201302

February 26, 2013 11:26AM

The Challenges of Negotiating a U.S.-EU Trade and Investment Agreement

A couple months ago on this blog, I set out some views on the possible U.S.-EU free trade agreement that was being discussed.  Things have now progressed a bit, and President Obama has announced talks on a "Trade and Investment Partnership" with the EU.  Reports suggest that the negotiations will begin this summer.

Should we be excited about these developments?  Perhaps a little bit, but overall I maintain the ambivalence I had in my earlier blog post.  I have elaborated on this ambivalence in a Free Trade Bulletin. To summarize, I like all the trade liberalization parts of these talks (lower tariffs, removing barriers to services trade, opening up government procurement), but there are also aspects that take us down a difficult and unclear negotiating path.  One of these aspects is the issue of "regulatory barriers to trade."  Some people have the idea that there will be great economic benefits if we can harmonize regulation across the U.S. and EU, so that, for example, manufacturers do not have to produce different products for different markets.  I agree that there would be benefits if we could address this problem.  But it won't be easy to reach agreement here, and there could be some downsides (e.g., if this is a compromise, both the U.S. and EU may have to agree to some regulatory changes that they don't like).

I'd like to get excited about these talks. But I have some doubts about their scope, and I'm not sure anything will come out of them.

We'll be talking more about all this at a policy forum here at Cato tomorrow.

February 26, 2013 10:27AM

Student Essay Contest

Attention high-school and college students: The Moorfield Storey Institute has announced the Vision of Ayn Rand essay contest. Students are invited to submit essays related to issues discussed in the book The Vision of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden.

The book has a fascinating history. For ten years, from 1958 to 1968, Branden delivered lectures on "Basic Principles of Objectivism" at the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York City and, via tape transcription, to groups in more than 80 cities throughout the United States and abroad. More than 35,000 students attended those lectures. Along with Rand's books, the lectures helped to create one of the first modern organized libertarian movements. But until 2009, the lectures were never available in printed form. Now they are. Buy the book here.

Back in 2009 I said this in a jacket blurb:

This is the most important work on Objectivism not written by Ayn Rand, available at last in book form. These lectures were delivered by the person closest to Ayn Rand, designated by her as her intellectual heir, often with her sitting in the audience and answering questions about them, and endorsed by her. Rand's subsequent falling out with Nathaniel Branden over personal matters doesn't change that. This is the organized, comprehensive treatise on Objectivism that Ayn Rand never wrote. Philosophers, historians, and economists may -- and should -- debate the claims of Objectivism. In this book they have a systematic work with which to engage. These lectures were also a milestone in libertarian history, as the lecture sessions brought together for the first time large numbers of young people who shared an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and the individualist philosophy. The lectures were given as taped courses in more than 80 cities, and people drove for miles to listen to them on tape. Wasn't that a time! 

February 26, 2013 10:25AM

Legislative Data and Wikipedia Workshop — March 14th and 15th

In my paper, "Publication Practices for Transparent Government," I talked about the data practices that will produce more transparent government. The government can and should improve the way it provides information about its deliberations, management, and results.

"But transparency is not an automatic or instant result of following these good practices," I wrote, "and it is not just the form and formats of data."

It turns on the capacity of the society to interact with the data and make use of it. American society will take some time to make use of more transparent data once better practices are in place. There are already thriving communities of researchers, journalists, and software developers using unofficial repositories of government data. If they can do good work with incomplete and imperfect data, they will do even better work with rich, complete data issued promptly by authoritative sources.

We're not just sitting around waiting for that to happen.

Based on the data modeling reported in "Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices," and with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we've been marking up the bills introduced in the current Congress with "enhanced" XML that allows computers to automatically gather more of the meaning found in legislation. (Unfamiliar with XML? Several folks have complimented the explanation of it and "Cato XML" in our draft guide.)

No, we are not going to replace the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., quite yet, but our work will make a great deal more information about bills available automatically.

And to build society's capacity "to interact with the data and make use of it," we're hoping to work with the best outlet for public information we know, Wikipedia, making data about bills a resource for the many Wikipedia articles on legislation and newly passed laws.

Wikipedia is a unique project, both technically and culturally, so we're convening a workshop on March 14th and 15th to engage Wikipedians and bring them together with data transparency folks, hopefully to craft a path forward that informs the public better about what happens in Washington, D.C. We've enlisted Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies to help assemble and moderate the discussion. Pete was a key designer of the Wikimedia Foundation's U.S. Public Policy Initiative—a pilot program that guided professors and students in making substantive contributions to Wikipedia, and that led to the establishment of the Foundation's Global Education Program.

