Feed aggregator

Adam Bates

The New York Times this week published a troubling article detailing the secrecy surrounding police use of Stingray cellular site simulators.  Essentially, these devices (which can be mounted on vehicles or carried by hand) mimic the signals of a cell phone tower in order to force cell phones in a given area to connect to the device.  Both data on the phone (including numbers, texts, emails, and any other data stored on the phone) and the phone’s physical location can then be accessed and recorded by police.

Additionally concerning is the extensive use of non-disclosure agreements by the Harris Corporation, which sells the devices, to prevent the public (and in some cases even judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors) from finding out how these devices are being used or even whether a given department owns any.   The preference for secrecy is so powerful that prosecutors have dropped serious criminal charges simply to avoid having the police use of Stingrays subjected to examination by defense attorneys or judges.

According to the Times,

The confidentiality has elevated the stakes in a longstanding debate about the public disclosure of government practices versus law enforcement’s desire to keep its methods confidential. While companies routinely require nondisclosure agreements for technical products, legal experts say these agreements raise questions and are unusual given the privacy and even constitutional issues at stake.

The stated reason for the secrecy is the common refrain that terrorists will circumvent the technology if they know what law enforcement is up to.  However, a recent ACLU report was unable to uncover a single instance of these devices being used to bring domestic terrorists to justice in any jurisdiction surveyed. 

The ACLU report estimates that Stingrays are in wide and rapidly increasing use in law enforcement agencies across America.  However, there appears to be very little oversight structure for police departments, legislatures, or courts governing the use of these devices. In some instances, it seems that courts have even unwittingly been authorizing their use without the judge’s full understanding.  For instance, a sampling of applications for court orders from Florida law enforcement agencies informs the judge that the order is for cell phone records, but doesn’t mention anything about how they’re to be obtained.  Police claim such vague orders authorize Stingray deployment, but some judges have been less than enthused upon finding out.

The problem is that the technological capabilities of law enforcement are getting far ahead of our mechanisms of oversight and accountability.  From Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, to the DEA’s questionable use of automated license plate readers, to the use of automated social media trawlers to award citizens “threat scores,” to the use of cell site simulators which can access your phone without your permission, the government is plainly capable of mapping your every move and insinuating its eyes and ears into nearly every human interaction. 

In the absence of Supreme Court involvement or robust 4th Amendment restoration efforts from legislatures, the burden falls on the public to demand increased transparency and accountability from local officials.  Such efforts have met with success in the past, and must continue to do so if any sphere of American life is going to be spared the tentacles of the surveillance state.

Ilya Shapiro

In 2013’s Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to the use of racial preferences in university admissions by reversing a lower-court opinion that had allowed the use of race in UT-Austin’s admissions policy.

That wasn’t the end of the story, however; after holding that the university bears the burden of proving that its use of racial preferences is necessary and narrowly tailored—a point on which university administrators are due no deference—the Court remanded the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That court was to determine whether UT had offered evidence sufficient to prove that its use of race was “narrowly tailored to achieving the educational benefits” of diversity. Recall that UT-Austin’s admissions program fills most of its spots through a race-neutral Top Ten Percent Plan—which offers admission to high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class—then fills the remaining seats with a “holistic” rating that takes into account various factors typical to admissions programs (including race for certain preferred minorities).

Well, on remand, the Fifth Circuit panel split 2-1 but once again sided with the university, holding that even if the Top Ten Percent Plan already provided a “critical mass” of minority students, the use of racial preferences was necessary to achieve some other special kind of diversity. The dissenting opinion by Judge Emilio Garza pointed out how the majority deferred, once again, to the university’s hand-waving claim that its use of racial preferences is tailored to an actual, appropriate interest, without having actually proven anything approaching what is constitutionally required.

After being denied a rehearing before the full Fifth Circuit, Abigail Fisher, the former applicant suing UT-Austin, has now petitioned the Supreme Court to hear her case once again. And Cato has again filed a brief supporting that petition. We argue that the Court should hear the case because (1) UT-Austin’s “qualitative” diversity rationale is still a complete and unjustified sham, (2) the university continues to openly flout its disregard of Supreme Court precedent governing the use of race in higher education admissions, and (3) leaving the Fifth Circuit’s shockingly deferential and judiciously lazy ruling on the books will give other schools a roadmap for circumventing the Equal Protection Clause’s limitations on the use of race.

Among other evidence we marshal is the recently discovered program of secret racial preferences run out of the university president’s office, which flouts Supreme Court precedent and belies the stated rationale of UT’s admissions policy. This is just the latest example of college administrators’ massive resistance to the Fourteenth Amendment’s charge not to discriminate based on race or ethnicity.

The Court will decide whether to take up Fisher v. UT-Austin (again) later this spring.

Cato legal associate Julio Colomba contributed to this blogpost.

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

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

The Wall Street Journal last week, in its Notable and Quotable section highlighted a set of rather enlightened tweets from a perhaps, at first glance, a rather unusual source—Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune fame.  Here are a couple particularly interesting/amusing ones from the WSJ coverage:

Feb. 27: New rule: you can’t trust research financed by corporations. Only government-funded research is pure and unbiased.

Feb. 20: Bad climate news. The hockey stick is frozen solid.

Feb. 15: Weather isn’t climate. Weather can be colder but climate warming. Climate is warming whether the weather is…um, uh…

Jan. 10: Tried to pay for lunch with a carbon credit. Had to switch to Visa.

Nov. 18: Thinking of bypassing the wheel & the puzzles, and determining winners by executive action. Will save a lot of time.

Turns out Sajak, a former TV weatherman, is no stranger to global warming skepticism (or controversy). In fact, recently he wrote an article for Ricochet.com titled “I Deny I’m a Denier,” in which he derides climate change alarmists for the vicious attacks he gets whenever he expresses his less-than-alarming opinions via his @patsajak twitter feed.  He then goes on to outline why he is a “skeptic in the matter of man-made global warming”:

I’m also often reminded by my global warming (climate change?) Twitter buddies that climate is not weather. The fact that it’s extraordinarily cold in particular areas at particular times does not negate their argument. The climate—hockey stick and all—will doom us if we do not act quickly and drastically. I find the climate vs. weather argument interesting because weather events can only prove their point; they cannot disprove it. The historically calm Gulf hurricane period since Katrina—despite predictions of increasingly strong and devastating storms—can be explained away. However, it’s a safe bet that, had the last decade been marked by more violent activity, it would have been more evidence that The End Days were near. Snowless winters in England are a sign of the climate changing times, but when the snow and ice return…well, it’s weather, not climate.

So here we are. The science is settled. Extreme weather of any kind confirms it. Weather that seems to fly in the face of predictions is irrelevant. So how can one possibly deny all that? I can’t, because I’m not a scientist. But can’t I be just the teeniest bit skeptical?

