial Bank’s (KTB’s) assets has been released by the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB). In its wake, a debate has arisen about the future of the KTB: Should it be recapitalized? And if KTB is recapitalized, should the Bulgarian or the European authorities be responsible? However, it is clear from the results of the audit that, once the obscurity of the technocratic arguments is stripped away, there can be no debate. KTB should be liquidated as soon as possible, and whatever proceeds can be obtained in liquidation should be used to reimburse guarantees to depositors paid from the Bulgarian Deposit Insurance Fund (BDIF).

KTB should be liquidated because it is not, and apparently never has been, a commercial bank. Had KTB been operated according to commercial banking principles, it would be virtually impossible for KTB to destroy value on the scale witnessed by the independent auditors. As of September 30, 2014, the auditors estimate that 76% of the asset value in KTB’s non-financial loan portfolio, which accounts for 80% of KTB’s assets, has been lost.

Losing 76% on a commercial loan portfolio must be put into perspective. In making loans, commercial banks generally require a senior secured position. This means that in the event of default, the bank may take collateral from the borrower and use the proceeds from selling the collateral to recover the bank’s principal, prior to any other creditor. From 2003 to 2012, Standard and Poor’s found that European lenders recovered 78% of their principal, on average, from defaulted loans with these characteristics. Even where defaulted loans were not secured by collateral, European lenders averaged a 48% recovery rate. Compare these recovery rates to KTB’s pathetic implied recovery rate of 24%, and it becomes clear that KTB was not operating as a real bank.

The KTB audit report tells a story in which KTB blatantly ignored the basic pillars of commercial lending. According to the report, there is little evidence that initial loan underwriting and subsequent credit monitoring ever took place at KTB.

If KTB’s management were just grossly incompetent, it would be bad enough. But it appears they were also criminals. The BNB is forwarding the audit results to the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office. The auditors state that KTB lied to and misled BNB banking supervisors, and engaged in transactions with no evident commercial purpose. The suspicion of criminal activity is just another reason why KTB should be liquidated, now.

It is important to stress that there is no macroeconomic or “macro-prudential” reason to continue operating KTB. Because KTB never functioned economically as an intermediary for savings, liquidation of the bank will not prevent otherwise-qualified corporate borrowers from obtaining credit. Nor will KTB’s disappearance send shock waves through the financial system, as its net position vis-à-vis the rest of the Bulgarian banking sector appears to be relatively small.

The authorities’ primary focus now should be paying KTB’s guaranteed depositors out of the BDIF and recovering those costs, to the extent possible, by seizing KTB’s assets and winding down its operations.

If KTB were operating in the United States, there would be additional legal paths to pursue for recovery. Payments made by the bank in the period immediately preceding its insolvency could be recovered, and the directors and officers of the bank could be held personally liable for negligence. The authorities would be well-advised to make use of any corresponding legal remedies available to them under Bulgarian bankruptcy and corporate governance laws. These paths may be the best way to achieve recoveries in excess of those possible on the basis of KTB’s pitifully inadequate assets.

Finally, the KTB episode should not be used as an excuse to tinker with the one transparent and faithfully functioning institution Bulgaria has: its currency board.

The best Bulgaria can do is to liquidate KTB, now.

Craig D. Idso

Severe hurricanes, or tropical cyclones as they are known by those living outside the United States, are the most intense storms on the planet. Given the amount of damage they can inflict, it’s no wonder that they often are the poster children for the global warming movement—think Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy. Whenever and wherever they occur, you can count on some climate lobbyist telling us that storm was caused, or made worse, by global warming. Indeed, it is a green legend that carbon-induced global warming will cause more frequent or more severe tropical cyclones in the future, resulting in escalating economic damages.

Is that really so? A new scientific study addresses this topic, by Dr. S. Niggol Seo of the prestigious University of Sydney. He examined trends in tropical cyclones affecting Australia and published his results in the academic journal Environmental and Resource Economics.

Writing as background for his work, Seo states that alarming predictions of more intense hurricanes because of climate change “are of great concern,” yet he says there have been “few TC [tropical cyclone] studies in the Southern Hemisphere,” adding that there has been “no economic assessment of damages in the past.” Based on detailed reports of TCs that were generated in the Southern Ocean and hit Australia since 1970, from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Seo constructed damage estimates “using the reported financial loss, destruction of houses and capital goods, and losses of agricultural crops and livestock after a careful examination of the detailed individual cyclone reports,” which also included “local area income and population density where the storm hit.” 

Seo’s examination of tropical cyclone data back to 1970 is important, because over that time (1970–2006) the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration of the atmosphere rose by 55 parts per million (ppm), or more than half of global CO2 increase experienced since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In addition, global temperatures over this 36-year period rose by approximately 0.5°C,  to levels that some (controversially) consider unprecedented in the last two millenia. If there is a period of time in which one should be able to find a CO2/temperature-induced signal in the tropical cyclone record, the years examined by Seo would seem to be it. 

Despite this alignment of the stars, so to speak, Seo’s work fails to support claims that global warming is causing or will cause more frequent and severe tropical cyclones. 

As illustrated in the figure below, perhaps the greatest failure comes from the Australian researcher’s discovery that “TC frequency has significantly declined over time.” Or perhaps it is the equally damning finding that “there is no significant trend over the intensity of the TCs during that time.” Beyond those realities, with respect to the financial damages, Seo reports that the “average damage per TC has significantly fallen over time since 1970 from 38 million AUD [Australian dollars] per TC in the 1970s, to 11 million AUD in the 1980s and the 1990s, and to 1 million AUD in the first half of the 2000s.”

