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?

Stop Blaming the States!

Yesterday, both the House and Senate passed the atrocious new Higher Education Act, a 1,158-page monstrosity packing 62 new programs, oodles of new spending, and a bureaucrats’ dream of new rules and regulations. I won’t go into all the gory details — I’d need hundreds of blogs just to do the file-sharing provisions justice — but one piece in particular really gets my goat.

One of the services the new HEA supposedly provides is that it will encourage states to keep up their share of higher education funding so that public colleges don’t have to make money — here comes every student group’s favorite phrase — “on the backs of students.” Thankfully, it’s a weak measure, threatening only to withhold a state’s allocation of a small, new grant program, but it’s the entire premise on which it’s built that’s infuriating. Today’s Wall Street Journal article on the bill provides a great example of the problem:

It is this very reduction of funding that state schools cite as an important factor pushing them to raise tuition. Total state appropriations for higher education have dropped to 11% for fiscal 2008, down from 15% 20 years ago, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of attendance at a four-year public college, including tuition, fees and room and board, was $13,589 in 2007-08, 78% higher than it was two decades before, even after adjusting for inflation, according to the New York nonprofit College Board.

The argument here is that because the percentage of funding that schools get from their states has declined, the states aren’t keeping up their end of the funding bargain. But the real question should be whether states are staying consistent with their total per-pupil funding, which shows whether their commitment to higher ed has been steady. It has been: While state spending has fluctuated largely in accordance with the ups-and-downs of the economy, the 20-plus-year trend is one of overall consistent funding. This graph from the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ report State Higher Education Finance: FY 2007 makes this abundantly clear:

In real dollars, the 2007 public appropriation per full-time-equivalent student was $6,773, $34 higher than in 1980. Indeed, the highest public expenditure on the chart, $7,581, was very recent — 2001 — and while there have been lots of fluctuations, the trend is clear: states have been keeping up with their expenditures.

Something else, then, must be responsible for rampant tuition inflation — maybe, ever-increasing student aid, colleges and universities having more and more sources of income, or both — and state taxpayers shouldn’t be scapegoated by federal politicians. But then, what would be the excuse for passing garbage like the new Higher Education Act?

Air Security Follies and the Death of Innocence

Airport security is nothing if not a rich pageant and an endless source of amusement. Yesterday, I saw none other than Tweety Bird pass through the TSA checkpoint at Reagan National Airport. I am not joking (so far).

From my vantage some distance behind her in line, I couldn’t quite see the entire process, but I did see that she was sent to secondary search — perhaps for lack of ID, perhaps because the magnetometer suggested her bulbous, yellow head was full of daggers and C-4. She opted for secondary in a side-room, away from public view.

When I got to the front of the line, I managed to quiz the TSA ID-checker about whether Ms. Bird had presented government-issued ID. She had not.

But I had seen Tweety emerge from secondary in just a few short minutes. This does not square with the new procedure whereby people without ID are subject to dossier review against TSA’s public records databases, a time-consuming process by all reports.

One of two possibilities presented itself:

It may be that the new dossier-check policy does not apply to birds. After all, birds are likely to have exceedingly thin files. They have no Social Security Numbers — not yet, anyway — and little access to the financial services that would form the basis of a credit file. Only a few birds own vehicles or property (the emancipated pets of deceased, eccentric millionaires). So, perhaps, for lack of records about them, birds have of necessity been made exempt.

But this would open a gaping hole in our air security system. Al Qaeda would have to do nothing more than recruit birds to carry out attacks on air transportation. They wouldn’t even have to be “clean-skin” birds with no history of terrorism (or “clean-feathers,” I suppose). Birds that we knew to be associated with the bombing of the USS Cole, for example, (waterfowl, one assumes) would easily be able to access air transportation for lack of a check of their IDs against the terrorist watch-list at the airport.

Putting a bird on a plane to attack us — how diabolically, ingeniously ironic. Have we no defense against it?

Though I’ve been disappointed before — like, with the entire concept of watch-listing — I can’t believe that the DHS and TSA would leave open such a vulnerability.

My second theory is more plausible, though I was somewhat gut-wrenched when it occured to me, and still am.

Our memory of life scrolls out behind us like a fabric, ornamented by moments, inflection points, of two kinds: the times when change comes, and the times when we realize it has come.

On one day, a child’s mother does not meet her at the schoolbus, and a change has come. She looks down the street. A best friend says to a best friend, “See ya’ later,” and it’s for the last time. Your first true love didn’t understand you and never will.

The second moment, the recognition, may take decades. You’re alone in the world, child. The best friend simply left. There’s no crescendo. Four days after my mother passed, I awoke in the black pre-dawn, and the tears flowed.

The TSA guy said something that I didn’t understand: “It’s their policy not to take the head off.”

“It’s their policy not to take the head off.” What could that possibly mean?

And then, like flu, revelation.

I think that maybe Tweety Bird was actually a human person in a Tweety Bird costume. The TSA guy may have allowed the person through the normal ID checkpoint, and in the seclusion of the secondary search room the person in the Tweety Bird costume took off the head, showed his or her ID, and got a pat-down search and wanding of the big yellow feet.

