Archives: August, 2012

Hurricane Isaac and Louisiana

Hurricane Isaac is heading for Louisiana, and everyone is hoping that individuals and government agencies are ready for the onslaught. Seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina caused huge damage, but to a large extent ”it wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a man-made disaster, created by lousy engineering, misplaced priorities, and pork-barrel politics,” noted journalist Michael Grunwald. Grunwald pointed his finger particularly at failures of the Army Corps of Engineers, as have others.

I’ve described the long troubled history of the Army Corps in this essay, including its Katrina failures. Hopefully, the Corps’ facilities will do a better job this time around, but ultimately I think citizens would be better served if the Corps’ activities were privatized or off-loaded to the states.

Here are five ways that the Army Corps magnified the damage done to people and property from Hurricane Katrina:

First, there were fundamental design flaws in Army Corps’ infrastructure around New Orleans. The levees failed in numerous places because of engineering and construction defects, such as the use of unstable soils in levee structures. Most of the flooding was due to water breaching the levees at weak points.

Second, the Corps’ extensive levee and floodwall structures throughout the New Orleans area encouraged development in dangerous, low-lying areas. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Corps was charged with improving the city’s flood protection, but “rather than focusing its full efforts on protecting the existing city, the Corps decided to spend millions of dollars to extend levees into the virgin wetlands of New Orleans East specifically for the purpose of spurring development.” That turned out to be a very bad idea: “Some of the areas in New Orleans where Katrina wreaked the greatest damage were intensively developed only recently as a result of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood-control projects.”

Third, the Corps’ focus on building economic development infrastructure, such as ship channels, reduced available funds for hurricane protection. Louisiana had received $1.9 billion for Corps’ projects in the five years before Katrina, but only a small share was spent on protecting central New Orleans from possible hurricanes. Grunwald notes: “Before Katrina, the Corps was spending more in Louisiana than in any other state, but much of it was going to wasteful and destructive pork.”

Fourth, Corps’ infrastructure helped to deplete wetlands around New Orleans, which had provided a natural defense against hurricanes. The Corps’ navigation and flood control structures have caused silt from the Mississippi to disperse into the Gulf over the decades, rather than being naturally used to rebuild the wetlands. As writer John McPhee noted, “sediments are being kept within the mainline levees and shot into the Gulf … like peas through a peashooter, and lost to the abyssal plain.” As a result, the wetlands have shrunk decade after decade.

Fifth, the Corps’ Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel acted to funnel Hurricane Katrina into the heart of New Orleans. The 76-mile MRGO was built in 1965 at great expense based on optimistic projections of ship traffic, but the traffic never materialized. Constructing MRGO destroyed thousands of acres of protective wetlands, and it acted to channel salt water inland, which killed fresh water marshes and cypress forests. During Katrina, the channel is thought to have intensified the storm surge as it headed toward the city.

For more, see www.downsizinggovernment.org/usace

Peace Talks with the FARC: A Good Idea?

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday that his government will start “exploratory” peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, the oldest insurgency in the Americas. The announcement, which was widely expected in recent weeks, is highly controversial in Colombia. Is the Santos administration moving toward ending an armed conflict that has lasted over half a century and cost the lives of ten of thousands of Colombians? Or is the government agreeing to negotiate with terrorists, giving them a chance to regroup and continue their criminal activities such as drug trafficking?

There are many reasons not to trust the FARC. In 1998, then-president Andrés Pastrana opened high profile peace talks with the Marxist rebels. As a concession, Pastrana ceded the FARC control of a territory the size of Switzerland. The rebels used that neutral zone as a stronghold to consolidate their cocaine business—which gives them revenues of approximately $500 million a year—strengthen their recruitment, and launch deadly attacks against Colombia’s largest cities. By 2002, the peace talks had gone nowhere and the question among many officials in Washington and elsewhere was whether the Colombian government would survive.

Enter Álvaro Uribe, who was inaugurated as president in 2002 under rocket fire in Bogotá. Supported with military aid from Washington under Plan Colombia, Uribe launched a massive offensive against the FARC and struck several important blows to its leadership. During these years, most Colombians came to the realization that they were dealing with full blown terrorists and not simply with an ideologically driven peasant insurgency. The FARC rebels kidnapped hundreds of civilians, politicians and security forces for ransom, keeping some of them under inhumane conditions in the jungle for over a decade. Many died in captivity. They also attacked civilian targets in cities with bombs, killing scores of people. On February 4, 2008, millions of Colombians took to the streets under the chant “No Más FARC.”

