California Drought: The Rest of the Story

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

When the national media covers a weather story these days, it almost certainly will find some angle in which to insert/assert an element of human-caused climate change, and that element will always be characterized such as to have made the situation worse. It would take a lot of thinking on our part to try to recollect a major weather-related story in which the global warming was suggested to have ameliorated the impact—this despite a scientific literature that is complex and nebulous as to the direction of most impacts, and even less certain regarding the current detectability of such impacts.

Take for example the coverage of the current drought in California. As the drought drags on with spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas at record low levels—a finding which has prompted California Gov. Brown to enact statewide water restrictions—the press is eager to finger our greenhouse gas-spewing modern economy as the prime culprit. The problem is most scientific research suggests that the lack of precipitation in California has its roots in natural variability (for example, this recent paper by Thomas Delworth and colleagues which finds a common cause to drought in the western U.S. and the hiatus in global warming).

Thus, for the time being at least, bedeviled by actual science, most in the press have resisted placing much of the blame on the lack of precipitation at the feet of anthropogenic global warming.

But, there are actually two components which contribute to drought: 1) lack of precipitation, and 2) high temperatures.

Stymied on the first, many in the media have turned to the second. 

Baltimore Police Admit Thousands of Stingray Uses

It’s been a bad week for Stingray secrecy.  Following a court-ordered document dump in New York earlier this week, a Baltimore detective yesterday testified in court that he had personally used a Stingray between 600 and 800 times during two years as a member of the Baltimore Police Department’s Advanced Technical Team.  He also testified that the unit has used such devices 4,300 times since 2007.

Stingrays are handheld or vehicle-mounted surveillance devices that operate by mimicking cell towers.  They have the capability to force cell phones within their range to connect with the Stingray and transmit ID information from the phone.  Some models - the technology is constantly being upgraded to keep pace with advancing telecommunications infrastructure - are suspected of being able to intercept content, but the true extent of the capability is a closely-guarded secret. What is increasingly not a secret is that dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country have been using these devices for years to sweep up swaths of cell phone data, much of it from innocent people, with little to no transparency or oversight.

The Baltimore detective refused to produce the device in court, citing an FBI non-disclosure agreement. The FCC, which regulates radio-emitting devices like Stingrays, has delegated to the FBI the authority to set conditions on local use of cell site simulators.  The FBI, in turn, produced an agreement so restrictive that police and prosecutors can be obligated to withdraw evidence or even drop charges rather than disclose the use of the devices to the court.

As more and more information about these devices and their uses by law enforcement trickles out, it’s worth questioning what value exists in these secrecy agreements.  Despite repeated references to “terrorists” and “national security” as a means for maintaining secrecy about Stingray use, the data that has been released detailing the purposes of actual Stingray investigations - such as this breakdown from the Tallahassee Police Department that contains not a single terrorism reference - suggests that Stingrays are used virtually entirely for routine law enforcement investigations.  Meanwhile, the sacrifices being made in the name of defeating terror impose a real cost.

Mass Surveillance: From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror

At first glance, the USA Today headline seemed like many others in the nearly two years since Edward Snowden’s explosive revelations: U.S. secretly tracked billions of calls for decades. And while the program essentials were the same—the secret collection of the telephone metadata of every American– there were two key differences between this story and the hundreds before it on this topic. The offending government entity was the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the warrantless surveillance program was launched during the first Bush administration.

Justice Department officials told Reuters that, “All of the information has been deleted.”  “The agency is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers.” However, DoJ provided no actual proof of the alleged data destruction, and the DoJ Inspector General only recently began an inquiry into the program. While it now seems fairly clear that the DEA’s “USTO” metadata collection program served as a model for the NSA telephony metadata program conducted under Sec. 215 of the PATRIOT Act, what is also clear is that Americans are now confronting a government surveillance apparatus that is truly vast. As Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept noted, this particular DEA mass surveillance program is just one of several undertaken by the agency over the past three decades.

How many other such programs exist at other federal agencies, whether inside or outside of the U.S. intelligence community? And how far back do such programs go? How many members of Congress knew, and for how long? Was this DEA program concealed from the agency’s inspector general for two decades, or did the IG simply fail to investigate the program year after year out of apathy or indifference?

If the past is any guide at all—and the surveillance scandals of the 1960s and 1970s are a very good guide—we are once again confronting a level of government over-reach that calls for a comprehensive, public accounting.

In is new book, Democracy in the Dark, former Church Committee chief counsel Fritz Schwartz notes that “…too much is kept secret not to protect America but to keep illegal or embarrassing conduct from Americans…the Church Committee also found that every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon had secretly abused their powers.” For the paperback edition of his book, Schwartz is going to have to add more American chief executives to his list.

Paul Krugman Can’t Find Any Libertarians

Paul Krugman has a blog post at the New York Times that seems to be based on no research at all. But it has a snappy four-cell matrix so you’ll know it’s like real economics.

