Archives: November, 2013

Was Typhoon Haiyan the Most Intense Storm in Modern History?

Global Science Report is a 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.”

Global warming buffs have been fond of claiming that the roaring winds of Typhoon Haiyan were the highest ever measured in a landfalling tropical cyclone, and that therefore (?) this is a result of climate change. In reality, it’s unclear whether or not it holds the modern record for the strongest surface wind at landfall. 

This won’t be known until there is a thorough examination of its debris field.

The storm of record is 1969 Hurricane Camille, which I rode out in an oceanfront laboratory about 25 miles east of the eye. There’s a variety of evidence arguing that Camille is going to be able to retain her crown.

The lowest pressure in Haiyan was 895 millibars, or 26.42 inches of mercury. To give an idea, the needle on your grandmonther’s dial barometer would have to turn two complete counterclockwise circles to get there. While there have been four storms in the Atlantic in the modern era that have been as strong or a bit stronger, the western Pacific sees one of these approximately every two years or so.

Camille’s lowest pressure was a bit higher, at 905 mb (26.72 inches). At first blush it would therefore seem Haiyan would win the blowhard award hands down, but Hayian had a very large eye around which its winds swirled, while Camille’s was one of the smallest ever measured.  At times in its brief life, Camille’s was so small that the hurricane hunter aircraft could not safely complete a 360 degree turn without brushing through the devastating innermost cloud band, something you just don’t want to be near in a turning aircraft. In fact, the last aircraft to get into Camille, which measured 190mph sustained winds, lost an engine in the severe turbulence and fortunately was able to limp home.

Haiyan’s estimated 195mph winds were derived from satellite data, rather than being directly sensed by an aircraft.  But winds over the open ocean are always greater than those at landfall because of friction, and the five mph difference between the two storms is physically meaningless. 

NATO’s $1 Billion Monument to Irrelevance

A November 13 article in Reuters discusses the growing controversy over NATO’s new headquarters being built outside of Brussels. The price tag—some $1 billion—has raised more than a few eyebrows. “When defense budgets are being cut and in general when governments are under so much pressure from taxpayers to save money, it looks terribly extravagant,” opines Daniel Keohane, head of a leading think tank in Belgium. Several members of the British parliament also have questioned the cost.

NATO officials, though, defend the project, asserting that the existing headquarters, built in 1967, has outlived its usefulness. Of course, the same point could be made with far greater validity about the NATO alliance itself. After all, it was created during the depths of the Cold War in 1949 to, as Lord Harold Ismay, NATO’s secretary general at the time, pithily observed, “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Given the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s manifold demographic, economic, and military limitations as a successor state, that mission now seems to be more than a little obsolete. The past two decades, the alliance has been conducting a frantic search for relevant new missions, resulting in a dubious decision to add members in Eastern Europe and wage even more dubious wars in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Not only is NATO an alliance in search of purpose, but the willingness of the European members to free-ride on the military commitment of the United States to Europe’s defense is now even worse than it was during the Cold War. The already anemic military budgets of NATO’s European members have sagged further, and in some cases they are in virtual free fall. To build a billion-dollar, palatial headquarters under such circumstances exhibits contempt for taxpayers—especially U.S. taxpayers.

There seems to be a tendency of U.S. officials to endorse the building of expensive monuments to institutional egos at precisely the time that the institution in question has lost relevance. We saw that process take place in Iraq. Just as the nation-building mission was quickly heading south, the Bush administration built an embassy in Baghdad that was nearly as large as Vatican City. Today, it stands as a symbol of how badly Washington exaggerated the extent of America’s interests in Iraq and misconstrued the extent of U.S. influence there. With the construction of NATO’s new headquarters, we have yet another monument to hubris.

Venezuela’s House of Cards

The story of the Venezuelan economy and its troubled currency, the bolivar, can be summed up with the following phrase: “From bad to worse”—over and over again. Yes, the ever deteriorating situation in Venezuela has taken yet another turn for the worse.

In a panicked, misguided response to the country’s economic woes, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has requested emergency powers over the economy. And the Maduro government recently announced plans to institute a new exchange rate for tourists in an attempt to quash arbitrage-driven currency smuggling.

