201410

October 31, 2014 3:42PM

You Ought to Have a Look: National Landmarks, Copious Food, Fingerprints, and Satellites

You Ought to Have a Look is new a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best articles and essays in recent days, along with our color commentary.

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We have a couple of new introductions to make to our You Ought to Have a Look line-up.

We’re big fans of Daniel Botkin. He is an environmental biologist with a panoramic view of nature. He started his career as a forest modeler (that’s someone who predicts the future composition and structure of forests) and was a Government-Issue global warmer. Since then, he has written 16 books on the environment and has become a champion lukewarmer—a person who, like us, synthesizes the climate data and comes to the hypothesis that warming will be modest and readily adapted to. On May 29, he testified before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, on systematic problems with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. On June 18, he was before a subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Botkin has a thought-provoking piece this week in the National Parks Traveler—a website dedicated to all things National Parks. In his article, he critiques a report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) with the predictably alarming title, “National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites.”  The paleolithic media were all over the UCS report when it came out six months ago, and it headlined several news shows on the dinosaur networks. For “balance,” we managed a few soundbites.

Botkin’s article is more in-depth than the UCS report, concluding that human-caused global warming gets far more attention than it deserves in the universe of environmental issues, which precludes appropriate attention to real issues.

Botkin writes:

However, global warming has become the sole focus of so much environmental discussion that it risks eclipsing much more pressing and demonstrable environmental problems. The major damage that we as a species are doing here and now to the environment is not getting the attention it deserves.

You ought to have a look at Botkin’s complete article!

Next we bring your attention to Watts Up With That, “the world’s most viewed site of global warming and climate change,” the result of (now retired) broadcast meteorologist Anthony Watts' blood, sweat, and tears over the past several years. WUWT, as it is known, features a large array of climate-related articles, about four or five per day.  A recent story that caught our eye was one featuring a collection of newsbites highlighting record agricultural output from around the world during the past year. The article “World Food Production at Record Levels” reinforces a point that we like to repeat as often as we can: the world is thriving in the face of, or even because of, climate changes.

Again, we recommend a click on Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. blog. Recently, she featured a guest post by Matt Skaggs, who presents an entirely new (to climate people, anyway) way to isolate (or, perhaps, not find) the signature of carbon dioxide-induced warming. “Root Cause Analysis of the Modern Warming” says that documenting a human fingerprint on global warming is much more uncertain than it is typically made out to be, as it is based upon a faulty line of reasoning. Curry offers this teaser:

The main point of relevance here is that there are different ways to frame and approach the climate change attribution problem, and the one used by the IPCC and mainstream climate scientists isn’t a very good one.

The post is lengthy and technical in spots, but it does make you wonder whether everyone has been trying to solve the attribution issue the wrong way.  

The interwebs also provide a rapid-response platform when one’s scientific work is challenged in the refereed literature, as shown in a recent post at www.drroyspencer.com. Roy Spencer is writing about a recent publication in the journal Climate Dynamics claiming that his satellite-sensed temperatures—which show much less warming than do surface thermometers—are confounded by cloudiness. According to author Fuzhong Weng and colleagues, when the effects of cloudcover are accounted for, the warming trend in the satellite record increases by about 30%, putting it more in line with the surface records.

(Actually, that wouldn’t cut it for at least one obvious reason—Spencer’s satellite record does not have as much of the “pause” in warming since 1997 that appears in the surface temperature history that scientists prefer over others.)

Spencer’s rejoinder is pretty powerful, noting that he and his co-worker John Christy have visited and revisited the cloud issue for decades and find it to be nugatory. Further, Spencer questions why Weng et al. only looked at one of the very many sensing units that have been launched since 1978, and that only covers 13 of the 35 years of the operational data set. There’s no particular reason cited for this, which tends to confirm that the Weng et al. paper is consistent with the paradigm theory of science first put forth by Thomas Kuhn in the 1962 (and many reprints) classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s thesis is that most scientists spend their careers trying to defend the established order, and when that order is challenged, they resort to some pretty bizarre attempts to demonstrate that everything is hunky-dory with the established paradigm. In this case, that would be that the surface temperature trends shown in the University of East Anglia are more reliable than the satellite data—providing more (but declining) support for the notion that the human influence on climate is large and dangerous.

