Topic: Energy and Environment

Obama the Planner

New Republic editor John Judis has a couple of insights about the Obama administration’s economic and social goals. He points out that, for more than a century, Progressive and free-market forces have gone through cycles of “reform and reaction.”

The Progressives — who my friend John Baden calls the “American counterrevolutionaries” — have repeatedly sought to increase the size and scope of government: railroad regulation, public land agencies, and the income tax in the 1900s; Social Security, low-interest home loans, and government ownership of power plants in the 1930s; Medicare, the war on poverty, and environmental laws in the 1960s.

In between, friends of free markets tried to roll back those reforms, but were never completely successful. Thus, each successive reform era has further increased government power and reduced free markets.

This reminds me of the basic strategy used by the wilderness movement (in which I was active from about 1975 through 1993). Wilderness activists basically considered land that had already been preserved as wilderness or some other classification to be “theirs,” while all remaining land was “potentially theirs.” Successive congressional land-use bills or presidential decrees would put more land in “their” category, but no matter how much they got, it was never enough.

At the time, I called this the “scorched earth policy,” meaning wilderness advocates embedded so many poison pills in the protected lands that no one would ever try to declassify them. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate strategy, just an effect of our political system.

Judis goes on to outline the ways in which Obama wants to build on past reforms. First, he wants to use “the budget to shift the locus of industrial production toward ‘green’ jobs and products.” He also wants to “make dramatic changes in transportation with [government’s] intervention in the auto industry and in its funding of high-speed rail.” Finally, he wants to institute a form of “national planning” in order to “reverse existing trends” towards “suburban housing [and shopping] malls.”

People who are attracted to such policies tend to judge them based on their intent rather than their results. In fact, these interventions have nearly all either backfired or had huge unintended consequences.

Railroad regulation was imposed just as trucks appeared on the scene in 1907, leaving railroads helpless against growing competition. “Progressive” income taxes ended up with so many loopholes that they weren’t really progressive. The federal loan companies, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, played a key role in the current crisis when they succumbed to political pressure to buy increasingly risky loans.

Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme that is also one of the most regressive taxes on the books, not to mention that it has provided billions of dollars of surpluses for Congress to borrow with little hope of ever paying it back. Medicare is an even bigger Ponzi scheme, while the war on poverty created a semi-permanent underclass that has been all but forgotten by the liberals who claim to care most about them.

Environmental laws produced many benefits when they focused on technical solutions, but they failed miserably when they attempted to change people’s behavior. As transportation expert Alan Pisarski recently told the Institute of Transportation Engineers, technical solutions to air pollution are responsible for 95 to 105 percent of the improvements in air quality in the past 40 years, while behavior solutions produced only minus 5 to 5 percent of the improvements — minus 5 meaning some behavioral solutions made pollution worse.

Unfortunately, Obama’s plans are all about changing behavior. This means two things: they will be expensive — especially when counting the unintended consequences — and they won’t work. High-speed rail and urban revitalization, for example, are all about redesigning the country for yuppy elites, not ordinary Americans. The question for free-market advocates is: how can we minimize the damage now and roll back the reforms later?

I Swear I’m Not Making This Up

From today’s Washington Post:

In another sign that the Department of Agriculture is embracing sustainable food, the agency today will unveil expanded plans for a People’s Garden that will include the entire six-acre grounds of the Whitten Building, the department’s neoclassic marble headquarters on the Mall.

The plans, to be announced at the agency’s Earth Day celebrations, include a 1,300-square-foot organic vegetable garden – slightly larger than the one at the White House – as well as ornamental flower gardens and bioswales, or mini-wetlands designed to reduce pollution and surface water runoff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find out exactly what a “bioswale” is, and why I should pay for one in our new “People’s Garden.”

Obama’s Recycled Moderate-Speed Rail Plan

The Obama administration believes in recycling, as shown by the so-called high-speed rail plan it announced last week. Below is a map of the plan, and below that is a map of the Federal Railroad Administration’s 2005 high-speed rail plan. As you can see, the proposed routes are identical. (The grey lines on the first map represent conventional Amtrak routes.)

map of the plan

2005 map

Of course, this is a time-honored practice. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was really the Bureau of Public Roads’ Interregional Highway System. There is no doubt that the Federal Railroad Administration is thrilled that Obama has adopted its plan.