So I guess they will improvise for people in gigantic costumes at the checkpoint. I wonder if people dressed as, say, The Incredible Hulk get the same treatment as classic Warner Brothers characters.

But I still feel like I lost something in airport security yesterday. Tweety Bird isn’t real.

Oh, and also, I noticed that they’re not requiring participants in the Clear card Registered Traveler program to also show government-issued ID. That is (or was) a policy that was perfectly incoherent because the Clear card is a biometric proof of the ID the person used to join Registered Traveler. I’ll be checking to see if they’ve dispensed with the double-ID requirement nationally or just at DCA.

Public Education vs. Public Schooling

A few days ago, I wrote a blog entry taking umbrage at, among other things, Kevin Carey’s failure to acknowledge the distinction between public schooling and public education. Yesterday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran an op-ed by Allene Magill, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, complaining that some Georgia lawmakers are abandoning public education by supporting vouchers and other public-school alternatives. Like Carey’s, her assumption that “public education” means government providing schools, not just enabling people to pursue education, is both dangerously imprecise and pervasive. It’s time we clearly make the distinction between public education and public schooling.

If one looks at the term “public education,” nothing about it implies that government must provide schools. What it implies is that government will make education accessible to the public while saying nothing about how that will be done. (It could also just refer to educating the public without any government involvement, but let’s assume it doesn’t.) In other words, vouchers, tax-based choice mechanisms, and other forms of government-funded school choice are totally compatible with “public education.” Suggesting that they aren’t simply cannot be supported by the term being used.

Fortunately, there is a term that does strongly imply a system in which government provides the public not just with the means to obtain an education, but schools themselves. It’s called “public schooling,” a term I use repeatedly—and intentionally—in my piece attacked by Carey, and a system that, as I wrote, is very much at odds with basic American values.

I hope that this clarifies the difference between “public education” and “public schooling” and will help to end the mistaken assumption that the terms are synonymous. They aren’t, and school choice is fully compatible with public education. Of course, that might be exactly why some people try so hard to blot out distinctions between the terms.

Maryland Meets the Laffer Curve

Greedy politicians in Annapolis doubled the cigarette tax in Maryland for the ostensible purposes of reducing a budget deficit and financing more government spending. They increased spending (of course), but their tax hike is not generating much additional revenue. As the Washington Post reports, consumers are adjusting their behavior to minimize their tax burden:

Cigarette sales have dropped by nearly 25 percent in Maryland since the state’s tobacco tax doubled in January, as sticker shock apparently has curtailed some residents’ smoking and sent others across the border for better deals. Maryland lawmakers voted last fall to raise the tax to $2 a pack to help bridge a budget shortfall and expand subsidized health care. Fiscal analysts predicted that the new rate, the sixth highest in the nation, would cause cigarette sales to drop off, following a pattern with past increases. But the decline during the first six months of the year significantly exceeded their projections, exacerbating Maryland’s budget problems… Legislative analysts say they are looking at the degree to which Marylanders are crossing borders to buy cheaper cigarettes. It seems to be happening to some extent. On a recent afternoon, two service stations along South Dakota Avenue NE in the District were packed with vehicles with Maryland tags, many belonging to commuters heading to Maryland by Route 50 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. “The tax is not going to stop people from buying cigarettes,” said Mike Brockington, a 40-year-old Prince George’s County resident, adding that he was purchasing cigarettes in the District because of Maryland’s tax increase. … Maryland law seeks to limit out-of-state cigarette purchases. It is illegal for Maryland residents to be in possession of more than two packs of cigarettes lacking stamps showing that taxes were paid in the state.

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.”

Typical Bad Advice from the IMF

The International Monetary Fund has a dismal reputation for peddling snake-oil economic advice, with higher taxes and currency devaluation always high on their list. Sometimes, I wonder whether that is an unfair characterization, but then I see that their latest analysis of the Japanese economy endorses higher taxes. Tax-news.com has a summary:

While welcoming the efforts being made by the Japanese government to balance its budget by 2011, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Tuesday that consumption tax may have to be raised to curb public debt and absorb rising social security costs. “Larger fiscal adjustments than currently envisaged by the authorities will be required to stabilize the high public debt and make room for the fiscal costs of population aging,” the IMF stated in its Article IV report on the Japanese economy. According to the Fund, with limited scope for further expenditure cuts, future fiscal consolidation will compel the Japanese government to raise more revenues. 

The adding-rhetorical-insult-to-policy-injury aspect of the IMF report is the deceptive and dishonest choice of words. Higher taxes are needed to “make room for the fiscal costs of population aging,” the IMF admonishes. Did the bureaucrats never consider that entitlement programs should be reformed to “make room” for the amount of available tax revenue? The IMF also writes in the report that “Expenditure cuts are nearing their limit and further fiscal consolidation will require tax measures, yet OECD data shows that government spending this year is consuming more than 36 percent of GDP, which is a bigger burden than two years ago (and much bigger if compared to the size of government 20 years ago, 30 years ago, etc). Perhaps the IMF should not make such foolish statements until the government of Japan actually reduces spending rather than increasing it.