Observant readers of our ramblings will notice that we specifically ignore the surface temperature history from NASA, initially developed by Sergei Lebedeff and Jim Hansen. Those data have been processed (perhaps “Jimmied” is more appropriate) in ways that flunk Physics 101, and, la-dee-da, Jimmying produces more warming, more consistent with high-end fantasies about climate change that keep Hansen flying in the front of the plane. For a bit on that, see this story from the WUWT archives.

October 31, 2014 3:28PM

A Few Words on ‘Gainful Employment’

The big higher education news this week is that the Obama administration released its “gainful employment” rules aimed squarely at beleaguered for-profit colleges, which are the schools most likely to offer programs that are explicitly about supplying job skills. This attack does not seem to come because for-profits are objectively worse performers than the rest of the decrepit Ivory Tower, but because it is easy to demonize institutions that—unlike much of higher ed—are honest about trying to make a profit. Oh, and because going after the real culprit—an aid system that gives almost any person almost any amount of money to go to college—would require federal politicians to take on a system they created, and that makes them look ever-so-caring.

Perhaps the only unexpected thing about the regulations is that they do not include cohort default rates—the percentage of an institution’s borrowers defaulting on their loans within two or three years of entering repayment—among the assessments of aid worthiness. Instead, they just use debt-to-earnings ratios. The American Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities—proprietary colleges’ advocacy arm—suspects this was done because including the default rate was projected to ensnare some community colleges, and the administration wanted this to be all about for-profit institutions.

There is reason to believe this may be true. The administration has lauded community colleges as the Little Schools That Could for a long time, and, indeed, directly compared them to for-profit schools in its press release for the new regulations. “The situation for students at for-profit institutions is particularly troubling,” they wrote. “On average, attending a two-year for-profit institution costs a student four times as much as attending a community college.” What didn’t they mention? According to federal data, completion rates at community colleges are around 20 percent, versus 63 percent at two-year for-profits. The data aren’t perfect—they capture only first-time, full-time students who finish at the institution where they started—but it is a yawning gap that illustrates a crucial point not just about gainful employment, but overall higher education policy: emotions and political concerns, not objective analysis, seem to drive it.

And speaking of objective analysis: We will be hosting what should be a great, diverse panel discussion on Wednesday, November 5, that will look at the changing face of higher education—including, no doubt, gainful employment—as well as offer predictions about what the previous night’s election results might mean for higher education. Hope to see you there!

October 31, 2014 3:02PM

BOO! Your Tax Dollars at Work

Increasingly, federal monies have been disbursed to the various departments and agencies in support of the Obama administration's politically strange perseveration on global warming. Specifically, many millions go out each month for "public outreach," more properly labeled propaganda, on the horrors of climate change.

To show how well-spent this money is, we draw attention to today's posting from the Department of Energy's communication director Marissa Newhall, featuring pumpkins with windmills (the correct name for "wind turbine") and solar panels carved on them. A quote:

Last week, we shared some energy-themed pumpkin carving stencils to help you “energize” your neighborhood—and teach trick-or-treaters about energy—this Halloween. On our own time after work, we put the patterns to the test and carved some energy pumpkins of our own.

We note that they didn't say they created the "energy-themed pumpkin carving stencils" "on their own time after work."

October 31, 2014 1:11PM

Presidents, Precedents, and Perpetual War

Good news: after nearly three months of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the branding’s finally caught up to the bombing. Our latest war in the Middle East finally has a name: “Operation Inherent Resolve” is what we’re calling it, the Pentagon recently announced. DoD planners had initially rejected that name as uninspiring and “just kind of bleh,” but after several weeks of fruitless searching, they’ve decided it’s the best we can do.