Krugman’s argument is that “there basically aren’t any libertarians.” And here’s the graph that proves it:

Krugman libertarians box

See how small the letters are in two of the boxes? That shows you that there aren’t any people in those boxes. “There ought in principle, you might think, be people who are pro-gay-marriage and civil rights in general, but opposed to government retirement and health care programs — that is, libertarians — but there are actually very few.” And there are also very few people who are “socially illiberal” and supportive of government social programs, he says.

But you know, there’s research on this. David Kirby and I have done some of it, in studies on “the libertarian vote.” But two political scientists examined a similar matrix back in 1984 and found roughly even numbers of people in each box.

Part of the trick here is that Krugman has used a vague term, “socially liberal,” for one of the dimensions of the matrix, and a radical policy position, “no social insurance,” for the other dimension. The logical way would be to use either common vague terms for both dimensions – say “socially liberal/conservative” and “fiscally liberal/conservative” – or specific and similarly radical terms for both dimensions, something like “no social insurance” and “repeal all drug laws.” Wonder how many people would be in the boxes then? 

“No social insurance” is a very radical position. Even many libertarians wouldn’t support it. Like Hayek. So to find the divisions in our society, we might choose a specific issue of personal freedom – gay marriage, say – along with an equally controversial economic policy such as school choice or a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

IRS Budget Cuts and Tax Filing

For taxpayers needing IRS help, this year’s filing season could be a nightmare. The Washington Post today reports on the long lines at IRS offices. The newspaper suggests that five years of Republican budget cuts are to blame, even though Democrats control the White House and, until recently, the Senate. But, whoever is at fault, the IRS commissioner is correct that his agency’s service is “abysmal.”

Let’s take a closer look at those alleged budget cuts. Using data from the OMB budget database, I split total IRS outlays into two activities: administration and handouts. Administration includes tax return processing, taxpayer help, enforcement, and other bureaucratic functions. Handouts are mainly refundable tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit, child credit, and Obamacare exchange subsidies, which began in 2014.

The chart shows that the IRS budget for handouts has skyrocketed (red line). The IRS has become a huge welfare agency. Handouts quadrupled from $30 billion in 2000 to an estimated $121 billion in 2015. Handouts have spiked the past two years because of Obamacare exchange subsidies of $13 billion in 2014 and an estimated $29 billion in 2015. (Data for 2015 are the president’s estimates).

How about IRS administration costs? They have been relatively flat (blue line). They grew from $8.4 billion in 2000 to a peak of $12.3 billion in 2011, and then they dipped to an estimated $11.3 billion in 2015.

The United States Should Choose Allies That Benefit America

If America ends up at war, it almost certainly will be on behalf of an ally. Washington collects allies like most people collect Facebook “friends.” The vast majority of U.S. allies are security liabilities, as potential tripwires for conflict and war.

Yet American officials constantly abase themselves to reassure the very countries that the United States is defending at great cost and risk. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) recently worried:  “What ally around the world can feel safe in their alliance with us?” The right question is with what ally can America feel safe?

Instead of relentlessly collecting more international dependents, Washington policymakers should drop Allies In Name Only (AINOs).

Walter Scott’s Death Is a Tragic Reminder of How Important It Is to Film Police

South Carolina police officer Michael T. Slager is facing a murder charge after footage emerged of him fatally shooting an apparently unarmed man following a traffic stop last Saturday. The disturbing footage not only shows that Slager shot eight rounds at Walter L. Scott while he was fleeing, it also appears to show him planting his Taser next to Scott after he is brought down. The incident is the latest reminder of how important it is to protect the right to film police officers doing their jobs.

The footage, which can be seen below and contains graphic content, clearly contradicts police reports.

According to police reports, Slager fired his Taser at Scott after pursuing him onto a grassy lot after a traffic stop prompted by a broken taillight. The Taser reportedly failed to subdue Scott. Slager reported via radio: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” Police reports also stated that officers performed CPR and first aid on Scott.

The video, which was captured by an onlooker, begins with Scott fleeing from Slager after what police reports claim was a scuffle over Slager’s Taser. Slager, standing flat-footed, then fires eight rounds at Scott, who falls to the ground roughly 15-20 feet from Slager after the eighth round is fired. The coroner reportedly told one of Scott’s family lawyers that Scott was hit by five times: once in the ear, once in the upper buttocks, and three times in the back.

The video appears to show Taser wires attached to Scott as he flees the encounter. If they are Taser wires, the beginning of the video confirms police reports which claim that Slager’s Taser did not stop Scott.  

However, it is hard to see any of the footage backing up Slager’s claim that “He took my Taser.” Indeed, the video shows that after he handcuffed Scott Slager went back to where the scuffle occurred, picked up an object, and then dropped that object next to Scott. Despite claims made in police reports, the video does not show officers performing CPR on Scott.

One of Slager’s attorneys, who is reportedly “no longer involved” in the case, said earlier this week that Slager felt threatened and believes that he acted appropriately, two claims that will be hard to justify given what the video shows.

The video will undoubtedly play a key role in Slager’s case. According to Justin Bamberg, a South Carolina House representative and one of Scott’s family lawyers, “If there was no video, I do not believe that officer would be in jail.”