DATA Act Implementation

The administration is working to implement the DATA Act, which, if implemented well, could produce a sea-change in government transparency, and a shift of power from government insiders to the people.

Yesterday, I submitted to the Treasury Department’s Fiscal Service our 2012 “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices” study, along with the following comment, which notes the glaring absence of a machine-readable government organization chart.

In partial response to the notice, I’m pleased to submit the attached study, which may assist your inquiry.

Over several years, I have been studying transparency, which remains largely undelivered because it has been undefined.

In “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” you’ll find the results of that study. Transparency is produced by data that comes from an authoritative source, data that is complete, that is machine-discoverable, and that is machine-readable. When good data publication conditions obtain, the public and government managers alike, through information services, apps, and websites, will make use of the data to make the government more legible.

The study graded the quality of data publication about key entities in the legislative and budgeting/spending processes. The striking upshot was the absence of good data about a very elemental topic: the organizational units of the federal government. There is no machine-readable organization chart for the U.S. federal government. The absence of a machine-readable government organization chart stifles public and congressional oversight, and it frustrates internal management.

Producing machine-readable data that articulates what the organizational units of the federal government are should be a priority. It is probably one of the easier things to do technically, and it will produce important gains in transparency. Failure to produce and maintain a machine-readable federal government organization chart would also stand out if it is not done early on in DATA Act implementation.

We are currently in the process of re-grading data publication in the areas covered by the prior study. In future iterations of the grading study, I look forward to reporting that there is well-organized, complete information about all agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects, and the relationships among them.

Thank you!

Jim Harper

A cynic—and there might be one or two reading this blog!—would say that the government will never make itself transparent. Well, it certainly won’t if you don’t ask it to…

SCOTUS to Hear Case on EPA Power Plant Rule

Today the Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari on EPA’s 2012 ruling, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. This ruling, projected in 2012 to result  in the closing of 68 power plants supplying electricity to 22 million homes, is EPA’s version of swatting a gnat with an atomic bomb. Here’s some sobering numbers, from a 2010 article in the refereed scientific journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions:

Total emissions of mercury (in metric tons):

  • From natural sources (mainly volcanoes and forest fires): 5200 tons
  • From human activity: 2320 tons
  • Total, natural and human: ~7500 tons
  • Human activity in the US: 117 tons, or about 1.6% of global emissions
  • From coal-fired electrical generation in the US: 48 tons, or about 0.6% of global emissions
  • Amount that actually falls on our soil from our power plants: 12 tons, or about 0.2% of global emissions.

Mercury can reside in the atmosphere for up to two years, unless it is rained out as “wet deposition,” which means that a lot of what comes out of the volcanoes of the Pacific Rim and wildfires winds up here.

If EPA was really serious about Mercury it would issue regulations capping volcanoes and outlawing wildfires.

[Insert Winter Storm Cato Joke Here]

We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge Winter Storm “Cato” is probably going to do a pretty good job limiting the government tomorrow, as well as shortening tempers throughout the country if it jams up the BosNYWash flyway on the day before Thanksgiving. Surely many climate alarmists will blame this garden-variety coastal cyclone on global warming.

Rational minds should know that these types of storms are largely powered by the midlatitude jet stream. The jet is nature’s way of dissipating the difference in energy between warm tropical air and polar cold on a rotating earth—the larger the temperature difference is between the tropics and the North Pole, the more powerful it is. Greenhouse gas-induced climate change warms the poles much more than the tropics, which reduces the temperature difference and should make storms of Cato’s ilk less powerful and/or frequent. 

Many pundits are fond of blaming these storms on changes in the “polar vortex” (which itself has existed ever since the earth acquired an atmosphere) caused by global warming, a notion that was thoroughly debunked by Colorado State’s Elizabeth Barnes last year in Geophysical Research Letters.