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Get Excited! (Photo Credit: Dept. of Defense)

Here's Defense.gov's banner graphic for "Operation Inherent Resolve": simple, spare, sort of Sisyphean. [/caption]

Actually, with its air of uninspired resignation, “Inherent Resolve” suits well enough, even if something like “Operation Eternal Recurrence” might have fit better. But it surely says something that, as with hurricanes, we’re running out of cool names for the wars presidents launch.

Now that we know what to call it, what should we make of Obama’s latest military intervention and how it fits into the president’s emerging legacy on constitutional war powers? Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Waxman have an important piece on that subject in the New Republic, arguing that “it is Obama, not Bush, who has proven the master of unilateral war.” “The war powers precedents Obama has established,” they explain, “will constitute a remarkable legacy of expanded presidential power to use military force.”

It's a remarkable legacy, all right, though I might put somewhat less emphasis on “precedent” as such. Taken individually, as Goldsmith and Waxman acknowledge, very few of Obama’s actions are wholly unprecedented. But taken as a whole, the president's approach to war powers begins to look like something new under the sun. As I argued recently at The Federalist, Obama will “go down in history as a ‘transformational’ president, having completed America’s transformation into a country where continual warfare is the post-constitutional norm."

Presidents and Precedents 

Goldsmith and Waxman identify "new precedents in three areas." First, they argue that the 2011 Libya intervention ("Operation Odyssey Dawn") marked an expansion of presidential power to launch airstrikes without congressional authorization, pointing to the Obama Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) argument that “such large-scale, non-consensual ‘airstrikes and associated support missions’ did not amount to ‘War’ that required congressional consent.”

The "police action" Truman ordered in Korea was war on a much larger scale (and with a less awful euphemism than the Obama team's preferred coinage, "kinetic military action"—what's the alternative, "static action"?) But perhaps Korea is something of an anti-precedent, as no president since has dared launch a ground invasion of that magnitude without seeking congressional cover. As Goldsmith and Waxman note, Bill Clinton's 1999 air war over Kosovo is probably the closest parallel to Obama's Libyan adventure 12 years later. The Obama OLC opinion on Libya "brought the Kosovo rationale out of the legal shadows and probably extended it. It will stand as the major precedent for unilateral presidential war from the air."

It's worth noting that both presidents waged war in the face of congressional votes refusing to authorize military action. In the Kosovo case, on March 24, 1999, the Senate passed a resolution supporting the bombing, but a month later the House voted down a declaration of war (427 to 2) and authorization for the airstrikes (213 to 213). "There’s broad support for this campaign among the American people, so we sort of just blew by” the House votes, the National Security Council spokesman said at the time. The House muddied the waters considerably by also voting down a resolution requiring the president to terminate the airstrikes immediately. I'd originally thought that Obama conducted the Libyan intervention amid congressional silence, but actually, in June 2011 (three months after the Tomahawks started flying), the House got around to voting on authorization and overwhelmingly rejected it (while rejecting, by a similar margin, a funding bill that would have ended direct combat operations. Sigh.)

The second precedent Goldsmith and Waxman identify is "the hole [the Obama administration] blew in the 60-day limit on unauthorized presidential uses of force imposed by the 1973 War Powers Resolution (WPR).” But here again, Clinton went first with Kosovo, with a 79-day bombing campaign that made him the first president to conduct a war beyond the WPR's 60-day barrier. Still, Goldsmith and Waxman are right to identify the legal rationale the Obama administration advanced as especially troubling.

In Kosovo, the Clinton OLC argued that Congress had implicitly authorized a continuation of the Kosovo operation past the 60-day limit by appropriating funds for the mission. That argument was unavailable to the Obama team as the WPR clock ran out. Its solution, accomplished with an end-run around an objecting OLC, was to rely on then-State Department legal adviser Harold Koh's risible argument that if you bomb a country, but they probably can't hit you back, you're not engaged in "hostilities" within the meaning of the War Powers Resolution. As James Mann has pointed out, "by that logic, a nuclear attack would not be a war." It's a far broader rationale than the one advanced by the Clinton team, and one that opens the door for any future president to make war at will, for extended periods, so long as he does it from a great height.