Figure 1.

Annual frequency of tropical cyclones, or hurricanes, making landfall in Australia over the period 1970-2006.  Adapted from Seo, 2014.

The dramatic “decrease in the damage from TCs observed at the end of the twentieth century,” according to Seo, “can be attributed in part to adaptation measures such as development planning, building codes, more accurate TC tracking and forecasts, early warning systems, and full preparedness and evacuations.” But, of course, it must also be acknowledged that the significant decline in TC frequency that was found to have occurred over the course of the study period must also have played a prominent role. 

Whatever the case, one conclusion from this study is certain, the unprecedented increase in the twin evils of the modern environmental movement (rising temperature and CO2) has not led to more frequent or more severe tropical cyclones hitting Australia in recent decades. There may well be a temperature/tropical cyclone/CO2 signal; it’s just not the signal climate alarmists—and Australia has plenty—have long claimed!

Reference

Seo, S.N. 2014. Estimating tropical cyclone damages under climate change in the Southern Hemisphere using reported damages. Environmental and Resource Economics 58: 473-490.

Walter Olson

As many of us have noted lately, the federal Centers for Disease Control, known originally for their work against infectious and communicable diseases, have shifted focus in recent years to supposed public health menaces like beltless driving, gun ownership, social drinking, and suburban land use patterns. CDC director Thomas Frieden came recommended to President Obama because of his national fame as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s health commissioner, in which capacity he oversaw portion sizes and donut recipes, restaurant smoking policies and anti-salt campaigns, as well as the occasional infectious disease issue. 

If national nannyism strikes you as bad enough, get ready for the international kind. As the Wall Street Journal noted the other day

The United Nations-run WHO has long been a growing irrelevance, as director-general Margaret Chan spent the week not in Monrovia but Moscow, pontificating at a WHO conference aimed at raising global tobacco taxes. … Since the 1990s, the WHO has gradually transformed itself from a disease fighter to what Dr. Chan calls “a normative agency” that makes international public health rules and promotes political goals like universal coverage. 

The ideology behind this is driven by ideas fashionable in the West, particularly that of rolling out the “tobacco control” model to other consumer goods like food and alcohol. This summer in Nature, for example, much-quoted Georgetown law prof Lawrence Gostin outlined such an agenda under the headline “Healthy Living Needs Global Governance.” According to the abstract of his article, “researchers have identified a suite of cost-effective NCD [non-communicable disease] prevention measures” and now it is time for international regulatory bodies to step forward to impose them.  

Stronger global governance could spur national action by providing funding, creating stronger norms and holding states accountable. The UN’s comprehensive review on progress in NCD prevention, held in July 2014, offered an opportunity for the international community to take concrete steps in strengthening global prevention efforts. This article proposes four concrete steps for a long-term solution: creating a dedicated fund for NCD control and prevention; regulating industry to improve nutrition and restrict alcohol and tobacco marketing; altering the built environment to promote physical activity; and prioritizing prevention in all sectors of government and in the global regimes that govern NCD risk factors.

Barriers to quick adoption of such measures, Gostin laments, include “philanthropic action favoring swift wins in infectious disease control, and the framing of NCDs as an individual rather than collective problem.” That second point you might be right to interpret as annoyance at libertarians and individualists who keep arguing that people choose, and should have a right to go on choosing, what they eat. But pause for a moment to take in Gostin’s first point about how narrow-minded philanthropy is to favor “swift wins in infectious disease control.” The rest of us may see it as inspiring, even heroic when a tech billionaire donates a zillion dollars to roll back the scourge of malaria, Ebola, or some less familiar tropical disease. If you were truly advanced, however, you would see this as a distraction from the task of organizing to regulate pretzel consumption. 

Agencies like WHO promoted their mission to skeptics as a way of addressing communicable diseases that, like Ebola, can quickly jump borders. Why let it arrogate more power to itself than it would need for that purpose?

Christopher A. Preble

After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion spent on counternarcotic operations, the results are in: the United States has lost the “war on drugs” in Afghanistan, although few U.S. officials are willing to admit it. According to this report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), poppy cultivation is actually at an all-time high, over 8 percent higher in 2013 than the previous peak in 2007.

And, with the United States slated to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, the problem is likely to get worse. According to the report, given the “deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014.”

Some observers are more optimistic, however. A letter from the U.S. embassy in Kabul states that the United States is “making good progress in building the capacity of [its] Afghan partners to design, lead, manage, and sustain over the long term strategic and tactical counternarcotics efforts addressing all stages of the drug trade.”

It’s difficult to understand their optimism. The embassy letter, which is included in the SIGAR report, admits that “poppy cultivation has shifted from areas where government presence is broadly supported and security has improved, toward more remote and isolated areas where the governance is weak and security is inadequate.”

Looking ahead, however, unless one believes—contrary to all evidence—that Afghan government control will expand into these areas as the U.S. military presence shrinks, that should translate to more poppy cultivation, not less. The embassy curiously refused to come to that conclusion.

Washington’s war on drugs in Afghanistan, like its war on drugs in the Americas, tries to defy the most basic law of economics: supply and demand. And it’s having tragic effects, as my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter has observed for years (including especially here and here). So long as the world’s appetite for drugs remains high, willing sellers will be there to satiate it.

It is hardly surprising that a prohibitionist strategy didn’t work in Afghanistan. It is surprising that some thought it would, or still might, given that it has failed everywhere else.