The Thursday afternoon session is an open event, a Wikipedia tutorial for the many inexperienced editors among us. It's followed by a Sunshine Week reception open to all who are interested in transparency.

On Friday, we'll roll up our sleeves for an all-day session in which we hope Wikipedians and experienced government data folks will compare notes and produce some plans and projects for improving public access to information.

You can view a Cato event page about the workshop here. To sign up, go here, selecting which parts of the event you'd like to attend. (Friday attendance requires a short application.)

For some Wikipedians, particularly, this may be their first direct experience with the Cato Institute. We are known, of course, for policy positions that contest the current size and scope of government, but transparency, and the hope with getting data on to Wikipedia, is meant to provide the public with neutral information tools that all communities can use to oversee the government and advocate for what they want.

From our first event on transparency, and again in "Publication Practices," I've emphasized that transparency is a sort of win-win bet.

Government transparency is a widely agreed-upon value, but it is agreed upon as a means toward various ends. Libertarians and conservatives support transparency because of their belief that it will expose waste and bloat in government. If the public understands the workings and failings of government better, the demand for government solutions will fall and democracy will produce more libertarian outcomes. American liberals and progressives support transparency because they believe it will validate and strengthen government programs. Transparency will root out corruption and produce better outcomes, winning the public’s affection and support for government.

Though the goals may differ, pan-ideological agreement on transparency can remain. Libertarians should not prefer large government programs that are failing. If transparency makes government work better, that is preferable to government working poorly. If the libertarian vision prevails, on the other hand, and transparency produces demand for less government and greater private authority, that will be a result of democratic decisionmaking that all should respect and honor.

...

By putting out data that is “liquid” and “pure,” governments can meet their responsibility to be transparent, and they can foster this evolution toward a body politic that better consumes data. Transparency is likely to produce a virtuous cycle in which public oversight of government is easier, in which the public has better access to factual information, in which people have less need to rely on ideology, and in which artifice and spin have less effectiveness. The use of good data in some areas will draw demands for more good data in other areas, and many elements of governance and public debate will improve.

Hope to see you March 14th and 15th.

February 26, 2013 9:03AM

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Follies

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.”

Carbon dioxide regulations promulgated by the EPA are based upon the assumption that they will actually do something about climate change in the U.S., and that the rest of the world, which had been needling the U.S. for decades of inaction, will now follow our virtuous lead. 

Neither is going to happen.

This Report is based upon just-released data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from the U.S in the last year was the about the same as was emitted in 1994—nearly two decades years ago.  During that time, emissions grew steadily for 14 years, peaking in 2007, and then fell dramatically (Figure 1). The emissions in 2012 were 12% less than those of 2007.

Media Name: gsr_022513_fig1.jpg

Figure 1. U.S. annual carbon dioxide emissions, 1994-2012 (data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration).Given this non-trivial decline in carbon dioxide emissions, let’s see how the government’s assumptions are holding up.

Assumption 1: Reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions will do something about global warming-related weather/climate impacts in the U.S.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) compiles the number of “Billion Dollar Weather/Climate Disasters” in the U.S. The higher this number is the more media attention they get and the more global-warming-is-making-the-weather-worse-and-we-must-immediately-act-to-stop-it furor it engenders.

With U.S. emissions on the decline, so too, certainly, are the number of billion dollar weather disasters, right?

Figure 2 shows the annual tally of the number of billion dollar “disasters.” Despite the rapid U.S. emissions decline for the past 5 years, the number of weather disasters in the U.S. is increasing.

Media Name: gsr_022513_fig2.jpg

Figure 2. Number of billion dollar weather/climate disasters in the U.S., 1994-2012 (data compiled by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).There are two primary reasons why this is the case. The first is that the number of people and the amount of stuff that we all have continues to increase (i.e., there is more stuff in harm’s way), and the second,  there is no relationship between U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and extreme weather events in the United States. U.S. emissions could have been zeroand the result would have been even worse—because rebuilding infrastructure in the extremely expensive energy economy that would ensue would cost much, much more.

 

Assumption 2: The rest of the world will follow our lead and reduce emissions.

As we like to point out, the magnitude of future global warming (and accompanying climate change) rests not on the future carbon dioxide emissions pathway of the U.S., but rather on that taken by the rest of the world.  In the typical mid-range emissions scenario employed by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the amount of warming projected to occur between 1990 and  2095 is 2.8°C  (5.0°F). Of this amount, only about 0.2°C (0.38°F)—about 7%—is expected to result from U.S. emissions. Big deal.