These measures will likely prove too little, too late for the Venezuelan economy and its troubled currency, the bolivar. Indeed, the country’s economy has been in decline since Hugo Chavez imposed his unique brand of socialism on Venezuela.

For years, Venezuela has sustained a massive social spending program, combined with costly price and labor controls, as well as an aggressive annual foreign aid strategy. This fiscal house of cards has been kept afloat—barely—by oil revenues.

But as the price tag of the Chavez/Maduro regime has grown, the country has dipped more and more into the coffers of its state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and (increasingly) the country’s central bank.

Since Chavez’s death, this house of cards has begun to collapse, and the black market exchange rate between the bolivar (VEF) and the U.S. dollar (USD) tells the tale. Since Chavez’s death on March 5, 2013, the bolivar has lost 62.36% of its value on the black market, as shown in the chart below the jump.

Republicans and Media Confused about Fast Track

No one is surprised that 151 liberal Democrats in the House don’t support granting the president fast track authority to negotiate trade agreements.  But two groups of Republicans have now signed letters to the President this week joining those Democrats in their opposition.  The news media have reported the story as evidence that the tea party opposes President Obama’s trade agenda.

The signatories of the letters are an odd combination of young, party-line Republicans and old-guard isolationists who oppose free trade.  Neither group has anything to do with the tea party and both seem confused about how fast track works.

One of the assertions made in the letters is that establishing fast track authority cedes to the President Congress’s constitutional power to regulate trade.  This is just wrong.  Fast track is not a grant of authority to the President but rather an exercise of authority by Congress.

No one doubts that Congress can pass statutes that regulate trade.  Also clear is that the President can enter into treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Fast track combines those processes by having the President negotiate the terms of an agreement, after which both houses of Congress pass (or not) a statute that ratifies and implements that agreement.

The contentious aspect of fast track authority comes from the fact that Congress agrees to hold an up-or-down vote on any agreement submitted by the president with no opportunity to add amendments.  The good sense of this arrangement is obvious when you consider that a trade agreement is the product of complex and lengthy international negotiations that cannot be adjusted at the last minute just to accommodate each congressman’s pet issue.

But when establishing fast track authority, Congress also imposes restrictions on what must be included (or excluded) from any trade agreement placed on the fast track.  In essence, Congress agrees to adopt practical, streamlined parliamentary procedures as long as the President negotiates agreements it likes.  Fast track allows Congress to exert influence at an earlier, less-disruptive stage in the process.

While the legitimacy of fast track might be an interesting topic for constitutional scholars, the controversy is mostly a proxy for larger policy arguments about the value of trade in general.  Protectionists disapprove of fast track and trade agreements because they want more barriers to trade, regardless of its constitutional status.  Similarly, proponents of increased trade approve of fast track because trade agreements put a check on Congress’s tendency to protect domestic industries.

So why have 27 Republicans come out against fast track?  Cato’s online trade votes database can help us answer the question.

Puppycide Documentary Moves Forward

Thousands of family dogs are shot by law enforcement each year. A documentary now being assembled tries to find out why. You can watch the trailer above.

Some readers may be familiar with Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland. Police raided his home when they discovered that a large package of marijuana in transit was addressed to Calvo’s wife. The package, meant for someone else, led police to execute a SWAT raid during which they shot the family’s dogs, Payton and Chase. Puppycide is a feature-length documentary that attempts to capture both the impact on traumatized families and the rationales offered by police.

When police arrived, the package was unopened. No one was arrested. To my knowledge, the police never issued an apology.

The filmmakers at Ozymandias Media are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to get the film completed.

War Is Stupid: Remembering Armistice Day Before Veterans Day

Another year, another Veterans Day. But November 11 began as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I.  The day remains a stark reminder of the stupidity of war.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 World War I came to an end.  In succeeding years allied states commemorated the conflict’s end on November 11.

Some 20 million people died in World War I.  The horrific conflict brought down the continent’s established order, loosed the pestilence of totalitarianism, and led to even deadlier World War II.  The Great War, as it was originally called, was stupid beyond measure.