Dalibor Rohac

The upcoming parliamentary election in Tunisia comes at a critical time. For a while, Tunisia was seen as a poster child for a successful transition away from authoritarianism. In Egypt, a widespread disappointment with an Islamic government resulted in a military coup last year. In contrast, when Tunisia could not get through a political impasse, the Islamic Ennahda party negotiated a handover to a caretaker government earlier this year, which has led the country to an early election.

Regardless of whether Ennahda can repeat its electoral success from three years ago or whether secular forces take over, the new Tunisian government will be in an unenviable position: it will have to address a growing security crisis in the country. In the past two years, the country has seen the emergence of political violence and terrorism perpetrated mostly by radical Salafist groups. Those violent efforts include the killings of two opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, as well as a car bomb plot foiled just last week.

Tunisia has also become a fertile ground for the recruitment of fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS). Some estimate that over 2,400 ISIS fighters are from Tunisia, which would make Tunisians the most numerous nationality fighting for ISIS. Restoring basic security, order, and rule of law—and preventing the country from descending into a full-fledged internal conflict—will have to be a priority for the new government.

The political violence may have multiple roots, but Tunisia’s poor economic performance is clearly one of them. In recent years, many strikes and protests over economic conditions have taken a violent turn and led to attacks on local police stations, for example.

While the West is confronted with problems posed by aging populations, Tunisia, like other countries in the region, faces the challenge (and opportunity) of harnessing the economic potential of an extremely young workforce. Practically half of Tunisians are under the age of 30, and many of them are struggling. Although unemployment is slowly falling, the unemployment rate among university-educated young Tunisians is over 30 percent, making their situation precarious.

Because of a vibrant tourism sector and economic links with Europe, Tunisia has relied less on government ownership and industrial planning than other Arab countries and has long enjoyed the presence of many foreign investors. Still, its economy faces significant barriers to competition and market activity. Tunisia ranks 87th on the most recent World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, compared to 32nd in the 2010–2011 edition. Its poor performance is driven mainly by its underdeveloped goods, financial, and labor markets, which are paralyzed by heavy-handed regulation.

Tunisia’s officials are aiming to bring the deficit down to 5 percent of GDP in 2015. The essential components of reining in deficit spending will include reforms to existing entitlement programs—the government has already increased retirement age to 62 years—and curbing the growth in public-sector salaries. Given the power of public sector unions, the latter effort is extremely contentious. While the country’s labor union, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, is credited with playing an important role in the political settlement that led to this election, it has also opposed economic reforms, including reductions in the growth of salaries of civil servants.

However, structural reforms that would strengthen private markets and make them competitive are essential for accelerating the country’s currently anemic economic growth. Regardless of who the Tunisians elect on Sunday, the country is overdue for a deep liberalization, improving its business environment and eliminating red tape and corruption. Compared to its neighbours, Tunisia performs relatively well on the World Bank’s Doing Business project, but its performance is glaringly inadequate in the domain of obtaining construction permits—obtaining a permit requires 19 official procedures, takes 94 days, and costs almost 256 percent of the country’s per capita income—and in the area of accessing credit, where Tunisia is held back by poorly functioning financial markets.

What makes structural reforms imperative is not just that deficit reduction is unlikely to yield fruit in a prolonged absence of economic growth. More significantly, the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia, was not only about deposing corrupt dictators—although the corruption of now-deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali was legendary. The Tunisian revolution was a response to a system of governance that was systematically failing young people and denied them access to economic opportunity. In order to deliver on the promise of the event of spring 2011, the government must give Tunisians the freedom to succeed without being subject to harassment of petty bureaucrats and union bosses.

Andrew J. Coulson

In poll after poll, parents tell us that they care about academic achievement, but that they also want schools to help instill good values. And since children are adept at drawing lessons from adults’ behavior as well as from their words, it’s always nice when teachers conduct themselves with decorum and sensitivity. Which begs the question, how many parents would want their children to emulate the teachers who disrupted last week’s meeting of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission—the district’s governing body? For that matter, how many of these teachers would want their students to behave this way in class?

All the shouting, incidentally, was over the Reform Commission’s decision to require teachers to contribute for the first time to their health insurance premiums. For what it’s worth, Philadelphia was one of only two districts in the state that had not yet required this.

Doug Bandow

CAIRO—“I could be arrested when I leave here,” said a journalist who I met at the tiny Marriott near Cairo’s Tahir Square.  A student activist observed that he could be detained at any time. 

A veteran human rights activist calmly stated:  “Some of our groups will be closed.  Some of us will be imprisoned.  It is inevitable.”

Most foreigners travel to Egypt to play tourist.  I visited with a human rights delegation, reminding me yet again about how lucky Americans—and, indeed, most Westerners—are.

Most important are the basic characteristics of a free society.  The rule of law.  Civil liberties.  Criminal procedures.  Legal safeguards.  Democratic processes. 

Obviously, even nations which purport to have all of these often fall short.  However, few Americans or Europeans, or citizens of democratic Asian nations live in constant fear of arrest, imprisonment, and torture. 

In Egypt the uncertainty began when arriving.  On both of my trips the government knew our delegation was coming.  Both times I was pulled aside. 

On the first trip an entry guard took my passport and I waited for an hour before officials returned it and waved me on.  The second time after far shorter delay security officials formally welcomed me—after asking for my phone number and hotel destination. 