Further, these  forecasts are likely way too high.  We’ve experienced 0.33°C of warming since 1990, or about 12% of the forecast total, even as 22% of the forecast period is has already passed.

So then why is there so much focus by President Obama on regulations aimed at reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions when they will result in no meaningful climatic  consequence?

Because our emissions declines are supposed to set an example and other nations of the world will follow suit.

That’s not happening, either.

Figure 3 shows the carbon dioxide emissions from the rest of the world over the same time period as the U.S. emissions in Figure 1. When U.S. emissions increased 14% from 1994-2007, emissions from the rest of the world increased. When U.S. emissions then declined 12% from 2007-2012, emissions from the rest of the world increased even faster.

Media Name: gsr_022513_fig3.jpg

Figure 3. Global (less U.S.) annual carbon dioxide emissions, 1994-2012 (data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration updated through 2012 according to Peters et al., 2013).Why? Because the emissions growth in the rest of the world is primarily being driven by China and other developing countries that are more interested in growing their economies then they are in emulating the U.S.

All which has to make you wonder.  As the data show that the premises upon which U.S. greenhouse gas regulations have been promulgated are wrong, why do we persist with such silly notions? 

Reference:

Peters, G.P., et al., 2013. The challenge to keep global warming below 2°C. Nature Climate Change, 3, 4-6, doi:10.1038/nclimate1783.

February 26, 2013 8:57AM

Only Doom Without the Denominator

The Obama administration tried to turn the doom-and-gloom up a notch over the weekend, releasing reports on how many employees each state could lose if sequestration isn't stopped. Teachers were prominently featured, of course, because nothing scares people like the prospect of their kids not getting educated.

"Could" is a crucial word here, because it is entirely possible that savings could be found that would negate the need to dismiss people. For instance, unnecessary purchases could be cancelled, or all employees could take small pay cuts. But suppose worst-case firings did come. How horrific would the education damage be?

It turns out, once you look at the overall staffing picture, not very. Using a compilation of the state reports put together by the Washington Post, as well as Digest of Education Statistics staffing data, we assembled the following table calculating how big a percentage of public school employees in each state would disappear in the worst-case scenario. Unlike the administration, we included the numerator and the denominator.

  Total at Risk Staff Total Staff Employed in Public Elementary and Secondary School Systems (Fall 2010) Percent Jobs at Risk
Alabama 260 95,144 0.27%
Alaska 40 18,102 0.22%
Arizona 360 96,622 0.37%
Arkansas 150 72,185 0.21%
California 1970 530,337 0.37%
Colorado 220 101,426 0.22%
Connecticut 200 93,088 0.21%
Delaware 40 16,478 0.24%
District of Columbia 0 11,381 0.00%
Florida 1130 333,183 0.34%
Georgia 600 227,188 0.26%
Hawaii 80 21,704 0.37%
Idaho 80 27,783 0.29%
Illinois 760 215,764 0.35%
Indiana 340 138,802 0.24%
Iowa 160 69,615 0.23%
Kansas 140 67,751 0.21%
Kentucky 250 99,225 0.25%
Louisiana 340 100,881 0.34%
Maine 70 32,549 0.22%
Maryland 320 115,367 0.28%
Massachusetts 350 122,057 0.29%
Michigan 540 193,487 0.28%
Minnesota 210 108,993 0.19%
Mississippi 150 67,866 0.22%
Missouri 300 128,289 0.23%
Montana 40 19,249 0.21%
Nebraska 80 45,509 0.18%
Nevada 170 33,400 0.51%
New Hampshire 30 32,955 0.09%
New Jersey 370 202,634 0.18%
New Mexico 130 46,519 0.28%
New York 1030 413,971 0.25%
North Carolina 550 193,039 0.28%
North Dakota 40 16,239 0.25%
Ohio 620 241,212 0.26%
Oklahoma 160 82,262 0.19%
Oregon 220 63,603 0.35%
Pennsylvania 620 266,796 0.23%
Rhode Island 50 18,632 0.27%
South Carolina 270 65,508 0.41%
South Dakota 40 19,545 0.20%
Tennessee 340 128,197 0.27%
Texas 1550 665,419 0.23%
Utah 160 52,341 0.31%
Vermont 40 18,485 0.22%
Virginia 360 201,047 0.18%
Washington 300 103,783 0.29%
West Virginia 120 39,270 0.31%
Wisconsin 240 103,901 0.23%
Wyoming 40 16,424 0.24%

We are clearly not talking about big cuts here, at least in percentage terms. The biggest possible hit would be felt in Nevada, which would see a one-half-of-one-percent staffing drop. Everyone else would see between no cut (Washington, DC) and a 0.41% trimming (South Carolina). In other words, there would be mere employment shaving, not devastating, mass-firing events. And when you put this into further context by pointing that there have been decades of huge employment growth, it is clear: These reports aren't intended to inform the public. They are intended to scare it.

