Washington Metro Getting Ready for Bankruptcy?

As I noted last week, Los Angeles is not the only region experiencing declining transit ridership. Another is Washington, DC, where a recent report from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA aka Metro) revealed that ridership has fallen to the lowest level since 2004. Ominously, the agency’s financial situation is so bad that it has hired a bankruptcy attorney to help it deal with its problems and is reshuffling its top management, forcing at least one executive to retire.

As detailed in the actual report to the agency’s board, rail revenues and ridership in the first half of F.Y. 2016 are both down by 7 percent from the same period in F.Y. 2015. Metrorail ridership peaked in 2009, and if the second half of F.Y. 2016 is as bad as the first, annual ridership will be down as much as 30 percent from that peak despite a 15 percent increase in the region’s population. Bus ridership and revenue in 2016 is also down but by only about 3 percent below 2015.

Obama’s Abysmal Record Before the Supreme Court

I’ve written exhaustively about this administration’s sheer statistical failure at the Supreme Court. It has the worst record of any modern presidency, whether you count in absolute won-loss – where the solicitor general’s office struggles to get to 50 percent, against a historical norm of 70 percent – or by unanimous losses alone.

While we’re still in the part of the Court’s term before the decisions start flying fast and furiously, I thought I’d present the latest update on where we stand with respect to those unanimous losses, where President Obama doesn’t even get the votes of the two justices he appointed. Here are the stats:

  • In the first 6.5 years of Obama’s presidency (January 2009 to June 2015), the government lost unanimously at the Supreme Court 23 times, an average of 3.62 cases per year.
  • In all 8 years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the government lost unanimously 15 times (1.875 cases per year).
  • In all 8 years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the government lost 23 times (2.875 cases per year).
  • In other words, Obama has lost unanimously twice as often as Bush and 1.5 times as often as Clinton. Obama also passed Bush’s 8-year total in less than 5 years.
  • The Justice Department’s unanimous loss rate from 2012 to 2014 was especially bad – 13 cases in 30 months – almost three times Bush’s overall rate and almost twice Clinton’s (and that doesn’t count amicus litigating positions with unanimous losses).

For the record, here are the unanimous losses in the last four terms, so we can reminisce about the greatest hits (cases in which Cato filed marked with an asterisk):

  • 2012 (4 cases): United States v. Jones*; Sackett v. EPA*; Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC; Arizona v. United States
  • 2013 (5 cases): Gabelli v. SEC*; Arkansas Fish & Game Commission v. United States*; PPL Corp v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue*; Horne v. USDA*; Sekhar v. United States
  • 2014 (4 cases): Burrage v. United States; Bond v. United States*; Riley v. California*; Noel Canning v. NLRB*
  • 2015 (3 cases): Mach Mining v. EEOC; Henderson v. United States; McFadden v. United States

These cases have nothing in common, other than the government’s view that federal power is virtually unlimited: Citizens must subsume their liberty to whatever the experts in a given field determine the best or most useful policy to be. If the government can’t get even one justice to agree with it on any of these unrelated cases, it should realize there’s something seriously wrong with its constitutional vision. 

And so, as we look ahead to the opinions due to come down this spring and summer, keep in mind that if the government loses, it won’t be because its lawyers had a bad day in court or because the justices ruled based on their political preferences. It will be because the Obama administration continues to make legal arguments that don’t pass the smell test.

Bush Grew Bureaucracy Faster than Obama

President Obama’s new budget includes a table showing the number of executive branch civilian employees the administration expects to have in 2017. With that, we can compare the growth in federal government employment over eight years of Obama (2009 to 2017) to eight years of President George W. Bush (2001 to 2009).

Federal civilian employment rose from 1,738,000 million in 2001, to 1,978,000 in 2009, to a proposed 2,137,000 in 2017. Thus, employment grew 13.8 percent under Bush and 8.0 percent under Obama, as shown by the bars on the left of the chart below.

Overall since 2001, federal civilian employment has increased by 399,000 workers, which is like a mid-sized city populated entirely by bureaucrats.

Perhaps the Bush increase stemmed from the build-up of Pentagon civilians to support the president’s war efforts? No, that was not it. The bars on the right show that the nondefense workforce grew 17.2 percent under Bush and 10.1 percent under Obama.    

If the next president wants to save some money, he or she should consider that the extra 399,000 workers since 2001 are costing taxpayers about $120,000 each in wages and benefits—that’s about $48 billion a year.