The final precedent Goldsmith and Waxman identify is the most important: the president's staggeringly broad interpretation of the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) Congress passed three days after the September 11 attacks, empowering the president to wage war against the perpetrators of 9/11 and those who "harbored" them. The Obama administration "extended the AUMF’s mandate dramatically, and gave its most expansive interpretation, when it pronounced last month that the statute applied to the Islamic State," despite the fact that ISIS is an even worse fit with the plain language of the AUMF than the AQ "associated forces" targeted under the AUMF, having neither "planned, authorized, committed, or aided" 9/11 attacks, nor "harbored" a group that's excommunicated them.

Going Permanently 'Kinetic'

Recently, a report from Politifact evaluated the claim that Obama had bombed more countries than Bush. They rated it “True”—he’s bombed at least seven countries, possibly eight. Politifact couldn’t settle on a precise number. Their report included this intriguing sentence: “both presidents may have bombed the Philippines.” Here again, secret warfare isn't unprecedented. But given the frequency and pace of operations under the 2001 AUMF, at some point a quantitative difference becomes a qualitative one.

Throughout the 20th century, “presidential wars” were geographically limited, often short and sharp departures from the peacetime norm. In the 21st century, however, we’ve gone permanently “kinetic.” Presidential wars are no longer temporary departures from a baseline of peace. As a “war president,” Barack Obama has institutionalized—and accelerated—a trend that began in the Bush administration: war without temporal or spacial boundaries. The “operational tempo” can range from steady to frantic, but the beat goes on, unceasingly. Perpetual presidential war is becoming "the new normal."  

Under the AUMF, Obama has launched eight times as many drone strikes as Bush. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last year, a top DoD official affirmed that the AUMF would allow the president to put “boots on the ground” in the Congo without further authorization from Congress; Indeed, the Pentagon envisions a war on terror that will go on “at least 10 or 20 years more.” Possibly the AUMF will serve as the basis for President Chelsea Clinton’s (or George P. Bush's) “kill list” in 2033.

As a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Barack Obama stood out as one of the few serious contenders who hadn't voted for the Iraq War; as a state senator in 2002, he'd decried it as a "dumb war." Now his administration cites the 2002 authorization for that "dumb war" as a possible source of authority for another one, 12 years later. Meanwhile, as Goldsmith and Waxman write, "the man who hoped to end the war under the 2001 AUMF, and who pledged to fight expansions of its mandate, [has] unilaterally interpreted it to broaden its substantive reach geographically and its temporal reach far into the future."

It's said that Obama privately worries that expanded executive powers will lie around like a "loaded weapon" for future presidents to abuse. If so, he's apparently decided it's a worry he can live with, through all the "dumb wars" to come.

October 31, 2014 10:41AM

The World Misery Index: 109 Countries

Every country aims to lower inflation, unemployment, and lending rates, while increasing gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Through a simple sum of the former three rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth, I constructed a misery index that comprehensively ranks 109 countries based on "misery." Below are the index scores for 2013. Countries not included in the table did not report satisfactory data for 2013.

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October 30, 2014 4:19PM

The Costs of Ebola: Guinea and Sierra Leone

For a clear snapshot of a country’s economic performance, a look at my misery index is particularly edifying. The misery index is simply the sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. 

The epicenter of the Ebola crisis is Liberia. My October 15, 2014 blog reported on the level of misery in and prospects for Liberia.

This blog contains the 2012 misery indexes for Guinea and Sierra Leone, two other countries in the grip of Ebola. Yes, 2012; that was the last year in which all the data required to calculate a misery indexes were available. This inability to collect and report basic economic data in a timely manner is bad news. It simply reflects the governments’ lack of capacity to produce. If governments can’t produce economic data, we can only imagine their capacity to produce public health services.

With Ebola wreaking havoc on Guinea and Sierra Leone, the level of misery is, unfortunately, very elevated and set to soar.

