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Ilya Shapiro

Vietnam vet Robert Rosebrock is 72 years old, but he’s still got enough fight in him to stand up for what he believes in. The Veteran’s Administration of Greater Los Angeles (VAGLA) and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit would prefer his fight to be in vain.

Rosebrock’s fight here is a protest against VAGLA’s use of a parcel of land deeded to the U.S. government for the care of homeless veterans for purposes other than that purpose.  For example, VAGLA leased parts of the land to a private school, an entertainment company, and a soccer club, and occasionally used it for hosting events. Every Sunday for 66 weeks, Rosebrock hung at least one and as many as 30 U.S. flags from a border fence on the VA property that he believed was being misused.

After seeing a celebrity gala event on the property one Sunday afternoon, Rosebrock started hanging flags with the stars down, signifying dire distress to life and property—the distress faced by LA’s homeless veterans. At this point, VAGLA started enforcing its policy against “displaying of placards or posting of materials on bulletin boards or elsewhere on [VA] property.” When Rosebrock continued, believing his First Amendment rights would protect him, he was issued six criminal citations. He then stopped hanging his flag upside down but was later allowed to hang it right-side-up—a clear if unusual example of viewpoint-based speech discrimination that violates the First Amendment.

That part of his case was a slam-dunk; the difficulty came in making the violation matter. Rosebrock turned to the courts asking two things: an order that would stop VAGLA from discriminating against him in the future and one that would allow him to display his flag stars-down for an amount of time equal to how long he had been denied the right to display it. The district court found that because the VAGLA associate director sent an email to the VA police that the “no signs” regulation should be enforced precisely, Rosebrock’s requested remedies were moot—meaning, basically, that because VAGLA said it would play by the rules, the Court wouldn’t order them to. This is known in legal circles as “voluntary cessation”.

Not long after the district court’s dismissal, the VA police disregarded the email and allowed Iraq War veterans to protest in violation of the regulation. Rosebrock raised this fact when he appealed to the Ninth Circuit, but the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ruling without even addressing the continued discriminatory enforcement. To paraphrase, the appellate panel held that although there is a great burden for parties seeking to prove mootness through voluntary cessation, we should trust that the government will do what it says.

Robert Rosebrook said, “no thanks,” and is petitioning the Supreme Court to hear his case. Cato agrees, and has joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and Institute for Justice on a brief supporting the petition. We point out that the federal appeals courts are split on this mootness/voluntary cessation issue, that it’s an issue that arises all the time, and that there’s no reason that government entities should be given a benefit of the doubt while everyone else has to prove “it is absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

The Supreme Court should take this case, Rosebrock v. Hoffman, and tell the lower courts what we know, what Robert Rosebrock knows, and what everyone else in the country should already know by now: it doesn’t always make sense to take the government at its word.

Cato legal associate Julio Colomba contributed to this blogpost.

Walter Olson

We’ve reported earlier in this space on how the Obama administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) keeps getting slapped down by federal judges over what we called its “long-shot lawsuits and activist legal positions.” Now the Fourth Circuit has weighed in on a high-profile employment screening case from Maryland – and it too has given the EEOC a good thwacking, in this case over “pervasive errors and utterly unreliable analysis” in the expert testimony it marshaled to show the employer’s liability. Those are the words of a three-judge panel consisting of Judge Roger Gregory, originally appointed to the court by Bill Clinton before being re-appointed by his successor George W. Bush, joined by Obama appointee Albert Diaz and GWB appointee G. Steven Agee. 

The case arose from the EEOC’s much-publicized initiative of going after employers that use criminal background checks in hiring, which the agency insists often have improper disparate impact on minority applicants and have not been validated as necessary for business reasons. It sued the Freeman Cos., a provider of convention and exposition services, over its screening methods, but Freeman won after district court judge Roger Titus shredded the EEOC’s proffered expert evidence as “laughable,” “unreliable,” and “mind-boggling.” The EEOC appealed to the Fourth Circuit. 

If it was expecting vindication there, it was very wrong. Agreeing with Judge Titus, Judge Gregory cited the “pervasive errors and utterly unreliable analysis” of the commission’s expert report, by psychologist Kevin Murphy. “The sheer number of mistakes and omissions in Murphy’s analysis renders it ‘outside the range where experts might reasonably differ,’” which meant it could not have been an abuse of discretion for Judge Titus to exclude it. 

Strong language, yet Judge Agee chose to write a separate concurrence “to address my concern with the EEOC’s disappointing litigation conduct.” Noting a pattern in multiple cases, Agee faulted the commission’s lawyers for circling the wagons on behalf of its statistical methods despite repeated judicial hints that it needed to strengthen its quality control. “Despite Murphy’s record of slipshod work, faulty analysis, and statistical sleight of hand, the EEOC continues on appeal to defend his testimony.” If the agency doesn’t watch out, exasperated judges might start imposing more sanctions against it. 

Incidentally, as a counterpoint to the EEOC’s bullheadedness, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights a year back did a briefing program on employee screening and criminal background checks that tries to include an actual balance of views. You can read and download it here.

Charles Hughes

Fresh off another victory lap last week, Obamacare supporters awoke last Friday to the news that the government had given nearly one million exchange enrollees incorrect tax forms that could significantly affect their tax returns. 800,000 enrollees in the federal exchange and roughly 100,000 in California were given the wrong forms, called 1095-As, which provide a monthly account of the premium subsidies exchange enrollees receive. The government uses that information to determine that the subsidy amounts are correct (although a pending Supreme Court case raises questions about the legality of any subsidies offered through the federal exchange). Enrollees using the wrong information when filing their taxes would make it impossible for the government to verify that they got the right amount of subsidies.

Government officials will now try to remedy their mistake by sending out new forms to the affected customers. These tax documents contained the wrong price for the ‘benchmark plan’, the second-lowest cost silver plan available that is used to calculate the exchange subsidy amount. A post on the HealthCare.gov blog explains that the erroneous forms included the benchmark plan premiums for 2015 instead of 2014, which led to the wrong subsidy amount being displayed on the forms people use to file their taxes. The errors are not confined to one area, so incorrect forms were sent throughout the country, making it harder for enrollees to know if they are affected. Those given the wrong form will be able to access their corrected one sometime in early March, according to the report. 50,000 people in this group have already filed their taxes using the incorrect tax information. Officials are now in the process of trying to contact this group, and they will likely have to resubmit their tax returns. Enrollees who already filed will not find much help at HealthCare.gov for now, which only reads: “Additional information will be provided shortly.” Overall, nearly one million exchange enrollees could see delays in getting their income tax refunds, or find that their size of the refund has changed due to corrections in the tax form. Many of these people depend on this tax refund, and unanticipated problems could have significant adverse consequences.

Filing taxes is already a cumbersome and aggravating process. Obamacare has made it even more arduous as people have to attest to having health insurance coverage and how much they receive in exchange subsidies. Even worse, it nearly one in five HealthCare.gov customers was sent the wrong forms, and these people will have to delay filing their taxes, or even resubmit them. While this blunder will not cause the law to spiral out of control, it does reveal the potential for ongoing problems with its implementation. Following the news, HealthCare.gov CEO Kevin Counihan told reporters “We’re not doing any victory laps.” Other Obamacare supporters should take this lesson to heart.

