January 2013

January 10, 2013 4:21PM

Another Lower Climate Sensitivity Estimate

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.”

As the earth’s climate sensitivity is perhaps the key factor in what climate lies ahead, we’ll often report on scientific findings that enhance our understanding of this important parameter.

Recall from our previous discussion, that the earth’s “climate sensitivity” is the amount that the average global surface temperature will rise, given a doubling of the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from its pre-industrial value. This metric is the key to understanding how much global warming will occur as we continue to burn fossil fuels for energy and emit the resultant CO2 into the atmosphere.

And as we mentioned, the big problem is that scientists don’t know what the true value of the climate sensitivity really is. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summed up its assessment of the science regarding the value of the climate sensitivity in its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) thusly:

It is likely to be in the range 2°C to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3.0°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C. Values substantially higher than 4.5°C cannot be excluded...

New findings seem to be coming in with some regularity since the publication of the AR4 that the IPCC’s estimate is on the high side of reality.  We discussed some of these findings in our publication Addendum: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (p.26-27) and more recent ones in a Global Science Report last month.

Now we have another new, lower estimate, to report on.

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January 10, 2013 1:37PM

Very Good, House—Keep it Comin’

Yesterday, I shared my doubts about the prospect of getting budget and organizational data from the White House. Today, I'm happy to report genuine progress on open data from Congress.

The Government Printing Office announced today that it will be making House bills available in XML format and in bulk through FDsys, GPO’s Federal Digital System. House bills now join other material on GPO's bulk data page.

If you're like me, following that link gives you some idea of what's there, but clicking through any further gives you no idea how to use it any more than other copies of bills. That's OK, because the kids with the computers do know how to use it. And they can take well structured, timely data reflecting the proposals in Congress and turn it into various information services, applications, and web sites that make all of us better aware of what's happening.

I believe the public has an Internet-fueled expectation that they should understand what happens in Congress. It's one explanation for rock-bottom esteem for government in opinion polls. Access to good data would help produce better public understanding of what goes on in Washington and also, I believe, more felicitous policy outcomes—not only reduced demand for government, but better administered government in the areas the public wants it. (If you're a reader of a certain partisan bent, you might appreciate the idea that the era of passing bills to find out what's in them will end.)

Upon the release of my Cato Policy Analysis, "Grading the Government's Data Publication Practices" I characterized President Obama as lagging House Republicans in terms of transparency. Today's development helps solidify Republicans' small lead. The GPO release says the initiative comes "[a]t the direction of the House Appropriations Committee, and in support of the task force on bulk data established by House report 112-511."

The administration has plenty of capacity to retake the lead, of course, and could do so quite easily. I'll call it like I see it, doing my best to reflect consensus among the transparency community as to the quality of data publication, when we return to grading the data produced by various organs of government in another year or so.

Did you think this praise would come without garnish? It's like you don't know me at all.

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January 10, 2013 12:15PM

America’s European Diplomacy: A Bull in a China Shop

The U.S. government appears to be pathologically unable not to interfere in matters foreign as well as domestic. According to the Sun, the Obama Administration has warned the British government not to hold a referendum on remaining a part of the European Union. The U.S. assistant secretary for Europe Philip Gordon said that, “We have a growing relationship with the EU, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in it. That is in America’s interests.” He added that, “Referendums have often turned countries inward.”

Predictably, the British are annoyed. Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative Party member of Parliament said:

“The Americans don’t understand Europe. They have a default position that sometimes the United States of Europe is going to be the same as the United States of America. They haven’t got a clue.”

Another parliamentarian, Peter Bone, said that Gordon should “butt out” and that the British membership of the EU had “nothing to do with the Americans.” “It’s quite ridiculous,” he added, “and it’s not what you’d expect from a member of the senior executive in the USA.”

Quite so! After all, how would Americans feel if the British government opined about U.S. membership in NAFTA? Would they not be a bit “miffed?” Not too long ago, the then‐​secretary of state Condoleezza Rice urged the Europeans to accept Turkey as an EU member state. Again, how would Americans feel if the Europeans urged the U.S. government to make Mexico America’s 51st state?

Moreover, is it really a good idea for the U.S. government to be dissuading foreign governments from consulting their people on matters of national interest? Not quite democratic, is it?

Finally, consider the astonishing brazenness of America’s government officials. Note that Gordon did not say that British membership of the EU was in the British interest. Instead, he simply stated that the British membership of the EU was in America’s interest. That, presumably, settles the matter for everyone. Gordon’s behavior is worthy of a Roman proconsul throwing his weight around some impoverished province on the edge of the world. It is not what people expect from a White House administration that supposedly wishes to correct the foreign policy mistakes of the previous one.

January 10, 2013 11:45AM

The ‘National Taxpayer Advocate’ at the IRS Is Advocating for the Government, not Taxpayers

I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, though I try to make sure that politicians get much of the blame for America’s convoluted, punitive, and unfair tax code.

Heck, just look at these three images—here, here, and here—and you’ll find startling evidence that politicians make the tax system worse with each passing year.

But there is an office at the IRS that ostensibly exists to defend the interests of taxpayers. The Taxpayer Advocate Service is, according to the government website, “an independent organization within the IRS and helps taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS and recommend changes that will prevent the problems.” The head of this office, Nina Olson, has the title of National Taxpayer Advocate.

Sounds good, right?

Well, not so fast. The TAS does some good things, but Ms. Olson spends at least part of her time advocating for the government.

