Land Use and Local Government: The Facts On the Ground Are Libertarian

Prof. Kenneth Stahl, who directs the Environmental Land Use and Real Estate Law Program at Chapman University School of Law, has a post at Concurring Opinions asking why libertarians aren’t more numerous among academic specialists in local government and land use law. Stahl describes his own views as siding with “leftists rather than libertarians,” that is to say, those who “have some confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems”: 

Nevertheless, were you to pick up a randomly selected piece of left-leaning land use or local government scholarship (including my own) you would likely witness a searing indictment of the way local governments operate. You would read that the land use decisionmaking process is usually a conflict between deep-pocketed developers who use campaign contributions to elect pro-growth politicians and affluent homeowners who use their ample resources to resist change that might negatively affect their property values. Land use “planning”—never a great success to begin with—has largely been displaced by the “fiscalization” of land use, in which land use decisions are based primarily on a proposed land use’s anticipated contribution to (or drain upon) a municipality’s revenues. Public schools in suburban areas have essentially been privatized due to exclusionary zoning practices, and thus placed off limits to the urban poor, whereas public schools in cities have been plundered by ravenous teachers’ unions.

… It hardly paints a pretty picture of local government. Yet, most leftists’ prescription is more government. 

To put it differently, libertarian analysis better explains what actually goes on in local government than does the standard progressive faith in the competence of government to correct supposed market failure. The post (read it in full!) goes on to discuss specifics such as annexation, incorporation, and economic stratification-by-jurisdiction; the relative success of lightly governed Houston in achieving low housing costs and attracting newcomers and economic growth; and the transference of progressives’ unmet hopes to regionalization, so memorably summed up by Jane Jacobs years ago: “A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problem we found no solution.”

Stahl: 

So why would left-leaning scholars, who have seen so clearly the failures of local government, place so much faith in a largely untested restructuring of governmental institutions, rather than looking to less government as the solution?

Great question.

The World Needs More Energy, Not Less

This week, a few major media outlets covered my take on the effectiveness and judiciousness of President Obama’s call, at the U.N. Climate Summit, for all countries of the world to make pledges of how and how much they are going to reduce their national carbon dioxide emissions. It should be no surprise that I think such actions would be ineffective and imprudent.

My biggest criticism is that not all countries of the world are at the same stage of energy development. While the developed nations may have all the energy supplies they want and need, most developing countries do not. So, while developing countries pursue  “luxuries” like indoor lighting and clean cooking facilities (not to mention improved sanitation), developed countries are awash in the luxury of debating whether to alter the relative components of their fuel mix in hopes that it may (or may not) alter the future course of the climate.

Since historically (and today) there is an extremely tight coupling between energy production and carbon dioxide emissions (since fossil fuels are used to produce the overwhelming bulk of our energy), calls like those from President Obama to restrict carbon dioxide emissions are akin to calls to restrict energy usage and expansion.

Imposing carbon restrictions on developing nations would have large-scale negative implications, not only to those directly affected, but to the world as a whole, as a large expanse of human ingenuity–arguably humanity’s greatest resource–would remain constrained by basic survival efforts and 50-year life expectancies.

Basically, no one is going to go along with this. So despite promises, when adhering to plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (whether informal or formalized in a treaty) comes up against economic expansion and human welfare improvements, the latter are going to win out every time (or so we would hope).

Eric Holder’s Tenure

Eric Holder’s tenure marked one of the most divisive and partisan eras of the Justice Department.  From his involvement in the bizarre guns-to-gangs operation (“Fast & Furious”), for which he has been cited for contempt by the House and referred to a federal prosecutor (which referral went nowhere due to invocations of executive privilege), to his refusal to recognize the separation of powers—enabling President Obama’s executive abuses—he politicized an already overly political Justice Department.

 One thing that differentiates Holder from other notorious attorneys general, like John Mitchell under Richard Nixon, is that Holder hasn’t gone to jail (yet; the DOJ Inspector General better lock down computer systems lest Holder’s electronic files “disappear”).

