The World Misery Index: 108 Countries

Every country aims to lower inflation, unemployment, and lending rates, while increasing gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Through a simple sum of the former three rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth, I constructed a misery index that comprehensively ranks 108 countries based on “misery.”

Below the jump are the index scores for 2014. Countries not included in the table did not report satisfactory data for 2014.

The five most miserable countries in the world at the end of 2014 are, in order: Venezuela, Argentina, Syria, Ukraine, and Iran. In 2014, Argentina and Ukraine moved into the top five, displacing Sudan and Sao Tome and Principe.

The five least miserable are Brunei, Switzerland, China, Taiwan, and Japan. The United States ranks 95th, which makes it the 14th least miserable nation of the 108 countries on the table.

Sheldon Silver and the Price of Doing Science

Rumors of ethics problems have long swirled around long-time New York assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, many of them connected with his role as a private lawyer associated with a personal-injury firm whose interests extend to many government- and policy-related matters. This morning, according to multiple reports, the FBI took Silver into custody following a corruption investigation. 

The complaint (courtesy WSJ, more here and here) alleges improprieties with Silver’s income both from a real estate law firm patronized by developers and from asbestos-injury legal work. On the latter, it alleges that Silver directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in state research money to a university doctor in Manhattan, and that the doctor referred lucrative cases over asbestos-related mesothelioma to Silver’s law firm. The doctor is described as a “well-known expert” who “conducts mesothelioma research” at a center at his university dedicated to that purpose. The unnamed “Doctor-1” “has entered into an agreement with the USAO SDNY [U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York] under which he will not be prosecuted for the conduct described herein, and that obligates him to provide truthful information to and cooperate with the government.” [pp. 24-25]

As science has grown more dependent on government funding, libertarians have warned that the money isn’t really free. Whatever the stated intentions at first, legislators come to scrutinize science budgets with an eye toward what’s in it for them: promoting a favored policy initiative, catering to the whims of some constituent or family member, employing the right people in the right districts. And how deeply embarrassing it must be – assuming the truth of the prosecutors’ allegations, which of course are at this stage unproven – to support one’s work through state grants for medical research while quietly referring patients to the assembly speaker’s law firm. According to the complaint, the state paid $500,000 to the research center, while the asbestos-suit referrals brought Silver more than $3 million.

There must be a better way to fund scientific inquiry, and maybe that way involves less appropriation of tax moneys and more voluntary action. [adapted in part from a post at Overlawyered]

U.S. Sugar Maple Tree Distribution Expands with Warmer Temperatures

One of the major concerns with forecast CO2-induced global warming is temperatures might rise so rapidly that many plant species will be driven to extinction, unable to migrate fast enough toward cooler regions of the planet to keep pace with the projected warming. The prospect of species demise and potential extinction have served as a rallying cry in calls for restricting CO2 emissions. But how much confidence should be placed in this climate-extinction hypothesis? Do real world data support these projections? Are plants really as fragile as model projections make them out to be? 

A new paper published in the research journal Botany investigates this topic as it pertains to sugar maple trees, and the findings do not bode well for climate alarmists. In this work, Hart et al. (2014) analyzed “the population dynamics of sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.) trees through the southern portion of their range in eastern North America,” selecting this particular species for this specific task because its range “has been projected to shift significantly northward in accord with changing climatic conditions” by both Prasad et al. (2007) and Matthews et al. (2011).

The three U.S. researchers

analyzed changes in sugar maple basal area, relative frequency, relative density, relative importance values, diameter distributions, and the ratio of sapling biomass to total sugar maple biomass at three spatial positions near the southern boundary of the species’ range using forest inventory data from the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program over a 20-year observation period (1990-2010),” during which time temperatures increased and summer precipitation declined.  

North Korea Wants Attention: Let’s Talk to Pyongyang

North Korea has been in a conciliatory mood recently, suggesting a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.  Pyongyang also indicated that it would suspend nuclear tests if the United States cancelled joint military exercises with the South. 

The United States refused and went ahead with the naval maneuvers.  In fact, the Obama administration recently expanded sanctions on North Korea in response to the Kim regime’s apparent hacking of Sony pictures.  Alas, past experience suggests the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea likely will respond with new provocations, perhaps another nuclear test.

Frustration with the Kim regime led retired Gen. John Macdonald to propose turning the movie ‘The Interview’ into reality:  “We’ve got to do something.”

Since Pyongyang hasn’t changed its behavior, the United States should try a different approach, but not an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un.  Washington should start by dropping the annual military exercise and reducing America’s military presence.  The administration also should develop a comprehensive engagement plan for North Korea.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that engagement would yield a more positive result.  However, the People’s Republic of China’s growing frustration with the younger Kim provides an unexpected opportunity for Washington. 

So far, Beijing has proved unwilling to apply significant pressure on the DPRK lest the result be a messy collapse with advantage to a united Korea allied with America.  But China has tired of the antics of its irresponsible neighbor, especially the latter’s nuclear weapons program. 

The PRC nevertheless remains reluctant to cooperate with Washington unless the United States reduces the perceived threat to North Korea.  The United States should express its willingness to negotiate with the North, and even create a low-key diplomatic presence, such as a small consular office. As I point out in National Interest:  “Whatever the North’s response, the U.S. would gain a useful window into a mysterious political system and provide the Kim regime with something to lose for bad behavior.”

