Topic: Government and Politics

Choosing What to Worry About

Paul Krugman’s column in today’s NYT laments the lack of a national policy to combat global warming. He writes:

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

He then cites the work of Harvard economist Martin Weitzman, who surveyed the results of a number of recent climate models and found that (in Krugman’s words) “they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to ‘effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.’”

Krugman concludes, “It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat” and he calls for opprobrium against those who might impede global warming legislation: “The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral.”

There is merit to the argument that society should consider a policy response to the threat of global warming. A small chance of an enormous calamity equals a risk that may deserve mitigation. That’s why people buy insurance, after all.

However, Krugman doesn’t accept that argument — at least, not when applied to other worrisome risks that trouble people whose politics are different than his. Less than two months ago, he wrote this about another future crisis:

[O]n Friday Mr. Obama declared that he would “extend the promise” of Social Security by imposing a payroll-tax surcharge on people making more than $250,000 a year. The Tax Policy Center estimates that this would raise an additional $629 billion over the next decade. But if the revenue from this tax hike really would be reserved for the Social Security trust fund, it wouldn’t be available for current initiatives. Again, one wonders about priorities. Whatever would-be privatizers may say, Social Security isn’t in crisis: the Congressional Budget Office says that the trust fund is good until 2046, and a number of analysts think that even this estimate is overly pessimistic. So is adding to the trust fund the best use a progressive can find for scarce additional revenue?

In Krugman’s view, policies to address Weitzman’s 5 percent risk of ecological disaster by the early 23rd century (Weitzman’s time frame, which Krugman didn’t specify) are responsible and moral, but policies to address the economic crisis of Social Security’s insolvency in less than four decades’ time are unnecessary and overly pessimistic. And Krugman clobbers anyone who suggests otherwise .

Make sense to you? Me neither.

Krugman’s double-standard on risk is not confined to Social Security. He has (rightly, IMO) blasted the Bush administration for going to war in Iraq. But couldn’t the war be justified as mitigating a small risk of a great catastrophe? Was there, perhaps, a one-in-20 risk that Hussein’s Iraq would develop weapons of mass destruction and direct them at the United States (in the next 200 years)?

I write this not to argue that the United States should be unconcerned about global warming, or about rogue states’ possession of super-weapons, or about Social Security’s (and Medicare’s) unsustainability. All are risks, and it is right for us to consider policy responses for each of them. My point is that it makes little sense to say one risk must be addressed while we should dismiss another risk with an expected value that’s probably the same order of magnitude.

Moreover, if this dichotomy is simply the product of Krugman’s political allegiances (“Red team fears are stupid, Blue team fears are heroic”), isn’t he being irresponsible, wrong and immoral?

The Mysterious Mr. Obama

Yesterday, one minute apart, I received two email messages that sort of sum up the mixed libertarian views on Barack Obama. First, an old friend forwarded an AP story in which Obama promised to repeal any executive orders that “trample on liberty”:

Barack Obama told House Democrats on Tuesday that as president he would order his attorney general to scour White House executive orders and expunge any that “trample on liberty,” several lawmakers said… .

The Illinois senator “talked about how his attorney general is to review every executive order and immediately eliminate those that trample on liberty,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Good stuff! Let’s just hope he realizes that Bush isn’t the first president to issue executive orders that “trample on liberty.” It was President Bill Clinton’s aide, Paul Begala, who drooled at the notion of using executive orders to do what Congress wouldn’t go along with: “Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool.” For a look at some pre-Bush executive orders that might warrant elimination, Obama’s attorney general might consult “Executive Orders and National Emergencies: How Presidents Have Come to ‘Run the Country’ by Usurping Legislative Power,” published by Cato in 1999. There he can find information about Clinton orders that nationalized land, sought to reverse Supreme Court rulings, rewrote the rules of federalism, and waged war in Yugoslavia.

One minute after receiving that story, I received another Obama analysis in my inbox. That one was an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily titled “Barack Obama’s Stealth Socialism.” The editorial noted Obama’s repeated use of the sneaky phrase “economic justice” and cited a laundry list of spending programs and regulations that Obama supports. It’s a pretty scary list for a libertarian, from national health insurance and penalties for companies that do business internationally to huge new federal burdens on employers.

To the extent that some libertarians look favorably on Obama, I think it’s mostly negative: Bush and the Republican Congress have been so bad that any alternative looks good. But occasionally Obama does indeed say something almost libertarian. And then he promises that he’s the guy who can build a consensus to actually implement Hillary Clinton’s policy agenda, and libertarians are reminded of why they rarely vote Democratic. In Obama’s case, of course, the confusion is created by his lack of much public record. He was a senator for only two years before he began running for president full-time. Unlike candidates such as Clinton and John McCain, he doesn’t have decades’ worth of votes and statements to review. So we parse the substantive moments amid his soaring rhetoric and try to determine if he’s “the most liberal member of the Senate,” “more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont,” a “a pro-growth, free-market guy,” or even a “left libertarian.”

