Archives: 11/2012

Can You Believe How that Guy Condescends to You Morons?

Here’s another poor, unsuccessful, election-day-related letter I sent to the editor of the Washington Post (who has probably blocked my email address by now):

The Post rightly criticizes Mitt Romney’s “Contempt for voters” [editorial, Nov. 4].

But the same could be said of the Post’s argument that, because a proposed amendment to Virginia’s Constitution would make it harder for government to take voters’ property away from them, voters should oppose it [“Vote no on Ballot Question 1 in Va.,” editorial, Nov. 1].

Vote Theft!

For election day, here is a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of the Washington Post:

“Because of his social views,” Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson “could also steal some support away from Obama on the left” [“Gary Johnson’s third-party presidential bid: A real factor or just a footnote?” Oct. 19].

Somebody stop that man! Doesn’t he know those votes belong to President Obama?

Or perhaps we should disenfranchise those erstwhile Obama voters, who flatter themselves that they are exercising their judgment and free will, but are merely accessories to a crime.

If Oklahoma Wins Lawsuit, ‘The Whole Structure’ of ObamaCare ‘Starts to Fall Apart’

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has filed a lawsuit challenging the Internal Revenue Service’s unlawful attempt to impose ObamaCare’s taxes on exempt employers and individuals. (Jonathan Adler and I plumb this issue in our forthcoming Health Matrix article, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.”)

An article in the current issue of Business Insurance cites a couple of experts on the potential impact of the lawsuit:

While the ramifications of the suit pending in the U.S. District Court in Muskogee, Okla., are huge, the challenge brought last month has gotten little attention…

What is clear is that the outcome of the lawsuit could be crucial for the future of the health care reform law, observers said.

If premium subsidies are not available in federally established exchanges, “No one would go to those exchanges. The whole structure created by the health care reform law starts to fall apart,” said Gretchen Young, senior vice president-health policy at the ERISA Industry Committee in Washington.

“The health care reform law would become a meaningless law,” added Chantel Sheaks, a principal with Buck Consultants L.L.C. in Washington.

For more, read here, hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

‘Un-American’ Trade Disputes

Borrowing the title from a Stephen Colbert segment, this blog post is going to be about trade disputes not involving America. Given recent trade rhetoric, you might think that all trade disputes are about the U.S. and China, but that’s not the case. Other countries have disputes, too, and some of them are very interesting, getting into the core issue of what international trade rules should be about.

First up is a complaint by Canada and Norway against the EU related to a ban on “seal products.”  According to the EU regulation at issue, seal products means “all products, either processed or unprocessed, deriving or obtained from seals, including meat, oil, blubber, organs, raw fur skins and fur skins, tanned or dressed, including fur skins assembled in plates, crosses and similar forms, and articles made from fur skins.”  Under the regulation, with limited exceptions, seal products may not be imported or sold in the EU.

Canada and Norway have a significant seal harvest, and are concerned about lost sales in the EU market (as well as the spread of the EU policy to other countries).  The main legal claims (a very rough version, anyway) are that the EU Regulation discriminates against Canadian/Norwegian seal products in favor of competing EU products, and that the regulation is more trade-restrictive than necessary.

This case helps illustrate the scope of international trade rules.  Writing about the case a couple years ago, blogger Matt Yglesias wondered

why the seal issue is being handled as a trade policy matter in the first place. In other words, why ban the import of seal products rather than simply ban selling seal products? Clearly the EU’s concern here is with the existence of a commercial market for dead seals rather than with the transnational flow of seals per se.

In fact, the law involves both an import ban and a general sales ban.  (Why separately ban imports when you have already banned sales?  Most likely for administrative convenience.  Importation is a good place to catch these things.)  But regardless, even if the law had not mentioned imports, a general sales ban could have been challenged at the WTO.  This is an important point that Yglesias doesn’t seem to realize, and if he missed this, I suspect others might miss it as well.  In what way are general product bans covered by WTO rules?  For one thing, even facially neutral measures may in fact be cases of disguised protectionism, having a disparate impact on foreign products.  For another, as noted, there are rules that prohibit domestic laws from being more trade restrictive than necessary.  Such rules go beyond simple protectionism, and provide another way to challenge a general product ban.  Do some of these rules intrude too far into domestic affairs?  There is lot of debate about that in trade circles.