Of course, the U.S. occasionally stops people from entering, but not typically because they want to assess America’s human rights record.  Even after leaving the arrivals area on my first trip I had to wait again while the videographer joining us unsuccessfully attempted to persuade officials to let him bring in his camera. 

Both visits were filled with interviews—relating all sorts of harrowing stories.  Most every society has injustice and errors are sadly common in U.S. jurisprudence.  However, most Americans don’t expect a visit to a friend to turn into a stint in prison.

In Egypt for reasons of political repression and personal revenge people face arbitrary arrest, perpetual detention, fraudulent trials, and horrific imprisonment.  Some of the accounts we heard could be exaggerated or even false, but reports from people in many walks of life and across the political spectrum suggested that the slightest resistance to state authority risks freedom and even life.

Students told us about classmates detained at demonstrations.  Journalists discussed colleagues arrested after criticizing the regime. Attorneys reported on lawyers detained while representing defendants. 

Nor is there any effective oversight or appeal to limit official abuse.  If you are tortured or suffered from inhumane prison conditions, you only can complain to the public prosecutor, which rarely follows up allegations against government officials.  Accountability obviously is less than perfect in the U.S., but here, at least, there are alternative channels of protest:  private lawsuits, media coverage, public demonstrations. 

Evidence of extreme force is everywhere.  Tanks by prisons, armored personnel carriers in city squares and on city streets, barbed wire and armed sentries around sensitive government installations, and a ubiquitous mix of uniformed and plain clothes security personnel.

It is unsettling enough to be stopped by a policeman in the U.S.  It is far worse in Egypt after hearing stories of dubious arrests followed by months of detention.  Yet when two of us were talking after clearing passport control to leave on my second trip a border agent demanded to look at our passports for no obvious reason.

As I pointed out in the Freeman:  “Despite all of the problems faced by those in the West, even imperfectly free societies offer extraordinary advantages which we should never forget.  Walking the streets of Cairo I thought:  there but for the grace of God go I.  With my U.S. passport I could return to a society which, despite great imperfection, nevertheless generally respects people’s lives, liberty, and dignity.” 

Daniel J. Ikenson

Voters in Massachusetts, Georgia, Illinois, and elsewhere are being treated to a little 2012 redux, as desperate candidates try to paint their opponents with last election’s popular pejorative: “Outsourcer!” You may recall the accusations exchanged between President Obama and Mitt Romney two years ago, as each sought to portray the other as more guilty of perpetuating the “scourge” of outsourcing. At the time, I faulted Romney for running away from what I thought was his responsibility (as the businessman in the race) to explain why companies outsource in the first place, and how doing so benefits the economy and leads to better public policies. Had he done so, his explanation might have sounded something like this

For many people, the term outsourcing evokes factories shuttering in the industrial midwest only to be ressurrected in Mexico or China to produce the exact same output for export back to the United States. While a popular image of outsourcing, that particular rationale – to produce for export back to the United States – accounts for less than 10 percent of the value of U.S. direct investment abroad (as this paper describes in some detail). Over 90 percent of outward FDI is for the purpose of serving foreign goods and services markets and for performing value-added activities in conjunction with transnational production and supply chains. In most industries, it is difficult to succeed in foreign markets without some presence in those markets. And without success in foreign markets (where 95% of the world’s consumer’s reside), it is more difficult to succeed at home.

So, does “outsourcing” really deserve its bad reputation? Does it really hurt the U.S. economy?  Well, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis collects and compiles the kinds of data that can help us begin to answer these questions, including data about inward and outward foreign direct investment, and the activities of U.S. multinational corporations – both U.S. parents companies and their foreign subsidiaries. The scatterplots presented below reflect the relationships between annual changes in various performance metrics (value added, capital expenditures, R&D expenditures, sales revenues, employment, and compensation per employee) experienced by U.S. parent companies and their foreign affiliates. Each point on each plot represents a combination of the annual percent change for the affiliate (horizontal axis) and the parent (vertical axis) in a given year. 

If a foreign hire comes at the expense of a U.S. job, if ramping up production abroad means curtailing output at home, if a $100 million investment in a new production line or research center abroad means that plans for a new line or center in the United States get scrapped, if foreign outsourcing is as bad as its critics suggest, then we should expect to see an inverse relationship (at least not a direct or positive relationship) between the economic activities at U.S. parents and their foreign affiliates. We should expect to see most of the points in the upper-left or lower-right quadrants of the plots below.

The first plot shows annual changes in value added. The prevalance of observations in the upper-right quadrant indicates that in most years, value-added increased at foreign affiliates and their U.S. parents simultaneously, suggesting that U.S. and foreign activities of U.S. multinational are complements, not substitutes. That might be counterintuitive for some, but those more familiar with how multinational corporations operate can probably appreciate that production and sales activity on the foreign affiliates end often requires support from the parent company with respect to the provision of goods, supply chain logistics, finance, accounting, public relations, and various administrative functions. Increased activity abroad necessitates increased activity at home. Granted, the slope of the line running through those points is less than 45 degrees, which suggests slightly less than a one percent increase in value added at U.S. parents for every one percent increase of value added at their foreign affiliates. But this picture clearly refutes the notion of a zero-sum game, as value added increased for one group and decreased for the other in only 4 or 15 years.

The concern that U.S. MNC investment in factories or research centers abroad diverts investment from their U.S. operations should be put to rest by the data in the capital expenditures chart below. The positive relationship between capital expenditures abroad and at home is very strong, moving in the same direction for 12 of 15 years at approximately the same rate (the slope of the line is about 45%).  