The Stevens Scandal

Don Boudreaux of George Mason University sent out the following missive about Ted Stevens’s indictment. I don’t see it posted at Cafe Hayek, though it might yet be. But since I can’t improve on his pithy commentary, I offer it here:

I’m delighted to see Sen. Ted Stevens face jail time for his crimes while in office. To charge him with concealing gifts totaling $250,000, however, is the equivalent of charging a confessed mass murderer with jaywalking. If that’s the only way to bring the criminal to justice, fine. But Sen. Stevens’s most significant misdeeds - ones of which he boasts! - are his decades-long success at directing billions of taxpayer dollars to special-interest groups for no reason other than the fact that he possessed the power and position to buy himself even greater security in office by doing so.

Of course, punishing all the criminals guilty of THAT offense would depopulate Capitol Hill.

Treating Angelenos as Children

A law that would prevent fast-food restaurants from opening in South Los Angeles neighborhoods was unanimously approved by the LA City Council on Tuesday.

Paternalist? You bet. Violation of equal protection? It would seem so. The City Council trusts white people, but not the blacks and Latinos who live in South Los Angeles, to make their own food decisions? Ouch.

But I was particularly struck by this statement from Councilwoman Jan Perry, sponsor of the measure: “I believe this is a victory for the people of South and southeast Los Angeles, for them to have greater food options.”

Greater food options? All the council is doing is banning some restaurants. How will that give residents more options? Maybe – maybe – other restaurants will open in South Los Angeles because fewer fast food restaurants will open over the coming year. But residents will still not have “greater food options,” just different options, courtesy of those who know best.

Thomas Sowell wrote in Knowledge and Decisions of the “surprising … persistence and scope of the belief that people can be made better off by reducing their options.” Twenty-eight years later, the belief persists. But now people who reduce other people’s options claim they are increasing options. That’s progress, of a sort.

The citizens of South Los Angeles should rebel against the unchosen nannies who think that they can run adults’ lives better than those adults can run their own lives.

Indictment of Sen. Stevens - An Interesting Tidbit

I suppose the charges brought against Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) aren’t terribly interesting to most libertarians. Perhaps we get a bit of schadenfreude as one of the mighty fall, but shady dealings that edge into outright corruption are part and parcel of politics.

You’re not going to see a lot of jaws dropping around the Cato Institute with the news of the Senator’s indictment. And (if I may venture to speak for my colleagues) few of us think that if you just “cleaned up” the process, it would actually work.

But here’s an interesting tidbit: The indefatigable David Carney of TechLawJournal has given some thought to why these particular charges were brought. His subscription newsletter has a summary of the case with a section called “DOJ Forum Shopping,” which says, in part:

The 6th Amendment of the Constitution provides that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 18 provides that “Unless a statute or these rules permit otherwise, the government must prosecute an offense in a district where the offense was committed. The court must set the place of trial within the district with due regard for the convenience of the defendant and the witnesses, and the prompt administration of justice.”

Stevens’ house is in Alaska. The alleged home improvements, and all of the transactions alleged in the indictment, occurred in Alaska. Only the filing of the Senate Financial Disclosure Forms (SFDFs) are alleged to have taken place in District of Columbia. Thus, the §1001/SFDF offense is the only one that the DOJ can assert occurred in the District of Columbia.

Thus, the indictment alleges that Sen. Stevens violated §1001 “in the District of Columbia”.

If the DOJ were to charge Sen. Stevens with bribery or tax evasion, then there would be no credible argument that the alleged crime occurred in the District of Columbia, and Sen. Stevens would be entitled to have the case moved to Alaska.

Carney does an extensive analysis of factors that would cause the Justice Department to want to keep the case out of Alaska, and he reports on the evasiveness of a DoJ official when queried why tax charges weren’t brought, which would place the case to the Senator’s home state.

Interesting stuff from a smart lawyer and reporter. Most political coverage is about the “horse race.” David Carney law and technology coverage reveals the chess match.

(And he’s ethical: Carney discloses that he is an ex-Alaskan who voted for Sen. Stevens in the 1984 Senate election. I’ll do the same: I worked for Senator Stevens on the staff of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs for a short time in, I believe, 1996.)

Sounds Familiar?

“[The speaker] urged the students to study in order to serve the people and those in need, and not to fill their pockets,” reported the media.

Sound familiar? No, it wasn’t Barack Obama urging students to pursue “collective service” instead of chasing after a “big house and nice suits,” but Aleida Guevara, the daughter of the infamous Che Guevara, talking to Paraguayan students yesterday.

Guevara went on to say that “Each of us isn’t worth anything. The processes belong to the people, and not to any individual man.”

That’s a good audition for the commencement address at Wesleyan University next year.

Obama, McCain, and Health Care

In the face of widespread public demand for changes in the U.S. health care system, both Barack Obama and John McCain have offered detailed proposals for reform. In the new study, ”A Fork in the Road: Obama, McCain, and Health Care,” Cato scholar Michael D. Tanner examines the candidates’ plans, and concludes that, while Senator McCain’s proposal is far from perfect, from a free-market perspective, it appears superior to Senator Obama’s plan.