Archives: 10/2015

Protecting School Choice from the State

As economists have understood for more than half a century, government agencies charged with regulating industries are often subject to regulatory capture. Rather than protect consumers from bad actors in the industries they were created to oversee, regulators too often develop cozy relationships with industry leaders and work at their behest to advance their interests. In Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman detailed a particularly egregious example: the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

Established in 1887, the ICC’s mission was to regulate the powerful railroad industry, which critics accused of engaging in cartel-like price fixing and market sharing. Instead, the railroad industry took almost immediate control of the ICC. The ICC’s first commissioner, Thomas Cooley, was a lawyer who had long represented the railroads and, as the Friedmans explained, many of the agency’s the bureaucrats “were drawn from the railroad industry, their day-to-day business tended to be with railroad people, and their chief hope of a lucrative future was with railroads.” 

Sorry, George Carlin, Plastic Is Biodegradable

Remember George Carlin’s hilarious skit about plastics? Here is the transcript:

“The planet … is a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, ‘Why are we here?’”

Not so fast! According to a new study published in Environmental Science and Technology by co-authors Professor Jun Yang and Yu Yang of Beihang University, and Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu, plastic is biodegradable.

“Plastic, long considered nonbiodegradable and one of the biggest contributors to global pollution, might have met its match: the small, brownish, squirmy mealworm. Researchers have learned that the mealworm can live on a diet of Styrofoam and other types of plastic. Inside the mealworm’s gut are microorganisms that are able to biodegrade polyethylene, a common form of plastic.”

Good news for the planet and for humanity.

The Intimidation Game: The Secret Service vs. Jason Chaffetz

Most of the controversy over government surveillance programs in the last few years has focused on fears of what the NSA or FBI might do with the personal data they’ve collected on Americans guilty of no crime. But what if you’ve applied for a federal job? Surely that information would not be misused or improperly accessed, particularly since it is protected by the Privacy Act?

That’s probably what now-Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) thought when he applied for a job with the Secret Service in 2003. But as the chairman of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chaffetz earned the hatred of many in the Secret Service for his investigations into the agency’s many recent blunders and scandals. Thanks to a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General investigation into the leak of Chaffetz’ 2003 Secret Service application, we now have an idea of how extensive the leak of his personal information was throughout the agency. As the IG noted:

We were unable to determine with certainty how many of those individuals in turn disclosed this information to others who did not have a need to know, who
may have then told others. However, the disclosure was widespread, and recipients of the information likely numbered in the hundreds. Those agents
we interviewed acknowledged freely sharing it with others in the Secret Service, often contemporaneously with accessing the information. One agent reported
that by the end of the second day, he was sent on a protection assignment in New York City for the visit of the President of Afghanistan, and many of the
approximately 70 agents at the protection briefing were talking about the issue. 

With one exception, the IG also found that senior civil servants in the Secret Service did nothing to stop the propogation of Chaffetz’ personal data:

The Most Important Thing that NYT’s Nicholas Kristof Left Out

Today, Nicholas Kristof of the NYT wrote an op-ed entitled “The Most Important Thing, and It’s Almost a Secret.” According to Kristof, “The most important thing going on in the world today is something we almost never cover: a rapid decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.”

Kristof makes a powerful case for the improving state of humanity and rightly bemoans the fact that the media all too often focus on war, hunger and despair. And that gives most readers the wrong impression that the world is falling apart.

But, where did all the progress that Kristof talks about come from?

The Homo sapiens has been on this earth for 200,000 years. For 99.9% of that time, we lived in ignorance, poverty and misery. What has changed? Reading the NYT, the reader is left with the impression that “good stuff,” like manna from heaven, suddenly was conjured up out of thin air.

Not so. The key to the improvements in the lives of ordinary people over the last 200 years were industrialization and trade, which generated historically unprecedented rates of growth. And the importance of growth cannot be overemphasized. There is not a single example of a country emerging from widespread poverty without sustained economic growth. As University of Oxford Professor Paul Collier writes, “Growth is not a cure-all, but lack of growth is a kill-all.”

Don’t let the headlines fool you. Explore the data for yourself.

Europe Must Abide TTIP’s Geopolitical and Security Implications

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe argues that the geopolitical and security implications of TTIP are immense, and that the EU and its member states need to wake up, smell the coffee, and acknowledge reality. This is the third essay focused on the geopolitical implications of the TTIP published in conjunction with the Cato Institute conference taking place October 12.  Previous essays – to compare and contrast – were written by Phil Levy and Peter Rashish

Read them. Provide feedback.  And please register to attend the conference.

The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

Eight years ago, I argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.

However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:

  1. Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
  2. Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system that it now expects to scrap for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
  3. One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
  4. Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
  5. WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
  6. Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
  7. Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
  8. That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.

A complete listing of Metro’s problems could fill a book (and in fact have already done so). The “solutions” implemented so far have been ludicrous. That idea that giving FTA safety oversight over WMATA would solve any problems relies on the fantasy that top-down bureaucracy works better at the federal level than the regional level. Meanwhile, NTSB’s proposal to transfer authority to the Federal Railroad Administration is more rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship than providing any real fix.

On the Bright Side: Tropical Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal During Warmer and Colder Phases of ENSO and the PDO

While the hypothesis that tropical cyclones will become both more frequent and more intense as planetary temperatures rise has long been debated, real-world evidence has consistently refuted it (see, for example, the many reviews of this subject posted under the heading of Hurricanes at the CO2 Science website). The latest example is the work of Girishkumar et al. (2015), who examined over five decades of tropical cyclone (TC) data from the Bay of Bengal (BoB) in the Indian Ocean. Specifically, the authors “investigated how the relationship between ENSO and TCs activity in the BoB during October–December varies on decadal time scale with respect to PDO.”