The TAS just released its annual report, and here’s some of what the bureaucracy recommended, according to a Bloomberg story.

Among the other problems Olson identifies in the report are … the underfunding of the Internal Revenue Service … The IRS, which Olson compares to the accounts receivable department of a company, should be fenced off from more budget cuts by Congress, she writes in the report.

Don’t rub your eyes or clean your glasses. You read correctly. The folks at the IRS who supposedly are advocating for you are instead advocating for a bigger IRS budget.

I debunked this silly argument last year, explaining why Congress should reject the Obama Administration’s assertion that more money for the IRS would be an “investment” that would yield big returns.

But I want to be fair. Some of what the TAS does is worth applauding. The report also discusses the grotesque levels of complexity in the code. Here’s more of the Bloomberg story:

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January 10, 2013 11:26AM

It’s Showtime for the Iron Lady

That is, Friday night at 8:00 the Showtime cable channel will broadcast the movie “The Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. When it came out a year ago, I published the tart analysis below. On cable, my recommendation is that you DVR it and then fast‐​forward through all the imaginative scenes of Thatcher as a doddering old lady. What you want to watch is the rise and triumph of a “conviction politician.” And again I appeal to the Weinsteins to release a version that omits all the nonsense and shows us the Margaret Thatcher of history.

The reviewers warned me – don’t see The Iron Lady, the new movie starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Kelly Jane Torrance of the Washington Examiner mourns, “The climax of this movie about one of the most important people – not just women, but people – of the 20th century comes when Margaret Thatcher decides to throw out her dead husband’s clothes.” James Verniere of the Boston Herald asks, “Mamma mia! Why would you turn the story of Margaret Thatcher into a tale of a sweet, dotty old lady having a love affair with her beloved late husband?” Virginia Postrel excoriates the filmmakers: “These supposedly feminist filmmakers could have portrayed Thatcher as an ambitious woman who had nothing to feel guilty about. Instead they chose to inject guilt where it did not belong. They obscured Thatcher’s public accomplishments in a fog of private angst. The portrait of dementia isn’t the problem. The way the film uses old age to punish a lifetime of accomplishment is.”

Even the Washington Post, the New York Times (“You are left with the impression of an old woman who can’t quite remember who she used to be and of a movie that is not so sure either.”), and the New Yorker wonder why you would make a movie about one of the most influential and controversial political figures, the first woman to lead a Western country, the woman who arguably saved Great Britain and helped Ronald Reagan win the Cold War, and then spend half the film depicting her as a confused old lady with hallucinations.

Nevertheless, Thatcher is indeed a compelling figure, and the commercials and trailers showed Streep portraying her as a leader of conviction and strength. So I ignored the critics and bought a ticket. And the film was slightly better than I expected. It absolutely wastes about 40 percent of its time on the imagined scenes of a confused old lady. How much more rewarding it would have been to see a great actress play a pioneering political figure rising to power, leading her country, and facing opposition from both friends and enemies. Instead, we get a few vignettes of that, about half the film’s running time. So it wasn’t terrible, just a lost opportunity.

Interestingly, the marketing team at Weinstein Company seems to understand the appeal of a film on Margaret Thatcher far better than the writer and director. They know what the audience wants. Take a look at the trailer:

You’ll notice that there’s not a single shot of the old‐​lady part of the movie. Instead, it’s two fast minutes of Margaret Thatcher in action. Including a final scene (“Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies”) that harks back to an earlier scene of Thatcher on her way up, dramatizes her uniqueness – and is actually not in the film.

So I have a suggestion: Often the DVD of a film will include the film as released to theaters and also a “Director’s Cut” that reflects the director’s own artistic choices that the studio may have blocked. I recommend that the DVD of The Iron Lady include a “Marketer’s Cut” that omits all the old‐​lady scenes and just shows us Margaret Thatcher the political figure. And if there’s good material like the “join the ladies” scene left on the cutting‐​room floor, then the marketers could add that back in. In that case, I’d buy the DVD. In fact, someone should start a Facebook campaign: “Put a Marketer’s Cut of The Iron Lady on the DVD.”

By the way, Mitt Romney should not want Republicans to watch this movie: It will remind them of what it means to be inspired by a political leader.

January 10, 2013 7:52AM

James M. Buchanan (1919–2013), Friend of Liberty

The passing of Nobel laureate economist James M. Buchanan, one of the greatest proponents of limited government and free markets in the 20th century, leaves a giant void at a time when Western democracies are expanding the size and scope of government and threatening the future of liberty.

The news of Buchanan’s death on January 9, at the age of 93, has saddened all who knew and respected him. His vast body of work, however, will live on and remind us that liberty under a just rule of law, or what F. A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty,” is essential for the emergence of a spontaneous market order. 

Like Adam Smith, Buchanan was interested in the institutions that would allow individuals to pursue their own self-interest (happiness) while benefiting others through a system of what Milton Friedman has called “free private markets.” Buchanan considered “the principle of spontaneous order”—that is, the harmony and wealth creation that emerges through voluntary exchange when government is limited and rights to life, liberty, and property safeguarded—to be “the most important central principle in economics” (see What Should Economists Do?, pp. 81–82).

The question that occupied Buchanan during his long career is the problem of constitutional choice—that is, the choice of rules that would best allow individuals the freedom they need to increase their range of choices and bring about social harmony. The proper balance between the state and the individual—or between coercion and consent—is at the foundation of constitutional political economy.

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