Holder’s damage to race relations may be even worse than his contempt for Congress, however, as his management of the Justice Department and use of its powers betray a desire to use the law to advance a dubious view of social justice. For example, he sued fire and police departments to enforce hiring quotas and inflamed social tensions with his pronouncements on Stand Your Ground laws. He blamed banks for not lending enough to members of racial minority groups and other banks for “predatory lending” that led to disproportionate bankruptcies among those same groups. Ironically, he’s even challenged school choice programs, which overwhelmingly help poor black kids acquire better educations.

Still, it must be said that Holder was a “uniter not a divider” on one front: under his reign, the Justice Department has suffered a record number of unanimous losses at the Supreme Court. In the last three terms alone, the  government has suffered 13 such defeats – a rate double President Clinton’s and triple President Bush’s – in areas of law ranging from criminal procedure to property rights to securities regulation to religious freedom. By not just pushing but breaking through the envelope of plausible legal argument, Attorney General Holder has done his all to expand federal (especially executive) power and contract individual liberty beyond any constitutional recognition.

Eric Holder will not be missed by those who support the rule of law.

Long-Term Solutions to the Ukraine Crisis

As I argued in a piece over at Forbes yesterday, western sanctions to roll back Russian action in Ukraine have been largely ineffectual. These sanctions - including asset freezes and visa bans – are ‘targeted’ at those suspected of having influence on Putin. Yet the sanctions, designed to be minimally painful for European states, are toothless - the majority of individuals sanctioned have only a minimal role in policy – and they won’t fix the long-term problem.

Over 150 individuals have been sanctioned by the United States and European Union, including 65 Ukrainian rebels, whose inclusion is presumably intended to inhibit their ability to wage conflict. The remainder are Russian, but most have no access to the corridors of power. Anatoly Sidorov, for example, the Commander of Russian military units in Crimea, is likely uninvolved in the policy formulation process. Other names are stranger, such as Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen republic. No doubt, he’s a trenchant proponent of the rebels, but he doesn’t influence Russian policy. In all, I estimate only a small proportion of those included in joint sanctions are actually involved in high-level decisionmaking.

The sanctions also vary in impact. Vladislav Surkov, suspected mastermind of Russia’s Crimea strategy, joked with reporters that sanctions didn’t worry him, as his only interest in the United States was Tupac. His point is valid: for those with no assets in Western Europe or the United States, sanctions are merely inconvenient.

Newer sanctions on companies certainly carry some more bite, restricting the ability of Russian banks to raise capital on Western markets. But they still don’t touch Russia’s key source of government revenues, an estimated 50-70% of which come from oil and gas sales. Unfortunately, Russia supplies one-third of Europe’s natural gas, and several countries (e.g., Estonia, Latvia) are entirely dependent on Russian energy. An immediate stop to imports is simply not possible, especially at the start of winter.

In the long-run, however, the most energy-dependent countries are also those most worried about Russia for security reasons. Now is an excellent time for these countries to begin to slowly divest themselves of Russian gas and oil. Dependence is a two-way street, after all: Russia is dependent on European payments for energy, and it will be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive for Russia to find alternate buyers for its resources.

The United States can help Europe with this process. The global energy market is being reshaped by innovations like fracking and liquified natural gas (LNG) transports. Thanks to shale gas, the United States is now one of the world’s largest producers of LNG, with shipments set to leave ports as early as 2015. Indeed, House Speaker John Boehner argued in March that the United States could help to curb Russia’s influence by encouraging natural gas exports to Eastern Europe. But for the sake of their own security, European states must begin the long process of shifting away from Russian energy supplies, and turning off the spigot of energy wealth that keeps the Kremlin afloat. 