A Two-Millennia Relationship Between Climate and Economic Data

Introducing their intriguing work, Wei et al. (2015) write that “investigating climate-society relationships has long been a hot topic,” noting that “many studies have demonstrated the important roles of climate change in facilitating the rise or fall of ancient communities.” However, they report that “intense arguments regarding the economic effects of global warming” remain to be clarified in such investigations.

Against this backdrop, Wei et al. set out to investigate the long-term relationship between the climate and economy of China. More specifically, they derived a 2,130-year long record of the Chinese economy based on 1,091 records extracted from 25 books on Chinese history and economic history, spanning the period 220 BC to 1910 AD. This new proxy was then statistically analyzed in conjunction with historical proxies of Chinese temperature and precipitation previously compiled by Ge et al. (2013) and Zheng et al. (2006), respectively. And what did that analysis reveal?

The three Chinese researchers found that warm and wet climate periods coincided with more prosperous and robust economic phases (above-average mean economic level, higher ratio of economic prosperity, and less intense variations), whereas opposite economic conditions ensued during cold and dry periods (where the possibility of economic crisis was “greatly increased”) (see Figure 1 below). They also report that temperature was “more influential than precipitation in explaining the long-term economic fluctuations, whereas precipitation displayed more significant effects on the short-term macro-economic cycle.”

In concluding their paper Wei et al. write that, “from a deep time perspective, our study may provide new insight into the current intense arguments regarding the economic effects of global warming.” Indeed it does; and that insight reveals a warmer (and wetter) climate favors economic prosperity. Given this data-derived relationship, why are the leaders of so many nations hell-bent on halting any future rise in global temperature, especially when two millennia of climate and economic data suggest such a rise would benefit the economy? As the late Casey Stengel would have said, “doesn’t anybody know how to play this game?”

How David Brooks Created Donald Trump

Donald Trump, David Brooks (Credit: AP/John Locher/Nam Y. Huh/Photo montage by Salon)

The ugliness of this year’s presidential race makes The New York Times’ resident erstwhile conservative David Brooks wistful for Barack Obama. The irony is that David Brooks, Barack Obama, and their respective tribes bear much of the responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.

“I miss Barack Obama,” Brooks laments, because “over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” Brooks cites Hillary Clinton’s emails and some other stuff, but everyone knows he’s talking about The Donald. “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free.” By the time he’s done, Brooks upgrades Obama’s integrity to “superior.”

We all have difficulty seeing our blind spots. That’s why we call them what we call them. But Brooks’ obliviousness here is awe-inspiring.

Donald Trump has risen to the top of the GOP presidential field by appealing to resentments stoked by both political tribes. Even Brooks is even doing it, right there in his column.

Trump is riding resentments Obama has stoked by ruling as an autocrat. Rather than accept that voters elected a Republican Congress for the purpose of restraining his ambitions, Obama famously boasted he can act without Congress, because “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”

He has repeatedly circumvented the democratic process and he knows it, as when he boasts, “I just took an action to change the law.” When challenged, he tries (with some success) to intimidate courts into writing tortured opinions in his favor. Still his executive overreach has been on the losing end of more unanimous Supreme Court rulings than either of his two immediate predecessors. Even allies admit he plays fast and loose with the rule of law.


When a president doesn’t play by the rules, he is telling his political opponents their votes don’t matter. That breeds resentment.

Andrew Coulson, In Memoriam

Earlier this week, we lost a giant. Andrew Coulson, Senior Fellow in Education Policy at the Cato Institute, passed away after a fifteen-month battle with brain cancer. In the days that followed, colleagues, friends, and admirers paid tribute to his achievements, reminisced about his character and virtues, and reflected on his legacy. What follows is a compilation of those tributes.

Neal McCluskey remembers Andrew in an interview with Caleb Brown:

Adam B. Schaeffer, former colleague and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute:

There is no one else beside Andrew Coulson that you must read to discover what reforms we need in education and why they will work. That is not hyperbole. There are many very sharp people who have contributed important thoughts on education reform, but you will get everything essential that you need from reading through Andrew’s collective works. […]

Andrew was a fine thinker and passionate advocate. But, as many have noted, he was also a kind man with a splendid sense of humor and relentless optimism. He remained immovably committed to his principles and the conclusions to which his great mind had led him. But he always engaged with a sense of magnanimity and humor, never bitter or angry. Even when I made a good deal of trouble for him with my lack of these qualities, Andrew stood by me. When he faced difficulties because of his principles, he always stood firm on those as well.

Adam concludes his tribute with a recommended reading list of Andrew’s works, which are among “all the wonderful gifts he’s left us.” 

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”