Doug Bandow

American foreign policy is a bipartisan failure. The U.S. must intervene everywhere all the time, irrespective of consequences?

No matter how disastrous the outcome, promiscuous interventionists insist that the idea was sound. Any problems obviously result from execution, a matter of doing too little:  too few troops engaged, too few foreigners killed, too few nations bombed, too few societies transformed, too few countries occupied, too few years involved, too few dollars spent.

As new conflicts rage across the Middle East, the interventionist caucus’ dismal record has become increasingly embarrassing. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a cheerleader for war in Libya, recently defended her actions after being chided on Twitter for being a war-monger. She had authored a celebratory Financial Times article entitled “Why Libya skeptics were proved badly wrong.” Alas, Slaughter’s Mediterranean adventure looks increasingly foolish.

Slightly more abashed is Samantha Power, one of the Obama administration’s chief Sirens of War. She recently pleaded with the public not to let constant failure get in the way of future wars:  “I think there is too much of, ‘Oh, look, this is what intervention has wrought’ … one has to be careful about overdrawing lessons.” Just because the policy of constant war had been a constant bust, people shouldn’t be more skeptical about a military “solution” for future international problems.

President Barack Obama also appears to be a bit embarrassed by his behavior. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been as active militarily as his much-maligned predecessor.

Yet in 2013 he admitted that “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself when he added:  “I’ve spent the last four and a half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power.”

The two parties usually attempt to one-up each other when it comes to reckless overseas intervention. Yet Uncle Sam has demonstrated that he possesses the reverse Midas Touch. Whatever he touches turns to mayhem.

In the Balkans the U.S. replaced ethnic cleansing with ethnic cleansing and set a precedent for Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine. In Afghanistan the U.S. rightly defenestrated the Taliban but then spent 13 years unsuccessfully attempting to remake that tribal nation.

Invading Iraq to destroy nonexistent WMDs cost the lives of 4500 Americans and 200,000 Iraqis, wrecked Iraqi society, loosed radical furies now embodied in the Islamic State, and empowered Iran. Bombing Libya prolonged a low-tech civil war killing thousands, released weapons throughout the region, triggered a prolonged power struggle, and offered another home for ISIL killers.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Not only has virtually every bombing, invasion, occupation, and other interference made problems worse. Almost every new intervention is an attempt to redress problems created by previous U.S. actions. And every new military step is likely, indeed, almost guaranteed, to create even bigger new problems.”

Yet virtually never do foreign policy practitioners admit that things hadn’t gone well. Most of official Washington simply takes the Samantha Power position:  “What, me worry?”

There may have been a mistake or two, but one certainly wouldn’t want to “overdraw” a lesson from these multiple and constant failures. No responsible policymaker would want to admit that even one foreign problem was not America’s responsibility.

Washington’s elite might disagree about details, but believes with absolute certainty that Americans should do everything:  Fight every war, remake every society, enter every conflict, pay every debt, defeat every adversary, solve every problem, and ignore every criticism. Unfortunately, over the last two decades this approach has proved to be an abysmal disaster.

There’s an equally simple alternative. Indeed, the president came up with it:  “don’t do stupid” stuff.  Too bad he failed to practice his own professed policy.

Washington should stop doing stupid things. But only the American people can make that happen. They must start electing leaders committed to not doing “stupid” stuff.

Simon Lester

Some folks over at Heritage have a new Issues Brief in which they argue for including an Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism in the U.S.-EU trade deal being negotiated right now.  In a nutshell, ISDS lets foreign investors sue host country governments in an international tribunal when they feel certain of their rights have been infringed.

I’ve been critical of ISDS.  I do see the potential that such international rules have for protecting property rights, but I worry about other aspects of the rules.  One issue is that these rules protect the rights only of foreign investors.  Using Venezuela as an example, there’s an assumption that the courts there can’t help much with protecting rights. To some extent, ISDS is a response to that. So, if Exxon feels its operations there have been badly treated by the Venezuelan government, it can use the ISDS mechanism to have recourse to an international tribunal.  However, if a small Venezuelan dry cleaner is being subject to governmental abuse, it’s just out of luck.  To me, that seems problematic.  Focusing on the wealthy seems like a fundamentally unbalanced way to protect property rights.

But beyond that, these investment obligations are not limited to protecting property rights.  There are much broader provisions that allow foreign investors to sue for, well, lots of things, and perhaps just about anything.  Here’s an example from a Canada-Barbados investment treaty:

… Mr. Peter Allard, Canadian owner of the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary, contends that the Government of Barbados has violated its international obligations by refusing to enforce its environmental laws.

Mr. Allard acquired the land for the Sanctuary in the mid-1990s and subsequently developed it into an eco-tourism facility. In the notice of dispute, Mr. Allard claims to have taken numerous steps to contribute to the sustainability of the Sanctuary only to have such efforts thwarted by the acts and omissions of Barbados.

Mr. Allard asserts that Barbados’ acts and omissions have severely damaged that natural ecosystem relied upon to attract tourists to the Sanctuary. Consequently, Mr. Allard contends that Barbados failed to provide his investment full protection and security and fair and equitable treatment in accordance with the Canada-Barbados BIT.

With respect to Barbados’ omissions to protect the Sanctuary, Mr. Allard argues that Barbados has, among other things, failed to: (i) prevent the repeated discharge of raw sewage into the Sanctuary wetlands, (ii) investigate or prosecute sources of runoff of grease, oil, pesticides, and herbicides from neighboring areas, and (iii) investigate or prosecute poachers that have threatened the wildlife within the Sanctuary.

To sum all that up: A Canadian who invested in Barbados is suing the Barbados government under an investment treaty for failure to protect its environment in accordance with its domestic law.

Will this claim succeed?  It’s not clear.  But what is clear is that the scope of these obligations is extremely broad and vague, enough so that it’s worth law firms’ time and money to explore the boundaries.  This is why I wrote that these agreements are more about litigation than liberalization.

Now, it may be that, in this particular case, the government of Barbados was behaving badly (“discharge of raw sewage” is rarely a good thing). I’m not familiar with the facts of the case, so I can’t say for sure who’s right and who’s wrong here.  But the larger issue is, what exactly is the scope for when foreign investors can sue governments for failing to protect the environment? Among his claims, the investor says he has not been provided with “fair and equitable treatment.” That’s a potentially broad obligation, which can be used in a lot of ways.  It’s not too hard to imagine, say, a claim that a government’s failure to take action against climate change was a violation. If you believe climate change needs to be addressed, you might cite to various international reports on climate change, and argue that the impact of climate change on your business is “unfair,” and the government needs to do something.  (To further illustrate the broadness of these obligations, if, in the alternative, you were skeptical of climate change, you might point to other climate data, and argue that actions that governments have taken against climate change (e.g., cap and trade) have harmed your business in a way that is “unfair.”)

