Archives: June, 2013

Climate Models Veer Off Course

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.”

A new paper shows that climate models are getting worse at replicating a collection of known climate changes as incentivized efforts to improve them have them universally veering off course.

Anyone who is familiar with John Allison’s book The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure knows that incentives can drive otherwise “independent” decisions in a common direction, with sometimes disastrous results. Allison documents how a collection of government incentives (intentionally and unintentionally) drove decisions in the wider financial markets towards overinvesting in residential real estate. The resulting massive misallocation of funds and ultimate bubble burst sent us into the Great Recession, from which we have yet to recover.

Obviously, that was not the intended outcome of the federal policies, but as Allison writes “Intentions that are called ‘good’ often do not produce favorable outcomes.” Allison argues that a free market, one that is free from centralized incentives, and one in which truly independent decisions are being made, is less susceptible to a universal failure and that when failures do occur, they are not as severe and they are more quickly recovered from. Had the financial markets been operating without federal regulations and incentives, not only would the Great Recession not have occurred (or would have been minor), but that our country would be in a much healthier financial state with an overall higher standard of living for everyone.

Not only can (and do) targeted incentives lead financial markets astray, they also operate the same way in the field of science.

In either case, the ultimate effect is to steer the outcome away from its most efficient pathway and instead send it veering towards dangerous territory that is marked by a decline in our overall well-being.

This is nowhere more evident than in the field of climate science, as a new paper by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Kyle Swanson clearly illuminates.

In his work “Emerging selection bias in large climate change simulations,” Swanson finds that the new generation of climate models has become worse at matching recent climate change than the generation of models which they supplant.

National Journal: Top Obama Advisers Admit IRS Could Have Been Asked to Suppress Political Dissidents

I have already blogged about Ron Fournier’s remarkable National Journal column on how President Obama’s many scandals make it hard to support big government. But there’s an item buried in that column that bears highlighting:

If investigators uncover even a single email or conversation between conservative-targeting IRS agents and either the White House or Obama’s campaign, incompetence will be the least of the president’s problems.

Team Obama has publicly denied any knowledge of (or involvement in) the targeting. Privately, top advisers admit that they don’t know if the denials are true, because a thorough investigation has yet to be conducted. No emails have been subpoenaed. No Obama aides put under oath.

It seems Fournier has multiple sources close to the president who have basically said, “Did someone in the administration tell the IRS to suppress our opponents? Ehh, maybe.”

Thank You, Canadians—We’re With You

The Department of Agriculture has refused to comply with World Trade Organization rules even after U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) regulations were conclusively determined to be incompatible with international trade obligations. In short, the U.S. law imposes dramatic and unwarranted costs on any American meat processors who buy foreign cattle. This is harmful to Canadian cattle raisers in a way that does not serve any public interest in the United States. 

In preparation for possible retaliation to continued U.S. refusal to abide by the WTO decision, the Canadian government released today a list of U.S. goods for which it is considering raising tariffs in accordance with WTO rules. The goal of the tariffs would be to incentivize American industries that export to Canada to lobby Congress or the administration to remove the offending COOL regulations. This interplay is one of the clever ways that WTO dispute settlement furthers trade liberalization—by pitting competing special interests against each other.

Unfortunately, the retaliation will prove costly to the Canadian people. Here are some of the goods that Canadians will now have to pay higher prices, so that some American bureaucrats can force other Americans to pay for useless information:

  • cheese, not including the following: fresh (unripened or uncured) cheese, whey cheese, or curd; grated or powdered; processed cheese; blue-veined cheese or cheese containing veins produced by Penicillium roqueforti
  • apples, fresh
  • corn (maize)
  • Semi-milled or wholly milled rice, whether or not polished or glazed
  • maple sugar and maple syrup
  • chocolate and other food preparations containing cocoa-preparations in blocks, slabs, or bars weighing more than 2 kg or in liquid, paste, powder, granular, or other bulk form in containers or immediate packings, of a content exceeding 2 kg
  • pasta, whether or not cooked or stuffed (with meat or other substances) or otherwise prepared, such as spaghetti, macaroni, noodles, lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli, cannelloni; couscous, whether or not prepared
  • bread, pastry, cakes, biscuits and other bakers’ wares, whether or not containing cocoa; communion wafers, empty cachets of a kind suitable for pharmaceutical use, sealing wafers, rice paper and similar products
  • certain potatoes, prepared or preserved otherwise than by vinegar or acetic acid, frozen
  • frozen orange juice
  • tomato ketchup and other tomato sauces
  • wine of fresh grapes, including fortified wines; certain grape must
  • articles of jewelry and parts thereof, of precious metal or of metal clad with precious metal
  • wooden furniture of a kind used in offices
  • mattresses of materials other than cellular rubber or plastics, whether or not covered

Hopefully these tariffs won’t ever go into effect because the U.S. Congress will intervene and end mandatory COOL labeling. If the tariffs do go into effect before Congress acts, I would like to offer sincere and heartfelt condolences to Canadian consumers. When all of this is over, we should not so easily forget your involuntary sacrifice.

