The Climate Change Inquisition

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an article highlighting accusations that our friends over at the American Enterprise Institute are trying to bribe climate scientists to take shots at a forthcoming UN report on climate change, an article which aped an earlier piece in The Guardian.  Shocking stuff.  Apparently, AEI scholars Ken Green and Steve Hayward commited the unpardonable sin of asking scientific experts to critique the upcoming report for a book of collected essays on the subject in return for a $10,000 honorarium.   

Although the blogosphere has gone wild, it’s unclear to me why.  While the letters they sent out soliciting contributions for the book highlighted their concerns about the IPCC process overall and the spin their work products are given in the media, they apparently did not stipulate what the authors were to say or the arguments they were to make.  For instance, the letter to Prof. Steve Schroeder at Texas A&M stated:

We are looking for an author who can write a well-supported but accessible discussion of which elements of climate modeling have demonstrated predictive value that might make them policy-relevant and which elements of climate modeling have less levels of predictive utility, and hence, less utility in developing climate policy.

Well, God forbid somebody write an article like that!  And may God doubly forbid the possibility that one might want to be paid for writing an article like that!  And may God strike down in righteous fury the scientist willing to air even a whiff of critical thought concerning the report in question.

The fact that some environmentalists are trying to characterize the Green & Hayward letters as demonic invitations to lie for profit is understandable enough.  The fact that prominent reporters are willing to give these accusations column inches in crowded newspapers is not. 

Even more distressing is the emerging concensus among the intellectual elite that some UN documents are akin to holy script that cannot be challenged, criticized, or even examined critically in civilized company.  Since when did scientific reports earn the status of the Hadith or the Koran?  Since when did science rule critical examination of popular hypotheses (no matter how well grounded) to be out of line?  And when exactly did otherwise smart people come to the conclusion that ad hominem attack was a perfectly good and reasonable line of argument?

For a more detailed examination of the issues in play - more than this story really deserves - see Jonathan Adler’s riff on the Volokh Conspiracy. 

Topics:

Bush’s “Austere” Budget

“Bush Plan Reins in Domestic Spending” – Washington Post

“Bush budget to cut aid to Mich.” – Detroit News

Bush budget puts pinch on domestic spending” – Boston Globe

Reality check:

Federal Outlays from 2001 through 2006

Every year the headlines speak of budget cuts, and every year the federal budget rises. As I wrote two years ago:

There’s a conspiracy afoot to convince American taxpayers that President Bush has submitted a lean, mean budget for Fiscal Year 2006. The funny thing is, Democrats and Republicans are both in on it, and journalists are going along. A reality check is in order….

Democrats, Republicans, and journalists mostly agree that President Bush has submitted a lean, tight $2.57 trillion budget. Why? I think we have what dancers call a pas de deux going on here. Or maybe in honor of our Texas president and his aversion to all things French, we should just call it a Texas Two-Step: The president pretends to cut the budget, and Democrats pretend to believe him.

Both sets of politicians appeal to their bases that way. President Bush’s voters want to hear that he’s cutting the budget and saving tax dollars. The Democrats’ base of government employees and federal grant recipients want to see Democratic senators fighting budget cuts. When Kennedy and Clinton denounce Bush’s “devastating” budget cuts, their supporters become outraged at Bush. Meanwhile, Republican voters respond to such charges by becoming more supportive of Bush. They may have had some doubts about Bush’s commitment to fiscal conservatism, but the denunciations from Pelosi and her colleagues assuage those doubts.

Spending under President Bush has risen from $1.863 trillion in fiscal 2001 to a proposed $2.901 trillion in fiscal 2008. Not since Lyndon Johnson have we seen such rapid spending increases. But most of the responses to any new budget come from special interest groups–local governments, chiefs of police, Sallie Mae, AARP, veterans, environmentalists, health care providers, subsidized farmers–and they help to shape the perception that the budget is chopping programs.

Taxpayers would be better served if newspapers would run a nice clean graph–like the one above–with every budget story.