Yet there are several problems with Obama’s plan. First, it is important to understand that most of Obama’s plan is not bullet trains or TGVs. Instead, it is conventional Amtrak Diesel-powered trains running a little faster – up to 110 mph, but averaging only 60 to 70 mph – than Amtrak runs today. Based on this, here are my most important objections to Obama’s moderate-speed rail plan.

1. Less than 1 percent will ride, more than 99 percent will pay

More than 4 percent of federal transportation spending goes to Amtrak, yet Amtrak carries only 0.1 percent of passenger travel. Moderate- and high-speed trains will significantly increase the subsidies but have little effect on the total travel. Why is it fair for 99.8 percent of people to pay for the rides enjoyed by the other 0.2 percent?

Even with subsidies, high-speed rail fares will be about 50 percent higher than ordinary Amtrak fares. For example, passengers pay $69 to ride conventional trains from New York to Washington, and $99 to ride high-speed train. (By comparison, an unsubsidized bus is $20 and unsubsidized airfares are $99.) This means only the wealthy and those whose employers pay the fare will ride high-speed rail. All taxpayers will end up paying for rides of bankers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.

2. Moderate-speed rail is dirty

Obama’s claims that trains are better for the environment are pure speculation. Amtrak today is only a little more energy-efficient than cars and planes. While cars and planes are expected to get far more energy-efficient in the future, running trains at higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient.

True high-speed rail, which generally powered by electricity, is dirty too. Even if the electricity comes from renewable resources, the energy and environmental cost of construction will be enormous. It will take decades for the trivial annual savings to pay back that cost.

3. It doesn’t work in Europe

High-speed trains in Europe are convenient for tourists, but the average European rarely uses them. Even in France, which has more high-speed trains than any other European country, the average resident rides heavily subsidized high-speed trains just 400 miles per year. Despite punitive fuel taxes, they drive 7,600 miles per year, a number that is increasing faster than high-speed rail travel.

4. It doesn’t work in Japan

The Japanese drive less than French or Americans, but they don’t ride high-speed rail more than the French. The average resident of Japan drives 4,000 miles per year and rides high-speed trains 400 miles per year. The Japanese ride trains more than the residents of any other country – nearly 1,900 miles per year including subways and other urban rail – but due to premium fares, nearly 80 percent of train riding is on conventional trains.

5. Every car off the road means more new trucks on the road

Obama’s moderate-speed trains will run on the same tracks as existing freight trains. Since many of America’s rail lines are near capacity today, there is a real danger that moderate-speed trains will push freight onto the highways.

Europe’s rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel, while ours carries only 0.1 percent. But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway. By comparison, American trains carry 40 percent of our freight, while only 28 percent goes on the highway. In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe put nearly three times as many trucks on the road.

Personally, I love trains. But Obama’s plan is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment. We would be better off ending all subsidies to transportation than piling on subsidy after subsidy for transport that is supposedly environmentally friendly but in fact hardly anyone will use.

Comments on Criticism of Cato Ad

Our friends at www.realclimate.org and www.ryanavent.com have been taking shots at the statements in our ad, so I’d like to offer a little commentary.

We make three factual assertions.

First, we say that “surface temperature changes over the past century have been episodic and modest”. We cite Brohan et al., Journal of Geophysical Research (2006 and updates) and Swanson and Tsonis, Geophysical Research Letters, 2009. The first is the latest update of the East Anglia temperature history, which long has been the IPCC staple. It is the one most cited over the years by the IPCC because it was the first long history that contained much more than simply World Weather Records data updated with local records at the end of a month. At any rate, both it and other global histories indeed show modest warming, about 0.8degC from 1900-2000, and indeed it is episodic. Everyone (well probably almost everyone…there are some real people who don’t believe it is right) pretty much agrees that there are two periods of warming, 1910-45 and 1977-98, with a slight cooling in between and no trend after. If that’s not “episodic”, I don’t know what is. The Swanson paper in fact specifically quantifies these episodes. The paragaph near the end of it that says this may mean that warming will be faster than we thought was pure speculation. It could just have easily been argued (as I do) that the lack of recent warming more likely indicates that 21st century warming will be lower than forecast by oceanic feedback because lack of warming simply delays any water vapor amplification. Pure and simple.