A second case has been brought by Ukraine against Australia, involving Australia’s “plain packaging” rules for cigarettes (the Dominican Republic and Honduras are likely to join the case), which require cigarettes to be sold in plain packages with no logos and a uniform font for the brand name.  Here, there are the same trade arguments as in the seal products case:  the measure is discriminatory, and more trade-restrictive than necessary.  Also, there are claims that plain packaging interferes with the tobacco companies’ trademarks, in violation of the WTO’s rules on intellectual property.

I thought it was worth mentioning these cases here for the following reason.  If international trade rules can be used to challenge any government law or regulation that affects trade, even if the measure is facially non-discriminatory, these international rules are going to be quite broad, and could have an impact on much, if not all, domestic governing.  It may be worth thinking about these issues to make sure we properly balance international governance and domestic policymaking, and these cases provide a good opportunity to do so.  (I wrote more about this in an op-ed for The Jurist on the plain packaging case.)  The cases are at an early stage, and it’s not clear how they will turn out.  But the mere fact that they are being tried in an international court is noteworthy.

One final point:  Just to be clear, I don’t mean to defend the laws at issue—the seal products ban and plain packaging for cigarettes—as a matter of policy.  Rather, I’m just focusing on whether they should be found in violation of international trade rules.

Led by Prop 30 in California and Prop 2 in Michigan, a List of the Most Important Ballot Initiatives of 2012

Two years ago, I highlighted nine key state ballot initiatives and happily reported about a week later that voters generally chose to limit statism.

We have a similar collection of measures this year. Some of these votes - such as the decisions about higher taxes in California and power for government employee unions in Michigan - will have profound implications and perhaps even signal whether certain jurisdictions are doomed to failure.

Since I’m motivated primarily by the desire to reduce the burden of government spending and block bad tax policy, let’s look first at the key fiscal measures on this year’s ballot.

Prop 30 in California - Would impose a huge tax hike, including an increase in the state sales tax from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent, along with three new higher income tax brackets (maxing out at more than 13 percent!) for upper-income taxpayers. The adjoining cartoon is a good summary of the issue, as is this classic bit of political humor.

Prop 38 and Prop 39 - Two additional tax hike measures, the first targeting individual taxpayers and the second targeting businesses. I’m not sure which tax-hike proposition is the worst, but they all need to be defeated for there to be any hope about California’s future.

Prop 204 in Arizona - Renewing a one-cent increase in the state sales tax, ostensibly for the education bureaucracy. Money is fungible, so this is merely a vote for bigger government.

Issue 1 in Arkansas - Imposing a half-cent increase in the state sales tax, supposedly for highway spending. Another bait-and-switch scam to trick voters into financing bigger government.

Prop 5 in Michigan - Would require a two-thirds vote of both the state house and state senate to raise any tax. Anything that makes it harder to raise taxes is also a step making it harder to boost the burden of spending.

Prop B in Missouri - Raise the cigarette tax by 73 cents per pack. Politicians in the Show Me state should kick their addiction to big government.

Constitutional Amendment Concurrent Resolution 13 in New Hampshire - A constitutional amendment to prohibit enactment of an income tax. The Granite State has been blessed by avoiding either a state sales tax or a state income tax. It’s almost a shame that there’s a First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, because otherwise I’d be tempted to outlaw even discussion of imposing an income tax.

Measure 84 in Oregon - Would repeal the state’s death tax. This should be a no-brainer. You don’t want to repeat the mistakes of New Jersey and drive productive residents to other states. But Oregon voters have demonstrated a lemming-like suicide instinct in the past.

Initiated Measure 15 in South Dakota - Increases the state sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent. There’s no income tax, but that’s no argument for making a modest sales tax into an onerous sales tax.

Initiative 1185 in Washington - Reaffirms the state’s two-thirds supermajority requirement before the state legislature can increase taxes. Voters repeatedly have reaffirmed their support for the supermajority in the past. Let’s hope that doesn’t change now.

Now let’s shift to matters of personal freedom and look at ballot measures involving the Second Amendment and the Drug War.

