Archives: 11/2012

Historic Moment for Drug Policy Reform Movement

The momentum for drug policy reform continues to gather strength and is now undeniable.  Voters in two states–Colorado and Washington–have now approved marijuana legalization under state law.  This represents a historic moment in the drug reform movement.  Rejecting the hard-line ‘lock’em up’ mentality that has dominated U.S. drug policy, two states have now broken rank and will now try a new approach.

Legalization means adult marijuana users should not be treated like criminals.  Legalization means police should spend their time more wisely–focusing on violent offenders, not people who choose to grow and use marijuana.  Federal law remains in effect, but the Obama administration should allow the states to chart another path.  One of the benefits of our federal system is that states can experiment with different policies so we can learn what works well and what does not. 

It should also be noted that voters in Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved an initiative that would legalize medical marijuana, which continues the liberalization trend in that area.  Several cities in Michigan–most notably Detroit–voted to decriminalize marijuana for adults.

From the west coast to the east coast, the political climate for drug policy reform is getting better and better.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

The Politics of Hope — and Denial

This morning POLITICO Arena asks:

What does President Obama’s victory mean?

My response:

Obama’s victory means, for now at least, that the politics of personal destruction and division by identity (“Voting is the best revenge”) has carried the day with a thin majority of the electorate, who seem to believe that the laws of economics, which Obama has never understood, can be reversed. They think that in Greece too, and march in the streets accordingly, as if that could reverse those laws.

In his victory speech last night Obama said that “this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.” Future generations? This from the man who has overseen a $5 trillion increase in the debt that falls on those future generations?

It’s striking, however, how little has actually changed. The House, which controls the public purse, remains solidly Republican. We’re already hearing calls for the majority there to bend to the will of Obama, the Senate, and that thin majority. That would mark the end of the Republican Party, so it’s not likely. Brace yourself, then. It’s either gridlock, or self-destruction. Take your pick.

Brief Thoughts on the Ethics of Voting

Since Cato is a nonpartisan think tank, you won’t see our scholars offering any recommendations on how to vote. But this seems like a good time to throw out some general considerations regarding whether and why to vote.

Many libertarians take the position that, because any one individual’s vote is vanishingly unlikely to swing a national election, it’s simply always irrational to cast a ballot—except perhaps in very small local races.  I’m inclined to agree with my colleague Tim Lee that this is wrong, and even somewhat morally obtuse: There are many types of cases where a good social outcome depends on members of society being morally disposed to act according to a general norm, but where any individual’s defection from the norm makes no significant difference to the outcome, and may be in some way slightly better for the defecting individual. Conspicuously, with the exception of very large donors, contributions to nonprofits like Cato are one such case! Adding or subtracting $100 from Cato’s annual budget probably does not appreciably alter what Cato is able to do in a given year—but we are extremely fortunate that so many people who can afford $100 donations make them, since together they make a great difference indeed. And I assume they do this not only because they like getting a printed copy of Policy Report and discounts in the Cato Store, but because even the most strident individualist can appreciate that moral action sometimes involves thinking in terms of what we together do, and refusing to free-ride on the willingness of others to contribute to achieving important shared goods.

This reasoning undermines the “no marginal difference” argument that one ought never to vote, but neither does it entail that one is always morally obligated to vote. (I won’t object if readers want to infer that it means they’re always obligated to donate to Cato.) As Jason Brennan argues in his fine book The Ethics of Voting, one certainly ought not to vote just to have voted, without being well-informed about the candidates and the likely effects of their policies, and indeed, in this case, one would be morally obligated to refrain from voting. More generally, when we consider the effects of what we do together, we often find that the norms we ought to follow are complex and conditional, not crude categorical commands. We’d all starve if nobody engaged in agriculture, but it does not follow in a modern market economy that everyone must therefore engage in agriculture when we can instead reap the benefits of division of labor coordinated by the price system. And in many cases involving ordinary social helping—as when a pedestrian drops a stack of important papers on a windy day—we should hope bystanders regard assistance as an imperfect duty, so that some people spontaneously choose to stop and help, but not everyone, since for a large group of bystanders this would be wasteful and likely even counterproductive.

