February 28, 2013 10:39AM

The American Consumer Grows Up

An article in Politico on Monday looked at the declining influence of agriculture in DC (I wish), comparing the touching/​nauseating Chrysler ad paying homage to the American farmer that was aired during the Superbowl with the relative lack of political attention given to farm programs. How come people feel all warm and fuzzy when they watch the ad, and yet poor little agriculture can’t get any love?

Trying to sell Ram trucks, Chrysler made a splash in the Super Bowl this month with a two‐​minute television spot celebrating the American farmer — a montage of handsome still photos and a vintage Paul Harvey speech all ending with the pitch: “For the farmer in all of us.”

Nine days later, the picture was very different as President Barack Obama skipped over farmers entirely in his State of the Union address, never mentioning the yearlong farm bill stalemate in Congress nor even including “agriculture” among the thousands of words spoken that night…

“Agriculture has become so efficient, so few people actually raise the food … the American consumer has become almost like high school kids,” [House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank] Lucas said. “It’s always been there, it will always be there. Dad can I have the keys to the car? Does the car have gas in it? Oh, it will always have gas in it, right Dad?”

Are American consumers like teenagers? Are they spoiled, and taking agricultural production for granted? Is that why the farm bill is such a heavy lift? Or perhaps, just perhaps, the American consumer is growing up, questioning the cost and necessity of farm subsidies, and no longer falling for myths about the need for farm subsidies to prevent mass starvation. My colleague David Boaz, in a 2011 blog post, summarised the reasons why folks might oppose spending programs. As I read the Politico article and, specifically, the whining by the agri‐​industrial complex and its political backers, David’s second point came to mind:

We know that many wonderful things, perhaps including truly fast trains, could be created at massive cost, but that you always have to weigh costs and benefits. Children say, “I want it.” Adults say, “How much does it cost, and what would I have to give up to have it?”

February 28, 2013 9:40AM

Quote Without Comment

Okay, maybe not “without” comment, but with very little comment.

Dr. Peter Stott of the U.K.’s Hadley Center was a contributing author to Chapter 10 “Global Climate Projections” of the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report.

He is also the lead author of a new paper just published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters.

For those of you who have been following much that we have been writing about climate change, the following will only be surprising in its candor.

So, without further ado (we promise this time) here is the title of Stott and colleagues new paper:

“The upper end of climate model temperature projections is inconsistent with past warming”

Details are available here (sorry, couldn’t help ourselves).

February 27, 2013 5:02PM

North Korea’s Economic Outlook: Cloudy with a Chance of Statistics.

During the past few weeks, North Korea has been the subject of outsized news coverage. The recent peacocking by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un – from domestic martial law policies to tests of the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities – has successfully distracted the media from North Korea’s continued economic woes. For starters, the country’s plans for agricultural reforms have been deep‐​sixed, and, to top it off, I estimate that North Korea’s annual inflation rate hit triple digits for 2012: 116%, to be exact.

Unfortunately, the official shroud of secrecy covering North Korea’s official information and statistics remains more or less intact. But, some within North Korea have begun to shed light on this “land of illusions”. For example, a team of “citizen cartographers” helped Google construct its recent Google Maps’ exposition of North Korea’s streets, landmarks, and government facilities. In addition, our friends at DailyNK have successfully been reporting data on black‐​market exchange rates and the price of rice in North Korea – data which allowed me to conclude that the country experienced an episode of hyperinflation from December 2009 to mid‐​January 2011. 

Yes, things may be getting a bit brighter in North Korea. According to recent reportage by Carl Bialik of the Wall Street Journal, statisticians from the U.S. and Europe are bravely making their way into North Korea to teach students basic statistical methods. These lessons may only represent material from an introductory stats course, but they are a step in the right direction, because they force students to at least think about analyzing data. Unfortunately, in North Korea, reliable data continue to be a scarce commodity.

While these developments in North Korea have hardly shaken the dismal economic status quo, one can only hope that they will start to bring about some much needed change . But, don’t hold your breath. If flamboyant basketball hall‐​of‐​famer Dennis Rodman’s recent “basketball diplomacy” mission to Pyongyang is evidence of anything, it’s that North Korea is more interested in scoring cheap headlines than it is in turning around its economy. Until North Korea begins to open up its markets and make transparency a priority, its economic prospects will be cloudy, at best.

February 27, 2013 4:53PM

Arne Duncan, Less Than Zero?

Yesterday we laid out how, as percentages of total state education workforces, the Obama administration’s worst‐​case sequester job loss predictions are actually tiny. They’re so small they approach zero, generally clocking in at around 0.30 percent.

It seems, though, that even that number might be too big to fully capture the degree of fear‐​mongering by the administration. As the Washington Post is now reporting, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan actually has no evidence to back up the claim he made on Face the Nation this weekend that “there are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can’t come back this fall.” OK, he could point to one example — Kanawha County, West Virginia — but not without adding, “whether it’s all sequester‐​related, I don’t know.”