The rest of Sajak’s Richochet.com post describes his treatment at the hands of his detractors. The whole thing is worth checking out. Y_U _UGHT T_ HA_E A L__K!

In other news involving attacks on global warming skeptics—those folks who not are skeptical that mankind’s activities are altering the climate, but that such alterations will rise to the level of undue concern requiring the immediate erection of impediments to expanding capitalism and the global energy supply—Sens.  Ed Markey (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent letters to energy companies, other industries, and think tanks asking whether they have financially supported climate change research and if so, by how much and to who.

This move paralleled Rep. Raul Grijalva’s (D-AZ) targeted investigation (that we touched on last week) into the funding sources of those witnesses who provided Congressional testimony on climate matters that Grijalva found objectionable (i.e., didn’t wholeheartedly provide support the President’s Climate Action Plan).

More and more folks are starting to push back. For example, Charles and David Koch have, through their lawyer, said no way, invoking the First Amendments free speech and free association guarantees:

“To the extent that your letter touches on matters that implicate the First Amendment, I am sure you recognize Koch’s right to participate in the debate of important public policy issues and its right of free association,” Koch General Counsel Mark Holden wrote in the letter.

See the piece in The Hill for further details of the Koch’s refusal to comply.

The Cato Institute received a similar letter, and also declined to provide the requested information.

And last, but certainly not least, is Judith Curry’s coverage of a new paper “Causes and Consequences of the Climate Science Boom” forthcoming in The Independent Review, a publication of Britain’s Libertarian Alliance. In the article, authors William Butos and Thomas McQuade take a look at the potential consequences of

a boom in climate science, sustained by massive levels of funding by government entities, whose scientific direction is set by an extra-scientific organization, the IPCC, which has emerged as a “big player” in the scientific arena, championing the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming.

They conclude:

Our overall conclusion is that a confluence of scientific uncertainty, political opportunism, and ideological predisposition in an area of scientific study of phenomena of great practical interest has fomented an artificial boom in that scientific discipline. The boom is driven and sustained by the actions of Big Players, the IPCC and various government entities, in funding the boom and singularly promoting one among a number of plausible hypotheses describing the relevant phenomena. Given the scientific uncertainties inherent in the system under study and the incentives for continued political involvement (even in the face of widespread failures in government-supported businesses whose activities were premised on the reliability of the AGW hypothesis), it is possible, even likely, that the boom will persist for a considerable time, not unlike previous booms in eugenics and nutrition science. The likelihood of a continuation of generous funding to maintain the boom is bolstered by, on the one hand, a widespread faith (among both scientists and the general public) in government’s ability to solve problems through legislation and control, and on the other, the political attractiveness of a putative crisis apparently calling for a large expansion of state power.

Judith Curry goes on to add:

There remains a strong social contract between scientists who are funded by the government, and the IPCC that supports the government’s political agenda.  The feedbacks supporting this social contract in principle can be reversed; it remains to be seen what, if anything, will trigger this reversal.  I suspect that it will be the climate itself, if the hiatus/pause/slow down continues.

This is issue is definitely worth a further look.

Daniel J. Mitchell

It’s not very often that I applaud research from the International Monetary Fund.

That international bureaucracy has a bad track record of pushing for tax hikes and other policies to augment the size and power of government (which shouldn’t surprise us since the IMF’s lavishly compensated bureaucrats owe their sinecures to government and it wouldn’t make sense for them to bite the hands that feed them).

But every so often a blind squirrel finds an acorn. And that’s a good analogy to keep in mind as we review a new IMF report on the efficacy of “expenditure rules.”

The study is very neutral in its language. It describes expenditure rules and then looks at their impact. But the conclusions, at least for those of us who want to constrain government, show that these policies are very valuable.

In effect, this study confirms the desirability of my Golden Rule! Which is not why I expect from IMF research, to put it mildly.

Here are some excerpts from the IMF’s new Working Paper on expenditure rules.

In practice, expenditure rules typically take the form of a cap on nominal or real spending growth over the medium term (Figure 1). Expenditure rules are currently in place in 23 countries (11 in advanced and 12 in emerging economies).

Such rules vary, of course, is their scope and effectiveness.

Many of them apply only to parts of the budget. In some cases, governments don’t follow through on their commitments. And in other cases, the rules only apply for a few years.

Out of the 31 expenditure rules that have been introduced since 1985, 10 have already been abandoned either because the country has never complied with the rule or because fiscal consolidation was so successful that the government did not want to be restricted by the rule in good economic times. … In six of the 10 cases, the country did not comply with the rule in the year before giving it up. …In some countries, there was the perception that expenditure rules fulfilled their purpose. Following successful consolidations in Belgium, Canada, and the United States in the 1990s, these countries did not see the need to follow their national expenditure rules anymore.

But even though expenditure limits are less than perfect, they’re still effective – in part because they correctly put the focus on the disease of government spending rather than symptom of red ink.

Countries have complied with expenditure rules for more than two-third of the time. …expenditure rules have a better compliance record than budget balance and debt rules. …The higher compliance rate with expenditure rules is consistent with the fact that these rules are easy to monitor and that they immediately map into an enforceable mechanism—the annual budget itself. Besides, expenditure rules are most directly connected to instruments that the policymakers effectively control. By contrast, the budget balance, and even more so public debt, is more exposed to shocks, both positive and negative, out of the government’s control.

One of the main advantages of a spending cap is that politicians can’t go on a spending binge when the economy is growing and generating a lot of tax revenue.

One of the desirable features of expenditure rules compared to other rules is that they are not only binding in bad but also in good economic times. The compliance rate in good economic times, defined as years with a negative change in the output gap, is at 72 percent almost the same as in bad economic times at 68 percent. In contrast to other fiscal rules, countries also have incentives to break an expenditure rule in periods of high economic growth with increasing spending pressures. … two design features are in particular associated with higher compliance rates. …compliance is higher if the government directly controls the expenditure target. …Specific ceilings have the best performance record.

And the most important result is that expenditure limits are associated with a lower burden of government spending.

The results illustrate that countries with expenditure rules, in addition to other rules, exhibit on average higher primary balances (Table 2). Similarly, countries with expenditure rules also exhibit lower primary spending. …The data provide some evidence of possible implications for government size and efficiency. Event studies illustrate that the introduction of expenditure rules is indeed followed by smaller governments both in advanced and emerging countries (Figure 11a).

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And it’s also worth noting that expenditure rules lead to greater efficiency in spending.

…the public investment efficiency index of DablaNorris and others (2012) is higher in countries that do have expenditure rules in place compared to those that do not (Figure 11b). This could be due to investment projects being prioritized more carefully relative to the case where there is no binding constraint on spending

Needless to say, these results confirm the research from the European Central Bank showing that nations with smaller public sectors are more efficient and competent, with Singapore being a very powerful example.

One rather puzzling aspect of the IMF report is that there was virtually no mention of Switzerland’s spending cap, which is a role model of success.

