Archives: 04/2008

The Global Warming Panic That Isn’t

August, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina blows into the Gulf of Mexico and blasts New Orleans to smithereens. Environmentalists quickly blame the storm on global warming – or at the very least, claim that warming will inevitably lead to more Katrina-like hurricanes. Although there is no clear scientific consensus on what impact a warming world might have on the frequency of big Gulf hurricanes, it’s enough to move public opinion significantly on the question of whether federal, state, and local governments ought to do something about climate change.

May, 2006 - Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth opens in New York and Los Angeles. The companion book becomes the #1 paperback non-fiction book on the New York Times bestseller list in July. The movie goes on to become the fourth highest grossing documentary in U.S. history and wins an Academy Award.

July, 2007 - Live Earth concerts to save the planet feature 150 top musical acts in 11 cities around the world. While it’s unclear how many people actually watched those concerts, Live Earth set a record for on-line entertainment with over 15 million video streams during the live concerts alone.

October, 2007 - Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change win the Nobel Peace Prize.

March, 2008 - The Heartland Institute sponsors a conference in New York City to showcase scientific skepticism about the seriousness of climate change. The event is received with uncharacteristically loud derision by the mainstream media.

Now, with all of that in mind, wouldn’t you think that the public would be growing more – not less – worried about climate change? You might,  but you would be wrong. According to today’s Energy & Environment Daily (subscription required), a new poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates and released by the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress at New York University finds that Americans are less worried about climate change than they were a couple of years ago.

E&E Daily reports that the survey’s margin of error was +/- 3 percent. Here are the highlights:

The percentage of Americans who said global warming requires immediate attention declined from 77 in 2006 to 69 percent today.

The percentage of Americans who said they were “very worried” about global warming increased from 31 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2008. But that’s misleading; everyone gets “more worried” about everything in a presidential election year. What’s striking to me is that the rise in the number of those “very worried” about global warming was less than the rise in the number of those “very worried” about the four other issues surveyed by Brademas Center (Medicare, Social Security, and energy).

The declining number of those who said they were “somewhat worried” about global warming more than offset the increase of those who reported being “very worried.”

There are several possible explanations for this data. My guess is that it’s a little of each of the following.

Explanation #1 – The public has only limited patience for “end of the world” prognostications. If the world isn’t visibly ending from whatever boogey man is said to menace said world, most of us begin to lose interest. We’re all well aware that Earth has been sentenced to doom hundreds of times over by activists of various stripes but has somehow gained a reprieve time and time again.

Explanation #2 – The time horizon of most voters is very, very short. Getting people to voluntarily sacrifice for “the grandkids” or whomever is a near-impossible task. It would probably take a Katrina-a-year … and even then, that might not be enough. The mathematical certainty regarding the economic train wreck about to be visited upon “the grandkids” as a consequence of the trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities for present federal health care and retirement programs does not engender sacrifice. It engenders shrugs and accelerated wealth transfers from the future to the present.

Explanation #3 – Global warming, if it plays out as the IPCC suspects, will be a slow-moving event. Panic over climate change has to compete with panic over Islamic terrorism, panic over housing markets, panic over globalization, panic over energy prices, panic over immigration, and episodic panic over dozens of other (usually dubious) worries. Simply put, global warming has a hard time competing with all of the other items on the policy agenda.

So conservatives, take heart. Enviros, take a valium.

All You Ever Needed to Know About the Surge

A while back, I characterized the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq as “buy time and pray for a miracle.” Now White House politics-of-Iraq guru Peter Feaver has a piece in Commentary lifting the veil from the White House machinations of surge planning. In the piece, Feaver reveals that the planners’ objective was basically to toss the Iraqi hot potato into the lap of the next administration, dust off their hands, and declare victory:

The challenge…was to develop and implement a workable strategy that could be handed over to Bush’s successor. Although important progress could be made on that strategy during Bush’s watch, ultimately it would be carried through by the next President….