The environment isn’t my area of expertise, so I’ll leave it to others to decide what our environmental problems are and what we should do about them. But it seems to me that an international law obligation that allows foreign investors to sue governments on the basis that they have not protected the environment, or have protected it too much, is kind of a big deal, and something that we should understand the scope of a little better than we do now. (And keep in mind, there is nothing special about the environment here – all domestic policy areas are in play). These issues are being litigated in international courts, and we should have a better sense of what that means before we extend ISDS further through new trade agreements.

Ilya Shapiro

SWAT teams—police units equipped with military-style weaponry and trained to deal with the most dangerous of criminals—were first created police realized that patrolmen equipped with revolvers and batons are generally able to keep the peace, they lack the resources and skills to deal with riots, urban terrorism, and other exotic crime. Since then, SWAT-style paramilitary units have been deployed to rescue hostages, end bank robberies, secure campuses after school shootings, and, in Wisconsin, to raid the houses and offices of people the state believed to be guilty of exercising their rights under the First Amendment.

That’s right: in the last few years, SWAT raids were part of a wide-ranging (politically motivated) investigation into whether certain unknown individuals—“John Does”—were violating campaign finance laws. Some of these John Does objected and challenged the validity of the subpoenas requiring them to turn over their records to the district attorney’s office.

The state trial court agreed and quashed the subpoena, finding that the state had no reason to believe that any violation of state law had occurred, or that the records taken would contain relevant evidence. Unsatisfied, the DA appealed the judge’s order. Rather than continuing this battle through the state courts, these John Does sued the state officials responsible for the investigation in federal court. They claimed that the investigation was a speech-chilling violation of their First Amendment rights and asked for a federal injunction preventing the state from pursuing the investigation.

The state argued that a federal law—the Anti-Injunction Act—prevents federal courts from ordering states to abandon in-progress criminal cases. Nevertheless, the district court issued an order stopping the SWAT-style fishing expedition, relying on a series of Supreme Court cases holding that the AIA doesn’t apply where the prosecution is known by the state to be baseless, is part of a campaign of harassment, or involves the enforcement of a blatantly unconstitutional law. The judge concluded that Wisconsin’s campaign-finance laws, as well as the methods used to enforce them, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s order, however, concluding that since the state campaign-finance laws had not yet been declared unconstitutional—and their constitutionality was not directly before the district court—the AIA exceptions didn’t apply and the injunction was improper. In short, Wisconsin will be allowed to continue its investigation, the constitutionality of which is immune from legal challenge in federal court. In effect, the Seventh Circuit held that that under the AIA, the only time defendants can challenge the constitutionality of a state’s criminal laws is “when no state prosecution [is] pending.”

Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal. We argue that regardless of whether Wisconsin’s election laws are unconstitutional, there was sufficient evidence suggesting that the sole purpose of the investigation was to harass the plaintiffs and discourage them (and others) from advocating a particular legislative agenda. Because the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the AIA allows federal judges to halt state enforcement of undeniably constitutional laws where there is evidence that a prosecution is being conducted for an improper purpose (like silencing political dissent), or in a manner that constitutes harassment, the district court had the power to issue an injunction regardless of whether or not Wisconsin’s campaign-finance laws are constitutional.

The fact that the constitutionality of those laws is in doubt—it happens to be one of the most heavily contested questions currently before the courts—only makes the district court’s decision all the more proper and the Seventh Circuit’s all the more worrying. If allowed to stand, the long-term effect of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling would be to give prosecutors carte blanche to do exactly what Wisconsin’s politically inspired prosecutors did: “investigate” perceived political threats for the very purpose of suppressing political speech. So long as arrests are never made and claims are never brought, the prosecutors are in the clear and no federal court can do anything about it. That can’t be the law.

The Supreme Court will decide this in the next couple of months whether to take the case of O’Keefe v. Chisholm.

Walter Olson

In connection with his new book The Libertarian Mind, my colleague David Boaz wrote a piece last week on how the struggle to abolish slavery was a defining episode for classical liberals and proto-libertarians of the past, indeed arguably their greatest accomplishment. In America, libertarian history and black history cannot be separated. 

We also know that after the end of slavery, the racial subjugation of American blacks did not end, but took new forms. As a new generation of historians has helped the nation remember, the “Black Codes” and Jim Crow laws that spread across the South after Reconstruction were part of an interlocking array of practices that at its worst succeeded in recreating “slavery by another name.” Some of those laws were explicitly racial–and “segregation” is wholly inadequate as a description of the racial subordination they enforced–but others worked through theoretically race-neutral legal institutions, including convict-leasing combined with steep penalties for minor or pretended offenses, debt peonage for tenant farmers, and laws prohibiting “vagrancy” (i.e., unemployment) or walking away from a labor contract, among other offenses.  

The other main branch of legalized racial oppression after the Civil War was, if anything, even more difficult yet necessary to confront: sanctioned violence outside the machinery of the state, symbolized by the practice of lynching. Last week the Equal Justice Initiative released a report (summary here) that was written up in the New York Times and has drawn attention from commentators including conservative Rod Dreher.

The details–be warned that they are gruesome in the extreme–include burnings alive and public tortures and mutilations carried out before crowds of hundreds, even thousands, of persons. “The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”

Contrary to the notion of mob violence as something arising from a moment of fury, they were often planned well in advance and even announced in newspapers beforehand. Contrary to the image of hooded and masked anonymous assailants, the participants often posed for photographs that were widely circulated and yet resulted in no legal consequences. And contrary to the portrayal of lynching as an extrajudicial means of ending the lives of lawbreakers who would have been punished in due course anyway, the report makes clear that a large number of lynchings were carried out over “minor social transgressions”–as punishment for attempts to speak out or organize against perceived injustice, and in general to instill a sense of terror and subordination in black populations. (There were even lynchings to punish blacks whose successful businesses were seen as “stealing” white merchants’ business.)

True, the report can be faulted on various points, as when it summarizes the post-Civil War experience by saying that “the nation did nothing to address the narrative of racial difference.” In fact, the Radical Republicans pursued a great battle for more thorough legal equality that resulted in some lasting achievements, notably the Reconstruction Amendments. But the wider message is real: for those who advocate the rule of law, lynching is among the darkest episodes in American history. 

And in those dark hours, classical liberals and early libertarians were on the right side. Few were more active than one of my youthful heroes, H.L. Mencken, whose crusade in the Baltimore Sun against lynching on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is well recounted by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers in this wonderful piece. Many of Mencken’s contemporaries equivocated:

When a second lynching occurred in Princess Anne, Maryland in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s refusal to speak out on the atrocity was a matter of discussion throughout the country. Determined that this outrage not be dismissed, Mencken joined forces with Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP to promote the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill that would make lynching a capital offense. Mencken’s impassioned testimony in support of the bill galvanized senators on the committee. Predictably, Roosevelt refused to challenge the Southern leadership of his party, and the bill died.

On a happier note, National Public Radio and others have drawn attention to this long, powerful speech by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of Mississippi. He delivered it in sentencing three defendants convicted in the sort of racial-murder episode for which Mississippi was once internationally notorious, but which has, blessedly, become exceedingly uncommon anywhere in the United States. “Today we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past … we move farther away from the abyss.” Judge Reeves’ speech is both a triumph of the rule of law over barbarism and, in what I think is not coincidence, a triumph of reason over emotion. You can read it here.

Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger

A draft set of new dietary guidelines released yesterday by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) was backed by a 571-page scientific report from the 2015 Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee (DGAC) that was assembled by the Obama administration.

The Washington Post reports that, for the first time ever, the Dietary Guidelines took into consideration the environmental impacts of food production in recommending that Americans decrease their consumption of red meat and increase their intake of plant-based food.

This is from the DGAC’s Executive Summary (emphasis added):

The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet. This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower environmental impacts and provide options that can be adopted by the U.S. population. Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns. Of note is that no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.

Among the environmental considerations is greenhouse gas emissions, which are significant for one reason only: climate change (despite the DGAC report explicitly stating it did not take into account climate change).

This is another example of the breadth of Obama’s Climate Action Plan—although one not announced as such … yet.

In anticipation, I wanted to see just what kind of a climate change impact these dietary guidelines could potentially avert.

My calculations are admittedly rough, but you’ll see once you get to the end, that it hardly makes much of difference even if I am off my an order of magnitude.

I’ll work through the extreme case that all Americans switch to becoming vegetarians (not a current recommendation of the DGAC).

According to a 2013 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), globally, in 2005, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production produced 7,100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (mmtCO2-eq). Of that amount, 45% came from feed production, 39% from enteric fermentation, 10% from manure handling, and the remainder from bringing the product to market.

Of the global total, North American livestock production was responsible for just under 10%, or about 650 mmtCO2-eq.

Another study out last year compared the carbon footprint for different types of diets. It found that diets high in meat consumption had about twice the carbon footprint of vegetarian diets.

Combining the results of those studies (and assuming Canadian production amounts of about 10% of the North American total), I find that if all Americans become vegetarians, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 300 mmtCO2 per year.

So now, all that is left is to determine the climatic impact of 300 mmtCO2 (a calculation that the Obama administration strongly advises against). In previous work, I detailed a quick and dirty way to do this (see here for details). The result is that it takes about 1,767,250 mmtCO2 to raise the average global surface temperature by 1°C. (Note: this is a useful number to have handy for a fast check of announced plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions for the sake of climate change. I recommend you write it down on a scrap of paper and tape it to your monitor–I did!).

With that number in hand, all we need to do is divide:

Three hundred mmtCO2 (saved by everyone in the United States converting to vegetarianism) divided by 1,767,250 mmtCO2/°C equals 0.0002°C.  This is the amount of global warming avoided each year if all Americans become vegetarians. Two ten-thousandths of a degree.

If we were to stick to this vegetarian diet between now and the end of the 21st century, we’d collectively help to keep global temperatures two-hundredths of a degree below where they’d otherwise be.

Seems like even if I were worried about future climate change and wanted to “do something” about it, ridding my table of steak wouldn’t be high on the list.

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.”

When it comes right down to it, the biggest potential threat from a warming climate is a large and rapid sea level rise. Everything else that a changing climate may bring we’ve seen before (or at least the likes of it), recovered from, and are better off for it (i.e., gained experience, learned lessons, developed new technologies, etc.). In fact, the more often extreme weather occurs, the more adaptive is our response (see for example, decreasing mortality in heat waves). So in that sense, climate change may hasten our adaptive response and reduce our overall vulnerability to it.

A large and rapid sea level rise is a bit of a different story—although perhaps not entirely so.

While we do have a large amount of infrastructure (e.g., big cities) in low-lying coastal regions, it is completely wrong to show them underwater in the future—a typical device used by climate activists. What will happen is that we will act to protect the most valued portions of that infrastructure, as shown in a recent report from leading experts (including from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) on sea level rise and response.

But, while targeted action will save our big cities, there is still a lot of real estate that will be lost if sea level rises a large amount in a short amount of time (say, by more than a meter [a little more than 3 feet] by the end of the 21st century).

We therefore keep a vigilant eye on sea level rise research. And what we’ve concluded is that sea level rise by the year 2100 is very likely to be quite modest, say about 15 inches—an amount that should allay concerns of a catastrophe. We’ve detailed literature in support of our conclusions here, there, and elsewhere.

This week, a new paper has come to our attention that further supports our synthesis.

In the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, researchers Nicolás Young and Jason Briner summarized the extant scientific literature on the size of the ice sheet covering Greenland during warm periods in the recent geologic past, with a special emphasis on the middle Holocene—a multi-millennial period centered some 3,000–4,000 years ago during which the temperatures across Greenland were about 1°–3°C higher than the 20th century average. They note this is similar to conditions projected to occur there by about the year 2100.

What Young and Briner found was that the size of the Greenland ice sheet—especially the best observed portions covering the west and southwestern parts of Greenland—during the mid-Holocene was smaller than it is today—but not by a whole lot. They wrote:

[W]e suggest that despite some degree of inland retreat, the West and Southwest [Greenland ice sheet] margin remained relatively stable and close to its current position through the Holocene thermal maximum.

The implication is that despite a period of warmer-than-present temperatures in Greenland lasting some 2,000 years, the ice sheet did not shrink to such an extent as to result in a whole lot of sea level rise. This is good news as to what to expect from future warming—the Greenland ice sheet seems pretty stable in the face of rising temperatures.

This is consistent with the remarkable findings of Dorthe Dahl-Jensen’s research team concerning the warmest era in the last 1.5 million years or so—the first 6,000 years of the last interglacial period, known as the Eemian.  It began 128,000 years ago. 

The ratio of two different isotopes of oxygen (18O/16O) in air trapped in ice provides an accurate measure of local temperature, and because snow compacts every year, it’s fairly straightforward to count backward, year-by-year, as one drills down through the Greenland icecap. Up until Dahl-Jensen’s report, no one had gotten completely through the Eemian.  And, up until then, it was thought that temperatures in those 6,000 years were some 2°–4°C warmer than in the current era. (Greenland’s temperatures were pretty flat during the 20th century.) Dahl-Jensen’s work shows that Greenland was an astounding 8° +/– 4° warmer! Over that 6,000 years, Greenland lost approximately a quarter of its ice, contributing to 2 meters of sea-level rise.

Young and Briner, along with Dahl-Jensen, provide strong evidence that Greenland’s ice will be disturbed very little by what humans are likely to do to the atmosphere. Let’s use the top-end of Young and Briner’s warming by 2100 (3°C) and jack it up to 5° for the next hundred years. Then, let’s make the plausible assumption that we haven’t a clue about society’s energy structure 200 years from now, so we’ll stop things there and let the warming damp back to 20th century levels in 500 years. The integrated heat applied to Greenland (we’ll provide gory details on request) works out to 1,500 degree-years.  What Young and Briner found was that the Holocene maximum provided, on average, 4,000 degree-years (2,000 years multiplied by 2°), over twice what humans can contribute. And Dahl-Jensen showed it took a whopping 36,000 degree-years to melt only a quarter of the ice there, 24 times what we can do. In other words, we can’t change the climate enough to ever cause a massive sea level rise from melting Greenland’s ice.