Perhaps the researchers got confused because the policy is called a “debt brake,” but the practical effect of the Swiss rule is that there are annual expenditures limits.

So to augment the IMF analysis, here are some excerpts from a report prepared by the Swiss Federal Finance Administration.

The Swiss “debt brake” or “debt containment rule”…combines the stabilizing properties of an expenditure rule (because of the cyclical adjustment) with the effective debt-controlling properties of a balanced budget rule. …The amount of annual federal government expenditures has a cap, which is calculated as a function of revenues and the position of the economy in the business cycle. It is thus aimed at keeping total federal government expenditures relatively independent of cyclical variations.

Here’s a chart from the report.

And here are some of the real-world results.

The debt-to-GDP ratio of the Swiss federal Government has decreased since the implementation of the debt brake in 2003. …In the past, economic booms tended to contribute to an increase in spending. …This has not been the case since the implementation of the fiscal rule, and budget surpluses have become commonplace. … The introduction of the debt brake has changed the budget process in such a way that the target for expenditures is defined at the beginning of the process, which must not exceed the ceiling provided by the fiscal rule. It has thus become a top-down process.

The most important part of this excerpt is that the debt brake prevented big spending increases during the “boom” years when the economy was generating lots of revenue.

In effect, the grey-colored area of the graph isn’t just an “ideal representation.” It actually happened in the real world.

Though the most important and beneficial real-world consequence, which I shared back in 2013, is that the burden of government spending has declined relative to the economy’s productive sector.

This is a big reason why Switzerland is in such strong shape compared to most of its European neighbors.

And such a policy in the United States would have prevented the trillion-dollar deficits of Obama’s first term.

By the way, if you want to know why deficit numbers have been lower in recent years, it’s because we actually have been following my Golden Rule for a few years.

So maybe it’s time to add the United States to this list of nations that have made progress with spending restraint.

But the real issue, as noted in the IMF research, is sustainability. Yes, it’s good to have a few years of spending discipline, but the real key is some sort of permanent spending cap.

Which is why advocates of fiscal responsibility should focus on expenditure limits rather than balanced budget requirements.

Ilya Shapiro

Here’s Boston College law professor Kent Greenfield, writing at The Atlantic about the racist-chant scandal at the University of Oklahoma:

We are told the First Amendment protects the odious because we cannot trust the government to make choices about content on our behalf. That protections of speech will inevitably be overinclusive. But that this is a cost we must bear. If we start punishing speech, advocates argue, then we will slide down the slippery slope to tyranny.

If that is what the First Amendment means, then we have a problem greater than bigoted frat boys. The problem would be the First Amendment.

Cato’s brief in Walker v. Texas Division (the Confederate flag license-plate case) pokes plenty of fun at government censors who would protect us from “offensive” speech, but this is no laughing matter. 

H/t Trevor Burrus

Simon Lester

This is from Ezra Klein:

I’m skeptical of the sheer size of modern trade deals and the opaque process that creates them. The negotiation process isn’t quite as secretive as some think — the congressional briefings are constant, and the advisory committees are sprawling — but it is insanely complex.

The result is that even where there is transparency, it’s a form of transparency that can only really be navigated by politically sophisticated, highly motivated actors — which is to say it’s a form of transparency that quickly becomes a venue for lobbying. That’s one reason these deals end up including so much … stuff. The process is constructed in such a way that the negotiators get a lot of special pleading from individual industries and interests. Responding to those requests feels like responding to the public, but it isn’t, and it leads to deals jam-packed with individual provisions that look a lot like giveaways.

This is a great insight about modern trade agreements.  It’s important to think of a trade agreement as just another piece of legislation.  In the past, trade agreements focused mainly on tariffs.  Now they govern a wide range of policies (“stuff”), and as a result they are susceptible to regulatory capture.  Special interest groups see them as just another way to achieve their political goals.  What this means is, as with any piece of legislation, don’t be fooled by the marketing.  Look closely at all the details.

Alan Reynolds

Business news pages are suddenly full of hand-wringing about how the rising dollar threatens to slash U.S. exports and economic growth.  “The strong dollar is the biggest threat to economic recovery,” warns one reporter.  Others quote White House chief economist Jason Furman saying “the strong dollar is undoubtedly a headwind” for the U.S. economy.

It’s not that simple.

The graph above compares real U.S. exports with the trade-weighted exchange rate.  The dollar was rising much faster in 1995-2000, when both exports and the economy were growing at an impressive pace.  Exports eventually fell with recession, as always.  But it is much harder to blame the recession on exchange rates than on interest rates – the Fed pushed the fed funds rate 4.7 percentage points above core inflation.   

From 2001 to 2007, the dollar fell and exports rose.  That pattern might appear to justify recent lobbying for a lower dollar were it not for the familiar connection between oil prices and the dollar.  As the dollar fell, the price of West Texas crude soared from $19 a barrel in December 2001 to over $133 in June-July 2008.  Every postwar recession except 1960 was preceded by a spike in oil prices, and the Great Recession turned out to be no exception.

The dollar weakened at the start of this recovery, but related inflation cut average real wages by 1.5% in 2011 and 0.6% in 2012.   As the dollar firmed up, by contrast, real wages rose by 0.7 % in 2013 and 0.8% in 2014.

The recent rise in the dollar has merely brought it back to about where it was in 1998 or 2006, which were not bad years.  The latest exchange rate gyrations are dominated by self-inflicted wounds to the euro and yen, but U.S. exports to the EU are only 1.3% of GDP, and exports to Japan are 0.4% of GDP.

U.S. multinationals have complained about “translation losses” – the fact that profits of subsidiaries in Europe or Japan will be less valuable when translated into dollars.  But that is equally true for earnings of European and Japanese firms too (and for their stock prices when translated into dollars). And multinationals often leave foreign earnings abroad, due to the uniquely foolish U.S. tax if offshore earnings are brought home.  

The weakened euro and yen will raise the cost of living and cost of production for citizens of the afflicted countries (including the price of oil and other commodities).  It is true that such expertly planned impoverishment of such large economies can scarcely benefit the global economy. If other countries want to make their money less trustworthy and less desirable, however, there is not much we can do about that.  

Nicole Kaeding

The federal government’s debt ceiling will return on Monday following a 14 month suspension. This is the first of many important fiscal deadlines that Congress must consider before the end of the calendar year. These deadlines represent opportunities for Congress to control spending growth and reform entitlement programs.

