Geo-Engineering the Climate? A Geo-Bad Idea.

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times included the beginning of a long article about geoengineering—in this case, as it applies to purposeful activities aimed at changing the earth’s climate at a large scale. Why on earth would anyone even think of doing something like that? Why to avoid catastrophic global warming, of course!

Thankfully, most signs point to only a modest global temperature increase resulting from our fossil fuel usage—a rise that will be readily adapted to and which actually may work out to be more beneficial than detrimental. Thankfully, we say, because geoengineering schemes seem like really bad ideas full of nasty consequences (unintentional and otherwise) and we are glad that no one is seriously entertaining them.

Most folks who spend much time critically thinking about geoengineering the climate arrive at the same conclusion.

Why Transparency Is Important

The benefits of transparency are hard to explain. Bit by bit, we’re improving public oversight of government, I’ve been heard to say, implying more libertarian-friendly outcomes—never quite sure that I’m getting my message through.

Now comes a comment on transparency that articulates its importance better than I ever could. It’s Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber describing how lacking transparency allowed the president’s signature health care regulation to pass.

A gaffe in Washington is when somebody tells the truth. Thanks to this one, more people may understand how non-transparent government undercuts their freedoms. Insisting on government transparency can protect them.

The GOP vs. The BCA

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the costs of the Pentagon’s current plans will total nearly $3.8 trillion over the next seven years, $308 billion more than is permitted by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

That $3.8 trillion represents the Pentagon’s base budget, not the entirety of federal spending on national security. It does not include, for example, nuclear weapons spending in the Department of Energy; nor the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs; nor overseas operations in Afghanistan, and the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But I digress.

If spending exceeds the BCA caps, CBO observes, the Pentagon will be forced to “make sharp additional cuts to the size of its forces, curtail the development and purchase of weapons, reduce the extent of its operations and training, or implement some combination of those three actions.”

A more likely scenario, however, is that the new Republican-controlled Congress will adjust or eliminate the BCA spending caps. According to The Daily Beast, Sen. John McCain’s “first order of business as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee will be to end the budget rule known as sequestration, which requires the U.S. military to cut its budget across the board.”

If McCain succeeds, military spending advocates can be expected to push through dramatic increases in the Pentagon’s budget. Indeed, if House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan’s FY15 budget is any indication, the Pentagon would receive over the next seven years nearly $100 billion more than it has requested.

How would Republicans pay for such increases? Many would prefer to find the money by cutting non-defense discretionary spending, or by reforming entitlement programs. But it’s difficult to envision Democrats agreeing to such proposals, especially if the Pentagon is the primary beneficiary. Others, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, are open to the idea of raising tax revenue by closing loopholes and eliminating deductions. But most Republicans remain allergic to tax increases, and they are likely to confront a bipartisan coalition of outside groups that has adamantly opposed past efforts to circumvent the BCA in order to fund higher Pentagon budgets. The easiest path is, as usual, debt. Thus, expect another Ryan-Murray style “cave-in” that puts additional Pentagon spending on the country’s credit card.

Despite all that talk during the mid-term election campaigns of President Obama’s reckless deficits, Washington’s willingness to spend the people’s money – including money the people don’t yet have – is a bipartisan affliction.

The only hope, it seems, is to stick to the current spending caps, imperfect though they may be. The BCA caps are not the wisest way to curb military spending, but they are all we have.  

Nominal Earnings Growth and Money Illusion (Real Wages Are Rising)

Wall Street Journal columnist E.S. Browning presents a graph titled “Wages Still Soft …  hourly wage gains have been sluggish.”   It shows the percentage change in average hourly earnings from a year earlier.  That rate of change slowed from about 3.5 percent in early 2009 to 1.5 percent in late 2012 before rising to 2.2-2.4 percent in recent months.   The upside, in Browning’s view, is that “wage gains still aren’t big enough to push inflation higher.”  In reality, wage gains never push inflation higher, but inflation can certainly push real wages lower.

The trouble with Browning’s graph is that it shows only changes in nominal earnings – unadjusted for the huge drop in inflation after July 2008 when the year-to-year increase in consumer prices reached 5.5 percent in July 2008 (up from 1.9 percent in August of 2007).  Nominal wage gains miss the real story.

In the graph shown below, I adjust the same hourly earnings figures for inflation by using the PCE deflator.  Note that real earnings rose rapidly when inflation dropped to zero or less in 2009 – when Browning’s chart begins.  But employers could not afford to pay rising wages when their prices were falling, so employment collapsed.