Claims that outsourcing drains research and development dollars and activities from the United States get a little bit of support from the data below (6 years showing an inverse relationship and a slope suggesting a ratio of about a 5 percent increase at foreign affiliates for every one percent increase at parents).  However, in 9 of 15 years, R&D expenditures increased at both affiliates and parents, suggesting that research and development spending is also complementary.

In 13 of 15 years, annual changes in sales revenue moved in the same direction – and positively for both affiliates and parents in 12 of those 13 years. These data suggest that sales by affiliates do not come at the expense of parents’ sales.

The idea that outsourcing amounts to “shipping jobs overseas” is not well supported by the employment figures, which indicate that in 9 of 15 years, employment changes moved in the same direction at parents and affiliates.

Finally, the compensation data also fail to support the negative characterizations associated with outsourcing.  In 10 of 15 years, changes in the amount of compensation per worker moved in the same direction and, in fact, never once showed a decrease at U.S. parents.

Certainly, there are more data to consider and more layers of analysis to perform, but the metrics considered here suggest a lack of merit to to the adverse connections politicians, in particular, make between outsourcing and domestic economic conditions.

Chelsea German

With the newspapers full of crises, it can be hard to maintain a proper perspective on the progress humanity has made, and to remember that there are individuals striving every day to make the world a better place. In a recent interview, businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates discussed the improving state of humanity, and the work that he is doing through private charity to help those in need.  He said,

I think the idea that people are worried about problems, like climate change or terrorism or these challenges of the future, that’s okay. But boy, they really lose perspective of what’s happened over the last few hundred years. And how science and innovation have been a central factor of that. And I think that’s too bad, because people are lucky to live now. And they should see that progress is actually taking place faster during their lives than at any time in history.

One of the major initiatives of the Gates Foundation, for example, aims to eliminate polio. The data bear out how much progress has already been made towards that end:

In 1980, about half of all children received the polio vaccine. Today, around 90% of children receive the vaccine, and eradication of the condition is in sight – just as people eradicated smallpox in 1979.

Gates is also among the many caring individuals working to eliminate malaria and malnutrition, areas where humanity has already made great strides. Insecticide-treated mosquito nets, for example, protect more children from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa:

Malnutrition among children is also declining. In populous developing  regions, such as East Asia and the Pacific, malnutrition affected about 20% of children in 1990. More must be done, but today malnutrition affects fewer than 6% of children in those areas.

Even one child afflicted by polio, malaria, or malnutrition is too many, but the dramatic improvements the world has made on these fronts should be celebrated. Like Gates, while working to make the world better we must not lose a proper perspective on the progress humankind has already made.

Nicole Kaeding

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) provides benefits to 11 million individuals, costing $140 billion annually. Its trust fund will become insolvent by 2016, so policymakers have little time to reform the system.

Funding is not the only issue facing the program. A new report from the Washington Post highlights the long list of disability cases waiting to be adjudicated.

Individuals apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) to claim disability benefits. The file is reviewed by an administrator who makes an initial ruling, with 32 percent of applicants qualifying. Individuals who are denied can appeal the ruling. Eleven percent of appeals are approved for benefits. More than 633,000 individuals are waiting on initial claims with 170,000 waiting on appeal.

An individual’s second appeal goes to one of SSA’s 1,445 judges, whom are tasked with more than 990,000 individuals waiting on appeals. The average wait for a hearing is longer than a year.

The backlog for a hearing before an appeals judge is not new. It started during the Gerald Ford administration and SSA has never caught up. The agency tried various tactics to solve the problem, but nothing seemed to work.

Several years ago, the SSA tried a different approach. The SSA pressured judges to decide 500 cases annually, but that led to a different problem.

The Washington Post explained:

The problem was rooted in a flaw in the system. Judges complain that saying “yes” is a lot easier — and faster — than saying “no.” A negative decision often requires a lengthier write-up, which goes through all the different ailments that might have rendered this person disabled. That means 10 pages of text to prepare for a future appeal. A “yes” decision is rarely appealed. So, they say, it takes less writing.

“So, what happens when you’re pressed for time? You end up paying [approving] cases,” said Thomas Snook, a judge who has worked in the Miami office for 17 years and has been active in the judges union.

Snook is not the only judge that felt the pressure. The Washington Post notes “across the system, judges approved more than half of the cases they saw — up to 62 percent, according to Social Security’s figures. Congressional investigators found 92 judges were even more generous: They had been saying yes to 90 percent of their appeals.”

SSA acknowledged the incentives faced by judges and tweaked their requirements. The Washington Post said:

Today, Social Security officials seem to have backed off their push for faster decisions. They’ve now limited all judges to 720 cases a year and imposed new checks to make sure the “yes” decisions are as well thought-out as the “noes.”

Today, judges approve just 44 percent of cases, a marked decline. At the same time — even as the agency has hired dozens more judges — the backlog has reached its highest level in history. It increased by 13,000 people in the first half of this month alone.

SSDI blames the backlog on less funding over the last few years, last year’s government shutdown, and a large increase in applicants due to the weak economy. 

But with a backlog since 1975, there are much larger issues: SSDI is suffering from decades of missteps.

SSDI is ripe for reform and spending cuts. Good intentions from federal policymakers led to bureaucratic headaches and years of waiting. Slashing requirements and reorganizing the program will allow funds to be dedicated to the truly needy.