When and under what conditions one should be prepared to contribute or vote, and with what frequency or probability, is going to be an individual judgment call depending on a host of circumstantial and idiosyncratic factors, among which is one’s estimate of what others in the relevant local area are likely to do. For a particular person, these may end up weighing in favor of seldom or even never voting in practice, or making it a habit to vote annually. Everyone should reject the argument for categorically abstaining on the grounds that one’s vote makes no marginal difference—which betrays a failure to grasp that the decision involves moral norms governing collective action, akin to boasting that one never tips at out-of-town restaurants, because it’s economically irrational—but, having rejected it, it does not follow that everyone should follow the same uniform rule about whether and when to vote.  Relevant factors might include the expressive value one gets from voting generally, one’s attitude toward the choices in a particular race and the local issues on the ballot, and whether one lives in a “battleground” or “safe” state.

If one does decide to vote, there’s the further question of how one ought to vote in our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all voting system, in which the victor is typically sure to be from one of the two major parties. Here, again, we tend to see a stark contrast between advocates of categorical or pure strategies: those who insist one should always “vote one’s conscience” irrespective of the chances of victory for the ideal candidate, and those who urge a “pragmatic” vote for the least bad of the major party candidates. Both of these  pure strategies, however, have problems.

As leftist blogger Daniel Davies pointed out in a 2010 post at Crooked Timber, the “pragmatic” argument employs a concealed bait-and-switch: First, it employs an appeal to civic duty in order to persuade those repulsed by the “lesser evil” candidate that they must hold their noses and trudge to the polls even though their individual vote isn’t going to decide the election. Then, it shifts to a strategic argument for not casting a third-party vote even if that is one’s first preference, given that the vast majority of other Americans will be voting for one of the major party options, and the consequences of letting the “greater evil” win are too dire. In other words, it urges the moral necessity of disregarding the fact that other people’s votes will determine the election when deciding whether to go to the polls, but taking into account what’s known about how others will vote when deciding how to cast one’s ballot.

The “always vote your conscience” rule has its own issues. If you take the injunction seriously, and believe that you ought to vote for the ideal candidate regardless of their chances of victory, you’d probably most often cast a write-in ballot, rather than voting for either a major party or a third-party candidate. Yet if everyone did this—at least under our electoral system—a small number of voters with a shared first-preference could perversely select a victor far lower in the preference rankings of the vast majority than any number of compromise candidates, in an extreme version of the “spoiler effect.”

As with many thorny problems in ethics, this one comes down to appropriately specifying the scope of the group for whom you’re trying to formulate a general rule of action. The logic of the democratic process is inherently both collaborative—we together decide our future—and conflict-oriented, since it assumes disagreement about what course of action would best. This suggests that the appropriate way of approaching electoral choice, then, is neither at the level of  purely individual economic rationality (which would tell you to stay home) nor the society-wide level of a truly universal categorical imperative. Instead, I’d propose that one should act on the imperative one would give to the intermediate-level (and admittedly fuzzy) group of citizens of the same state who share your basic political commitments, and so are wrestling with similar alternatives.

For a libertarian, this might mean others for whom the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is the closest match, but who are tempted to support whichever of the major party candidates they dislike least. What if all those people—a minority, but perhaps a significant one—voted the same way? In states where that voting bloc could swing the contest between the major party candidates, preventing the “greater evil” outcome might take priority. In states that are a virtual lock for one or the other, one might think the best use of that bloc’s votes was a strong symbolic showing for the candidate most aligned with the common values that define the subgroup.

This is hardly a complete solution, of course: I’ve stipulated one way of choosing a subgroup as the subject of the general rule on which one acts, when there are many dimensions on which voters could be divided into different groups. Still, framing the problem in this way seems like a potentially promising starting point for grappling with the ethical quandaries of voting.