Prop 114 in Arizona - Protects crime victims from being sued if they injure or kill criminals. Yes, there are examples of excessive response, but the easiest way of avoiding those situations - if you’re a criminal - is by keeping your nose clean.

Amendment 2 in Louisiana - Strengthens right to keep and bear arms. If this doesn’t pass by more than 80 percent, I’ll be disappointed.

Amendment 64 in Colorado, Measure 80 in Oregon, and Initiative 502 in Washington - All of these ballot measures end marijuana prohibition to varying degrees. Let’s hope voters take a small step in ending the War on Drugs.

These initiatives are related to fiscal policy, but they belong in a special category since they deal with the necessity of curtailing bloated and over-compensated government bureaucracies.

Prop 1 in Idaho - This measure would retain recent legislative reforms to end tenure in government schools. The only real solution is school choice, but this measure at least should make it easier to get rid of awful teachers that contribute to making the public schools both costly and ineffective.

Prop 2 in Michigan - Creates permanent negotiating advantages for already pampered government employee unions. This is the bureaucrat equivalent of Prop 30 in California, a massive transfer of wealth and power from the productive sector. If it passes, Michigan probably would be past the tipping point in its descent into stagnation and despair.

Last but not least, here are measures on random issues that are very important.

Prop 3 in Michigan - Require 25 percent of electricity to come from renewables. This will be an interesting test of whether the voters of a particular state are so clueless about economics that they are willing to voluntarily boost their own energy bills and undermine their own job prospects. I almost hope it passes just for the lesson it will teach.

Question 1 in Virginia - Limits eminent domain to public purposes. Corrupt developers and their cronies in state and local government don’t like this proposal, which naturally means it is a very good idea for those who support property rights.

Amendment 6 in Alabama, Amendment 1 in Florida, Prop E in Missouri, Legislative Referendum 122 in Montana, and Amendment A in Wyoming - These are all anti-Obamacare initiatives in some form or fashion. Continued resistance is important, even if some of these measures are only symbolic, so fingers crossed that they’re all approved.

You can find more information about state ballot initiatives and referendum here, here, here, and here.

And one final philosophical/policy point: In an ideal world, the United States would be like Switzerland and have a much more robust version of federalism. Almost everything that happens in Washington, with the exception of national defense, should either be in the private sector or at the state and local level of government.

A big advantage of a genuinely federalist system is that competition among states would be more vigorous than it is today. So if Michigan voters enacted Prop 2 or California voters approved Prop 30, tho adverse consequences would materialize much faster, thus helping to educate people that free markets and limited government are the best policies.

Did Global Warming Reduce the Impacts of Sandy?

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

The press has been quick to jump on the idea that post-tropical cyclone Sandy (it was not a hurricane at landfall) was worsened by anthropogenic global warming and that “superstorms” are here to stay.

But I must ask the impertinent question: could anthropogenic global warming actually have lessened the impacts of Sandy?

There are basically three pro-global warming talking points involving Sandy: 1) global warming has caused sea levels to rise, thus making the storm surge larger, 2) global warming has led to higher sea surface temperatures and thus stronger hurricanes, and 3) global warming is making extratropical circulation features more conducive to intense and slower moving storm systems.

There is precious little evidence to definitively support any of these points when applied to Sandy, and, in fact, there exists a body of evidence pointing to the opposite conclusion—that anthropogenic global warming may have actually acted to mitigate the intensity of Sandy. Perhaps what lies closest to our current best understanding is that anthropogenic global warming made little contribution one way or the other.

Let’s start with sea level rise.  Water levels at New York City’s Battery Park location have been measured and recorded since 1856. The full record shows an overall (relatively steady) rise of about 0.11 inches per year, for a total rise between 1856 and now of just a bit more than 17 inches. How much of this has to do with anthropogenic global warming? Maybe a third, or about 6 inches. Of the rest, about half was caused by a subsidence of the land (geological processes related to the end of the last ice age, see Engelhart et al., 2009 for example), and the remainder to a warming up from the naturally occurring cold period which ended in the mid-19th century. So of the total 17.34 feet of water (above the station datum) recorded at The Battery tide gauge during the height of Sandy, about 0.5 feet of that could probably be linked to anthropogenic global warming.  This is not nothing, but the overwhelming majority of the damage done by the storm surge would have happened anyway. For comparison, the influence of the full moon that night was about as large as the influence of anthropogenic global warming.