Young and Briner also find that the models tend to overdo the mid-Holocene ice sheet retreat. Examining a leading ice sheet model (described by Lecavalier and colleagues), Young and Briner conclude:

The modeled minimum ice sheet in Lecavalier et al. (2014) at 4 [thousand years ago] equates to a 0.16 [meter] sea-level contribution, but considering minimal inland retreat of the ice margin based on geological reconstructions, we suggest that this value may be a maximum estimate of the [Greenland ice sheet] contribution to sea level in the middle Holocene.

Lecavalier’s estimate of 0.16 meters equates to 6.3 inches—which Young and Briner think should represent the worst-case result of 2,000 years of projected end-of-the-century temperatures across Greenland. This also comports well with the estimates from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which, in its Fifth Assessment Report, projected the sea level rise from Greenland as being between 0.07 and 0.21 meters (2.8 to 8.3 inches) with a median value of 0.12 meters (4.7 inches) even under its highest greenhouse gas emission scenario.

Like we said, our view that future sea level rise will be modest is now firmly established by the scientific literature, contrary to nonscientific alarmist claims.

References:

Dahl-Jensen, D., et al., 2013.  Eemian interglacial reconstructed from a Greenland folded ice core.  Nature, 493, 489-494.

Lecavalier, B.S., et al., 2014. A model of Greenland ice sheet deglaciation constrained by observations of relative sea level and ice extent. Quaternary Science Reviews, 102, 54-84. DOI: 10.1016/jquascirev.2014.07.018.

Young, N.E., and J.P. Briner, 2015. Holocene evolution of the western Greenland Ice Sheet: Assessing geophysical ice-sheet models with geological reconstructions of ice-margin change. Quaternary Science Reviews, 114, 1-17, DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2015.01.018

Ted Galen Carpenter

Proving that hawks never seem to learn, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the other usual suspects are advocating more substantial U.S. involvement in the civil wars convulsing such places as Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. Before we head down that road again, we ought to insist that proponents of U.S. military crusades defend the results of their previous ventures. That exercise would cause all except the most reckless interventionists to hesitate.

It’s not merely the catastrophic outcomes of the Afghan and Iraq wars, which were pursued at enormous cost in both blood and treasure. The magnitude of those debacles is recognized by virtually everyone who is not an alumnus of George W. Bush’s administration. But even the less notorious interventions of the past two decades have produced results that should humble would-be nation builders. The current situations in Kosovo and Libya are case studies in the folly of U.S. meddling.

The United States led its NATO allies in a 78-day air war against Serbia to force that country to relinquish its disgruntled, predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo. In early 2008, the Western powers bypassed the United Nations Security Council and facilitated Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. But today’s Kosovo is far from being a success story. In the past few months, there has been a surge of refugees leaving the country, fleeing a dysfunctional economy and mounting social tensions. Despite a massive inflow of foreign aid since the 1999 war, a third of the working-age population are unemployed, and an estimated 40 percent of the people live in dire poverty. Tens of thousands of Kosovars are now seeking to migrate to the European Union, ironically by traveling through arch-nemesis Serbia to reach European Union member Hungary.

Economic misery is hardly the only problem in the independent Kosovo that the United States and its allies helped create. Persecution of the lingering Serb minority and the desecration of Christian churches, monasteries, and other sites is a serious problem. Kosovo has also become a major center for organized crime, including drug and human trafficking.

Yet Kosovo is an advertisement for successful U.S.-led military crusades compared to the outcome in Libya. The Obama administration boasted of its “kinetic military action” (primarily cruise missile strikes) as part of the NATO mission to help insurgents oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Today, Libya is a chaotic mess. Once a major global oil producer, the country’s pervasive disorder has so thoroughly disrupted production that Libya faces financial ruin. Not only is Libya teetering on the brink of full-scale civil war, much of the country has become the plaything of rival militias, including an affiliate of ISIS. Journalist Glenn Greenwald concludes correctly that the Libyan intervention, which was supposed to show the effectiveness of international military action for humanitarian goals, has demonstrated the opposite.

Such sobering experiences confirm that U.S.-led interventions can often make bad situations even worse. Serbia’s control of Kosovo was hardly an example of enlightened governance, and Gaddafi was a corrupt thug who looted Libya. But as bad as the status quo was in both of those arenas, Western military meddling created far worse situations. That is the lesson that should be kept firmly in mind the next time armchair warhawks in Congress or the news media prod Washington to lead yet another ill-conceived crusade.

David Boaz

Simon & Schuster has just published The Libertarian Reader: Classic & Contemporary Writings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman, which I edited. Buy it now from any good bookseller!

Just look at some of the great thinkers included in The Libertarian Reader:

  • Lao-Tzu
  • Richard Overton
  • John Locke
  • Adam Smith
  • David Hume
  • Thomas Paine
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Frederic Bastiat
  • John Stuart Mill
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Angelina Grimke
  • Herbert Spencer
  • Ludwig von Mises
  • F. A. Hayek
  • Ayn Rand
  • Murray Rothbard
  • Milton Friedman
  • Robert Nozick
  • Richard Epstein
  • Mario Vargas Llosa

When the first edition was published in 1997, Laissez Faire Books called it “The most magnificent collection of libertarian writings ever published.” In this edition, Tom G. Palmer’s magisterial guide to “The Literature of Liberty” has been updated to include important libertarian books published in the 21st century. That essay alone is worth the price of the book!

Buy it together with The Libertarian Mind at an incredible discount.

Julian Sanchez

A blockbuster story at The Intercept Thursday revealed that a joint team of hackers from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), broke into the systems of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cell phone SIM cards in order to steal the encryption keys that secure wireless communications for hundreds of mobile carriers—including companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint.  To effect the heist, the agencies targeted employees of the Dutch company Gemalto, scouring e-mails and Facebook messages for information that would enable them to compromise the SIM manufacturer’s networks in order to make surreptitious copies of the keys before they were transmitted to the carriers. Many aspects of this ought to be extremely disturbing.

First, this is a concrete reminder that, as former NSA director Michael Hayden recently acknowledged, intelligence agencies don’t spy on “bad people”; they spy on “interesting people.”  In this case, they spied extensively on law-abiding technicians employed by a law-abiding foreign corporation, then hacked that corporation in apparent  violation of Dutch law. We know this was hardly a unique case—one NSA hacker boasted in Snowden documents diclosed nearly a year ago about “hunting sysadmins”—but it seems particularly poetic coming on the heels of the recent Sony hack, properly condemned by the U.S. government.  Dutch legislators quoted in the story are outraged, as well they should be.  Peaceful private citizens and companies in allied nations, engaged in no wrongdoing, should not have to worry that the United States is trying to break into their computers.