Uribe’s military strategy proved successful in greatly diminishing violence in Colombia and severely weakening the FARC, whose troops halved in the last decade to approximately 8,000.

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former defense minister who conducted some of the most successful attacks against the FARC guerrillas, was overwhelmingly elected president of Colombia. However, unlike Uribe’s hard-line approach, Santos from the beginning showed willingness to engage the FARC in peace talks, even though his government continued to pound on the guerrillas, killing its head Alfonso Cano last November.

Notwithstanding losing most of its old guard, the FARC rebels have been able to step up their attacks in the last year, inflicting painful losses on the armed forces and targeting the country’s energy infrastructure. The wave of attacks has led many Colombians to wonder whether the hard-fought security gains under Uribe are slipping away. This also raises questions about president Santos’ leadership. It is worth noting that over a year ago, Uribe—who remains very popular among a majority of Colombians—broke with Santos, accusing him of, among other things, being weak toward what he and many Colombians still regard as a terrorist group.

Thus the conundrum: Some Colombians see what WOLA’s Adam Isacson has described as a “hurting stalemate.” The Santos administration would be wise to give peace one more chance, the argument goes. It does so under very different conditions from a decade ago. The armed forces still have the upper hand on the ground. The economy grows at a very healthy pace (although it’s increasingly becoming dependent on oil and mining). And the cities and their surroundings are far safer now. The government’s strategy under this theory is pushing the FARC to the limit and then forcing the guerrillas to negotiate a peace settlement.

However, other Colombians think that Juan Manuel Santos is proving to be another puny president just like Andrés Pastrana. They feel that the current president’s well-known appetite for popularity and jet-setting around the world is driving his push for peace talks, and that the latest wave of attacks from the FARC are the result of the guerrillas’ realization that they are dealing with a weak president. They point out that the army hasn’t dealt an important blow to the rebels in more than six months, perhaps at Santos’ behest. Moreover, they note that nowadays the FARC is mostly a drug trafficking organization with a decentralized command structure. As long as cocaine production remains a highly profitable industry, most of the armed units that compose the FARC will remain in the business, regardless of the peace process. Something similar happened to the demobilized right-wing paramilitary groups, some of which have reemerged as regular criminal bands known as “bacrim.” I would add that violent drug trafficking groups are a plague that will haunt Colombia until drugs are legalized.

Both sides have solid arguments. But I tend to agree more with the skeptical wing. Ending one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts on the continent is a goal worth pursuing. However, there is no reason to believe that this is what the FARC want. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

The Charter School Paradox

Is it possible for charter schools to increase educational options and diversity in the public school system but decrease it overall; to spend less money than regular public schools but cost taxpayers more overall; and to outperform regular public schools but decrease achievement overall?

Unfortunately, it is possible, and this mix of intended and unintended outcomes is the “Charter School Paradox.” But it is only a paradox if we take a narrow view of charter school effects. Rigorous new research concludes that public charter schools are seriously damaging the private education market, adding to the taxpayer burden, and undermining private options for families and healthy competition in the education sector.

Fortunately, we have a solution in education tax credits …

Take a look at the full paper by Richard Buddin, my short companion piece, and our brief video on the findings and implications of this path-breaking new research.

How Much Sea Ice?

The New York Times reported yesterday that the Arctic Ocean sea ice has reached a new record low. “Record low” Arctic ice this summer depends upon what data is used. This year, low values are in part a result of a very unusual storm in early August that broke up a large amount of ice northwest of Alaska. When this remaining ice is counted—as it should be—the total ice is about a million square kilometers greater than in the record low year of 2007. It is also worth noting that sea-ice coverage in the Southern Hemisphere continues to increase in a statistically significant fashion, as has been noted for decades. 

A detailed summary of the various measurements of sea ice can be found here.

Republicans and Local Control

Jennifer Rubin, seeking to dispel “myths about conservatives,” takes on the idea that “the GOP doesn’t believe in community:

President Obama likes to say that Republicans want everyone to be “on his own.” In fact, conservatives, as Romney put it in a speech at Liberty University this year, believe family, communities, churches and other civil institutions are critical building blocks in society. They favor investing authority in the level of government closest to the people (locales and states), which they believe is most responsive and governs best.

That’s a nice theory, and it’s one that keeps many libertarians voting Republican.