Some Perspective on the President’s Budget Request

The White House has been spinning reporters all day with the claim that the new budget holds non-defense spending down, and in some cases even cuts some domestic spending from 2006 budget levels. 

To test the claim, I’ve compiled below the proposed fiscal 2008 inflation-adjusted growth rates for spending in the non-defense Cabinet-level agencies compared to the 2006 budget:

Real Proposed Change in 2008 Non-Defense Cabinet-Level Agency Budget vs. 2006 Budget Level
   
Agriculture -9.2%
Commerce 5.9%
Education -40.2%
Energy 6.1%
Health and Human Services 8.5%
Housing and Urban Development -0.2%
Interior 10.8%
Justice -1.7%
Labor 15.6%
Transportation 6.3%
Treasury 7.7%
Veterans Affairs 13.8%
EPA -10.9%
Total
4.1%

All told, there are five agencies that receive a cut in real dollars: Agriculture, Education, HUD, Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet even by the White House’s own numbers, all of these programs combined will still grow beyond the 2006 levels by 4 percentage points above inflation. 

Still, we need to wonder: What does this standard really tell us? 

Not much. The 2006 budget levels were already bloated after a six-year Republican spending spree. What’s actually interesting to see is how much these agencies would grow — after adjusting for inflation and assuming Congress rubber-stamps the president’s new budget — when compared to budget levels on the day Bush assumed office: 

Real Proposed Change in 2008 Non-Defense Cabinet-Level Agency Budget vs. 2001 Budget Level
   
Agriculture 8.0%
Commerce 16.8%
Education 36.2%
Energy 10.7%
Health and Human Services 35.6%
Housing and Urban Development 8.3%
Interior 12.0%
Justice 7.7%
Labor 8.8%
Transportation 12.4%
Treasury 11.7%
Veterans Affairs 52.7%
EPA -12.8%
Total
22.4%

To put it another way: Bush’s new budget still does next to nothing to strip away most of the massive budget increases in domestic programs he signed into law since 2001. It’s the fiscal equivalent of a recovering alcoholic patting himself on the back for merely drinking six beers a day instead of eight.

Rule-of-law and U.S. Competitiveness

Policies such as Sarbanes-Oxley are reducing America’s competitiveness, but an equally worrisome problem is the erosion of the rule-of-law.

Stability and equal treatment are among the characteristics of an advanced legal system. Unfortunately, America’s legal system is now riddled with uncertainty, since investors and companies have no way of predicting outcomes.

The New York Sun has a column noting how America’s justice system is now an obstacle rather than an inducement to international investment:

[T]he American share of global initial public offerings declined to 5% from 50% in the last five years. Foreign companies are being scared away in part, both reports conclude, by soaring costs of American law.

The highwater mark for securities lawsuits was reached in 2005, with over $9 billion in class action settlements. The zeal of American prosecutors in corporate scandals is also of a different order of magnitude. In 2004, government fines in America totalled $4.74 billion, over 100 times more than in Britain, which had a total of $40.48 million. Sarbanes-Oxley, the federal law that imposes higher accountability standards on corporate boards, has almost tripled auditing costs for small public companies.

Perhaps the most chilling parts of the Bloomberg-Schumer report are the surveys of foreign business leaders who suggest, overwhelmingly, that they no longer trust American law. For most of the last century, trust in American commercial and securities law was one of our greatest competitive advantages. Investors flocked to our markets because securities laws guaranteed transparency and honesty. American contract law was the gold standard for world business, in part because of a long tradition of judges rigidly applying guidelines of liability and damages.

Economist Douglass North received a Nobel prize in part for his work on the vital role of legal stability in economic prosperity. An “essential element of the concept of justice,” legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart observed, “is the principle of treating like cases alike.” That’s why law is the foundation of freedom — people know where they stand. They can act freely instead of looking over their shoulders all day long.

