NYT Nails Stern Review

OK, The New York Times per se has not weighed in with harsh criticism, but Prof. Hal Varian of U. Cal. Berkeley, a contributor for the NYT’s excellent “Economic Perspectives” column, weighs in today with a nice summary of the problematic assumptions made by Sir Nicholas Stern in the oft-quoted Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.  For those who don’t recall, Stern argued that it makes sense to spend 1 percent of the world’s GDP to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the costs associated with those emissions might total anywhere between 5-20% of global GDP some time down the road.

Regular readers here will notice that Prof. Varian’s arguments closely mirror those I made earlier on this page (for the curious, here and here, with a minor correction to the latter here).

So it’s not just me folks …..

Prosecutors Subpoena ACLU

Federal prosecutors are using a grand jury subpoena in an attempt to force the ACLU to return a leaked document, which was apparently classified.

The grand jury is a legal enigma.  For background, read this Cato study

Excerpt:

The grand jury is perhaps the most mysterious institution in the American criminal justice system. While most people are generally familiar with the function of the police officer, the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, the judge, and the trial jury, few have any idea about what the grand jury is supposed to do and its day-to-day operation. That ignorance largely explains how some over-reaching prosecutors have been able to pervert the grand jury, whose original purpose was to check prosecutorial power, into an inquisitorial bulldozer that enhances the power of government and now runs roughshod over the constitutional rights of citizens.

Like its more famous relative, the trial jury, the grand jury consists of laypeople who are summoned to the courthouse to fulfill a civic duty. However, the work of the grand jury takes place well before any trial. The primary function of the grand jury is to inquire into the commission of crimes within its jurisdiction and then determine whether an indictment should issue against any particular person. But, in sharp contrast to the trial setting, the jurors hear only one side of the story and there is no judge overseeing the process. With no judge or opposing counsel in the room, grand jurors naturally defer to the prosecutor since he is the most knowledgeable official on the scene. Indeed, the single most important fact to appreciate about the grand jury system is that it is the prosecutor who calls the shots and dominates the entire process.

This ACLU case has the potential for a landmark precedent regarding the scope of the grand jury’s subpoena power.

Health Policy in New Mexico

Last Friday, at the invitation of the Rio Grande Foundation, I spoke to state legislators in New Mexico about Gov. Richardson’s proposal to expand Medicaid.  In brief, I argued that Richardson’s proposal would trap more New Mexicans in low-wage jobs, make private-sector health care more expensive, and purchase little health for the money spent.

The Rio Grande Foundation just posted my powerpoint presentation on their website. (Let me know if it loses something without narration.)

Cheer Up, Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas is celebrating his 90th birthday with a new book and a jeremiad on the state of the world.

“Let’s face it,” he writes to “America’s young people”:

“THE WORLD IS IN A MESS and you are inheriting it. Generation Y, you are on the cusp. You are the group facing many problems: abject poverty, global warming, genocide, Aids, and suicide bombers to name a few. These problems exist, and the world is silent. We have done very little to solve these problems. Now, we leave it to you. You have to fix it because the situation is intolerable.”

I ponder his analysis and recommend Indur Goklany’s book The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet to him at the Guardian’s Comment is free.

Pork and Elections

Representative Henry Bonilla (R-TX) lost his seat in Congress in a runoff election yesterday, thus increasing the number of defeated House GOP incumbents to 22 (Republicans lost a total of 30 House seats, but 8 Democratic pickups were in open seats without an incumbent seeking reelection).

Interestingly, 5 of the 22 defeated Republican incumbents, including Bonilla, were members of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which controls the federal government’s purse strings and is responsible for doling out pork.

The relatively large number of defeated appropriators might be surprising for some inside-the-beltway analysts because the committee is notorious for sending boatloads of pork to the districts of congressmen who serve on the committee or face tough reelection races. 

As The Hill notes:

In the Labor-HHS-Education bill for fiscal year 2007, more than $146 million in hometown projects is reserved for appropriators’ districts, placing roughly 30 percent of the earmarked money in the hands of 15 percent of the House members. If passed as written, the average appropriator’s district would get $2.25 million compared with averages of $1.35 million for the districts of 43 politically vulnerable lawmakers who are not appropriators and $663,000 for districts that are neither competitive nor represented by an appropriator.

It has long been conventional wisdom that these pork projects help to guarantee reelection. But is it possible that the public has soured on the appropriations process?

After all, former Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) is now in jail because of his illegal activities on the Appropriations Committee.  And appropriations-related ethical issues factored heavily into last month’s defeat of Representative Charles Taylor (R-NC), who chaired the Interior Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. 

It’s probably too early to declare that pork projects have changed from a political asset to a liability, but the appropriations process has certainly drawn much more public scrutiny recently.  As a result, the Republicans adjourned the 109th Congress without finishing all of the fiscal 2007 appropriations bills, preferring to instead push the issue off onto the incoming Democratic majority.  And the Democrats have already announced their plans to kick the can further down the road and avoid the fiscal 2007 appropriations process.

For the time being at least, it seems congressmen have lost their taste for pork, but don’t expect this phenomenon to last long.

Saving the Planet One Scientist at a Time

Good article just out in Rolling Stone about a dirt-cheap, sure-fire way to cool the planet if we ever decide the Earth is getting too warm for our liking: atmospheric particles.  Turns out there’s little doubt we could cool the planet substantially for about $100 million a year - less than the price of a good-sized wind farm. 

The author of the piece thinks this is nuts, but it’s unclear to me exactly why.  There’s little doubt that it would work.  There’s little reason to fear secondary, unanticipated consequences.  And it’s a lot cheaper than the alternatives. 

The real objection for many, I think, is that a substantial segment of the enviro community wants to fundamentally remake human civilization and the global economy.  Conventional greenhouse gas emission controls offer up that possiblity.  A half-dozen 747s sprinkling particulates across the arctic skies does not.

Posner’s “Avatar” Talks Law

Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner’s “avatar” recently engaged in an online discussion in “Second Life,” a virtual online world.  A transcript is now available at New World Notes here

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Posner, he is perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most prolific, federal judge alive.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with avatars or virtual worlds–and, to be quite honest, I fall in this camp, having only heard about this phenomenon secondhand (in Larry Lessig’s great book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace)–see these descriptions

Here’s a taste of the sometimes surreal discussion (“JRP” is Posner, SL stands–I think–for “Second Life”):

Ludwig Swain: Copyright question: would you consider the “cloning” of a copyrighted real world architectural work into SL to be infringement or fair use?

Ben Solomon: No fair. That’s Bill Patry’s question

JRP: I think Patry is in here somewhere– maybe he’s the raccoon.

Basman Kepler: I believe Patry has described his avatar as looking like Swiper the Fox from the Dora cartoons.

JRP:  Great question on cloning a copyrighted real world architectural work into SL– probably infringement, on the theory that the SL counterpart is a derivative work, hence the property of the copyright holder.  These are excellent questions!

Say what you will about Posner, he has a sense of humor.