The Collection of Evidence for a Low Climate Sensitivity Continues to Grow

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Nic Lewis and Judith Curry just published a blockbuster paper that pegs the earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity—how much the earth’s average surface temperature is expected to rise in association with a doubling of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration—at 1.64°C (1.05°C to 4.05°C, 90% range), a value that is nearly half of the number underpinning all of President Obama’s executive actions under his Climate Action Plan.

This finding will not stop the President and the EPA from imposing more limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels. A wealth of similar findings have appeared in the scientific literature beginning in 2011 (see below) and they, too, have failed to dissuade him from his legacy mission.

The publication of the Lewis and Curry paper, along with another by Ragnhild Skeie and colleagues, brings the number of recent low-sensitivity climate publications to 14, by 42 authors from around the world (this doesn’t count our 2002 paper on the topic, “Revised 21st Century Temperature Projections”).  Most of these sensitivities are a good 40% below the average climate sensitivity of the models used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Lewis and Curry arrive at their lower equilibrium climate sensitivity estimate by using updated compilations of the earth’s observed temperature change, oceanic heat uptake, and the magnitude of human emissions, some of which should cause warming (e.g., greenhouse gases), while the others should cool (e.g., sulfate aerosols). They try to factor out “natural variability.” By comparing values of these parameters from the mid-19 century to now, they can estimate how much the earth warmed in association with human greenhouse gas emissions.

The estimate is not perfect, as there are plenty of uncertainties, some of which may never be completely resolved. But, nevertheless, Lewis and Curry have generated  a very robust observation-based estimate of the equilibrium climate sensitivity.

For those interested in the technical details, and a much more thorough description of the research, author Nic Lewis takes you through the paper (here) has made a pre-print copy of the paper freely available (here).

In the chart below, we’ve added the primary findings of Lewis and Curry as well as those of Skeie et al. to the collection of 12 other low-sensitivity papers published since 2010 that conclude that the best estimate for the earth’s climate sensitivity lies below the IPCC estimates. We’ve also included in our Figure both the IPCC’s  subjective and model-based characteristics of the equilibrium climate sensitivity. For those wondering, there are very few recent papers arguing that the IPCC estimates are too low, and they all have to contend with the fact that, according to new Cato scholar Ross McKitrick, “the pause” in warming is actually 19 years in length. 

FDA Doesn’t Want E-Cigs Marketed as Safer Than Tobacco Cigarettes

In a forthcoming article in Regulation California Polytechnic State University economics professor Michael Marlow describes the negative effects on public health of the proposed regulation of e-cigarettes. The FDA proposes to expand its authority granted under of Section 911 of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. “Section 911 bans marketing tobacco products as modified risk products without FDA approval. Moreover, manufacturers are unable to inform consumers their products do not contain tobacco.”

The prohibition on marketing e-cigarettes as safer than traditional cigarettes has not been subject to cost-benefit analysis. This is particularly significant given that the literature on e-cigarettes suggests that they help smokers quit. Even the JAMA Patient Page, published by The American Medical Association last January, highlighted a number of potential e-cigarette benefits such as their lack of tobacco and the less toxic nature of e-cigarette vapor compared to cigarette second-hand smoke.

In his back-of-the envelope calculation using quit rates from the published literature, Marlow estimates that the benefits related to e-cigarettes would be between $15.6 and $49.2 billion a year as the result of between 2.4 and 6.4 million smokers becoming former smokers every year. “Prohibiting sales to youth and requiring a clear description of product ingredients may be appropriate. But prohibiting any information regarding potential efficacy in harm reduction is hard to justify given substantial benefits reported in currently available studies.”

Joe McNamara, RIP

Joe McNamara was a former police chief and scholar at the Hoover Institution.  He was an outspoken critic of the drug war and devoted much of his time to converting people within the law enforcement community. 

Here is a talk that he gave at Cato’s 1999 conference, Beyond Prohibition:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/ucftsgfrtshr7jk/McNamara.m4v?dl=0

Here is an article he prepared for Regulation Magazine in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “The Defensive Front Line.”

Joe McNamara, RIP