As the 20th century dawned, Europe enjoyed both peace and prosperity.  However, Europe’s environment was combustible.  One match strike set the continent ablaze.

On June 28, 1914 the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, in Sarajevo, capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia.

Vienna decided to use this act of state terrorism to break its Serbian antagonist.  Germany stood by its ally.  However, Serbia was backed by Russia, which in turn was allied with France.  As conflict erupted other combatants jumped or were drawn in.  The contending blocs, the Central Powers versus the Entente, acted as transmission belts of war.

There really was little to choose from between the two militaristic blocs.  The sins of the Central Powers are well-known, but the Entente’s members were no angels.

Serbia’s military intelligence was implicated in the Archduke’s murder.  Tsarist Russia was an anti-Semitic despotism.  Historically France was dangerous and militaristic, and its revanchist desire for war with Germany was strong.  Britain opposed Germany more for commercial and imperial than humanitarian reasons.  Belgium was perhaps the worst colonial power, responsible for the deaths of millions in the Belgian Congo.

The early Americans were determined to avoid getting entangled in imperial European affairs.  However, as I point out in my latest Forbes online column, by World War I the U.S. had changed:

The so-called Progressives, led by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, had taken charge.  They were statists, imperialists, and militarists—inveterate social engineers on a global scale.  After President Wilson was reelected in 1916, he hoped to remake the international order.  That required America to be a belligerent, even though it had no significant interest in the conflict.

The trigger for U.S. involvement was both foolish and fraudulent.  London broke international law by imposing a starvation blockade on Germany, ultimately killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians.  Berlin responded with a new weapon, the submarine. 

Some Americans died after traveling on British vessels, which carried bullets as well as babies.  The famous Lusitania was an armed reserve cruiser carrying munitions through a war zone—making it a legitimate military target.  

However, under pressure from the allied-sympathetic Wilson, Germany suspended U-boat attacks until February 1917.  After Berlin resumed unrestricted submarine warfare President Wilson chose war.  Some 200,000 Americans died, the victims of a president suffering from a toxic mix of egotism and myopia. 

Alas, contra people’s hopes, the conflict did not turn out to be the War to End War.  Washington’s entry allowed imposition of the Versailles Treaty, a “Diktat” highlighted by the allies’ greedy grab for plunder amid sanctimonious claims of justice.  Adolf Hitler and World War II were the conflict’s most disastrous consequences.

Sometimes wars must be fought, and sometimes even the stupidest wars cannot be avoided.  But often they could and should be.  Like World War I.

To criticize America’s wars is not to doubt the patriotism and bravery of those who fought.  Rather, to criticize the conflicts is to highlight the foolishness, arrogance, and ignorance of those who launched new wars or intervened in old ones. 

After this Veterans Day Americans should contemplate how they have allowed politicians to drag the U.S. into unnecessary and costly wars, filling Arlington Cemetery and so many other final resting places with America’s finest.  After this Veterans Day Americans should rededicate themselves to peace.

TSA Wastes $1 Billion on SPOT

A new GAO report recommends that Congress end the SPOT program, which attempts to catch terrorists by suspicious behaviors they may exhibit at airport checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration currently spends more than $200 million a year on the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, even though there has been criticism from the start that there is no solid science behind it.

Here are observations about SPOT from my new Cato study on the TSA to be released next Tuesday:

The SPOT program illustrates the problems with top-down federal control over aviation security. The TSA ‘deployed SPOT nationwide before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis’ for it, notes the GAO. Nor did the TSA perform a cost-benefit analysis of SPOT before it was deployed. That is the way that the federal government often works—it rolls out an expensive ‘solution’ for the entire nation without adequate research, and it resists efforts to cut programs even if the benefits do not materialize.

The new Cato study focuses on a decade of TSA shortcomings and the advantages of privatizing airport security screening. In sharp contrast to the American approach of a federal monopoly over aviation security, the great majority of European countries and Canada use competitive contracting for airport screening.

If you are in D.C. today, please drop by our Capitol Hill noon forum on the TSA.