As to anthropogenic global warming’s impact on the path, frequency, and intensity of hurricanes, there is a mixed bag of potential outcomes which may be detectable far in the future (towards the end of the century)  if anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The current science suggests that the frequency of hurricanes could decrease, the intensity may increase slightly, and the preferred path may be displaced out to sea (Wang et al., 2010). The net effect on the U.S. is anyone’s guess at this point (but 2 of the 3 argue for fewer hurricane impacts in the U.S.).  But what virtually everyone does agree upon is that any influence of anthropogenic global warming on hurricane characteristics is not detectable in today’s climate (see for example, Knutson et al., 2010). So that talking point is basically off the table.

Which brings us to the third global-warming-made-Sandy-worse talking point—the influence of anthropogenic global warming on the extratropical circulation characteristics.

This is where the rubber really meets the road when it comes to Sandy’s behavior.  Without the northward, and ultimately westward pull from the upper atmospheric jet stream, Sandy would have progressed harmlessly eastward, away from the Northeast coast, and out to sea.  But that is not what happened. Instead, a fairly deep trough (southward excursion) of the jet stream was coincidentally passing through the eastern U.S. just as hurricane Sandy was progressing up (but offshore) the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. This trough had the effect of attracting Sandy, and drawing it northwestward, pumping energy into it, and changing its character from a hurricane to an extra/post tropical storm system (also known as a Nor’easter in this part of the country).  In October, this type of behavior is not particularly unusual. The preferred tropical cyclone track maps provided by the National Hurricane Center (Figure 1) indicate a general tendency for tropical cyclones in October to curve back into the northeastern U.S.—just like Sandy did.

Figure 1. Prevailing tropical cyclone tracks for the month of October (source: National Hurricane Center, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/climo/)

In fact, since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been about a dozen or so tropical cyclones that have made landfall in the U.S. north of Cape Hatteras which had a westerly component to their trajectory either immediately before or just after they came ashore. This includes historically damaging storms such as the 1903 New Jersey hurricane, the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane, and 1972’s Hurricane Agnes which is still the flood of record in many parts of the Northeast.

The last one was tropical storm Danielle, over twenty years ago. This is the longest interval in the record (since 1900) between westward-component storms north of Hatteras.  So much for the influence of global warming!

So, given this fairly typical behavior—why would anyone even consider that anthropogenic global warming played a role in Sandy?

For two reasons: 1) any bad weather these days is immediately linked to global warming by someone with an agenda, and 2) there was a paper published last spring (Francis and Vavrus, 2012) in which the authors concluded that the decline of Arctic sea ice (tied to anthropogenic global warming) was causing the Arctic to warm up faster than the lower latitudes, reducing the natural north-south temperature gradient which is where the jet stream (and extratropical storms) gain energy.  According to Francis and Vavrus, a less energetic jet stream contracts and becomes more meandering, with relatively deeper troughs and higher ridges which produce slower moving storm systems and more extreme weather.

Since Sandy was strengthened and pulled ashore by a deep trough/ridge system in the jet stream, folks are quick to assume that the Francis and Vavrus mechanism tying in anthropogenic global warming must be involved.

Not so fast!

This is like claiming to have made a new discovery that, when flipping a coin, heads are now more likely to occur than tails.  And wouldn’t you know, the next time the coin is flipped, it came up heads—to which you proclaim, “See, I told you so.” And since heads are associated with a bad outcome, the press flock to your explanation.  But what is completely overlooked, is that other researchers have examined every coin flip for the past 60 years and found that heads and tails occur with equal likelihood. So the current heads outcome is simply part of the natural 50-50 occurrence of heads or tails.

In this case, the other researchers are a pair of atmospheric scientists from Cornell University which have examined the forward speed of all nor’easters along the East Coast from 1951 through 2006 (Bernhardt and DeGaetano, 2012). And what they found, in their own words, was “There was no clear trend in [nor’easter forward] speed during the time period, although considerable season-to-season variability was present.” In other words, while there is a lot of storm-to-storm and season-to-season variability, there is no overall trend towards slower moving nor’easters (Figure 2)—so much for the Francis and Vavrus hypothesis.

