Archives: 03/2013

Globovisión: The Latest Casualty in Venezuela’s Assault on Freedom of the Press

After years of harassment by the authorities, Globovisión, the last remaining independent TV station in Venezuela, will be sold to a business group close to the government. This unfortunate development shows that the threat to freedom of the press—and to all other civil liberties in Venezuela—will not go away with the death of Hugo Chávez.

In recent years Globovisión suffered stiff fines and administrative proceedings that crippled its viability as a private business. The TV station incurred in these fines because of ludicrous reasons, such as reporting an earthquake (which the government claims contributed to creating public panic) or their coverage of Venezuela’s staggering crime wave (which the authorities said “promoted hatred for political reasons that generated anxiety in the population.”) Moreover, its license was due to expire in 2016, and there were good reasons to believe that the government would not renew it, as it ocurred in 2007 with RCT, until Venezuela’s then largest independent TV station.

Globovisión’s owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, who is also a Cato Fellow on Free Speech, is a true hero of freedom of the press in Venezuela. For many years he fought against president Chávez and his government for the survival of his business, even facing arrest and now exile. In 2009 Cato held a policy forum on the intensifying assault on freedom of the press in Venezuela, where the future of Globovisión featured predominantly. Unfortunately, that assault has claimed another victim.

Because a Less Informed Public Is a More Compliant Public

Remember when organized teachers used to be big on civic education and raising awareness about the voting process? Times have changed, as Jeff Mapes of the Oregonian reports

The Oregon Education Association wants state legislators to remove the notice on ballot envelopes warning voters of a potential property tax hike in upcoming elections. 

Oregon voters passed the requirement as part of Measure 47 in 1996, but the union sees now as a politically propitious time to get rid of it: 

Union officials say the warning, which the law now requires to be “boldly printed in red,” unfairly singles out property tax measures and is not needed because the ballots themselves contain clear information about proposed tax hikes.

Critics and taxpayer advocates say the union’s objective is to reduce turnout by tax-skeptical voters, especially in low-participation off-year elections where the union might otherwise prevail just by turning its own people out. (An uncharitable observer might even see the aim as “voter suppression.”) The union’s response is a classic: 

[OEA spokeswomen Becca] Uherbelau said the teachers union is not trying to depress turnout.

“Our history has shown that we have done a lot to increase voter participation,” she said, noting that the union has frequently spent money encouraging people to vote in local school levy and bond elections.

Right, because a history of dragging their own supporters to the polls totally refutes suggestions that they’re trying to reduce the likelihood of their adversaries’ backers making it there.  

Senator Patty Murray Is Right…and Completely Wrong…about the 1990s

I wrote about the Ryan budget two days ago, praising it for complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule and reforming Medicare and Medicaid.

But I believe in being honest and nonpartisan, so I also groused that it wasn’t as good as the 2011 and 2012 versions.

Now it’s time to give the same neutral and dispassionate treatment to the budget proposed by Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

But I’m going to focus on a theme rather than numbers.

One part of her budget got me particularly excited. Her Committee’s “Foundation for Growth” blueprint makes a very strong assertion about the fiscal and economic history of the Clinton years.

The work done in the 1990s helped grow the economy, create jobs, balance the budget, and put our government on track to eliminate the national debt.

As elaborated in this passage, the 42nd President delivered very good results.

President Bill Clinton entered office in 1993 at a time when the country was facing serious deficit and debt problems. The year before, the federal government was taking in revenue equal 17.5 percent of GDP, but spending was 22.1 percent of the economy—a deficit of 4.7 percent. …The unemployment rate went from 7 percent at the beginning of 1993 to 3.9 percent at the end of 2000. Between 1993 and 2001, our economy gained more than 22 million jobs and experienced the longest economic expansion in our history.

And the Senate Democrats even identified one of the key reasons why economic and fiscal policy was so successful during the 1990s.

…federal spending dropped from 22.1 percent of GDP to 18.2 percent of GDP.

I fully agree with every word reprinted above. That’s the good news.

So what, then, is the bad news?

Well, Senator Murray may have reached the right conclusion, but she was wildly wrong in her analysis. For all intents and purposes, she claims that the 1993 tax hike produced most of the good results.

President Clinton’s 1993 tax deal…brought in new revenue from the wealthiest Americans and…our country created 22 million new jobs and achieved a balanced budget. President Clinton’s tax policies were not the only driver of economic growth, but our leaders’ ability to agree on a fiscally sustainable and economically sound path provided valuable certainty for American families and businesses.

First, let’s dispense with the myth that the 1993 tax hike balanced the budget. I obtained the fiscal forecasts that were produced by both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget in early 1995 because I wanted to see whether a balanced budget was predicted.

As you can see in the chart, both of those forecasts showed perpetual deficits of about $200 billion. And these forecasts were made nearly 18 months after the Clinton tax hike was implemented.

So if even the White House’s own forecast from OMB didn’t foresee a balanced budget, what caused the actual fiscal situation to be much better than the estimates?

