Topic: Government and Politics

A Message from Cato’s Center for the Study of Science

As we’ve mentioned before on the Cato blog, over the past few weeks some members of Congress have been sending letters of intimidation to researchers whose scientific findings were politically inconvenient to the members’ policy proposals. First, seven scientists working at public universities were harassed by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). This was followed by letters to 100 organizations, ranging from private companies to think tanks, attempting to create a whisper campaign of allegations of impropriety. My boss, Cato CEO John Allison, received one of these letters.

Mr. Allison’s response to the letter he received from Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is reproduced below the jump.

We at the Center for the Study of Science, as with the rest of the Cato Institute, are very proud not only of the quality of the work we produce but also of our values—and those morals compel us to not bow to those using their authority as a weapon to silence legitimate scientific inquiry.

The actions of these members of Congress are exactly why Cato’s Center for the Study of Science was founded: the government wishes to use science as a weapon to increase its political power, then use that political power to create a more convenient political climate. We wish to change this climate of fear into one of truth—and we would like to extend an invitation to Sens. Markey, Boxer, and Whitehouse to join us.

Furman’s Folly: Nostalgia about 1973 and Nonsense about the Bottom 90 Percent

Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, set out to explain “middle-class economics” in the Wall Street Journal, March 11, in an earlier Vox blog and in a presentation to National Association of Business Economists (NABE), as well as the first chapter of the Economic Report of The President

The intent is to make the recent economy look healthier (massaging 2.3-2.4 percent growth for 2013-14 into 2.7 percent), and to claim that “subpar” 2010-14 income gains for the middle class (generously defined as the bottom 90 percent) are not due to a subpar recovery but to something that has gone on ever since 1973.  His Wall Street Journal article complains of “the decades-long trend of slower income growth for the middle class.”

Furman says, “Congressional Budget Office data (with a minor extrapolation) show, median U.S. incomes are up 17 percent since 1973.”  Actually, CBO data start with 1979 and end with 2011, so it takes more than minor extrapolation to extend that back to 1973 or forward to 2013.  CBO estimates show real after-tax median income rising from $45,400 in 1983 to $68,000 in 2008 (in 2011 dollars), but not yet back to the 2008 level by 2011. Making up a number for 1973 can’t undo stagnation after 2008. 

He continues: “But from 1948-73, median incomes rose 110 percent, according to broadly comparable Census estimates.”  Yet the two series aren’t remotely comparable.  Unlike pre-tax “money income” from the Census Bureau, the CBO subtracts federal taxes (middle-income tax rates were nearly cut in half since 1981) and includes rapidly increased health and other in-kind benefits from employers and government (Medicaid, SNAP, CHIP and housing allowances). 

You Ought to Have a Look: An Overreaching Investigation

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

Over the past couple of weeks, prominent members of the climate science/climate policy community have come under attack for not toeing the (Presidential) party line when it comes to how human-caused climate change is being billed and sold via the President’ Climate Action Plan.

The attacks began with Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Willie Soon, and thanks to the attention afforded by Justin Gillis in the New York Times, were expanded by Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), to include Richard Lindzen, David Legates, John Christy, Judith Curry, Robert Balling, Roger Pielke Jr., and Steven Hayward.

In this You Ought to Have a Look, we provide links to the subsequent public comments from those researchers under question (who have made them available) in response to this line of investigation—one which many have termed a “witch hunt.”

Slow Federal Spending and Stop Debt with the Niskanen Amendment

While the Obama administration lectures Europe about the latter’s fiscal policies, Washington continues to run deficits. The problem is bipartisan. When George W. Bush took office, the national debt was $5.8 trillion. When Barack Obama took over, it was $11.9 trillion. Now it is $18.2 trillion.

These numbers will look like the “good ole’ days” when the entitlement tsunami hits in coming years. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures total unfunded liabilities today run about $200 trillion.

It long has been obvious that the American political system is biased toward spending. Public choice economics explains how government agencies have interests and why spending lobbies so often prevail over the public.

Congress demonstrates a “culture of spending” in which members tend to back higher expenditures the longer they serve. Washington richly rewards legislators for “growing” in office and joining the bipartisan Big Government coalition.

Some analysts still hope that electing the “right people” will fix the system. But without creating some institutional barriers to political plunder the system will continue to produce the same overall results, despite slight differences in exactly how much is spent on whom and when.

The late William Niskanen proposed a measure that was simple and impossible to game. Niskanen, acting Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan, left that position to become Chairman of the Cato Institute.

Two decades ago Niskanen proposed a simple 125-word amendment requiring a three-fifths vote to increase the debt limit or raise taxes and federal compensation to states and localities for any mandates. These provisions would be suspended in the event of a declaration of war. “Nothing has changed in the interim to render Niskanen’s proposal obsolete or impractical,” noted Lawrence Hunter of the Social Security Institute in a new study for the Carleson Center for Welfare Reform.

The measure would put taxing and borrowing on a level playing field, eliminating the current bias for piling up debt. Moreover, the three-fifths requirement would make it easier for legislators to reconsider outlays than to collect more money to waste. This would create a useful corrective for the pervasive pro-spending bias built into the system today.

However, it has become evident that the Senate filibuster, with a three-fifths rule, has proved to be only a limited impediment to the growth of government. Thus, the required super-majority should be two-thirds. Wrote Hunter, experience makes clear that the three-fifths requirement is “not sufficiently stringent to overcome the enormous bias in the legislative process.”