Second, indiscriminate theft of mobile encryption keys bypasses one of the few checks on government surveillance by enabling wiretaps without the assistance of mobile carriers. On the typical model for wiretaps, a government presents the carrier with some form of legal process specifying which accounts or lines are targeted for surveillance, and the company then provides those communications to the government.  As the European telecom Vodaphone disclosed last summer, however, some governments insist on being granted “direct access” to the stream of communications so that they can conduct their wiretaps without going through the carrier.  The latter architecture, of course, is far more susceptible to abuse, because it removes the only truly independent, nongovernmental layer of review from the collection process. A spy agency that wished to abuse its power under the former model—by conducting wiretaps without legal authority or inventing pretexts to target political opponents—would at least have to worry that lawyers or technicians at the telecommunications provider might detect something amiss. But any entity armed with mobile encryption keys effectively enjoys direct access: they can vacuum up cellular signals out of the air and listen to any or all of the calls they intercept, subject only to internal checks or safeguards. 

There are, to be sure, times when going to the target’s carrier with legal process is not a viable option—because the company is outside the jurisdiction of the United States or our allies. Stealing phone keys in bulk is certainly a much easier solution to that problem than crafting interception strategies tailored to either the specific target or specific uncooperative foreign carriers. Unfortunately, the most convenient solution in this case is also a solution that gives the United States (or at least its intelligence community) a vested interest in the systematic insecurity of global communications infrastructure. We hear a great deal lately about the value of information sharing in cybersecurity: Well, here’s a case where NSA had information that the technology American citizens and companies rely on to protect their communications was not only vulnerable, but had in fact been compromised. Their mission is supposed to be to help us secure our communications networks—but having chosen the easy solution to the problem of conducting cellular wiretaps, their institutional incentives are to do just the opposite.

Finally, this is one more demonstration that proposals to require telecommunications providers and device manufacturers to build law enforcement backdoors in their products are a terrible, terrible idea. As security experts have rightly insisted all along, requiring companies to keep a repository of keys to unlock those backdoors makes the key repository itself a prime target for the most sophisticated attackers—like NSA and GCHQ. It would be both arrogant and foolhardy in the extreme to suppose that only “good” attackers will be successful in these efforts. 

Jason Bedrick

The Wall Street Journal declared 2011 “The Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted new school choice laws or expanded existing ones. By that measure, 2015 could be “The Year of Educational Choice” as at least nine state legislatures consider new or expanded education savings accounts (ESAs) in addition to at least 11 states considering new or expanded scholarship tax credits.

ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Currently, two states have ESA laws: Arizona and Florida. Both states redirect 90% of the funds that they would have spent on a student at her assigned district school into her education savings account. The major difference between the two laws is that Arizona’s ESA is managed by the Arizona Department of Education while Florida’s is privately managed by Step Up For Students, a nonprofit scholarship organization that also issues scholarships through the Sunshine State’s tax credit law. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and I explained in the most recent edition of National Affairs, there are several reasons to believe that Florida’s model holds advantages over Arizona’s:

First, the non-profit scholarship organizations are less likely to be captured by opponents than is a government agency. The non-profits are dedicated to the scholarships, and the idea of school choice is built into their mission. Second, awarding scholarships is the primary mission of a scholarship organization but only an ancillary function of a state education agency — which means that not only will they be more dedicated to the concept but they can generate and retain best practices more easily. Third, scholarship organizations have the ability and incentives to be more flexible in their operation than government agencies, and therefore more responsive to the needs of families. The Arizona education department did not offer workshops for parents outside of regular business hours because employees were not paid for those hours. Non-profits can more easily implement policies like flextime.

While both Arizona and Florida redirect public funds into the ESAs, a state could create an ESA that is funded through tax credits, which would minimize the threat of overregulation and avoid coercing anyone into supporting the teaching of ideas that they dislike. New Hampshire’s scholarship tax credit law already has an ESA-style provision that allows homeschoolers to use scholarship funds for a wide variety of educational expenses. 

Live Free and Learn: Scholarship Tax Credits in New Hampshire

Several state legislatures are moving fast to enact ESA laws this year. Both the Mississippi Senate and Virginia Assembly passed ESA bills last week. This week, the Virginia Senate’s Education Committee and Oklahoma Senate education subcommittee both approved ESA bills and a Florida Senate panel approved an expansion of their state’s ESA law. Arizona is also considering expanding eligibility for its ESA law. Other states considering a new ESA law include Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, and Montana, and Politico reported that Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas are likely to take up ESA bills as well. States considering new or expanded scholarship tax credit laws include Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, and Texas. In addition, two state senate committees in Colorado have approved a personal-use education tax credit.

There’s no guarantee that any of these bills will become law, but the number of state legislatures exploring educational choice is encouraging.

Steve H. Hanke

Led by Alexis Tsipras, head of Greece’s newly-elected, left-wing coalition, some other leading political lights in Europe – Messrs. Hollande and Valls in France and Renzi in Italy – are raising a big stink about fiscal austerity. Yet they always fail to define austerity. Never mind. They don’t like it. The pols have plenty of company, too. Yes, they can trot out a host of economists – from Nobelist Paul Krugman on down – to carry their water.

But public expenditures in Greece, Italy and France are not only high, but growing as a proportion of the economy. One can only wonder where the austerity is. As the first chart shows, only 5 of 28 EU countries now spend a smaller proportion of national income on government than they did before the current crisis. For example, Greece spent 47.5% of national output on government in 2007 and 58.5% in 2013, an increase of 11 percentage points. 

Government expenditures cut to the bone? You must be kidding. Even in the United States, where most agree that there is plenty of government largesse, the government (federal, plus state and local) still accounts for “only” 38.1% of GDP.

As Europe sinks under the weight of the State, fiscal austerity is nowhere to be found. The only form of austerity in the Eurozone is monetary austerity. Indeed, Eurozone credit to the private sector has fallen like a stone (see the second chart).

This is a consequence of regulators continuing to force banks to deleverage. As a result, credit austerity will continue and so will Europe’s travails. Money rules.

Matthew Feeney

Recently released dash camera footage of an arrest in St. Louis, Missouri offers an example of the disturbing flippancy with which cameras can be turned off during police interactions with the public.

According to a police report, on the evening of April 10, 2014, officers Nathaniel Burkemper and Michael Binz stopped a silver Ford Taurus after it made an illegal U-turn and “abruptly parked.” Only minutes earlier, 911 operators had received calls reporting shots fired. One of the calls mentioned a silver car with big rims.

Footage from the dash camera on Burkemper and Binz’s cruiser shows that shortly after the Ford Taurus pulls over, Binz moves to the passenger side of the vehicle, where he searches and handcuffs the passenger. Burkemper speaks to the driver, Cortez Bufford. Burkemper filed a report stating that he smelled marijuana and that both Bufford and his passenger did raise their hands when asked. However, Bufford reportedly “became agitated.” From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Bufford “became agitated,” Burkemper wrote, refusing to give his name and reaching for a pants pocket before the officer warned him to keep his hands in view. Bufford refused orders to get out. Burkemper called for backup when Bufford became “increasingly hostile.”

The report says Binz told Burkemper he had found two bullets in the passenger’s pocket. Burkemper then ordered Bufford out again, saying he was under arrest. Bufford unlocked his door, but refused to exit.

The dash camera footage shows officers pulling Bufford from the car. Then, at least seven officers are involved in kicking, tasing, and subduing Bufford while he is on the street. According to Burkemper’s report, once Bufford was on the street he struggled and reached for his pocket. The  Post-Dispatch reports that Binz “recovered a Kel-Tec 9mm semi-automatic pistol with four rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber.”