Measured in 2009 dollars, real average hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers have been rising slowly but surely for two years – from $18.55 in October 2012 to $18.95 in October 2014, or 1.1 percent a year.  That’s not so terrible considering the slow pace of growth of GDP and productivity.

Despite hazardous chatter from the likes of Paul Krugman and Larry Summers about U.S. inflation being too low, the truth is that low inflation has been raising U.S. real wages even as confused politicians and journalists erroneously bemoan slow growth in nominal wages.

Krugman vs. Krugman on Statutory Interpretation

To follow-up on my colleague Walter Olson’s earlier post on the Paul Krugman piece on King v. Burwell, what struck me was Krugman’s flexible approach to statutory interpretation.

Here he is in today’s piece:

Last week the court shocked many observers by saying that it was willing to hear a case claiming that the wording of one clause in the Affordable Care Act sets drastic limits on subsidies to Americans who buy health insurance. It’s a ridiculous claim; not only is it clear from everything else in the act that there was no intention to set such limits, you can ask the people who drafted the law what they intended, and it wasn’t what the plaintiffs claim. …

 if you look at the specific language authorizing those subsidies, it could be taken — by an incredibly hostile reader — to say that they’re available only to Americans using state-run exchanges, not to those using the federal exchanges.

As I said, everything else in the act makes it clear that this was not the drafters’ intention, and in any case you can ask them directly, and they’ll tell you that this was nothing but sloppy language. …

So, don’t worry so much about the specific language; instead, look at the drafters’ intent and the surrounding context. Got it.

On the other hand, here’s Krugman from January of 2013, writing about the idea of a platinum coin:

Enter the platinum coin. There’s a legal loophole allowing the Treasury to mint platinum coins in any denomination the secretary chooses. Yes, it was intended to allow commemorative collector’s items — but that’s not what the letter of the law says. And by minting a $1 trillion coin, then depositing it at the Fed, the Treasury could acquire enough cash to sidestep the debt ceiling — while doing no economic harm at all.

So in this situation, you should stick to the “letter of the law,” and not worry so much about the drafters’ intent.

Hmm, how to reconcile those two Krugman assertions about the proper approach to statutory interpretation?  That’s a tough one.  Wait, I got it!  We’ll call this the Krugman canon of construction: “Interpret statutes in whatever way makes them consistent with your policy preferences.”

Congress Should Tell President Barack Obama No to War against the Islamic State

President Barack Obama finally is obeying the law. He wants Congress to authorize military action against the Islamic State. 

Congress should respond as it was prepared to do when the president requested permission last year to bomb Syria: Capitol Hill should say no.

Candidate Barack Obama stated: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  But three years ago, President Obama took America into war against Libya.  Three months ago, he initiated hostilities in Iraq against the Islamic State. Both without a congressional vote.

Most recently, administration officials claimed authority under the Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda adopted in the aftermath of September 11.  But the Islamic State is not al-Qaeda and ISIL’s leaders did not help organize the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. 

The president obviously changed his mind after his party was defeated in the off-year elections.  At least he now is following the Constitution. 

The Founders gave most military powers to Congress: raising and funding the military, writing the rules of war, issuing letters of marquee, and ratifying treaties. Moreover, Article I, Section 8 (11) states: “Congress shall have the power … to declare war.” 

The early Americans feared a president and war like today.  The Founders particularly opposed a system which subjected the nation’s peace to the whims of one man, accountable to no one.

Research Shows that Small Government Is Efficient Government

I’ve argued that we’ll get better government if we make it smaller.

And Mark Steyn humorously observed, “our government is more expensive than any government in history – and we have nothing to show for it.”

But can these assertions be quantified?

I had an email exchange last week with a gentleman from Texas who wanted to know if I had any research on the efficiency of government. He specifically wanted to know the “ratio of federal tax dollars collected to the actual delivery of the service.”

That was a challenge. If he simply wanted examples of government waste, I could have overloaded his inbox.

But he wanted an efficiency measure, which requires apples-to-apples comparisons to see which jurisdictions are delivering the most output (government services) compared to input (how much is spent on those services).

My one example was in the field of education, where I was ashamed to report that the United States spends more per student than any other nation, yet we get depressingly mediocre results (though that shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has looked at this jaw-dropping chart comparing spending and educational performance).

But his query motivated me to do some research and I found an excellent 2003 study from the European Central Bank. Authored by Antonio Afonso, Ludger Schuknecht, and Vito Tanzi, the study specifically examines the degree to which governments are providing value, and at what cost.