February 25, 2013 6:27PM

Why Have a Machine‐​Readable Federal Government Organization Chart?

When I write and talk about getting better data about the federal government, its activities, and spending, I mostly have in mind strengthening public oversight by bringing computers to bear on the problem. You don't have to know much about transparency, organizational management, or computing to understand that having a machine-readable government organization chart is an important start.

There should be a list, that computers can process, showing what agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects exist in the federal government and how they are related. Then budgets, bills in Congress, spending programs and actual outlays, regulations, guidance documents, and much more could be automatically tied to the federal organizational units affected and involved.

But it's not only public oversight that would benefit from such a list.

Mike Riggs at Reason magazine has found that the Office of Management and Budget's sequestration report issued last September listed a cut to the National Drug Intelligence Center's budget even though the NDIC went out of business last June.

The first line item on page 121 of the OMB's September 2012 report says that under sequestration the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. While that's slightly more than 8.2 percent (rounding error or scare tactic?), the bigger problem is that the National Drug Intelligence Center shuttered its doors on June 15, 2012--three months before the OMB issued its report to Congress.

That's embarrassing for the administration, as it should be. Riggs asks, "Might there be other errors in the OMB's report?"

Getting organized is not just about public oversight. Another reason to have a machine-readable federal government organization chart is to improve internal management and controls. This kind of mistake should be nearly impossible. People at OMB should be able to download the list of government entities at any time, day or night, and be sure that it is the correct listing that uniquely identifies and distinguishes all the organizational units of the federal government at that moment. We should be able to download it, too.

Unfortunately, OMB controller Danny Werfel has been riding the brake on transparency. He and the Obama administration as a whole should be stepping on the gas. In early February, the Sunlight Foundation found that more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending for fiscal year 2011 was misreported on USASpending.gov.

February 25, 2013 1:56PM

Karzai’s Decree: Get Out!

Just yesterday, after accusing unnamed “armed individuals” of harassing, torturing, and murdering innocent villagers, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai ordered all U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak province, a defensive buffer against insurgents southwest of the capital. Reports on Karzai’s decision have focused on the implications of America’s withdrawal from the “strategically important” province. But U.S. policymakers should leverage the opportunity by rescinding their open-ended commitment to the country and transferring responsibility to the Afghans. 

To be sure, U.S. and coalition forces will face challenges as U.S. combat troops scale back to advisory roles and U.S. Special Forces assert ever greater authority. But as someone close to Karzai commented sourly, Afghan officials are tired of Americans “running roughshod all around our country.” 

For years, there have been reports that CIA-trained Afghan militias operating beyond the control of the Karzai administration have conducted so-called night raids and captured and killed a number of alleged Taliban commanders—“alleged” because information about those operations remains classified. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Taliban-perpetrated violence in and around the province continues. 

Amid increasing Afghan public anger over foreign misconduct and civilian casualties, the mere suspicion that American commandos condoned such lawless activities (an allegation U.S. officials deny) proved enough to encourage Karzai to expel from Wardak the very foreigners he relies on for his country’s security. As Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said of Karzai’s decision, “local people are blaming the U.S. Special Forces for every incident that is taking place there.” 

That blame-shifting, however warranted, is particularly troublesome, given the reckless behavior of Afghan security forces under U.S. training. BBC reporter Ben Anderson recently documented that Afghan police are also rife with criminality, and show little compunction about firing at enemies when civilians are in the line of fire. Upending the fundamental premise of Washington’s “hearts and minds” strategy, one deputy police commander told Anderson he saw no difference between civilians and the Taliban. 

For these and other reasons far too numerous to mention here, the Afghan government, its police, and armed forces must take full responsibility for the security of their country. Rather than respond with indignation, Washington should take Kabul’s ruling as a blessing. 

Update: A previous version of this post did not include a source for the following passage: "But as someone close to Karzai commented sourly, Afghan officials are tired of Americans 'running roughshod all around our country.'" The source is the New York Times and the link has been inserted above.