Bufford’s attorneys filed a lawsuit alleging excessive force on behalf of their client last month.

What is most notable about the dash camera footage of the encounter is how it ends. The footage captures audio of officer Kelli Swinton, one of the St. Louis police department’s 2012 officers of the year, who walks towards Burkemper’s vehicle and says the following to her colleagues after Bufford stops struggling:

Hold up. Hold up, y’all. Hold up. Hold up, everybody, hold up. We’re red right now, so if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait.

The camera is turned off seconds later.

The charges of unlawful use of a weapon and resisting arrest against Bufford were dropped in August, and according to a lawyer representing the police department the officer responsible for turning off the dash camera (in violation of department “special orders”) was referred to an internal affairs department which recommended disciplinary action. One of Bufford’s attorneys has said that he doesn’t think that officers at a scene should be able to stop a camera from filming. However, as I have written before, there are instances where police officers have good reasons to leave cameras off. But officers that turn off dash cameras or body cameras during an encounter with the public such as Bufford’s arrest should face severe disciplinary action.

As cameras becoming an increasingly more common feature of law enforcement (on vehicles as well as uniforms) the public will understandably and reasonably come to expect that police interactions with the public be filmed and that the footage in many cases be subject to public record requests. Given how important cameras are in capturing police encounters there must be clear rules relating to when a camera can be turned off. Turning off a camera during an arrest or a struggle should not be tolerated.

For more information on police misconduct visit Cato’s website dedicated to that very issue. 

Alan Reynolds

In the State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama said, “those at the top have never done better… Inequality has deepened.”  The following day, Fox News anchor Brett Baier said, “According to the work of Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the post-recession years of 2009-2012, top earners snagged a greater share of total income growth than during the boom years of 2002-2007. In other words, income inequality has become more pronounced since the Bush administration, not less.” 

Senator Bernie Sanders agrees that “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”  And Senator Ted Cruz likewise confirmed that, “The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928.” 

When any statistic is so politically useful and wildly popular among left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans you can be pretty sure it’s baloney.  Bipartisan baloney.

In November 2013, I wrote that, “Because reported capital gains and bonuses were…shifted forward from 2013 to 2012 [to avoid higher tax rates], we can expect a sizable drop in the top 1 percent’s reported income when the 2013 estimates come out a year from now. The befuddled media will doubtless figure out some way to depict that drop as an increase.” As predicted, the New York Times took one look at a 14.9% drop in top 1% incomes and concluded that “The Gains from the Recovery are Still Limited to the Top One Percent” That involved slicing the same old baloney very badly.

Three weeks later, on until February 17, The New York Times finally made a modest gesture of repentance.  In “Inequality Has Actually Not Risen Since the Financial Crisis,” David Leonhardt professed amazement at his own title.  “How could that be?”  This supposedly shocking revelation came from Stephen Rose, one of several liberal/progressive economists who do not let a policy agenda cloud their judgment about data.  

“Fascinatingly,” writes Leonhardt, “Mr. Rose’s case is not based on a new or previously undiscovered data set. It’s based on the same statistics most commentators have been using to discuss inequality.” No kidding. On January 6, Gary Burtless of Brookings Institution wrote, “Since 2000 pre-tax and after-tax incomes have improved among Americans in the bottom 90% of the income distribution. Among Americans in the top 1% of the distribution, real incomes sank.” I had earlier displayed the same Piketty and Saez data shown in the nearby graph to make the same point.

All anyone ever had to do was look at the data shown in the graph, which shows average real income of the top 1% from Table A-6 in Piketty and Saez. Top income spiked in 2012 to avoid the Obama tax increases, as I predicted, then fell 14.9% in 2013.  I have averaged 2012 and 2013 as Saez requests, to gloss over any embarrassment. Even so, the 2012-2013 incomes of the top 1% were clearly much lower than in 2005-2007, and had not even climbed back to the previous peak of 1999-2000. 

Leonhardt just can’t bring himself to admit that top incomes have not only “not increased” but declined. Top 1% income in 2012-13 was down 20.6% since 2007 and down 11.2% since 2000.   Anyone who claims to see a continuous upward trend in top 1% incomes isn’t looking at the right data.  

Emma Ashford

Russian aggression in Eastern Europe during the last year has brought to the fore many of the issues surrounding the transatlantic security relationship, in particular, the role of NATO. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been floundering, seeking new missions and goals, with recent involvement in military campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya emblematic of this search. In some ways, Russia’s recent actions have brought back a sense of purpose to the alliance.

Unfortunately, NATO still has many problems. Common vision among members is lacking, a problem exacerbated by the expansion of NATO from sixteen members at the end of the Cold War to twenty-eight members today. Many of these new member states in Central and Eastern Europe feel – understandably – more threatened by Russian aggression than West European or North American member states, creating tension within the organization.

NATO itself has increasingly become a political entity. Indeed, the growth of NATO membership among East European states during the last decade has been a key impediment to improved relations with Russia. The suggestion that Georgia and Ukraine might become EU or NATO members has also been widely discussed as one of the roots of the current conflict.

NATO funding is a big problem. Though most member states hail NATO’s importance and demand its services, few are willing to pay the costs, which fall disproportionately on the United States. In 2012-2013, only three other member states met NATO’s stated military spending target of 2% of GDP: the United Kingdom, Estonia and Greece. Many countries which rely heavily on NATO nonetheless contribute little to the alliance or their own defense, relying instead on the United States.

 

These problems are not new, but current events highlight the need for a more coherent and participatory transatlantic security framework. Is NATO the right tool for the task? Should the alliance be reformed? How should NATO interact with the European Union? And what role should the United States play in European security?

These questions will be discussed at an upcoming Cato policy forum, “The Future of NATO and the Transatlantic Security Framework.” The event features James Goldgeier, Dean of American University’s School of International Service, and author of the 2010 Council on Foreign Relations report The Future of NATO; Cato’s Doug Bandow, a noted critic of NATO, whose recent writings on NATO can be found here and here; and François Rivasseau, Deputy Head of Delegation for the European Union, who has spent his diplomatic career working on European security issues.

The event begins at noon on March 4, 2015. You can learn more, and register for the event here

David Boaz

I’ve been busy talking up the libertarian moment, libertarian ideas, and The Libertarian Mind (buy it now, available everywhere) in person and in print lately. Here are a few recent examples.

My article on America’s libertarian roots in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

Indeed, the principles of the Declaration are so closely associated with libertarianism that the Chinese edition of my previous book, Libertarianism: A Primer, features a cover photograph of the famous room in Independence Hall, complete with Windsor chairs and green tablecloths.

Libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom. It has, in different form throughout history, inspired people who fought for freedom, dignity, and individual rights - the early advocates of religious tolerance, the opponents of absolute monarchy, the American revolutionaries, the abolitionists, antiwar advocates and anti-imperialists, opponents of National Socialism and communism.

The next day, Nick Gillespie interviewed me at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Video here.