This new and different strategy, now called the “surge” but at one point called by insiders the “bridge,” emerged out of a growing recognition over 2006 that our critics were right about one thing: our Iraq policy was not working…

As a political matter, this has a pretty airtight logic to it. Rather than admitting that theirs was the first U.S. administration to start and lose a war of aggression on their watch (bad for the legacy!), this way it comes out heads-we-win-tails-you-lose. If, by the grace of God, some subsequent U.S. president can manage to extricate us from the Iraqi quagmire without a total meltdown, the Bushies will clap each other on the back, declaring themselves visionaries. If, on the other hand, Iraq flames out entirely on the watch of a subsequent administration, the Bushies can play the Dolchstoss card and explain how The Surge Was Working and would have continued working were it not for the fecklessness of the Obama/Clinton/McCain administration.

Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

In the Washington Post Shankar Vedantam discusses “the action bias, or the desire to do something rather than nothing when you have just been through a terrible experience.” He cites evidence that both individuals and politicians often prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if “nothing” would be the wiser course.

When people suffer losses and confront the possibility of even greater reverses – it doesn’t matter if you are talking about a terrorist attack or a meltdown in retirement savings – it is psychologically difficult to do nothing, to hold course. This is true even when the action you contemplate produces an outcome that leaves you demonstrably worse than you were in the first place….

Economist Ofer Azar recently came up with a novel way to study the insidious nature of the action bias. He examined whether soccer goalies were more likely to stop penalty kicks when they dived to the left, dived to the right or stayed in the center of the goal. In a study of 286 penalty kicks faced by elite Israeli goalkeepers, Azar found that goalies had the best chance of stopping a kick when they remained in the center – partly because when they dived to one side, they left themselves with no chance of stopping a kick aimed at the other side or a kick aimed dead center. And even when they correctly guessed the direction of the kick, they still had only a 1-in-4 chance of stopping a goal.

Despite the clarity of the evidence, Azar found that goalies dived to one side or the other 93 percent of the time.

And of course it’s not just goalies. Vedantam suggests that “the Iraq war might be Exhibit A for the action bias”–noting Hillary Clinton’s statement in 2002: “In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.”

Good point. And he might go on to discuss the current rush to regulation in the wake of the subprime crisis and the Bear Stearns collapse. Voters expect politicians to “do something!” Regulators don’t want to look unresponsive. So everybody has a plan for more money, more regulation, or some sort of action. And of course it’s a recurring problem. Enron failed, and politicians panicked right into the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, whose costs will be with us long after we’ve forgotten what Enron was.

The bias toward action is one good reason for constitutional and procedural constraints on government actions. Constitutional limits on what government can legislate, bicameral legislatures, supermajorities, the filibuster, the presidential veto–all are designed to prevent hasty action, whether from popular delusions, demagogic campaigns, or the simple desire to be seen doing something rather than prudently refraining from misguided actions.

An Argentine Mess

The decision of Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández to raise the export taxes on grain producers has sparked protests all over the country, putting the country once again in international headlines. But punishing exporters is not the main story, it’s the economic mess that the last two administrations have created in that beautiful country.

The previous government of Nestor Kirchner–Fernandez’s husband–thought that he could devalue his way out of the crisis of 2001. Since that year, the Central Bank of Argentina has consistently applied a weak peso policy, which along with a massive increase in public spending, has resulted in runaway inflation. Last year, the Argentine peso was the only Latin American currency that didn’t appreciate against the U.S. dollar; in fact it depreciated slightly. The weak peso thus served as a subsidy to exporters, including the farmers now protesting the tax hike.

So we actually have the Argentine government subsidizing and confiscating agricultural exporters at the same time, while creating inflation (which has led to price controls, bans on exports, and other economic beauties). And now, in response to the protests, the Fernández administration has announced new subsidies to farmers.

Only in Argentina.

Will They Turn Themselves In?

British prime minister Gordon Brown has announced that he supports increasing the penalties for the use of marijuana, reversing the slight liberalization of the law under his predecessor, Tony Blair.