The big question now is, can we get the administration to cop to less than zero job losses? It might not be possible because, as trumped up as the sequester is, it probably will involve some job trimming. But it isn’t hard at all to see less than zero cuts when you put the sequester into historical context. As our by‐​now famous graphs make clear, for decades hiring in our schools grew well in excess of enrollment — a huge hiring boom. That means relatively minor cuts will, indeed, come out to far less than zero long‐​term losses. And considering that academic achievement was utlimately flat throughout the boom, much bigger cuts are clearly in order.

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Anyway, thanks to Secretary Duncan — and the Washington Post — for making the job of exposing administration fear‐​mongering much, much easier.

February 27, 2013 3:02PM

Thoughts from the Shelby County Arguments

Getting past all the politics and rhetoric, Chief Justice Roberts zeroed in on the heart of the case when he noted that the state with the worst ratio of black‐​to‐​white turnout and registration is Massachusetts and the best is Mississippi (third‐​best in registration). This case is not about whether racial discrimination still exists in America or even whether it is disproportionately found in the South (which it isn’t). It simply asks whether the “exceptional conditions” that the Supreme Court found to justify the “extraordinary remedy” of federal intrusion on state election administration in 1965 still exist today. By any measure, they do not — and if they did, Congress didn’t do its homework in 2006 to tailor the application of Section 5’s burdensome requirements to jurisdictions that allegedly engage in this systemic discrimination that is somehow Jim Crow’s equivalent. The justices were starkly divided today, but this case should be much easier than that.

February 26, 2013 5:07PM

Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon: Rough Passage, Welcome Result

President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary forced the GOP to choose between the past — especially a discredited president who blundered disastrously in Iraq — and the future, represented by a Republican who felt more loyalty to his country than his party. Unfortunately, the GOP chose the past.

Ironically, a group of Republicans wrote the president urging him to withdraw the nomination, contending that Hagel’s lackluster performance at his confirmation hearing raised “serious doubts about his basic competence to meet the substantial demands of the office.” Yet it is his critics who failed to demonstrate even a basic interest in military policy and to justify the trust placed in them by voters. 

For instance, the hearings on Hagel’s nomination amounted to a poor imitation of Kabuki Theater, with Republicans more interested in scoring cheap political points than in discussing substantive issues. While GOP members complained that Hagel was ill‐​prepared for the challenges facing the Pentagon, they failed to ask him serious questions about serious issues — coping with budget cuts, simultaneously engaging and constraining China, dealing with a fading NATO.

That’s too bad, because Hagel probably had answers. Far better answers than would come from the GOP’s permanent war caucus. In fact, Republican senators like Lindsey Graham (R‑SC) are traditional tax, borrow, and spend liberals when it comes to the military: bigger and more expensive is always better. They have no idea how to cope with the coming end of Washington’s wild debt party.

Hagel offers a sharp contrast that embarrasses his former partisan colleagues. Wrote Michael Hirsh in National Journal: “what has gone largely unnoticed by the punditocracy is that, over the past decade or so, the former Republican senator from Nebraska has distinguished himself with subtle, well‐​thought‐​out, and accurate analyses of some of America’s greatest strategic challenges of the 21st century — especially the response to 9/11 — while many of his harshest critics got these issues quite wrong.”

Hagel’s tough confirmation battle was but the first of the many troubles he is likely to face in his new job. Recalibrating America’s role in the world to reflect greater foreign influences and fewer domestic resources may pose difficulties nearly as vexing as coping with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

However, Chuck Hagel has the ability to rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, he isn’t likely to get much help from Capitol Hill. Certainly not from his old GOP colleagues, who appear to be locked in the past. Secretary Hagel will need to look elsewhere to find support for the necessary transformation of America’s foreign and military policies.

February 26, 2013 5:07PM

Secret Spying and the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Catch‐​22

The memory of the abuses perpetrated by colonial officials wielding “general warrants” inspired the framers of our Constitution’s Fourth Amendment to constrain the government’s power to invade citizens’ privacy. With today’s 5 – 4 ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, the Supreme Court has announced that the modern equivalent of those general warrants — dragnet surveillance “authorizations” under the FISA Amendments Act — will be effectively immune from Fourth Amendment challenge.

The FAA permits the government to secretly vacuum up Americans’ international communications on a massive scale, without any individualized suspicion — and at least some of that surveillance has already been determined to have violated the constitution by a secret intelligence court. Yet today’s majority has all but guaranteed no court will be able to review the constitutionality of the law as a whole by imposing a perverse Catch‐​22: Even citizens at the highest risk of being wiretapped may not bring a challenge without proof they’re in the government’s vast database. The only problem is the government is never required to reveal who has been spied on.

In essence, the Court has said that even if the law is unconstitutional, even if it has violated the Fourth Amendment rights of thousands of Americans, there’s no realistic way to get a court to say so.

Precisely when secrecy shields the government from public political accountability, the Clapper ruling announces, the Constitution is powerless to protect us as well.

I’ll have a more detailed analysis of the ruling (and dissent) tomorrow.