There’s No Such Thing as ‘Good Government’

National Journal’s Ron Fournier:

I like government. I don’t like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public’s faith in it…

The core argument of President Obama’s rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition of young, minority and well-educated voters, is that government can do good things–and do them well.

Damn. Look at what cliches the past few weeks wrought.

Fournier then runs through how the various Obama scandals show:

Government is intrusive … Orwellian … incompetent … corrupt … complicated … heartless … secretive … [and] can’t be trusted.

And that’s when the good guys are running the show!

Maybe Fournier needs to brush up on his Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil… Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence… For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.

Translation: there’s no such thing as “good government.”

San Francisco’s Self-Inflicted Housing Problem

Housing is expensive and hard to find in beautiful San Francisco. In today’s New York Times, one would-be housing provider explains why. Scott James writes:

[A]fter renting out a one-bedroom apartment in my home for several years, I will never do it again. San Francisco’s anti-landlord housing laws and political climate make it untenable….

[A] complex legal structure has been created to make evictions for just cause extraordinarily difficult.

At first many of these rules governed only apartment complexes and larger properties with many units. But in 1994 the city applied the regulations to homes if they included just one rental on the property. In other cities, including New York City, such small-time landlords have far more rights over their own homes.

As he goes on to describe his experience with the last tenant in his downstairs apartment—a story featuring a sledgehammer, a flooded apartment, and a plugged-in appliance in an overflowing sink—I was reminded of the 1990 movie Pacific Heights, not coincidentally set in San Francisco.

It’s a thriller that is almost a documentary on the horrors of landlord-tenant law—and that is confirmed by today’s story. A young couple buys a big house in San Francisco and rents an apartment to a young man. He never pays them, and they can’t get him out, and then things get really scary. The lawyer lectures the couple—and the audience—on how “of course you’re right, but you’ll never win.” When I saw it, I just knew this happened to someone—maybe the screenwriter or someone he knew. Sure enough, when Cato published William Tucker’s book Rent Control, Zoning, and Affordable Housing, and I asked Pacific Heights director John Schlesinger for a jacket blurb, he readily agreed to say, “If you thought Pacific Heights was fiction, you need to read this book”; and he told me that the screenwriter had a relative who had gone through a tenant nightmare.

Want to instantly create 10,600 rental units in San Francisco? Reform landlord-tenant law so that small landlords come back to the market. In the meantime, watch Pacific Heights.

(Unintentional) Praise for ‘50 Vetoes’

The Fiscal Times:

So far, officials in 34 states have elected not to create insurance exchanges under the law where the uninsured can go to purchase affordable or subsidized health care coverage. And only 20 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to expand Medicaid programs for the poor and disabled…

Earlier this year, Cannon published a lengthy Cato “white paper,” a handbook of sorts for gumming up the works. Entitled “50 Vetoes: How States Can Stop the Obama Health Care Law,” the report urges governors and state officials to refuse to set up insurance exchanges in their states and to refuse to opt into an expanded Medicaid program for the poor…

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, and a board member of Enroll America, complained…that Cannon’s handbook was designed to “throw sand into the machinery of state implementation of the Affordable Care Act.”

“So has it been a factor? Of course,” added Pollack.

Click here to read “50 Vetoes.”

Hat Tip, Glenn Greenwald

Today’s New York Times has a nice profile on Glenn Greenwald, the man who has helped expose the federal government’s widespread surveillance of tens of millions of Americans. Here is an excerpt:

Late Wednesday, Mr. Greenwald, a lawyer and longtime blogger, published an article in the British newspaper The Guardian about the existence of a top-secret court order allowing the National Security Agency to monitor millions of telephone logs. The article, which included a link to the order, is expected to attract an investigation from the Justice Department, which has aggressively pursued leakers.

On Thursday night, he followed up with an article written with a Guardian reporter, Ewen MacAskill, that exposed an N.S.A. program, Prism, that has gathered information from the nation’s largest Internet companies going back nearly six years.

“The N.S.A. is kind of the crown jewel in government secrecy. I expect them to react even more extremely,” Mr. Greenwald said in a telephone interview. He said that he had been advised by lawyer friends that “he should be worried,” but he had decided that “what I am doing is exactly what the Constitution is about and I am not worried about it.”

A few years ago, Cato invited Greenwald to participate in a Cato Unbound exchange on government surveillance. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to his essay:

The digital surveillance state is out of control. It intercepts our phone calls, keeps track of our prescription drug use, monitors our email, and keeps tabs on us wherever we go. For all that, it doesn’t appear to be making us safer. Accountability has been lost, civil liberties are disappearing, and the public-private partnerships in this area of government action raise serious questions about the democratic process itself. It’s time we stood up to do something about it.