The second assertion is that, “after controlling for population growth and property values, there has been no increase in damages from severe weather events”. The citation is short – a note in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, by Pielke Jr. et al, 2005. The et al. numbers over ten other large-name scientists/analysts, and the reference list is the important part. There are a large number of citations on climate-related damages for various places and/or periods. We couldn’t list them all in this format, so we chose a single citation that could be consulted and an interested reader would find all the subsidiary supporting material.

Finally we state that “the computer models forecasting rapid temperature change abjectly fail to explain recent climate behavior”, citing Douglas et al., International Journal of Climatology, 2007, which showed the major disparity between forecasts of the upper tropospheric tropical “warm spot”, a hallmark of greenhouse projections, and observations in the radiosonde record. Yes it is true that Santer et al. have published a lengthy rebuttal, but it is extremely dense and marks just another go-round-and-round over this issue. Douglas et al. have a response but it hasn’t been published yet. The debate will go on and on. Further, it is quite apparent from comparing midrange multimodel estimates from the IPCC to observed temperatures, and those indeed projected for coming years, that there is a signficant disconnect developing between the models and surface temperature. They simply don’t anticipate multidecadal periods without warming. Oh yes, since this has happened, all of the sudden models can be forced to “explain” it, but that’s not prospective. Instead, it is retrospective adjustment. Such work wouldn’t be performed if there weren’t something wrong.

That’s more than enough to negate President-elect Obama’s statement that “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear”!

Thursday Podcast: ‘It’s Not High Speed Rail’

President Obama’s stimulus plan included about $8 billion for “high-speed rail” projects throughout the country.

But what Obama has in mind isn’t anything like the Japanese trains that have been clocked at over 300 miles per hour, says Cato Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole in Thursday’s Cato Daily Podcast. At best, it’s “moderate-speed rail,” and won’t include an interconnected network that will allow passenger transportation from coast to coast.

For more on American rail projects, check out O’Toole’s Policy Analysis, High-Speed Rail: The Wrong Road for America.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a few bloggers who are writing, citing and linking to Cato research and commentary:

  • David Kirkpatrick links to Richard W. Rahn’s op-ed in The Washington Times about the increasing loss of liberty in the United Kingdom.
  • Free-market energy blogger Robert Bradley, editor of Master Resource, cites Cato’s recognition of the women who launched the libertarian movement: Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson.
  • Scott Horton 0f Anti-War Radio interviews Doug Bandow about relations between the US and China.

Let us know if you’re blogging about Cato by emailing cmoody [at] cato [dot] org (subject: blogging%20about%20Cato) or drop us a line on Twitter @catoinstitute.

Events This Week at Cato

Thursday, March 12

Climate of Extremes

12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)

climateBOOK FORUM: Cato senior fellow in environmental studies Patrick J. Michaels will discuss his new book, Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know with David Legates, Delaware state climatologist and director of the Delaware Environmental Observing System.

The book illustrates the crucial unreported news about climate change: that changes in hurricanes will be small, that global warming is likely to be modest, and that contrary to daily headlines, there is no apocalypse on the horizon.

Free registration for this event is now open, and it will be simulcast live on Cato’s Web site.

Transportation Reauthorization: Looking Beyond the Recession

1:30 PM (Refreshments Provided)

CAPITOL HILL BRIEFING: Randal O’Toole, Cato senior fellow and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, will join Robert Poole, director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Foundation for a discussion on transportation reform during the recession.

Register here for this free event.

Friday, March 13

Can the Pentagon Be Fixed?

12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)

Most defense analysts agree: the Pentagon is in serious need of reform. Acquisition programs run above cost and behind schedule. The U.S. defense budget is higher than at any point during the Cold War, but capability has not kept pace. We field fewer ships, aircraft, and tanks than we did in the days of lower procurement spending. And our defense spending prepares us better for the conventional wars we imagine than the unconventional conflicts we fight.

Featuring Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information; Colonel Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army (Retired), Straus Military Reform Project adviser; Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight; Thomas Ricks, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and special military correspondent for the Washington Post; and Benjamin Friedman, research fellow in defense and homeland security at the Cato Institute.

Please register for this free event or  watch live online.