New Evidence that Plants Are Slowing the Growth of Greenhouse Gases

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

Scientists have known for decades that, as global carbon dioxide levels increase, so too does the standing biomass of the world’s plants. Carbon dioxide is a strong plant fertilizer.

As plants grow better, they also increasingly act as carbon sinks as they convert atmospheric carbon dioxide, with a little help from water and sunshine, into carbohydrates stored as biomass. Some of that carbon is returned to the air annually through decomposition, but other portions are are stored for longer periods in the soil, downed logs, houses, etc.  This plant-based carbon sink helps to offset the growth of global carbon dioxide emissions from human activities (primarily from the burning of fossil fuels). Together, the terrestrial carbon sink, along with the oceanic carbon sink, annually takes up more than half of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions—and remarkably, as global CO2 emissions have increased, so too has the global CO2 sink.

But now comes new evidence that plants may be helping to combat global warming through another mechanism as well, slowing the build-up of the atmospheric concentration of methane (a greenhouse gas some 25 times more effective than CO2 on a molecule-for-molecule bases at adding pressure for the world to warm).

As shown in the fugure below the jump, the growth rate of the atmospheric concentration of methane (CH4)—which is projected by the IPCC to be rising rapidly—began slowing down in the early 1990s and even topped out for a few years in the mid-2000s. Since about 2007, the atmospheric concentration of CH4 has been rising again, but only at about half that of the pre-1990 rate.

Figure 1. Atmospheric methane concentration (source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
This behavior is not understood by climate scientists. It contravenes alarmist scenarios of runaway global warming fueled by a positive methane feedback (the scenario for which is that warming leads to thawing of the arctic permafrost, which releases methane, which leads to more warming, and so on).

A team of scientists from Lund University and Stockholm University set out to investigate recent claims that some plants release methane and are therefore a source of global methane emissions. They set up instruments to measure methane exchange on a collection of individual branches of four different tree species in a 100-year-old forest in central Sweden. A set of control experiments was also conducted in a laboratory setting. They just published their findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Much to their surprise, the researchers found that the trees (both in the field and in the lab) were taking up methane rather than releasing it. They suggest that the presence of a “bacteria with the ability to consume [methane] would be a possible explanation for [the observed behavior].”

That’s not the only good news.

The researchers then executed the extremely risky (and oft ill-advised) maneuver of scaling up from a few tree branches in central Sweden to the level of the global forest canopy. Their research “indicates that the canopy might play an equally important role [in CH4 uptake] as the soil in the global context.” In other words, their results show that trees are playing a large (and hitherto unknown) role as a sink in the global methane cycle.

The culprit?  Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

In the authors’ own words (with my emphasis):

Two recent studies give alternative explanations to the slow-down in the growth rate of atmospheric methane in the last decades. One of them indicates that it is due to a stabilization of fossil-fuel emissions (Aydin et al., 2011) whereas the other explains it by a decrease in microbial methane sources in the northern hemisphere (Kai et al., 2011). Our results offer a third explanation: that an increasing amount of CH4 has been taken up by vegetation during the last decades as a consequence of increased greenness (Myneni et al., 1997), NPP [net primary production] (Nemani et al., 2003) and GPP [gross primary production] (Chen et al., 2006) as observed by satellite remote sensing.

This is still highly a highly speculative result and one that will require a heck of a lot more study and independent confirmation. But it is a novel finding and goes to show that there is still a lot of interesting research ongoing in the field of climate (change), and that most definitely the science is not “settled.”


Sundqvist, E., et al., 2012. Atmospheric methane removal by boreal plants. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L21806, doi:10.1029/2012GL053592

Academics’ Freedom vs. Everyone Else’s

A significant interest of mine is how public elementary and secondary schools—government schools—force diverse people into conflict rather than, as the gauzy mythology tells us, bringing them together. After all, unless people are prepared to ditch deeply held values and opinions about what’s best for their kids, they have no choice but to engage in political (and sometimes actual) combat. And whether it’s over evolution or “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” engage they do.