But in practice Republicans show less respect for state and local powers than you might think. Republicans, including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, supported—and still support—President Bush’s proposals for federal takeovers of education and marriage law. And I’ve never heard them question the Bush administration’s defense and vigorous prosecution of federal marijuana prohibition in the face of state efforts at reform.

Would that we had a Republican party that actually favored “investing authority in the level of government closest to the people.”

Civil Liberties Have No Champion in Presidential Race

Steve Chapman, writing in the Chicago Tribune:

Back in the early days of the Republic, the framers went to great trouble to draft and ratify the Bill of Rights. And every four years, our leaders pay homage to the framers by neglecting or disparaging that creation. …

When George W. Bush was president, Democrats often decried his habit of trampling on freedoms in his zeal to stamp out terrorism at any cost. Running in 2008, Barack Obama decried Bush’s aggressive use of presidential power in the name of national security.

But Democrats usually worry about civil liberties only when the other party is violating them. Obama is not always recognizable as the same person now that he is president. He has maintained the prison camp at Guantanamo, continued warrantless surveillance of Americans and carried out lethal drone attacks on U.S. citizens abroad without making public the evidence.

Read the whole thing. More from Cato Senior Fellow Nat Hentoff.

I Heard It Through the Grapevine That the Government Was Violating Property Rights

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Kathleen Hunker.

Property owners shouldn’t be made to suffer a needless, Rube Goldberg-style litigation process to vindicate their constitutional rights. Yet that is exactly what the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeks to impose on independent raisin farmers Marvin and Laura Horne when they protested the enforcement of a USDA “marketing order” that demanded that the Hornes turn over 47 percent of their crop without compensation.

The marketing order—a much-criticized New Deal relic—forces raisin “handlers” to reserve a certain percentage of their crop “for the account” of the government-backed Raisin Administrative Committee, enabling the government to control the supply and price of raisins on the market. The RAC then either sells the raisins or simply gives them away to noncompetitive markets—such as federal agencies, charities, and foreign governments—with the proceeds going toward the RAC’s administration costs.

Believing that they, as raisin “producers,” were exempt, the Hornes failed to set aside the requisite tribute during the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 growing seasons. The USDA disagreed with the Hornes’ interpretation of the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 and brought an enforcement action, seeking $438,843.53 (the approximate market value of the raisins that the Hornes allegedly owe), $202,600 in civil penalties, and $8,783.39 in unpaid assessments.

After losing in that administrative review, the Hornes brought their case to federal court, arguing that the marketing order and associated fines violated the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. Having litigated the matter in both district and appellate court, the government—for the first time—alleged that the Hornes’ takings claim would not be ripe for judicial review until after the Hornes terminated the present dispute, paid the money owed, and then filed a separate suit in the Court of Federal Claims.

The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit proved receptive to the government’s about-face. Relying on Williamson County v. Hamilton Bank (1985)—the Supreme Court case that first imposed ripeness conditions on takings claims—the court ruled in a revised opinion that the Tucker Act (which relates to federal waivers of sovereign immunity) divested federal courts of jurisdiction over all takings claims until the property owner unsuccessfully sought compensation in the Court of Federal Claims. In conflict with five other circuit courts and a Supreme Court plurality, the Ninth Circuit also concluded that the Tucker Act offered no exception for those claims challenging a taking of money, nor for those claims raised as a defense to a government-initiated action.

The ruling defies both law and common sense. It stretches the Supreme Court’s ripeness rule beyond its moorings and forces property owners to engage in utterly pointless, inefficient, and burdensome activities just to recover what should never have been taken in the first place.

Cato has thus filed an amicus brief, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and Reason Foundation, supporting the Hornes’ request that the Supreme Court take the case and correct the Ninth Circuit’s overbroad reading of Williamson County. We argue that an unjustified monetary order is inherently a taking without just compensation and that a ruling to the contrary imposes a pointless burden on property owners, particularly when the government initiated the original proceeding.

We also encourage the Court to reconsider Williamson County, noting that the text and history of the Takings Clause don’t permit the government to defer compensation—that indeed the most natural reading of the Takings Clause demands that compensation be offered as a prerequisite to government action. Just as the Court wouldn’t permit the government to seize property without some prior “due process of law,” it shouldn’t permit the government to seize property without prior “just compensation.”

The Court has no reason to treat takings claims with less deference than rights anchored in other constitutional provisions. It will decide this fall whether to address that issue in the case of Horne v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.