Below is a list of the major fiscal deadlines:

  • Debt Ceiling: The federal debt ceiling limits the amount of outstanding federal debt. When the debt ceiling returns on March 16, it will be approximately $18.1 trillion. Congress is not expected to raise the limit this weekend, so the Treasury Department will have to use its flexibility to fit the debt within that limit. With these Treasury procedures, the Congressional Budget Office expects that congressional action can be put off until October or November.
  • Sustainable Growth Rate: The Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR or “doc fix”) was passed in 1997 and attempts to control Medicare spending growth. If Medicare grows faster than the legislated formula, reimbursements to doctors are cut. However, Congress has never let the cuts go into effect. The current relief from cuts expires on April 1. If Congress doesn’t act, reimbursements would be cut by 20 percent. Congress is expected to pass a short-term patch, the 18th time it will have done so in 13 years.
  • Budget Resolution: The House of Representatives and the Senate are supposed to pass the annual budget resolution by April 15. The budget resolution sets the broad trajectory of spending for the upcoming fiscal year. Both chambers are expected to release their budget drafts during the week of March 16 to give themselves several weeks to work through this process and provide an opportunity to reconcile the two proposals.
  • Highway Trust Fund: The Highway Trust Fund will become insolvent on May 31. For a number of years, the Highway Trust Fund has spent more than it collects in revenue from the federal gas tax. Its current annual imbalance is $14 billion. Congress will need to figure out a way to balance the trust fund’s spending and revenue.
  • Export-Import Bank: The charter for the bank expires on June 30. The bank “provides access to favorable financing for the foreign customers of some U.S. companies.” It essentially provides handouts to large companies, namely General Electric and Boeing who receive the bulk of the benefits. Congress must decide whether to extend, reform, or end the bank.
  • Appropriations Bills: Federal spending is governed by 12 appropriations bills, which provide detailed spending instructions for federal agencies and departments. These 12 bills, or a substitute, must be passed by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. If these spending levels are above the amounts set by the 2011 bipartisan Budget Control Act, automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, will take effect. The cuts hit both defense and nondefense parts of the budget.
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program: The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) expires on September 30. CHIP provides health care benefits to children whose family income is below 200 (or 250) percent of the federal poverty level, approximately $48,000 for a family of four. Congress must decide if it will extend the program, and if so, how that will be done.

Congress has a full plate. Each of these items presents a challenge to the new Republican Congress. Will they resist calls to increase defense spending? Will they control domestic spending? Will they use their leverage to make some modest reforms to entitlement programs?

Next week’s budget resolutions will provide a glimpse into Congress’s thinking and set the tone for the remainder of the calendar year. 

Patrick J. Michaels

As we’ve mentioned before on the Cato blog, over the past few weeks some members of Congress have been sending letters of intimidation to researchers whose scientific findings were politically inconvenient to the members’ policy proposals. First, seven scientists working at public universities were harassed by Rep. Raul Grijalvav (D-AZ). This was followed by an email to 107 organizations, ranging from private companies to think tanks, attempting to create a whisper campaign of allegations of impropriety. My boss, Cato CEO John Allison, received one of these letters.

Mr. Allison’s response to the letter he received from Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is reproduced below the jump.

We at the Center for the Study of Science, as with the rest of the Cato Institute, are very proud not only of the quality of the work we produce but also of our values—and those morals compel us to not bow to those using their authority as a weapon to silence legitimate scientific inquiry.

The actions of these members of Congress are exactly why Cato’s Center for the Study of Science was founded: the government wishes to use science as a weapon to increase its political power, then use that political power to create a more convenient political climate. We wish to change this climate of fear into one of truth—and we would like to extend an invitation to Sens. Markey, Boxer, and Whitehouse to join us.

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

Another day, another negative impact from pernicious global warming caused by humanity’s relentless quest for self-betterment.

Today, it is our coffee supply that is in jeopardy. Earlier this week, global warming was melting mummies in Chile. Last week, it was blamed for war in Syria. Turns out that global warming is a highly selective beast—it only harms the things we love, while enhancing the things we don’t.

Penguins? Polar bears? Songbirds? Coffee?

Harms. Harms. Harms. Harms.

Jellyfish? Poison ivy? Ragweed? War?

Helps. Helps. Helps. Helps.

Mummies are sort of a special case.  If they were roaming around attacking people, we’d imagine that global warming would empower them. But in this case, the mummies are harmlessly laying around in the (apparently poorly climate-controlled) vaults in a museum in Chile.  There, they are a natural treasure. So, predictably, global warming is causing harm. 

[Gotta wonder what warming could do to poor old Lenin lying entombed in Red Square.  Our greener friends might want him reincarnated, while others would hope he would begin to leak like the Chilean mummies].

And the list goes on and on—something that we’ve pointed out previously (see here and here, for example).

Consequently, the news of the past week should hardly come as a great surprise. We’re pretty used to it by now.

But what may come as a surprise is that according to U.K. economist Richard Tol, recent studies into the economic impacts of climate change find the positives to be increasing and the negatives to be decreasing.

Tol writes:

Since 2009, however, more estimates of the economic impact of climate change have been published…The new trend shows positive impacts for warming up to about two degrees global warming, just like the old trend did. The new trend, however, shows markedly less negative impacts for more profound warming than did the old trend. In other words, in the last five years, we have become less pessimistic about the impacts of climate change.

Couple this result with the bevy of new scientific findings indicating the future climate change is likely to be on the low side of climate model projections and we have some good news about climate change’s impact on something that we all like—money!

Got to wonder why it is that you only find this result highlighted in these pages and not headlining the front page of the Washington Post or New York Times.

Neal McCluskey

Common Core supporters love to accuse opponents of peddling misinformation, and sometimes opponents do. On the flip side, Core supporters are frequently guilty not only of peddling deceptive information of their own, but promising the world without sufficient evidence to justify it. A new report from Harvard’s Paul Peterson – generally a pretty sober analyst – comes a bit too close to making such a leap, strongly suggesting that the Common Core has caused appreciable improvement in the rigor of state standards.

Based on a rough trend of decreasing differences between the percentage of students scoring “proficient” on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Peterson and co-author Matthew Ackerman report that state standards are rising. In other words, “proficient” on state tests is looking more like presumably high-flying “proficient” on the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Between 2011 and 2013, “20 states strengthened their standards, while just 8 loosened them,” Peterson and Ackerman report. To what do they attribute this? “A key objective of the CCSS [Common Core] consortium – the raising of proficiency standards – has begun to happen.” In case the text of the report didn’t make the attribution of success to the Core clear, the report’s subhead intoned that, “commitments to the Common Core may be driving the proficiency bar upward.”

At the very least, there should be a huge emphasis on “may,” and the Core probably shouldn’t be mentioned at all.  

Indeed, Peterson and Ackerman’s results could suggest that the Common Core actually dampened rigor. According to the report, of the four states that never adopted the Core, Texas and Virginia raised their standards while Alaska and Nebraska stood pat. That means 50 percent of non-adopters lifted their standards and 50 percent stood their ground. None went backward. Among Core adopters, in contrast, eight states, or 18 percent, lowered their standards; 19, or 42 percent, stood still; and only 18, or 40 percent, raised their bars. (I exclude Minnesota, which adopted the English standards but not the math, and West Virginia, for which data was unavailable. Among adopters I include Indiana and Oklahoma, which eventually dropped out but were Core states as of 2013.)