There is a corollary to this in higher education. All taxpayers are compelled to support colleges and universities, whether through direct aid to institutions or to students. As a result, either taxpayers are forced to support all academic speech—including speech they may find abhorrent—or government must deem some academic speech unacceptable. Either way, government impinges on individual liberty.

The negative consequences of this are not nearly as apparent as in K-12, where values-based conflicts make headlines almost every day. The reason such headlines aren’t nearly as prevalent in higher ed may be because far fewer people have strong connections to the ivory tower.

This is not to say that collisions of taxpayer funding and academic freedom never make a loud bang. When the Ward Churchill “little Eichmanns” situation blew up in 2005, Colorado Governor Bill Owens immediately seized on the compelled-support angle, stating that “no one wants to infringe on Mr. Churchill’s right to express himself. But we are not compelled to accept his pro-terrorist views at state taxpayer subsidy nor under the banner of the University of Colorado.”

Colorado taxpayers, however, were technically required to pay for Churchill’s “pro-terrorist views.” While academic impropriety—not his 9/11 essay—officially got Churchill canned, the academic accusations were almost certainly brought to the fore by Churchill’s essay-delivered infamy. Indeed, in 2009 a Colorado court concluded that Churchill had, de facto, been improperly let go due to his 9/11 essay, and awarded him $1 in damages. Just this past April, however, the state Supreme Court ruled that Churchill was neither entitled to back pay nor reinstatement.

Did you follow the clear principles guiding all those decisions, by the way? Me neither, but such is the malodorous hash you get when you try to reconcile the irreconcilable.

It is not individual cases, though, through which the death match between taxpayers’ and professors’ rights is most readily revealed. No, it is manifested most concretely in the seemingly endless war between conservatives and the politically correct academy.

There is little question that academia is a battleship of the left. Indeed, as the Higher Education Research Institute just found, its port-side tilt has recently gotten even worse. Conservatives, reasonably, find having to pay for their intellectual enemies disquieting. But the solution often proffered for this—achieving intellectual “balance” or “diversity”—is little better than the status quo.

For one thing, who would be the arbiter of proper balance, especially understanding that peoples’ views are not monolithically liberal or conservative? And even if brilliantly proportioned ideological representation could be achieved, on what grounds could the apolitical be compelled to subsidize it?

The only fully satisfactory solution to the compelled-support problem is to, well, end compelled support of higher education. But there are good, better, and best options for reducing the problem short of complete government withdrawal.

Good: End government subsidies that go directly to schools. These are pure compulsion, with no individual choice involved. It’s basically how we fund elementary and secondary education, the hottest of all culture-war battlefields.

Better: Connect all money to students, though in the form of loans, not grants. That would add a heck of a lot more choice—students would freely choose where to attend—and the decision would ultimately be paid for by the consumer. Of course, taxpayers would have no ability to choose recipients of the loans, so appreciable compulsion would remain.

Best: Move entirely to tax credits for individuals and corporations that donate to organizations providing scholarships—or perhaps even loans—to students at all levels. Donors would choose to donate and students would choose schools. There would still be government influence—your only choices would be to donate or pay taxes—but taxpayers would have the option not to subsidize higher ed at all.

Academic freedom is fantastic if it means academics have freedom from government coercion. But freedom for all is even better, and that requires ending subsidies for higher ed.

Cross-posted from

ObamaCare (a Subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group)

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been spending unknown and unauthorized amounts of taxpayer dollars to create a federal health insurance “exchange.”

Now we learn that as the result of a recent purchase, one health insurance carrier’s parent company—UnitedHealth Group—basically just bought the federal exchange that is supposed to regulate it. There’s a former exchange-planning official in the mix, yet nobody told the Securities and Exchange Commission—and now there are allegations that HHS counseled the buyers not to make that legally mandated disclosure.

Maybe a second Obama term won’t be so dull after all.