But that trust has now capsized. Companies are afraid that if a few employees out of thousands do something wrong — even if not material to the bottom line — the company faces the prospect of ruin. An indictment, not a conviction, could put a company out of business. Why roll the legal dice in America when legal systems in Britain and elsewhere focus on punishing the individual wrongdoer, not shooting everyone in sight?

It’s impossible to measure how much distrust of law has contributed to declining competitiveness. But the evidence is all around us. Just talk with foreign business leaders.

The main victims of this trend, however, are employees and their pension plans. Drying up of markets means that countless people lose job opportunities and that innovation moves offshore. Trust, once lost, is hard to regain.

Tort reforms limiting damages don’t get close to the heart of the problem. American justice has a deeper flaw — it no longer reliably distinguishes right from wrong. Instead, decisions are made on an ad hoc basis, jury by jury, without predictable boundaries.

Hong Kong to Lower Flat Tax?

Thanks to strong growth, which is in part due to a tax system that minimizes the burden on productive activity, Hong Kong leaders are considering reducing the flat tax to just 15 percent.

Tax-news.com reports:

Donald Tsang has pledged to cut Hong Kong’s individual and corporate income taxes if re-elected as the Special Administrative Region’s Chief Executive next month. Tsang officially announced that he would seek election to a second term of office last week and said that one of his key policies would be to return some of Hong Kong’s fiscal surplus back to the population through a “gradual” reduction in salary and profit taxes to 15%.

Dutch Tax Haven Pressures Greedy Governments

The New York Times has a thorough article today detailing how both individuals and companies are using the Netherlands as a haven for productive activity.

This is good news for all taxpayers. The rich directly benefit, since greedy politicians are unable to seize as much of their money. And the rest of us benefit, since this puts downward pressure on tax rates as governments try to keep the geese that lay the golden eggs from flying away.

[L]ast August, according to details disclosed in documents maintained by the Handelsregister, the trade registry of the Netherlands, Promogroup helped the three [Rolling Stones] performers set up a pair of private Dutch foundations that will allow them to transfer assets tax-free to heirs when they die. Other Dutch shelters that Promogroup has arranged for the three have already paid off handsomely; over the last 20 years, according to Dutch documents, the three musicians have paid just $7.2 million in taxes on earnings of $450 million that they have channeled through Amsterdam — a tax rate of about 1.5 percent, well below the British rate of 40 percent.

The rock powerhouse U2 has transferred lucrative assets to Amsterdam, as have other pop singers and well-known athletes….

While old-school, offshore tax havens — the warm ones with tropical fish, off-the-shelf holding companies sporting post-office-box addresses, and scant regulation or transparency — still attract money, they are largely patronized, tax lawyers and entertainment bankers say, by hedge funds and private equity firms looking to protect lush trading profits from taxes. But for earnings derived from intellectual property such as royalties, the Netherlands has become a tax shelter of choice.

Many of the world’s multinational corporations, like Coca-Cola, Nike, Ikea, and Gucci, have set up holding companies here in recent years to take advantage of tax shelters nearly identical to the ones that the Rolling Stones and U2 use.

The Netherlands is home to almost 20,000 “mailbox companies,” Dutch shorthand for corporate shells set up by foreign companies and wealthy foreigners who use them to relieve taxes on royalties, dividends and interest payments….

Globally, some 1,165 companies use Dutch tax shelters to reduce or eliminate taxes on royalties and patents.

Not surprsingly, international bureaucracies and left wing groups despise tax havens — precisely because tax competition makes it more difficult to increase the size of government. The story in the Times elaborates, including completely unsubstantiated accusations that low taxes somehow facilitate dirty money:

Some experts see a darker side to the emergence of the Netherlands as a sought-after tax shelter. In 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, black-marked the country as one of the world’s top five industrialized tax havens for promoting “treaty shopping” for low-tax jurisdictions.

…In its report last fall, SOMO, the research group, said…that “tax haven features of the Netherlands also facilitate money laundering and attract companies with a dubious reputation.”