I touched on this topic about nine months ago in my posting “Hash Brownies and Harlots in the Halls of Power.” As the Brown government began a review of the marijuana laws, it was revealed that at least eight members of Brown’s cabinet –including the Home Secretary (or attorney general), who was charged with studying the idea of increased penalties, the police minister, and the Home Office minister in charge of drugs – had themselves used marijuana. They were dubbed the “Hash Brownies,” in honor of their service in Brown’s government. I wrote at the time:

In the United States many leading politicians including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama have admitted using drugs, while Bush and Bill Clinton tried to avoid answering the question.

In both Britain and the United States, all these politicians support drug prohibition. They support the laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet they laugh off their own use as “a youthful indiscretion.”

These people should be asked: Do you think people should be arrested for using drugs? Do you think people should go to jail for using drugs? And if so, do you think you should turn yourself in? Do you think people who by the luck of the draw avoided the legal penalty for using drugs should now be serving in high office and sending off to jail other people who did what you did?

Those are still good questions. I noted at the time that they might also be asked of Sen. David Vitter, a patron of prostitutes who believes that prostitution should be illegal. And of course now they should be asked – if he were to reappear and take questions – of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who not only supported the laws he was breaking but aggressively enforced those very laws during the same period in which he was enthusastically violating them.

Hypocrisy may be the tribute that vice pays to virtue in matters of advice. But it’s entirely unbecoming when the coercive force of law is involved.

Dropouts. Starving for a Good Education

“Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will require all states to use one federal formula to calculate graduation and dropout rates,” reports the New York Times, as part of a campaign to keep more kids in school.

The idea that we can reduce the public school dropout rate simply by measuring it better is misguided. It’s like believing that the North Koreans could improve their economy by more accurately measuring the number of people who are starving. As with the North Korean economy, the problem with U.S. public schooling is that it is a monopoly that takes choice away from families, takes professional autonomy away from educators, and takes normal economic incentives away from everyone.

Meanwhile, there is evidence from a sophisticated nationwide study that inner city minority kids – those most at risk of dropping out – are more likely to graduate, more likely to get into college, and more likely to graduate from college if they attend private instead of public schools – and that’s true after controlling for differences in student and family background. Other small scale studies of the Milwaukee school voucher program show similar results.

We already know how to reduce the dropout rate: ensure that all families can easily afford to choose the public or private schools best suited to their children. Until that happens, expect to see millions of American kids continuing to starve for a real education.

April Fools for Skilled Workers

Quite appropriately, today exposes another facet of the foolishness that is U.S. immigration policy. April 1st is the day each fiscal year when employers are allowed to begin filing petitions with the US Citizen and Immigration Services for highly skilled workers to be given what are known as H-1B visas. For the second consecutive year, the quota of these visas was reached on this first day of eligibility.

H-1Bs allow employers to hire foreign workers in certain professional occupations. They are good for three years and can be renewed for another three. Though an H-1B cannot lead to a green card, it’s still a pretty good deal.

The problem is that, even in this apparent economic downturn, there aren’t enough visas: Congress limits the number of annual H-1Bs grants, and that magic number has been set at 65,000 for five years now. Before that, and in response to the technology boom of the late ’90s, Congress temporarily raised the H-1B cap to 195,000. But that expansion expired in 2004, and the cap has been reached earlier and earlier each year since.

In 2005, that meant August. In 2006, May 26. Last year, by the afternoon of April 2, 2007 (April 1 was a Sunday), USCIS had received over 150,000 H-1B applications. Officials quickly announced that they would randomly select 65,000 petitions from all those the agency had received in the first two days of eligibility.

Last week, with demand for the prized work permits only increasing, the powers that be decreed that this year’s lottery would accept all entries received in the first five business days. USCIS simultaneously promulgated a rule prohibiting employers from trying to game the lottery by filing multiple petitions for the same employee.

As for the vast majority of employers and employees who will be out of luck, the immigration laws say, like so many “rebuilding” baseball teams this opening week, “wait till next year.” Except, in this case, next year means putting your business or career on hold until October 1, 2009—the day people who secure H-1Bs for fiscal year 2010 can start work.

If only this were all a bad April Fools’ joke.

Read more on this in the article I have up on National Review Online today.