The Decision of the Ferguson Grand Jury

President Obama has called on the nation to accept the decision of the Ferguson grand jury. But looking forward, across much of this country, our system for dealing with police use of deadly force is broken. Police shoot and kill civilians at a rate unheard of in many other advanced nations, and even after incidents where there are indications that excessive force was used, police across many parts of the country seldom face trial or even dismissal from the force. A system for review of police misconduct must take care to vindicate and protect the innocent cop, but it also needs to deliver a credible promise of justice to the communities being policed. As a front-line means of regulating lethal force, grand juries – which are secret, remote from the truth-finding of an adversary process, and dependent on prosecutors’ guidance – do not command broad public confidence.  We see that in Ferguson today.

The Ongoing Situation in Ferguson

The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson is not surprising because police officers are rarely prosecuted for on-duty shootings.  And in the rare instances in which criminal charges are ever brought against police, juries are reluctant to hold them accountable with a felony criminal charge.  A report on Cato’s Police Misconduct web site found a conviction rate of only 33% – roughly half the percentage in non-police, civilian prosecutions.  It remains to be seen whether Wilson will be held accountable in some other way.  We must remember that just because a jury has declined to bring criminal charges does not automatically mean that Wilson should return to duty.  Police commanders may conclude, given all the surrounding circumstances, that he may not be right for police work. Certainly his involvement in Brown’s death will create problems for prosecutors who will have to rely on his future work. Wilson’s testimony in future trials could be very problematic.

With respect to the unrest in Ferguson, there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge the crimes that are being committed by thugs who are taking advantage of the situation.  It seems wildly inaccurate to say that protesters have started fires and are looting stores, for instance.  The people doing that are criminal troublemakers, not “protesters.”

Broad Reforms Needed to Stop Another Ferguson

The violence in Ferguson is inexcusable. But it should not be seen as primarily a reaction to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. Rather, it should be seen as a reaction to years of racially charged policing and a discriminatory justice. Focusing on Officer Wilson’s culpability detracts from the bigger, nation-wide story: That every month there are innumerable police abuses throughout the country that go unnoticed and unreported, and, even if they are reported, the accused officers will likely never be disciplined, much less charged with a crime. Unfortunately, many of these abuses are disproportionately felt by people of color. Abuses can be small and nearly impossible to discover, such as stopping a car full of black men without probable cause, or they can be large and public, such as unjustifiably gunning down an unarmed black teenager. Sometimes the police action may be justified, and sometimes it may not, but the systems in place for determining culpability are egregiously biased in favor of police officers. Add to this an over-militarized police force that uses surplus military gear to violently break into homes 100 times per day, usually to only execute search warrants, and you have a recipe for disaster and an urgent need for reform. We should take advantage of this time of heightened awareness to reform a justice system that has too much power and too little accountability. Hopefully the violence in the street will not overshadow the legitimate protests, but I fear it may. 

India Tosses out the WTO’s Agricultural Subsidy Disciplines

The World Trade Organization (WTO) seems on the verge of approving an agreement with India to allow the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) to move forward.  The TFA is to be applauded.  It will make a useful contribution toward helping goods move across borders more efficiently, which will tend to increase trade and promote economic growth.

The problem is not with the TFA, but rather with the high price that the global community seems ready to pay for it.  India has asked that it be allowed to exceed the level of domestic agricultural subsidies to which it agreed twenty years ago in the Uruguay Round negotiations.  For the first time in history, those talks led to limits on the ability of countries to use trade distorting agricultural supports.  Those subsidies had been rampant, often leading to surplus production that depressed crop prices in global markets.  Farmers who were being subsidized generally were happy enough with that arrangement, but it was a very different story for unprotected farmers in other countries.  Many of the world’s farmers are quite poor to start with.  Government-driven decreases in commodity prices make them even poorer.

A teachable moment is slipping away because no WTO member has been willing to stand up and explain what’s going on.  India sanctimoniously declares that it needs to promote food security through use of a robust public stockholding program, and would like the world to believe that existing WTO rules prohibit them from doing so.  This is simply not correct.  The Uruguay Round includes specific provisions detailing how public stockholding may be used for food security purposes.  A great deal of time, effort and tough negotiating went into developing those provisions.  There is no limit on government expenditures to provide food – including free or reduced-price food – to low-income people.  However, there is a clear requirement that purchases of commodities for public stocks must be made at open-market prices.  It is not allowable to purchase commodities at above-market prices in order to provide a subsidy to farmers.