Budget Snapshot: Average Annual Defense Spending by Administration

In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry lamented the effects of the Budget Control Act’s spending caps: “the plummeting readiness levels, the long lines of equipment in disrepair, the jets that aren’t flying, and the soldiers who aren’t practicing at the rifle range.” These are problems, to be sure. The bigger problem is a general trend that has the Pentagon spending more, and getting less.

Consider the chart below, prepared by my colleague Travis Evans. Following World War II, the United States did what it had always done at a wars’ end: it demobilized. The result was a sharp and sudden decline in both military manpower and funding. From 1948 to 1950, Pentagon spending averaged $187 billion per year (all figures in 2015 dollars). Demobilization was short-lived, however. As the British and French empires retrenched and the Soviet Union expanded, the United States assumed the role of communist counterweight. Then North Korea invaded South Korea, and all hell broke loose. The primary beneficiary of the strategic shift was the Pentagon, whose budget increased by 156 percent in just one year, from $198 billion in 1950 to $508 in 1951. Large defense budgets became the norm, with spending even after the Korean armistice well above the pre-war levels.

All told, Pentagon spending averaged $458 billion per year throughout the Cold War (1948-1990). That figure includes funding for wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as for the 1980’s arms buildup. Pentagon spending decreased steadily following the fall of the Berlin Wall, only to ramp back up as the United States embarked on the current round of post-9/11 wars. Defense budgets under Bush the younger averaged $601 billion per year, while his successor has presided over annual budgets averaging $687 billion between 2009 and 2014. Indeed, President Obama, who was elected during an economic crisis, will leave office having approved more military spending than any presidential administration in the nuclear era. Not too bad for a president who is often accused of trying to gut the military.

The State of the Union: Please, Just Do No Harm

At the National Interest, I critique the president’s State of the Union speech:

Instead, we got a sweeping vision of a federal government that takes care of us from childhood to retirement, a verbal counterpart to the Obama campaign’s internet ad about “Julia,” the cartoon character who has no family, friends, church or community and depends on government help throughout her life. The president chronicled a government that provides us with student loans, healthcare, oil and the Internet.

The spirit of American independence, of free people pursuing their dreams in a free economy, was entirely absent. Indeed, the word “freedom” appeared only once in the speech.

I wasn’t so impressed with the “middle-class economics” he laid out:

The president wants more and better jobs. And yet he wants to raise taxes on the savings and investment that produce economic growth and better jobs. And he proposes a higher minimum wage, which would cost some low-skilled workers their jobs. Those proposals are not well thought out….

The president spoke a lot about the future. He mentioned Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And he twice boasted of shrinking deficits. But he never addressed the elephant in the room: The deficit is about to head back up, reaching $1 trillion in a few years. The national debt is $18 trillion and still growing. Worse, those entitlements programs have an unfunded liability of around $90 trillion. What’s his plan to avert an unprecedented financial crisis a few years after he leaves office? He didn’t say, because he has no plan.

Things got a little better when he turned to foreign policy:

When he turned from economics, the president offered a bit more to libertarian-minded voters. He said that we don’t want to be “dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing” or “dragged into another ground war in the Middle East.” He said that “when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.” Music to noninterventionist and realist ears.

But the reality is somewhat different. He has officially ended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but American troops remain in both countries, which are hardly experiencing postwar tranquility. He has bombed seven countries, three more than President Bush. We are getting more deeply entangled in a new war in Iraq and Syria, without congressional authorization. Obama asked Congress to “pass a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. We need that authority.” Really? He hasn’t shown any need for it these past six months. Nor did he ask for authorization to wage war in Libya. The senator who said in his 2008 campaign, “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” has become a president who acts as if he does.

I also found an opportunity to praise his promises on Cuba, criminal justice reform, and the dignity of every citizen. But I concluded:

Early in the speech the president said, “We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t screw things up, the government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm.” Please, just do no harm. Americans will make plenty of progress if government doesn’t interfere. 

The Fed Policy Statement

Here is the statement I would like to see the Federal Open Market Committee issue on January 28 on conclusion of its first meeting of 2015:

Information received since the FOMC met in December confirms that economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace. Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s longer-run objective, primarily reflecting a decline in energy prices. That decline appears to be principally a consequence of improving technology in oil and natural gas production and is, thus, a change in relative prices that has no long-term implications for the aggregate rate of inflation.

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. To support continued progress toward these goals, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate.

To minimize uncertainty over the course of policy, the Committee judges that the process of normalizing interest rates should begin in June. However, the exact timing is data dependent and might be adjusted as necessary.

The Committee also judges that it is now appropriate to begin the process of normalizing its open market portfolio. Effective immediately, the Federal Reserve will cease to reinvest interest on the portfolio and maturing principal.

Several FOMC members have suggested that midyear will be the appropriate time to begin to raise policy rates. The FOMC itself has been vague. No member of the leadership team–which I would define as Chair Janet Yellen, Vice Chair Stanley Fischer, and William Dudley, President Federal Reserve Bank of New York–has ruled out the midyear timing. In general, it is not good practice to announce a future date for a policy change, but such an approach makes sense at this time given that policy rates have been near zero since December 2008. Announcing a June date will not be a shock to the market, as market commentary widely suggests that June is the time the FOMC will act. It is, of course, always possible that economic conditions will change dramatically before June, requiring a change of plan. Nonetheless, it is time for the FOMC to clear the air by stating a plan.