That said, the bigger point is that you can’t reasonably reach any conclusion about the Core’s effect from Peterson and Ackerman’s analysis. For one thing, only Kentucky had fully implemented the Core as of the 2013 NAEP administration, which took place at the beginning of the year, and the vast majority of states weren’t even close. Indeed, most states are just now – 2015 – starting to give the tests associated with the Core, which also happen to define “proficiency.”

There is also a huge problem of controlling for the effects of numerous variables besides the Core, including other federal, state, and local policies; changes in socio-economic conditions; etc. Indeed, toward the end of the report Peterson and Ackerman note the possibility that waivers from No Child Left Behind encouraged some states to raise their standards. Unfortunately, they don’t mention that possibility without also crediting the Core: “Indeed, the waivers—as well as CCSS expectations—may help to account for the increasing rigor of state standards since 2011.”

There’s one last, interesting bit of information in the report: Between 2005 and 2013 – basically, the No Child Left Behind era – almost the same number of states appeared to lower their standards as raise them. Couple that with the possible effect of waivers and the superior performance of non-Core states, and this report could easily be used to say centralized policy interventions don’t work, be they No Child Left Behind or the Common Core. Of course, the report doesn’t justify that conclusion, either. 

Alan Reynolds

Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, set out to explain “middle-class economics” in the Wall Street Journal, March 11, in an earlier Vox blog and in a presentation to National Association of Business Economists (NABE), as well as the first chapter of the Economic Report of The President

The intent is to make the recent economy look healthier (massaging 2.3-2.4 percent growth for 2013-14 into 2.7 percent), and to claim that “subpar” 2010-14 income gains for the middle class (generously defined as the bottom 90 percent) are not due to a subpar recovery but to something that has gone on ever since 1973.  His Wall Street Journal article complains of “the decades-long trend of slower income growth for the middle class.”

Furman says, “Congressional Budget Office data (with a minor extrapolation) show, median U.S. incomes are up 17 percent since 1973.”  Actually, CBO data start with 1979 and end with 2011, so it takes more than minor extrapolation to extend that back to 1973 or forward to 2013.  CBO estimates show real after-tax median income rising from $45,400 in 1983 to $68,000 in 2008 (in 2011 dollars), but not yet back to the 2008 level by 2011. Making up a number for 1973 can’t undo stagnation after 2008. 

He continues: “But from 1948-73, median incomes rose 110 percent, according to broadly comparable Census estimates.”  Yet the two series aren’t remotely comparable.  Unlike pre-tax “money income” from the Census Bureau, the CBO subtracts federal taxes (middle-income tax rates were nearly cut in half since 1981) and includes rapidly increased health and other in-kind benefits from employers and government (Medicaid, SNAP, CHIP and housing allowances). 

Furman repeatedly sets up 1973 as the ideal, with productivity, incomes, and fairness all supposedly downhill after that.  The reason this old trick is still so popular is that 1973 was the last year Nixon’s price controls appeared to keep the consumer price index artificially low – creating a brief artificial spurt in measured real wages and productivity.  When price controls exploded in a wave of shortages, average weekly earnings (in 1982-84 dollars) dropped from $341.36 in 1973 to $314.77 in 1975, $308.74 in 1979, and $290.80 in 1980.  A falling dollar and rising tax rates stimulated demand and discouraged supply, giving us two nasty episodes of “stagflation.”  Amazingly, those trying to blame current discontents on the distant past continue to hold up 1973 or 1979 as ideals – idolizing the economics of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. 

Furman writes, “In 1973 the bottom 90 percent of households received 68 percent of the nation’s income, a figure that has fallen to 53 percent today.”  But because this is no measure of the nation’s income, Furman has no idea what the bottom 90 percent share has been.   Instead of using any official measure of personal or household income, Furman is citing an untenable private estimate of income reported on tax returns –with income frequently redefined by changing tax laws.  “From 1944 on,” Piketty and Saez explain (Table A0), “total income is defined as total Adjusted Gross Income less realized capital gains in AGI, taxable Social Security and Unemployment Insurance benefits, and adding back all adjustments to gross income. Income of non-filers is imputed as 20 percent of average income (50 percent in 1944-1945).”  

As I pointed out in a recent article and blog post, the data Furman cites report that the average real income of the bottom 90 percent was higher in 1968 than it was in 2013.  Claiming to actually believe such preposterous data is a mark of unlimited gullibility or deception.                                                      

 

 

Justin Logan

I’ve been talking about U.S.-Iran policy to groups around the United States for about eight years now. Many members of these groups—World Affairs Councils, university groups, local groups interested in Middle East policy—disagree with my general take on Iran and the Middle East, but I’ve always gotten a fair hearing and good questions.

Given that, it’s been both amusing and depressing to watch the political spectacle that’s been happening in Washington this week. It all began when Bill Kristol’s favorite senator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), got 46 of the other 53 Republican Senators to join him in signing an “open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to scare the clerical leadership away from a diplomatic deal by threatening to scotch it themselves once Barack Obama is out of office. Cotton, a Harvard Law grad, was subsequently chided on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution both by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as well as by Jack Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer who worked on the legal aspects of the war on terror for the George W. Bush administration.

In response to media inquiries, GOP Senators gave embarrassing explanations of the letter. Most absurd was Cotton’s protestation that the letter was intended to help produce a better deal. This claim is absurd not because the causal pathway from this letter to a better deal is dubious (although it is), but because Cotton has made perfectly clear that his goal is the destruction of negotiations, not improving them. As he remarked at a January Heritage Foundation event:

the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

Other legislators’ responses were hardly better. Signatory and presidential hopeful Rand Paul asserted that despite its salutation to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” and its translation into Farsi, the letter was in fact addressed to the administration. John McCain took a different interpretation, claiming the letter was intended to signal to Iran that Congress will play a role in implementing any deal, shrugging that “maybe [the letter] wasn’t the best way to do that.” Pulling back the curtain to reveal the care with which senior senators handle the high politics of national security, McCain explained his thought process in deciding to sign the letter:

I saw the letter, I saw that it looked reasonable to me and I signed it, that’s all. I sign lots of letters.

Noted.

Democrats and Obama partisans’ response was also depressing. Noted legal scholar Howard Dean declared that the letter “bordered on treason,” and the absurdity of an online petition asking the White House to prosecute the #47Traitors, as they were hash-tagged on Twitter, under the Logan Act did not stop it from garnering 150,000 signatures in under 48 hours.

It’s always a question whether the American public or the American foreign policy elite have more dangerous views on international politics, and I’m sorry to say this whole spectacle hasn’t helped resolve the question one way or the other. But there is one point that bears noting in conclusion.