Alex Nowrasteh

The recent story of a Liberian man in Dallas who had Ebola sparked a political conflagration around travel restrictions for countries where there are Ebola cases. The virus does not appear to have spread from him to anyone that did not come into direct contact with him in the Dallas hospital.

Many are arguing that his arrival in the United States means that all travel from the affected West African countries should be shut immediately. Others are arguing that travel should remain as open as it currently is – which is still heavily restricted. 

What happened to policy responses on the margin

Fortunately, the federal government took a marginal action yesterday. Fliers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will have to enter through one of five ports of entry and undergo an interview as well as a temperature check once they arrive in the United States. These restrictions are far less than the total ban sought by some folks and still more restricted than the current system  These checks do not interrupt the flow of aid to these West African countries either and will affect roughly 150 travelers per day.

Immigration or movement restrictions for legitimate health concerns are proper and already written into law. Travel restrictions to contain viruses different than Ebola have not been successful in the past. Ebola is far less communicable than the flu so the comparison to previous travel bans might not be appropriate.  

Americans have a very low chance of contracting Ebola while in the United States, let alone dying from it. The only person to die from Ebola in the United States contracted it in Liberia. I took a bigger risk of dying from a traffic accident this morning commuting to the office than I will ever face from Ebola.

More Americans are killed every year from their furniture than all Americans who have died from that dreaded hemorrhagic fever.

Those Americans who worry about Ebola focus on the freakishly high death rates for those who contract the virus – 50 percent for most strains of the virus (only 20 percent of Americans who have contracted Ebola have died.) But the death rate is not the most important figure; the chance of contracting the virus in the first place is the most important factor. 

So far, two American nurses who treated the Liberian man contracted Ebola from him. Both nurses are recovering. For the rest of us, that means the chances of contracting Ebola is about zero. No matter the death rate, a zero chance of contracting the disease means we will not die from it.     

Still, a few marginal precautions, like those put in place by the federal government, will impose a very small temporary cost and likely stop any future Ebola patients from coming to the United States on a commercial flight.    

Doug Bandow

America accounts for nearly 40 percent of globe’s military outlays, but Washington hawks believe that the federal government never spends enough on the Pentagon.  The United States should scale back its international responsibilities and cut Pentagon outlays accordingly.

Military expenditures are the price of Washington’s foreign policy.  And the cost is high—about $627 billion budgeted this year, before counting extra expenditures for the latest Mideast war. 

The war lobby minimizes the magnitude of America’s military spending through statistical legerdemain:  real outlays have been falling and account for a lower percentage of GDP.

But the United States leads the world in military spending and is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia.  America and its allies collectively account for two-thirds of the globe’s military expenditures.

While Washington’s inflation-adjusted outlays have recently dropped, they previously rose significantly—almost 165 percent between 1998 and 2011.  It is only natural for expenditures to fall as Washington wound down two wars. 

Moreover, the percentage of GDP is irrelevant.  America’s GDP this year is almost seven times that in 1952, at the height of the Korean War.  Today’s GDP is roughly 3.5 times that in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War and almost twice that in 1989, the peak of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War military build-up.  Washington today spends more in real resources on the military than in any of those years.

Early in the Cold War, Washington had good reason to bear much of the burden of defending the “free world.”  But no longer.  The fact that the world is dangerous does not mean it is particularly dangerous for Americans. 

Terrorism remains the most pressing security threat, but does not pose an existential danger. Washington must spend better, not more, in response. 

The People’s Republic of China is becoming more powerful, but is no replacement for the Soviet Union.  The PRC remains a relatively poor nation beset with economic and political challenges.  It has but one ally, North Korea, while America is friends with most of Beijing’s neighbors.  The United States remains well ahead of the PRC militarily.

Russia has reverted to a pre-1914 Great Power which is most concerned about border security and national respect.  Moscow’s potential military ambitions are limited to its former republics. Europe alone has eight times the GDP and three times the population of Russia.

Beyond these two large powers, there is no there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.  North Korea should be contained by the Republic of Korea, which has roughly 40 times the North’s GDP. No one wants Iran to have nuclear weapons, but there is no evidence that it is suicidal and would strike America. 

Syria’s implosion is of only minor relevance to U.S. security. The Islamic State has little ability to harm Washington other than killing Americans who fall into its hands. 

Challenges in these and other nations may warrant some form of U.S. involvement, but not primarily military action. 

Mitt Romney declared that “our military is tasked with many more missions than those of other nations.”  Actually, no one “tasks” America with such jobs.  Rather, Washington takes on these roles voluntarily—indeed, it shoves aside other nations.

Reducing Washington’s security objectives and armed forces does not mean becoming a pushover.  The United States should maintain the world’s most powerful and innovative military on earth, and doing so won’t be cheap.  But Washington could protect America while spending far less.

As I noted in my new column on Forbes online:  “Washington’s policy of promiscuous foreign intervention would be foolish even if it was not costly.  But it is both.” 

The United States should scale back its international objectives and adjust its force structure accordingly.  Returning to a foreign policy of a republic would be both safer and cheaper.

Walter Olson

It’s important to push back against the tendency of modern anti-discrimination law to trample the rights of private business and property owners to follow the dictates of their own religious scruples or other personal conscience. It’s also important to get the facts right in each of these controversies as they arise, lest we be stampeded into mistaken assumptions and alarmist misreadings. At Overlawyered, I’ve got some thoughts on the Hitching Post wedding chapel case from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which may pose dangers in both of these directions. 