Moreover, Hunter noted that Congress has subverted the debt limit by effectively setting a floating number “suspended” to accommodate whatever amount Congress ends up spending. Thus, he proposed that the Niskanen Amendment be updated to explicitly restrict any suspension to no more than 30 days per Congress, and require the same super-majority vote to suspend the limit.

Finally, Hunter proposed prioritizing spending in the event that borrowing hits the debt ceiling. Hunter would set repayment of the national debt, both principal and interest, as the top priority to eliminate any possibility of default. Then Washington would repay Social Security recipients to prevent big spenders from threatening retirees’ livelihoods.

Congress must again address the debt limit by the Ides of March. It would be a good time to push the Niskanen Amendment. Equally important, any debt increase should include language prioritizing payments with existing funds. Let President Barack Obama threaten to veto a debt measure because it includes language requiring him to pay the most important claims first.

While it would be hard to reject a debt limit increase for spending already approved, congressional Republicans should begin preparing for the next debt fight. As I point out in American Spectator online: “The only hope for reducing the growth in federal debt is to create institutional barriers to its growth. Otherwise the red ink likely will rise until Uncle Sam is both insolvent and bankrupt.”

The Equal Protection Clause Requires Giving Marriage Licenses to Same-Sex Couples

Two years ago in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution forbids the federal government from treating same-sex marriages differently than opposite-sex marriages. The Court’s majority, writing through Justice Anthony Kennedy, recognized that discriminating against lawfully wed same-sex couples violates the Fifth Amendment’s “prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws,” a prohibition which the “equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes … all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.” Because Windsor challenged only the federal Defense of Marriage Act, no state marriage laws were directly affected.

Given the Court’s broad language, however—especially its direct reference to the Equal Protection Clause—many (including Justice Antonin Scalia in dissent) predicted that the opinion’s reasoning would eventually be used to strike down state laws and constitutional provisions that deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They were right. Windsor served as the basis for dozens of challenges to marriage laws across the country, initially resulting in an unbroken series of victories for marriage equality in federal courts, which the Supreme Court declined to review.

Finally, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) issued a contrary ruling, holding that “the people who adopted the Fourteenth Amendment understood it to require the States to change the definition of marriage.” The Supreme Court could thus no longer delay taking up the marriage debate.

Cato has accordingly filed what will almost certainly be our final brief on this issue. Joining with noted originalist scholar (and Federalist Society co-founder) Steven Calabresi and Yale law professor William Eskridge—one of the leading experts on American legal history—we urge the Court to reverse the Sixth Circuit’s decision and finally fulfill the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under law to millions of gay Americans and their children.

Continuing Constitutional Difficulties in Implementing the Voting Rights Act

Sue Evenwel is a citizen of the United States and of the state of Texas. She is a registered voter in Titus County and regularly votes in local and state elections. How is it, then, that Ms. Evenwel’s vote in a Texas state senate race is worth only about half that of certain other voters? The answer lies somewhere at the intersection of bad law and even worse politics that the modern Voting Rights Act has become. 

The VRA, as you may recall, was the heroic civil rights legislation that finally put a stop to the most blatant and invidious forms of racial discrimination impairing the fundamental right of racial minorities to vote. It has been several decades now since this important and proud work but now, sadly, the heroic VRA has lived long enough to see itself become a villain. As Cato has warned before—in our amicus briefs in Perry v. Perez and Shelby County v. Holder—the courts are at a “bloody crossroads” when interpreting what have become the conflicting mandates of the VRA.  To give one example, the courts have found that Section 2 requires race-based redistricting to prevent loss of minority voting power, while at the same time, the Fifteenth Amendment (and the currently inoperable VRA Section 5) prohibits discrimination in voting on the basis of race.

Another Petty Dispute Involving U.S. Allies

Alliances tend to entangle America in confrontations that have little or no relevance to the security and liberty of the republic.  A prime example of that problem is the ongoing, bitter dispute between Japan and South Korea over some largely uninhabited rocks and the waters surrounding them.  Tokyo and Seoul cannot even agree on the correct name of the islands or the body of water.  Japanese call the islands Takeshima, while South Koreans insist on the name Dokdo.  For Japanese (and most of the world), the spits of rock are located in the Sea of Japan, but South Koreans hate that name and instead call it the East Sea.

As I discuss in a recent National Interest Online article, outsiders might be tempted to snicker at such a parochial feud, but it has significant policy implications.  U.S. officials are seeking to strengthen Washington’s alliances with both Japan and South Korea to counter China’s growing power in East Asia.  A key component of that strategy is to encourage closer bilateral military cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul.  The Takeshima/Dokdo dispute is a major impediment to such cooperation.  Beijing has been quick to take advantage of the animosity by actively courting South Korea.  

Japanese and South Korean leaders also pressure Washington to take sides in the controversy.  Such efforts should be rebuffed firmly.  Which country has sovereignty over the islands and the surrounding fishing waters should be a matter of profound indifference to all Americans.

There is a larger lesson in this petty territorial dispute.  As my colleague Doug Bandow has correctly observed, Washington collects allies with less thought and discrimination than most people collect Facebook friends.  In doing so, we also collect all of the disputes and feuds that those “friends” wage with other parties.  That is an unnecessary and unwise policy for a superpower.