The simple answer is that spending was restrained. You can give credit to Bill Clinton. You can give credit to the GOP Congress that took power in early 1995. You can give the credit to both.

But regardless of who gets the credit, the period of spending restraint that began at that time was the change that produced a budget surplus, not the tax hike that was imposed 18 months earlier and which was associated with perpetual red ink.

But spending restraint tells only part of the story. With the exception of the 1993 tax hike, the Clinton years were a period of shrinking government and free market reform.

Take a look at my homemade bar chart to compare the good policies of the 1990s with the bad policies. It’s not even close.

You may be thinking that my comparison is completely unscientific, and you’re right. I probably overlooked some good policies and some bad policies.

And my assumptions about weighting are very simplistic. Everything is equally important, with a big exception in that I made the government spending variable three times as important as everything else.

Why? Well, I think reducing the burden of government spending during the Clinton years was a major achievement.

But maybe we shouldn’t rely on my gut instincts. So let’s set aside my created-at-the-spur-of-the-moment bar chart and look at something that is scientific.

This chart is taken directly from Economic Freedom of the World, which uses dozens of variables to measure the overall burden of government.

As you can see, the United States score improved significantly during the Clinton years, showing that economic freedom was expanding and the size and scope of government was shrinking.

In other words, Patty Murray is correct. She is absolutely right to claim that Bill Clinton’s policies “helped grow the economy, create jobs, balance the budget.”

Now she needs to realize that those policies were small government and free markets.

Bloomberg’s Soda Grab and the Separation of Powers

I’m at the Commentary magazine blog this morning with a second bite (second gulp?) at the NYC soda ban ruling. This time I look at the separation-of-powers angle, and at the way Judge Milton Tingling, Jr.’s ruling addressed the overgrown ambitions of some in the “public health” community to control more and more of life. Although the decision did not forestall the New York City Council from adopting nanny-state regulations in the future should it see fit, I argue, 

…yesterday’s decision should cheer us for other reasons. It holds the Gotham administration accountable for overstepping the separation of powers, an important principle in the safeguarding of liberty. (In a profile of Judge Tingling, the New York Times notes that he’s been skeptical of government claims to power in a number of other cases as well.) 

Under separation of powers as generally understood at the time of the Framers, an executive agency cannot enact new legislation on its own, that being a role constitutionally reserved for the legislature. Especially during the Progressive Era and New Deal, these barriers were eroded as administrative agencies claimed a power to issue regulations that looked more and more like traditional legislation, under powers deemed to have been delegated by the legislature. Still, there are some limits, both under the U.S. Constitution and in New York (which under a 1987 case called Boreali v. Axelrod applies its own, quirky standard in evaluating whether a regulation oversteps the separation of powers.) And those limits to delegation were at the heart of the soda case.

The New York City Health Department was asserting a breathtakingly broad definition of its powers, on the grounds that successive city charters give it sweeping authority to address all matters relating to health. Under the interpretation advanced by Bloomberg’s lawyers, this vague charter language would empower the department to issue pretty much whatever diktats it pleases for New Yorkers to obey on any topic somehow related to advancing health….

Looking at cases where the agency’s authority to act had been upheld, the judge noted instances of emergencies, particularly those relating to epidemics of contagious or communicable diseases. … In that legal finding is the germ of a much-needed rebuke to some actors in the public-health movement, who have taken the centuries of moral and practical authority originally built up by their colleagues from the fight against epidemic infectious disease and dubiously sought to apply it to a dozen other health-related questions of life and lifestyle, including not only doughnuts, soft drinks and salty snacks but also such supposed “disease vectors” as gun ownership and overreliance on cars for commuting.

Read the whole thing at Commentary here. Background in yesterday’s post here.

Rare “It’s Not as Bad as We Thought” Finding Published

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.

From the authors of a new paper just-published in the journal Nature Geoscience comes this surprising finding:

Tropical forests are less likely to lose biomass – plants and plant material – in response to greenhouse gas emissions over the twenty-first century than may previously have been thought.

A rare “not as bad as we thought” admission about the impacts of manmade global warming!

Not only that, but based on recent findings that the true climate sensitivity is much lower than climate models emulate—findings not incorporated in new study—the results are probably still even more “not as bad as they thought” than they thought!

Chris Huntingford from the U.K’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and colleagues coupled climate model projections to a land surface/vegetation model to see how the tropical forests in the Americas, Africa, and Asia respond to changes in atmospheric conditions. Their vegetation model includes interactions between terrestrial plants and influences such as temperature, precipitation, and the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere (a plant fertilizer).

Unlike other studies which used a very limited selection of climate models and less sophisticated vegetation models, the Huntingford team found that in virtually all future simulations that the biomass of tropical forests increases over the course of the 21st century. This is a significantly different result than many previous which suggested that anthropogenic climate change would lead to, as Huntingford et al. put it, “catastrophic losses of forest cover and biomass.”