Nicole Kaeding

The office of Senator Tom Coburn released its fifth annual “Wastebook.” The report highlights “100 silly, unnecessary, and low priority projects” funded by federal tax dollars or government debt. The 100 projects in this year’s report cost taxpayers $25 billion and represent the enormous scale of the federal government.

Among the waste in the report:

  • The National Institutes of Health’s grant-making is roundly criticized. NIH provided $533,000 to study the “effects of meditation…from reading Buddhist texts,” $1.5 million to develop a smartphone game to help parents of children with picky-eating habits, $387,000 to provide Swedish massages to rabbits, and $371,000 to study whether moms love dogs or their own children more.
  • The National Science Foundation awarded an $856,000 grant to train three mountain lions to use treadmills to study mountain lions’ use of energy while hunting. This follows NSF’s earlier grant to study shrimps’ ability to walk on treadmills.
  • A small bridge in Morrison, Colorado may be removed and rebuilt for violating the federal government’s “Buy American” provision. The original bridge, built with $52,000 in federal highway dollars, contains $3,300 in American steel that was rolled into sheets in Canada. Reconstruction costs are estimated at $20,000.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development provided a $1.4 million grant to build a luxury hotel in Cary, North Carolina. The hotel features afternoon tea, facials, and an “upscale cocktail bar.” There are 50 hotels within 15 minutes of driving distance.

The report also includes several other boondoggles that I’ve highlighted recently:

  • Customs and Border Protection built 21 homes in Ajo, Arizona for its agents. CBP overpaid for land, added unnecessary amenities, and wasted $4.6 million on these extravagant homes.
  • The Department of Homeland Security’s vehicle fleet is underutilized. Fifty-nine percent of the agency’s vehicles are driven less than 12,000 miles a year, wasting up to $48.6 million.

These projects represent a fraction of the federal government’s almost $4 trillion in annual spending, but illustrate a larger trend. Agencies spend wildly and Congress refuses to provide the necessary oversight.

Entrenched interests encourage policymakers to allow wasteful spending to continue. For instance, the Department of Agriculture tried to close a $2 million sheep research station in Idaho, but “politicians in the region stepped in to keep it open.”  There are many similar examples.

Policymakers applaud themselves for efforts the recent drop in the budget deficit, but Senator Coburn’s “Wastebook” shows that a lot of work is left to complete.

Alex Nowrasteh

Many critics of immigration claim that immigrants will grow the size of government.  As their argument goes, allowing for more lawful immigration to the United States will produce a larger government through immigrant voting behavior or their children’s voting behavior.  However, if another factor like institutional changes can explain the growth of government, we would expect government to grow independently of the size of the immigrant stock.

There are many measures of the size of government, many of which are included in the Economic Freedom of the World: 2014 Annual Report.  As excellent as that report is, the data does not go back far enough to show whether government growth a century ago tracks well with growth in the immigrant population.  Older data is essential because there have been radical changes in immigration policy over the last century and larger changes in the growth of government.  By looking at the more distant past, a clearer picture can be formed over how immigration has impacted growth in government – if at all. My charts below focus on the federal government only.

Below I use two measures of the growth of the federal government from 1901-2010:  Real outlays (2010 dollars) per capita and government outlays as a percent of GDP.  I use figures for every decade as yearly data is more difficult to attain. 

 

 

Source: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

Real government outlays per capita go up no matter what happens to the stock of immigrants.  Two forty-year periods had very different immigration policies: 1930 to 1970 and 1970 to 2010.

From 1930 to 1970, when permanent immigration to the U.S. was heavily restricted, real outlays per capita grew about 17 fold. From 1970 to 2010, when the percent of immigrants increased from its lowest point in American history (4.7 percent to almost 13 percent), outlays per capita grew by two-fold. That is a large increase but nowhere near the growth that occurred during the period when immigration was heavily restricted.

Looking at the 1901-1930 period, a time when immigration was less restricted, real outlays per capita grew by 1.9 fold – almost the same growth rate as the relatively liberalized 1970-2010 period.  Government grew the quickest in the time period when immigration was heavily restricted.  The relatively more open immigration policies before and after the 1930-1970 period coincided with slower growth in the size of real government outlays per capita.

 

Sources: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

For the 1901-2010 data, the correlation coefficient here is  -0.298 – meaning that as either outlays or the stock of immigrants increases, the other decreases. This does not support the thesis that a greater stock of immigrants is correlated with bigger government.

Perhaps the immigrants themselves are not the only culprits responsible for an increase in government.  Perhaps their American born children are also responsible.

 

Sources: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

 

Sources: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

From 1901 to 2010, the stock of immigrants and their children is even more negatively correlated with real outlays per capita.  The correlation coefficient here is -0.748.  The correlation between the stock of immigrants and their children and government outlays is negative – the opposite of what critics of immigration contend.

Perhaps my previous graphs, which measured real outlays per capita, were the wrong way to measure the size of government. Below I measure the growth of government by looking at outlays as a percent of GDP.

 

Sources: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

 

Sources: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

The relationship between immigration and the size of federal outlays is even more negative than the per-capita data.  The correlation coefficient here is -0.624.  As federal outlays as a percentage of GDP increase, the share of the foreign born population falls. Again, this is just a correlation and I am not implying causation.

What about including the size of the immigrant population and their children with outlays as a percent of GDP?  I get the most negative results yet.

 

Sources: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

 

Sources: Table 1.1, http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals & U.S. Census

The relationship between the stock of immigrants plus their children and the size of federal outlays is my most negative finding.  The correlation coefficient here is -0.914.  As federal outlays as a percentage of GDP increase, the share of the population that is foreign born plus their children falls. 