The most alarming aspect of this whole spectacle—for the GOP and for the nation—has been the aftermath. In Politico’s story discussing the consequences of the letter, author Burgess Everett noted that Cotton was failing upward: “Cotton has rocketed to the top of TV bookers’ lists, and fellow Republican senators are suddenly flocking to him for counsel on foreign policy.” This is despite the fact that the letter was an embarrassment on its own terms, and perhaps even dangerous on reality-based terms.

In a world where the GOP donor class cared about the party’s stewardship on sensitive national security matters, people who dreamed up these sorts of pranks would be defenestrated. Say what you will about Jim Baker or Brent Scowcroft, they wouldn’t have put up with this sort of nonsense. But in a party where the entire foreign policy apparatus has been taken over by neoconservatives, there’s no consequence for this sort of statesmanship, if one can even call it that. Until the GOP donor class decides it’s had enough of this sort of thing and pushes for change, expect more of it.

K. William Watson

Lego’s patent for the “Toy Building Brick” expired in 1988, but the company still aggressively tries to claim monopoly privileges over its products.  Ten years ago, Lego tried unsuccessfully to claim trademark protection for blocks with circles on top.  Now they are going after competitors for making products that look similar to the new “Lego Friends” line of blocks marketed toward girls.  For example, Lego complains that its competitors have infringed its copyright in “Figure with Skirt”.

Of immediate interest is the fact that Lego has filed a complaint at the U.S. International Trade Commission seeking to bar importation of certain Mega Bloks, Lite Brix, and Best-Lock products.  There are a number of reasons why the ITC should not be adjudicating patent or other intellectual property disputes, and if you’re interested in the full story, you should read my Cato Policy Analysis on the subject from 2012.

The Lego case, in particular, raises an important question about the ITC’s proper role in enforcing intellectual property rights.  Because the ITC is a protectionist agency, and its IP litigation power was created to protect U.S. industries from “unfair competition,” there must be a “domestic industry” to protect before the ITC can act. 

The complainant in this case is a Danish company that manufactures its products in Europe and Mexico.  The respondents include two U.S. companies and one Canadian company that manufacture their products in China and Canada. 

So there’s a strong possibility that Lego’s ITC complaint will fail due to lack of a domestic industry.  That’s good news if you’re a consumer of children’s toys.  But it’s also an irrational impediment to effective patent enforcement.

Supporters of the ITC’s patent power consistently point out that the agency is good at enforcing patents.  Cases take less time and cost less money than court trials.  But this is merely an argument for reforming how district courts handle patent cases, not a justification for a specialized patent court for imports.  The domestic industry requirement, which certainly doesn’t apply in federal district court, just emphasizes how inappropriate it is to mix patent enforcement and trade protection.

And it’s always worth mentioning that bringing patent infringement lawsuits in court against importers is not difficult.  The vast majority of ITC cases, including the Lego case, are simultaneously litigated in district court.

Tim Lynch

Professor James Jacobs of New York University School of Law has written a new book, The Eternal Criminal Record, just published by Harvard University Press.  From the dust jacket:

For over sixty million Americans, possessing a criminal record overshadows everything else about their public identity. A rap sheet, or even a court appearance or background report that reveals a run-in with the law, can have fateful consequences for a person’s interactions with just about everyone else. The Eternal Criminal Record makes transparent a pervasive system of police databases and identity screening that has become a routine feature of American life.

The United States is unique in making criminal information easy to obtain by employers, landlords, neighbors, even cyberstalkers. Its nationally integrated rap-sheet system is second to none as an effective law enforcement tool, but it has also facilitated the transfer of ever more sensitive information into the public domain. While there are good reasons for a person’s criminal past to be public knowledge, records of arrests that fail to result in convictions are of questionable benefit. Simply by placing someone under arrest, a police officer has the power to tag a person with a legal history that effectively incriminates him or her for life.

In James Jacobs’s view, law-abiding citizens have a right to know when individuals in their community or workplace represent a potential threat. But convicted persons have rights, too. Jacobs closely examines the problems created by erroneous record keeping, critiques the way the records of individuals who go years without a new conviction are expunged, and proposes strategies for eliminating discrimination based on criminal history, such as certifying the records of those who have demonstrated their rehabilitation.

A few days ago, I sat down with Professor Jacobs for a podcast interview.  More info on his book here.

Simon Lester

Paul Krugman has a blog post on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) today.  Overall, he is skeptical of the need for it.  He refers to a recent op-ed by Larry Summers, and notes that Summers appears to support “an idealized TPP that could have been,” but is “against the TPP that actually seems to be on the table.”  Krugman says he feels similarly.

Tyler Cowen responds as follows:

I agree with much of the economics in his post, though I would frame the points with a different kind of rhetoric.  But I think Krugman is nonetheless wrong to oppose TPP.  You will notice the word “China” does not appear in his argument.  He closes with a question: “Why, exactly, should the Obama administration spend any political capital – alienating labor, disillusioning progressive activists – over such a deal?”  The answer is simple: this deal either happens on American terms, or an alternative deal arises on Chinese terms without our participation.  For rather significant foreign policy reasons we prefer the former, and the pragmatic side of President Obama understands this pretty well.

Cowen is one of my favorite bloggers, both for style and substance, but I want to push back a little bit here.  The alternative deal he is referring to is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a negotiation among 16 countries, including China and India, in the Pacific region.  There is a good deal of overlap, in terms of participating countries, with the 12 TPP parties.  I think he is making two points here: (1) If there is no TPP, there will be an RCEP, and that will be bad for the United States; and (2) the RCEP will reflect Chinese priorities, not U.S. priorities, and that will be bad for the United States.

Just briefly, let me comment on both points.  First, the RCEP may be, to some extent, a response to the TPP.  If the TPP fails, the motivation for the RCEP might also diminish.  Furthermore, regardless of what happens with the TPP, it will not be easy to complete the RCEP.  Getting India, China, and 14 other countries to agree will not be easy.  So there may never be an RCEP.

Second, the reference to Chinese terms makes it sound like this will be an agreement that establishes state-owned companies as the norm.  In reality, if you look at the topics covered, I’m not sure this agreement would be much different than any other trade agreement, except perhaps less emphasis on labor rights and intellectual property protection than in U.S. agreements.  There will be tariff lowering, services liberalization, and all the usual issues.

In my view, then, we should consider the TPP on its own merits and not worry so much about what other countries do.  If they want to liberalize amongst themselves, that’s great.  But that’s not a threat, just an incentive to do a better job with trade negotiations ourselves.

George Selgin

As if to get my work week off to rotten start, my otherwise good pal Don Boudreaux greeted me first thing Monday morning with a link to Robert Samuelson’s Sunday evening Washington Post op-ed on “The Folly of Fed Bashing.” In it, Samuelson takes the Fed’s conservative critics to task for their “misinformed” attacks on the Fed, faulting them for failing to appreciate how much more transparent the Fed’s operations are today than they were some decades ago, and for not understanding that its actions, however undesirable they may seem, are generally “necessary for the nation’s long-term economic health.” As for the perception that “the Fed is a large and aloof agency that needs to be tamed,” it rests, Samuelson says, on a “simplistic” view of the Fed’s history.