Perhaps most interestingly, the major driver for the biomass increase is the projected growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (thanks to our use of fossil fuels). The model projected changes in precipitation had little impact on the biomass predictions and the projected increase in temperature acted to decrease the biomass (although not as much as additional carbon dioxide acted to increase it).

Which is why the results probably get even better if there is less warming associated with carbon dioxide emissions than current generation climate models predict (new research suggest that climate models together produce about 50% more warming than they should).

The authors are quick to mention that uncertainty abounds, as our level of understanding of forest response to changing environmental conditions is not all that high. But even given these uncertainties, the authors are confident that their results of increasing biomass are robust. Here is how Huntingford described the situation in a press release:

The big surprise in our analysis is that uncertainties in ecological models of the rainforest are significantly larger than uncertainties from differences in climate projections. Despite this we conclude that based on current knowledge of expected climate change and ecological response, there is evidence of forest resilience for the Americas (Amazonia and Central America), Africa and Asia.

Resilience. A refreshingly honest assessment of an ecosystem response to climate change. And one that is probably a much more apt descriptor of natural systems than “delicate,” “sensitive,” or “fragile.”

Now if only the folks in charge of assembling national and international climate impact assessments would realize (or probably more accurately, admit to) this.

We are hard at work trying to focus their attention as we are vigorously reviewing the latest draft “National Assessment” of climate change.  We will leak out particularly juicy snippets in these pages when the time seems right.

Reference:

Huntingford, C. et al., 2013. Simulated resilience of tropical rainforests to CO2-induced climate change, Nature Geoscience, 10.1038/NGEO1741.

Making Sense of Drug Violence in Mexico with Big Data, New Media, and Technology

Yesterday we hosted a very interesting event with Google Ideas about the use of new media and technology information in Mexico’s war on drugs. You can watch the whole thing in the video below.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest casualties from the bloodshed that besets Mexico is freedom of the press. Drug cartels have targeted traditional media outlets such as TV stations and newspapers for their coverage of the violence. Mexico is now the most dangerous country to be a journalist. However, a blackout of information about the extent of violence has been avoided because of activity on Facebook pages, blogs, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels.

Our event highlighted the work of two Mexican researchers on this topic. Andrés Monroy-Hernández from Microsoft Research presented the findings of his paper “The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare” which shows how Twitter has replaced traditional media in several Mexican cities as the primary source of information about drug violence. Also, we had Javier Osorio, a Ph.D. candidate from Notre Dame University, who has built original software that tracks the patterns of drug violence in Mexico using computerized textual annotation and geospatial analysis.

Our third panelist was Karla Zabludovsky, a reporter from the New York Times’ Mexico City Bureau, who talked about the increasing dangers faced by journalists in Mexico and the challenges that new media represent in covering the war on drugs in that country.

Even though Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s new president, has focused the narrative of his presidency on economic reform, the war on drugs continues to wreak havoc in Mexico. Just in the first two months of the year over 2,000 people have been killed by organized crime. 

At the Cato Institute we closely keep track of developments in Mexico and we have published plenty of material on the issue, including:

Watch the full event:

And for those who speak the language of Cervantes, here’s a ten minute interview that Karla Zabludovsky and I did on CNN en Español about the Cato event.

Ryan Budget Proposal Is Not a Blueprint for Limited Government

The now annual release of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal has replaced the release of the president’s budget proposal as my least favorite policy event of the year. The president promises big government and Ryan promises smaller big government. What makes the Ryan proposal more aggravating is that it’s hardly a vision of limited government, but the left (and many on the right) treats it like it is.   

According to his numbers, Ryan’s budget ideas would reduce federal spending as a percentage of GDP from 22.2 percent this year to 19.1 percent in 2023. According to Democrats and liberals, such a savage reduction in the federal footprint would inflict unfathomable pain on various groups of Americans. 

Here’s Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) with the standard Democratic scare-mongering that we can expect to hear over and over again in the coming months: 

Instead of insisting on a balanced approach to deficit reduction, Ryan’s budget will demand that our middle class, seniors, veterans, women, children, federal employees, low-income families, and those nearing retirement pick up the tab. 

Other than perhaps Oompa Loompas, I believe Rep. Hoyer got’em all (rich males aren’t included because they don’t pay their “fair share”).    

Instead of delving any further into Ryan’s numbers, I’m just going to get to my point. Proposing that the federal government borrow and spend less than what is currently projected is certainly better than the alternative. But if your goal is limited government then there has to actually be limits on what all the government is involved in

I don’t see anything in Ryan’s proposal that would end the federal government’s involvement in education, job training, energy, transportation, etc., etc. Yes, Ryan calls for ending Obamacare, but that wouldn’t end the federal government’s involvement in health care. Yes, Ryan says that higher education subsidies should be capped, but that wouldn’t end the federal government’s involvement in education. And so on. How the federal government delivers the goods would change (e.g., block-granting Medicaid and premium support for Medicare), but more efficient government isn’t the same as limited government.