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February 4, 2013 8:52AM

Rearranging the Park Benches

Our cities are in trouble. Most have huge unfunded pension and health-care obligations. Their infrastructure is old and so poorly maintained that it can't power a football stadium for the full length of a game. Their schools have significantly lower high-school graduation rates than the suburbs, even after accounting for differences in incomes. Housing in many cities is unaffordable, roads are congested, and jobs are fleeing, even in supposedly urban industries such as high tech and finance.

Urban planner Richard Florida has a solution: President Obama should create a new federal Department of Cities. That's right up there with rearranging the benches at Battery Park before Superstorm Sandy hits.

Like many planners, Florida believes problems can be solved from the top down. He is famous for urging cities to adopt policies that make housing unaffordable, forcing poor and moderate-income people out, thus increasing average incomes and making it look like the cities have attracted high-income "creative" people.

Now, relying on pre-recession data, Florida argues that "cities and metros are the engines of our economy," and thus deserve their own cabinet-level department. By the same logic, maybe we should create a Department of Texas and North Dakota, as those two states seem to have been the engines of our economy since 2008. I am sure a federal DoT&ND could do much to muck up the growth of those states that is partly taking place because the state legislatures have so far kept their hands off.

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February 1, 2013 4:17PM

California Irrigation Supplies Water to Phoenix

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.”


California’s Central Valley is one of the true wonders of the agricultural world. Prior to settlement, it was grassland in its northerly regions (around Sacramento) and desert at the southern end (Bakersfield). As a result of irrigation from water stored both in the ground and in the many rivers that drain into it, this 1 percent of the nation’s cropland produces 8 percent of our national agricultural output (by value). That doesn’t count the equally productive but much smaller Salinas Valley, which is likely where your artichokes came from.


John Christy, a fellow‐lukewarmer (and a Valley native) who is also state climatologist for Alabama, has published extensively that irrigation has changed the Valley’s climate, resulting in a warming produced not by carbon dioxide but by water vapor, which tends to skew heating into the night.


Everything else being equal, increasing the surface moisture in a hot‐​as‐​heck environment (like the Central Valley) will increase atmospheric instability, and, given proper conditions, should result in increased convective (thunderstorm) activity. Add in that prevailing mid‐​atmospheric winds in this region blow from west to east, and you wind up running the increased water vapor uphill into the Sierras, the Wasatch, and the Rockies. That’s pretty much guaranteed to increase thunderstorm activity.


A newly published study fleshes this out with a computer model, and finds that irrigation in the Central Valley of California not only adds water to the local environment but also alters the regional climate across the Colorado River Basin, increasing summer precipitation by 15 percent and Colorado River flow by nearly 30 percent. Those are big numbers and important ones, given the water needs of some 35 million people from Las Vegas to Phoenix to L.A.

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February 1, 2013 3:59PM

$10.3 Billion in Unemployment Insurance Improper Payments

The Washington Times noted this week that the 2012 improper payment rate for unemployment insurance benefits was 11.4 percent ($10.3 billion out of $90.2 billion), according to U.S. Department of Labor data. The good news is that the figure is down from 12 percent in 2011. The bad news is that it’s still a pathetic waste of money. 

The waste, fraud, and high administrative costs associated with the program are just some of the reasons why it should be scrapped. A Cato essay on the failures of the unemployment insurance system explains: 

When policymakers dream of ways to provide subsidies and safety nets to groups in society, they rarely take into account the large bureaucratic costs that are inevitably involved. The UI system is a complex and costly system for governments and businesses to administer. 

State governments must raise taxes from almost 8 million businesses, with tax bills specifically calculated for each firm's experience rating. At the same time, the states dole out individually calculated benefits to millions of workers and monitor whether each person making a claim is currently eligible. Businesses and states need to adjudicate the many disputed claims for benefits, and states need to police UI tax evasion as businesses try to manipulate the system to get a lower tax rate. 

Federal and state UI administration cost taxpayers $5.9 billion in 2010. Despite this large cost, there is widespread concern among experts that the UI system is “in long-term decline" from an administrative perspective. UI computer systems are apparently far outdated in many states, and administrators say that they need more money to do their jobs competently. 

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February 1, 2013 2:25PM

‘La, La, La — I Can’t Hear You’

Here is an interesting essay/blog post from James Annan, a scientist with the Global Change Projection Research Programme of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, and a leading researcher into constraints on estimates of climate sensitivity. Annan has long-held the opinion, borne from his own investigations, that the bounds of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates of the earth’s climate sensitivity are too wide, especially at the high end.

The IPCC’s “fat right-hand tail” of their distribution of possible climate sensitivity values means that the IPCC maintains that there is a non-negligible probability that the earth’s actual climate sensitivity—the global average temperature rise from a doubling of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration—is upwards of 6°C (11°F) and perhaps has high a 10°C (18°F).  If the climate sensitivity were indeed this high, we’d be in a bunch of trouble. And so long as the IPCC concedes that this possibility exists, it allows folks to gin up truly alarming scare stories for what lies in ahead if we don’t immediately and drastically curtail carbon dioxide emissions.

But Annan has been arguing for years that the IPCC’s stance is scientifically unjustified.  And a host of recent scientific studies, including several of his own, seem to have made this point abundantly clear.

But apparently the IPCC is slow to let go of its alarmist notions.

In his recent post, Annan points out that the now-under-construction Fifth Assessment Report from the IPCC (which is due out later this year), continues to hang onto the fat right-hand tail of the distribution, even in the face of a large and growing body of research to the contrary.

But what I find most interesting in Annan’s post is his opinion and insight as to why the IPCC is behaving this way. Annan suggests that the IPCC is more tied to the results of “a small private opinion poll” than it is to the broader literature when it comes to the climate sensitivity estimates. 

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February 1, 2013 11:52AM

The ‘New Normal’ of High Unemployment

I almost feel sorry for the Obama administration's spin doctors. Every month, they probably wait for the unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with the same level of excitement that people on death row wait for their execution date.

This has been going on for a while, and today's new data provide another good example.

As the chart below indicates, the White House promised that the unemployment rate today would be almost 5 percent if we enacted the so-called stimulus back in 2009. Instead, the new numbers show that the jobless rate is 7.9 percent, almost 3.0 percentage points higher.

Obama Unemployment



I enjoy using this chart to indict Obamanomics, in part because it's a two-fer. I get to criticize the administration's economic record, and I simultaneously get to take a jab at Keynesian spending schemes.

What's not to love?

That being said, I don't think the above chart is completely persuasive. The White House argues, with some justification, that these data simply show that they underestimated the initial severity of the recession. There's some truth to that, and I'll be the first to admit that it wouldn't be fair to blame Obama for a bleak trendline that existed when he took office (but I will blame him for continuing George W. Bush's policies of excessive spending and costly intervention).

That's why I think the data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve are more damning. They show all the recessions and recoveries in the post-World War II era, which presumably provides a more neutral benchmark with which to judge the Obama record.

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