My article “Black History Is American History” at HuffingtonPost:

Black history is American history, a story of oppression and liberation rooted in the libertarian idea of individual rights. Much of the progress we have made in the United States has involved extending the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – to more and more people. The emphasis on the individual mind in the Enlightenment, the individualist nature of market capitalism and the demand for individual rights that inspired the American Revolution naturally led people to think more carefully about the nature of the individual and gradually to recognize that the dignity of individual rights should be extended to all.

And my interview with African American Conservatives.

My print interview yesterday with Salon:

Where am I the most optimistic? I am optimistic that around the world more and more people are moving into a world of property rights, markets, globalization, human rights, women’s rights, access to information and opportunity. Now that’s obviously not true everywhere; there are, at any given moment, unfortunate setbacks in Venezuela and Russia and some of Eastern Europe. But I do think the largest historical trend of our time is the move in a broadly libertarian direction, and therefore toward a higher standard of living for billions of people around the world.

Are you thinking of the growing middle class in China and India when you say this?

Absolutely. The change in economic conditions in China and India — right there you got one-third of the world. But also there have been some advances in the direction of human rights in Africa as well. So in a great deal of the world, you’ve seen a huge reduction in poverty and absolute poverty, and a rising middle class in many of these countries.

Interviews with Jim Bohannon, Garland Robinette, Bill Frezza, and others can be found here.

Buy the book!

 

George Selgin

Yesterday morning I had a query from someone asking me to share my thoughts about the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, better known as the bill to “Audit the Fed.” Having given him a brief answer, I thought I might say a little more here.

Although Rand Paul promises that his measure will shed much-needed light on the Fed’s undertakings (the Senate version of his measure was even called “The Federal Reserve Sunshine Act”), the truth is that it’s unlikely to reveal anything of importance beyond what existing Fed audits–including those provided by Title XI of the Dodd-Frank Act (which provides for a GAO audit of the Fed’s crisis-related emergency lending)–can themselves reveal.

True, unlike existing measures Paul’s bill would also let the GAO “audit” the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy, including its open-market operations and financial dealings with other central banks. But if “sunshine” is the first word that pops into your head when contemplating this possibility, you probably have had a little too much of it already. Certainly you have not read many GAO reports.

Don’t get me wrong: the GAO does its job’s well, and a report by it on the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy would probably be a much better read than most academic papers on the same topic. But if you’re looking forward to seeing the GAO give the FOMC a good thrashing, or to any other sort of scintillating reading, you’re barking up the wrong tree, because what you’re likely to be in for instead is a bunch of charts and tables, accompanied by a competent but very measured and detached review of the Fed’s activities, of the sort that might prove very handy, but that is hardly likely to be the least-bit earth-shattering.

But if some dry-as-dust report is all we’re talking about, why are Fed officials so up in arms about the proposal? That’s a good question. Fed officials themselves claim that Paul’s measure would give Congress the power to “harass” the Fed, thereby allowing it (in Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher’s words) “to bend monetary policy to the will of politicians.” But as my colleague Mark Calabria explains, the measure wouldn’t allow anything of the sort. Evidently these Fed officials were too busy arranging the Fed’s wagons in a big circle to take time to actually read the measure they were so anxious to defend their institution against. Had they bothered they might have noticed that it calls for the GAO, and not “Congress” (or any body of “politicians”) to report on the Fed’s policies. They might even have taken a moment to recall that the GAO is an independent agency–just like the Fed’s own Board of Governors–whose head, the Comptroller General of the U.S., is a non-partisan professional appointed by the President with a 15-year term–rather like their own Chairman. Finally, they might have chewed a little on the GAO’s own description of its mission, which is “to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.”

In short, what we have here is one independent agency of the U.S. government insisting on its right to be uniquely exempt from review by another independent agency charged with making sure that Congress and its departments and agencies perform their Constitutional duties successfully and efficiently. That’s not fighting to preserve independence. It’s fighting to avoid accountability.

Come to think of it, perhaps Paul’s measure will reveal some deep, dark Fed secret after all. Perhaps it already has.

Alan Reynolds

When Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez release their annual estimates of top 1 percent incomes, you can count on The New York Times to put it in a front page headline with additional hype on the editorial page.  This time, however, the news was that the top 1 percent had suffered a 14.9 percent decline in real income in 2013 if capital gains are included, as they always had been until now.  

The New York Times heroic spin was “The Gains From the Economic Recovery Are Still Limited to the Top One Percent.”  The author, Justin Wolfers of the Peterson Institute wrote, “Emmanuel Saez … has just released preliminary estimates for 2013. The share of total income (excluding capital gains) going to the top 1 percent remains above one ­sixth, at 17.5 percent. By this measure, the concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago.”

I will have more to say about this in another blog post.  For now, I just want to call attention to the artistic way in which the subject was changed.  Since 2008, Saez has been comparing changes in top incomes (for which he has preliminary IRS data) to incomes of the bottom 90 percent (for which IRS data are singularly inappropriate).   He always included realized capital gains because that makes the top 1 percent share both larger and more cyclical.

Those share-of-gains calculations were the source of the politically popular canard that the top 1 percent had “captured” 91 percent of the gains in total income since 2009 which, as Scott Winship noted, drops to 30 percent if we include 2013.  Saez now prefers to say the top 1 percent captured 106 percent of the 2013 decline, leaving the previous 91 percent absurdity intact.

President Obama raised tax rates on top income and capital gains in 2013, and the immediate result was big drop in the amount of such income reported by the top 1 percent – just as I and others had predicted.  Saez asks us to take mercy by averaging 2012 and 2013, which comes out to $1,217,002.  That is down quite a lot from $1,533,064 in 2007, but we aren’t supposed to mention cyclical downturns, only the upturns.

Wolfers asks us to be even more merciful and leave out capital gains this time.  That doesn’t help much, but it allows him to fog recent events by talking about “nearly a century ago.”  This echoes the familiar comparison that Senator Ted Cruz and Pew Research made between 1928-29 the now disavowed top 1 percent share in 2012.

But the Piketty and Saez estimates for 1928 or 1929, and all other years up to 1944, calculate shares by comparing top incomes with personal income from the GDP data.  They define total income as personal income less 20 percent until 1944, and then switch to a modified version of Adjusted Gross Income after that (missing 40 percent of personal income in the process).  They also subtract Social Security and unemployment benefits from the denominator of the top 1 percent ratio, which has zero effect in 1929 but greatly exaggerated top income shares in recent years.

The blue line in the graph shows the same data in Wolfers’ graph.  The red line shows what the data would look like if top income shares today were defined the same way they were in 1929. Note the huge increase at the time of the 1986 Tax Reform, when the top 1 percent share of income reported on individual tax returns (rather than being unreported or reported on corporate tax returns) shot up from 7.6 percent to 11.4 percent.  These pre-tax pre-transfer data tell us much more about changing tax rates, than they do about income distribution. 

When measured a comparable basis, the top 1 percent earned 18.4 percent of income in 1929 and 13.3 percent in 2013. Using the same measure of total income shows the comparison between top income shares in 2013 and 1929 is false. 

 

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