Well I can’t speak for others, but I know something about the Fed’s history. And I’ve come to the conclusion, informed by careful consideration, over the course of several decades, of that history, and the history of numerous other monetary arrangements in the U.S. and elsewhere, that the Fed is actually…a large and aloof agency that needs to be tamed.

True, the Fed is in some respects more transparent than it used to be. But it has also been doing things that it never used to do. The ordinary Fed publications and disclosures to which Mr. Samuelson refers shed no light at all on many of these novelties. Not for nothing did Dodd-Frank provide for a special, one-time audit of the Fed’s crisis-related undertakings. Among other things, that audit pointed to some serious conflicts of interest that might otherwise have escaped censure. Yet according to Mr. Samuelson’s supposedly up-to-date Fed history, it should have been just as unnecessary as the recurring audits Fed “bashers” have been calling for.

Would such recurring audits themselves be otiose? The Dodd-Frank audit covers the Fed’s actions up to July 21, 2010. Consequently the GAO isn’t allowed to look into any of the Fed’s unorthodox measures since then, including later rounds of Quantitative Easing, Operation Twist, and its enhanced overnight reverse repo program, not to mention its stress tests and other financial-regulatory measures. More importantly, under existing law it can’t be asked to look into any “emergency” steps the Fed might take in the future. Should we always have to rely on special legislation after the fact to allow Congress to scrutinize unusual Fed actions?

Mr. Samuelson complains about simplistic history. Allow me to complain instead about simplistic conjectures about the future–conjectures to the effect that the Fed will never again engage in the sorts of activities that warranted the Dodd-Frank audit. Such conjectures are after all implicit in claims, like his, to the effect that a permanent enhancement of the GAO’s Fed-auditing powers would only serve to “fulfill conservatives’ political agenda” by allowing Congress to “harass” the Fed and to otherwise undermine its ability to do its job.* Does Mr. Samuelson believe that the GAO “harasses” the other government departments and agencies over which it has unlimited auditing powers? If not, why does he worry that it would harass the Fed? Conservative agenda? Does he think that only conservatives (or conservatives and libertarians) distrust the Fed, and welcome GAO scrutiny of its unusual activities? If GAO officials themselves argue for relaxing present limits on their agency’s Fed-auditing powers, must they be part of a conservative plot?

Samuelson also sees “no obvious advantage” in a measure that would compel the Fed to choose and stick to a monetary rule, such as a Taylor Rule or NGDP growth rule. But while the advantage of such a rule may not be obvious to him, others may find it obvious enough. Either a Taylor or a Sumner-style NGDP growth rule would have called for less expansionary monetary policy in the mid-2000s, and for more expansionary policy in late 2009–reason enough to wonder whether, in complaining (in Samuelson’s words) that a rule “might make policy too inflexible,” Janet Yellen bothered to consider how in practice policy tends to “flex” the wrong way.

Finally, although he recognizes that the Fed isn’t infallible, and even suggests that the recent financial crisis was proof of its fallibility, Samuelson remains convinced that the Fed’s unhindered exercise of almost unlimited discretionary powers has contributed more than rule-based arrangements might to “the nation’s long-term economic health.” On what, I wonder, is this judgment based? Certainly not on recent experience. But a longer view is just as hard to square with the assertion, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz went to great lengths to demonstrate. Mr. Samuelson worries that Fed “bashing”–by which he seems to mean any criticism of the Fed that seeks to justify a reduction of its considerable power–“adds to uncertainty and subtracts from confidence” upon which economic growth depends. In truth, the Fed’s actions are themselves often unpredictable, and especially so when it comes to their influence on the long-run course of prices and spending. Were the Fed really a sort of Ambrose Light of financial markets, as Mr. Samuelson imagines it to be, Fed watching, instead of being a growth industry, would be about as useful–and as boring–as watching paint dry.

But the Fed needs more than mere watching. It needs scrutiny. It needs criticism. Above all, it needs to be reined in–not for conservatives’ sake, but for everyone’s. Mr. Samuelson may not like it. But I, for one, intend to keep bashing away.

*Like many commentators who take the Fed’s side in the “audit the Fed” debate, Samuelson suggests that there only two possible kinds of GAO audits to which the Fed might be subject: simple “do the books balance” audits, as are already provided for, and ones by which the GAO would “second guess” the Fed’s conduct of ordinary monetary policy. In fact, the Fed does a lot more than engage in ordinary monetary policy, and, as the special audit provided for in Dodd-Frank illustrates, there are correspondingly many ways in which the GAO might scrutinize it’s conduct. The real debate is about these other sorts of scrutiny. To represent it as a debate about whether the GAO (or “Congress”) should be allowed to interfere with the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy is missing the point, if it isn’t something rather worse than that.

Randal O'Toole

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has issued its annual press release trumpeting the growth in transit ridership. Naturally, it selectively uses the data in order to get the best media attention.

For example, it claims that 2014 ridership set a record, which is true only if you don’t count any year between 1912 and 1957, during all of which transit carried far more people than it does today with almost no subsidies. Transit carried just under 10.8 billion trips in 2014, an increase of 101 million trips over 2013 but less than the 11.0 billion trips carried in 1956 (which doesn’t even include commuter rail and several other forms of transit that APTA counts today).

Second, APTA fails to note that all of the growth in ridership can be accounted for by increased usage of the New York City subway system. While national ridership grew by 101 million trips, APTA’s own ridership report shows that New York subway ridership grew by 107 million trips, or nearly 6 million more than the national gain. Without New York subways, whose ridership grew because of New York City’s rapid job growth, APTA would have had to report a national decline in ridership. Transit ridership grew in some cities, but it declined in many others, including Albuquerque, Austin, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Francisco (Muni), San Jose, and St. Louis, to name a few.

Most importantly, APTA fails to note that, in order increase transit ridership, subsidies to transit have grown to truly record levels. We don’t have all the data from 2014 yet, but transit subsidies exceeded $42 billion, or more than $4 per transit trip, in 2013. This is a staggering amount considering the industry was profitable overall before Congress began subsidizing transit in 1965 and subsidies remained relatively small until recent years.

APTA’s historic data shows capital subsidies only as far back as 1988. In the 25 years between 1988 and 2013, total inflation-adjusted subsidies grew by more than 90 percent, with the subsidy per transit trip growing from $2.12 to $4.08. In return for these subsidies, transit service (measured in vehicle miles) grew by 40 percent, while ridership grew by just 20 percent. Worse, America’s urban population grew by 40 percent, so per capita transit ridership shrank by 14 percent from 47 to 41 trips per urban resident per year.