Looking at the 1901-1930 period, a time when immigration was less restricted, government outlays as a percent of GDP grew by 1.3 fold.  During the 1930-1970 period of heavy immigration restrictions, federal outlays as a percent of GDP grew increased by 6.3 fold.  During the 1970-2010 period of less restricted immigration, government outlays as a percent of GDP grew 1.2 fold. Government outlays as a percent of GDP grew most rapidly during the time period when immigration was most restricted.

To be clear, these are merely correlations and I am not arguing that more immigration results in a smaller government. It could be that smaller government attracts more immigrants or there could no causal relationship here. I am merely showing that the persistent claims of immigrants causing an increase in the size of government do not match the facts.   

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

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

It is the current rage in the mainstream media and the government to tie almost everything into human-caused global warming—from a sluggish economy to Ebola,  and everything in between (and then some).

In fact, virtually none of these claims are supported by a consensus of evidentiary science. Here is (yet) another example, debunking the popular notion floods are being worsened by dreaded climate change caused by pernicious economic activity.

Clinically speaking, a “flood” is actually an extreme excursion in streamflow. So, if changes in streamflow are related to long-term changes in climate, and we accept that the majority of those latter changes are caused by said economic activity (we don’t), then our activities should increase streamflow and therefore the frequency of floods (or their opposite, droughts).

Two scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Gregory McCabe and David Wolock, recently examined historical (1951-2009) streamflow records from 516 rivers and streams that they considered to be only minimally impacted by human development. They first sorted the data into regional patterns, and then compared the temporal behavior of these patterns to  common historical climate indices—such as well-known patterns of atmospheric circulation, sea surface temperatures, or even large-scale warming.

It turns out that there weren’t any relationships between streamflow and the larger atmospheric phenomena.  Or at least, so very few that they are hardly worth mentioning.

Here is how McCabe and Wolock describe what they (didn’t) find:

Comparing time series of climate indices…with the time series of mean [stream] flow for the 14 clusters [patterns] indicates weak correlations that are statistically significant for only a few clusters. These results indicate that most of the temporal variability in streamflow in the conterminous U.S. is unpredictable in terms of relations to well-known climate indices. [emphasis added]

In other words, trends and/or variability in larger-scale features of the climate (including rising temperature from global warming) are not very strongly (if at all) related to regional and temporal characteristics of streamflows across the U.S.

And before anyone starts to argue that we have left out the direct (i.e., local) effect of global warming—that warmer air holds more moisture and thus it can rain more frequently and harder—McCabe and Wolock report very few long-term trends that would be indicative of steadily rising moisture levels. Instead, the find the historical records dominated by periods of multidecadal variability. In their own words:

Analyses of the annual mean streamflow time series for the 14 streamflow clusters indicated periods of extended wet and dry periods, but did not indicate any strong monotonic trends. Thus, the mean cluster streamflow time series indicate nearly random variability with some periods of persistence.

The bottom line is that McCabe and Wolock do not identify any behavior in historical U.S. streamflow records that is suggestive of an influence from human-caused global warming.

So next time you hear that there are increasing droughts or floods in the U.S. and that they are, through some convoluted explanation, “consistent with” global warming, remember two things: 1) “consistent with” is not the same as “caused by” and, 2) the consensus science linking global warming to changing streamflow characteristics across the U.S. is lacking.

Reference:

McCabe, G. J., and D. M. Wolock, 2014. Spatial and Temporal Patterns in Conterminous United States Streamflow Characteristics. Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2014GL061980

 

Nicole Kaeding

Compensation for federal civilian employees is more generous than private-sector workers. Federal workers receive better benefits than their non-governmental counterparts in particular, and generous paid leave benefits are one of the federal advantages. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that federal agencies are abusing this benefit.

The Washington Post summarizes the GAO findings regarding the number of workers who are being paid for staying home:

53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013. About 4,000 were idled for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years. This is the first time the government has calculated the scope and cost of administrative leave.

The Office of Personnel Management permits paid leave for many reasons including jury duty and snow days. But those types of absence do not require one to three months of time out of the office. Instead, it appears that agencies are shifting employees to paid leave for months at a time while dealing with performance issues:

Auditors found that supervisors used wide discretion in putting employees on leave, including for alleged violations of government rules and laws, whistleblowing, doubts about trust­worthiness, and disputes with colleagues or bosses. Some employees remain on paid leave while they challenge demotions and other punishments.

This practice varies from the private sector where paid leave is used infrequently. The Washington Post notes that in the private sector “an employee accused of wrongdoing either stays at the office and is reassigned or is suspended without pay,” generally within days to minimize costs.

All told, GAO estimates that federal employees collected $775 million in salary while on leave. Employees continue to receive other benefits as well. Time on leave counts towards pension and pay increase calculations, and employees continue to accrue vacation and sick days.

GAO acknowledges that this cost estimate understates the problem because it only includes three-fifths of the federal civilian workforce. Leave is not tracked for the remaining employees.

Abusive practices are not a new phenomenon. As early as 1958, the comptroller general found excessive use of leave and ruled that it should not be used for more than 24 hours for employees under investigation.

Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Jon Tester of Montana are working on legislation to overhaul this practice. If passed, the legislation “would narrowly define the circumstances in which employees can be kept home” and “pay would be limited to a few days,” to match private-sector practices. Limiting this abusive practice would save millions in unnecessary expense.

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