Figure 2. Average speed of East Coast winter storms (nor’easters), from 1951-2006 (source: Bernhardt and DeGaetano, 2012).

And, there has been a lot of other research on changes in the patterns and characteristics of the Northern Hemisphere jet stream during the period of anthropogenic global warming which did not find that same thing that Francis and Vavrus found (we detailed many of these findings in our March 8, 2012 Current Wisdom).  At least one of those papers suggested that the methodology employed by Francis and Vavrus “can generate false, or mask actual, variability patterns including trends” (Strong and Davis, 2007). Others concluded that global warming contracted, the jet stream, flattened it over the eastern U.S., and sped it up a bit—characteristics, which, along with a decreased temperature gradient, if applied to Sandy, would have combined to produce a less intense post tropical storm system than if global warming had not been occurring.

So rather than anthropogenic global warming making Sandy worse, it could have actually lessened its intensity and impacts.

The truth is, is that it is impossible to know how, or even if, global warming played any role at all in the lifecycle of Sandy. The science is all over the map, and the signal-to-noise ratio is so low that no matter what is occurring its impact in any direction is undetectable.

But it is sexier and has much more press appeal to proclaim that the destruction wrought by “superstorm” Sandy is the product of our unrestrained fossil fuel consumption, rather than the equally plausible opposite—that anthropogenic climate changes may have combined to lessen Sandy’s intensity.


References:

Bernhardt, J.E., and A.T. DeGaetano, 2012. Meteoro­logical factors affecting the speed of movement and related impacts of extratropical cyclones along the U.S. east coast. Natural Hazards, 61, 1463-1472, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0078-0

Engelhart, S.E., et al., 2009. Spatial variability of late Holocene and 20th century sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast of the Unites States. Geology, 37, 1115-1118.

Francis, J., and S. Vavrus, 2012. Evidence linking arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L06801, doi:10.1029/2012GL051000.

Knutson, T. R., et al., 2010. Tropical cyclones and climate change. Nature Geoscience, 3, 157-163, doi: 10.1038/ngeo779

Strong, C., and R. Davis, 2007. Winter jet stream trends over the Northern Hemisphere. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 133, 2109-2115, doi:10.1002/qj.171

Wang, C., et al., 2011: Impact of the Atlantic warm pool on United States landfalling hur­ricanes. Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L19702, doi:10.1029/2011GL049265.

This Would Raise the Price of Cell Phone Service

You’d think consumers didn’t care about price.

This HuffPo piece makes the wireless industry’s resistance to regulation requiring backup power at cell sites sound all “corporate-y.”

“The biggest issue is they have not wanted to invest the money in hardening their networks sufficiently against a catastrophic event,” says Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

Industry group CTIA says the proposed requirements “would unnecessarily burden wireless carriers and potentially undermine the investments and network planning that have made their networks so successful.”

What about the fact that the cost of backup power requirements would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices?

The case for a backup power regulatory mandate sounds weak. During the biggest storm in who-knows-when, in the most populous regions of the country, “thousands” were left without cell phone service. What percentage of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area’s population is that?

“As power returned to many areas over the weekend, wireless carriers reported that more than 95 percent of their cell towers in areas affected by the storm were working.”

Lost service is a real thing that happened, but other dimensions of preparedness and response seem to have gone much worse.

To the extent lost service had a proximate relationship to someone not getting the help they needed, Superstorm Sandy makes clear the consequences of large weather events, and it will educate consumers and cell phone providers both about the risk of lost communications during natural disasters. Both will respond as they see fit.

But raise everybody’s cell phone bill permanently to secure against outlier events? Let’s put our thinking caps on:

Given the increased cost, marginal cell phone consumers would drop their service and they wouldn’t have access to communications when they were in emergency situations.

It seems to me that getting a cheaper cell phone plan to people who may often have occasion to report muggings-in-progress is a greater protection for the public than insuring the wealthier consumer against lost service during extremely rare weather events.