I compare 2013 numbers with 1988 because that’s as far back as the data go. Transit advocates, however, like to compare with 1995, a year in which the transit industry bottomed out due to low gasoline prices. Things look better when compared with that year, but not by much. Since 1995, inflation-adjusted subsidies have grown nearly twice as fast as ridership: a 64 percent increase in subsidies compared with a 34 percent increase in ridership. Per capita ridership grew by just 7 percent.

Thanks to APTA’s hard work, American taxpayers are spending more and more on transit, but not getting much back. APTA would like Congress to believe that funneling more tax dollars to transit agencies will increase transit ridership and be good for cities. In fact, the data show that transit ridership is much more heavily influenced by fuel prices than by subsidies. 

The problem with transit subsidies is that the subsidies go where they do the most political good, not where transit riders need them. Transit systems in Boston, Washington, and other cities are falling apart due to lack of maintenance. Rather than repair the systems, politicians are spending billions of dollars on new rail transit lines–the Silver Line in DC; the Green Line extension to Medford in Boston–that the transit agencies can’t afford to maintain. The result is a disaster for transit riders and taxpayers alike.

Jason Bedrick

In a recent blog post, Andy Smarick of the Fordham Institute declares: “School Choice Technocrats Wanted.” Smarick argues “if civil society and families are to make more decisions and the government is to make fewer,” then “reform-oriented technocrats” will have to play a greater role.

For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.

But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled to a private enterprise economy requires new rules related to property rights, lending, contracts, and currency.

Smarick is surely right that the transition from the monopolistic system of geographically assigned district schools to a market in education will require “new policies” and “a new understanding of the government’s role” in education. However, Smarick is murky on who will be making those policies or what exactly government’s role should be. As University of Arkansas Professor Jay P. Greene recently cautioned, education reformers must avoid “pursuing reforms that are likely to re-create the same dysfunctional system they oppose.” Unfortunately, though, some are succumbing to the technocratic temptation:

When they observe a problem their inclination is to fix it by prohibiting or regulating it.  If parents might pick bad schools in a choice system, the solution is to  impose regulations that prevent schools from being bad and prohibit those that are nevertheless bad from participating.  The regulations impose paperwork burdens on schools.  And so that officials can judge school quality, some reformers favor requiring participating private schools to take the state test based on the state curriculum.

If regulating schools to success were the solution, our public school system would be wonderful.  They have no shortage of regulations and prohibitions, all designed by well-meaning people to make those schools perform well.  So, why do some reformers believe it will turn out differently with heavily regulated choice systems?  Well, because they’ll be in charge and they are smarter.  They’ll design the regulations more appropriately.  They’ll implement them more judiciously.  They’ll only impose the regulations we really need. […]

If we impose public-system-like regulations on choice programs we will end up with choice programs that look a lot like the public system, including their dysfunction.  As Orwell warned us, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Smarick himself appears to recognize this danger. After outlining several areas where he believes government should play a role–supporting “high-performing” charter schools, addressing transportation needs, disseminating information, and “creating bodies to hold schools accountable; clarify school eligibility rules; develop central application, placement, and enrollment systems; and ensure the highest-need students are served”–Smarick notes: “If the above is done poorly, it could lead to the replacement of one inflexible, ineffective bureaucracy by another.” Indeed.

Given the government’s track record thus far, why should we have any confidence that these policies will be implemented well? Smarick doesn’t say.

Smarick concludes by arguing that we need more reform-minded technocrats to fight technocracy:

But in a terrific chapter in the new Room to Grow, “A Conservative Governing Vision,” Yuval Levin makes a “reform conservatism” argument that’s highly applicable here. “Conservatives today need to pay more attention to the means by which our vision of government should be advanced—more attention, that is, to the details of public policy.” That requires developing “some technical policy expertise precisely to combat” the technocratic bent of existing arrangements.

In other words: school choice technocrats wanted.

I don’t see how Smarick can draw that conclusion from Levin’s anti-technocratic treatise. Levin argued that “some technical policy expertise” was required “to advance an anti-technocratic, genuinely constitutionalist vision of American government.” Levin is not proposing that conservative reformers should become technocrats themselves, or that they should fight leftwing technocracy only to replace it with rightwing technocracy–i.e. rule by “experts.” Rather, Levin proposes expanding the “space between the individual and the state” that our constitutional system was designed to protect, and “restraining government from invading or collapsing that space.” To do that, advocates of liberty work harder to understand how the existing technocratic system invades that space, and how to peel it back. Essentially, Levin is making the same case that Friedrich Hayek made in Constitutional of Liberty, which Levin cites:

“Liberty in practice depends on very prosaic matters, and those anxious to preserve it must prove their devotion by their attention to the mundane concerns of public life and by the efforts they are prepared to give to the understanding of issues that the idealist is often inclined to treat as common, if not sordid.”

But perhaps I’m reading too much into Smarick’s use of the term “technocrat.” Perhaps Smarick only means that education reformers should pay attention to the details of public policy in order to expand educational freedom. If so, great. But if he means the of right-of-center technocratic tinkering that has crippled school choice programs in Louisiana and Wisconsin, then school choice advocates should be very wary.

In other words: school choice technocrats not wanted.

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

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

Over the past couple of weeks, prominent members of the climate science/climate policy community have come under attack for not toeing the (Presidential) party line when it comes to how human-caused climate change is being billed and sold via the President’ Climate Action Plan.

The attacks began with Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Willie Soon, and thanks to the attention afforded by Justin Gillis in the New York Times, were expanded by Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), to include Richard Lindzen, David Legates, John Christy, Judith Curry, Robert Balling, Roger Pielke Jr., and Steven Hayward.

In this You Ought to Have a Look, we provide links to the subsequent public comments from those researchers under question (who have made them available) in response to this line of investigation—one which many have termed a “witch hunt.”

Here they are:

Dr. Willie Soon, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Statement by Dr. Willie Soon

Dr. Richard Lindzen, professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at MIT and a distinguished senior fellow of the Cato Institute
The Political Assault on Climate Skeptics

Dr. Steven Hayward, Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy 2014-2016, School of Pubic Policy, Pepperdine University
Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, a Climate Skeptic?
The Climate Beclowning Continues

Roger Pielke Jr., Professor in the Environmental Studies, Center for Science & Technology Policy Research, University of Colorado
I am Under “Investigation”
Running Updates on the “Witch Hunt”

Judith Curry, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology
Conflicts of Interest in Climate Science

 

Additionally, there are other comments out there, almost all negatively inclined to Rep. Grijalva’s investigation and its assault on academic freedom.

Here are a few of the more prominent:

American Meteorological Society
Letter to Grijalva

Nature Magazine
Gone Fishing

American Geophysical Union
Protecting Academic Freedom and Holding Ourselves Accountable

It is well-worth looking through these responses to see just how ill-advised this campaign is widely-considered to be.

 

Pages