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October 30, 2014 12:11PM

U.S.-Mexico Sugar Agreement: A Tribute to Managed Markets

The U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) announced Oct. 27 that it had reached draft agreements with Mexican sugar exporters and the Mexican government to suspend antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) investigations on imports of sugar from that country.  Commerce has requested comments from interested parties by Nov. 10, with Nov. 26 indicated as the earliest date on which the final agreements could be signed.  Given the obvious level of consultation by governments and industries on both sides of the border leading up to this announcement, it’s reasonable to presume that the agreements will enter into effect within a few weeks.

Suspension agreements that set aside the AD/CVD process in favor of a managed-trade arrangement are relatively rare.  They sometimes are negotiated when the U.S. market requires some quantity of imports, and when the implementation of high AD/CVD duties would be expected to curtail trade severely.  This would have been the case, assuming the duties actually had entered into effect.  However, as this recent blog post indicates, it’s not at all clear that the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) would have determined that imports from Mexico were injuring the U.S. industry.  A negative vote (a vote finding no injury) by the ITC would have ended these cases and left the U.S. market open to imports of Mexican sugar. 

What are the key provisions of the agreements?  There are restrictions on both the price and quantity of imports from Mexico.  Sugar will only be allowed to be imported into the United States if it is priced above certain levels:  20.75 cents per pound (at the plant in Mexico) for raw sugar, and 23.75 cents per pound for refined sugar.  (For comparison, U.S. and world prices for raw sugar currently are about 26 cents and 16 cents, respectively; for refined sugar about 37 cents and 19 cents.)  Additional price controls on individual Mexican exporters based on their alleged prior dumping (selling at a price the DOC determines to be less than fair value) will further raise the prices at which they will be allowed to sell.

Quantity restrictions on imports will be imposed through a formula related to supply and demand conditions in the U.S. market.  A knowledgeable sugar industry analyst has calculated that Mexican exporters would be allowed to sell a minimum of approximately 1.3 million metric tons raw value (MMTRV) during the 2014-15 marketing year (Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015).  Depending on market conditions next spring and summer, that figure may rise to around 1.45 MMTRV.  (Over the past seven years, imports from Mexico ranged between 0.629 MMTRV and 1.927 MMTRV.)  No more than 60 percent of Mexico’s exports may be in the form of refined sugar.  The timing of import arrivals will be controlled.  Mexico will utilize export licenses to prevent more than 30 percent of its allowed sales from arriving in the United States during the October-December quarter, and no more than an additional 25 percent during January-March.

Since 2008 when NAFTA’s sugar provisions were fully implemented, there has been an open border for bilateral trade in sweeteners.   Now that trade will be subject to a tightly controlled regime in which both governments will play important roles in making sure that market forces are not allowed to operate. 

Who are the likely winners and losers from this new arrangement?  As might be expected, the U.S. sugar industry got pretty much everything it wanted.  Both price and quantity will be constrained in ways that keep the U.S. market isolated from the world.  U.S. growers can be expected to continue to enjoy artificially inflated earnings. 

Mexican growers got perhaps half of what they wanted.  True, they have at least temporarily given up the open access to the U.S. sugar market that was negotiated under NAFTA.  However, they have staved off what may have been the complete loss of their most important export market, in the event the ITC had ruled against them.  They have obtained guaranteed access for slightly more than the quantity of sugar that had been exported to the United States on average in the seven years since NAFTA’s full implementation.  And, as an additional benefit, the price restrictions imposed by the DOC will mean that they are likely to sell at higher prices in this managed market than would otherwise have been the case.

Officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) who run the sugar program also likely see themselves as benefitting from the suspension agreements.  They have the rather unenviable task of trying to manage sugar supplies from all sources.  This not only includes imports from the 41 countries that have rights to export sugar to the United States under the tariff-rate quota (TRQ) system.  It also encompasses commercial deliveries of sugar produced by U.S. growers, who accepted marketing limits years ago in order to retain their high level of government price support.  Up until now, the only unregulated source of supply to the U.S. sugar market has been imports from Mexico.  Managers of the U.S. market may find it easier to maintain a tight enough balance between supply and demand to prevent the price from falling to the support level.  Low domestic prices lead to costs for USDA, which no doubt generates flak for the people running the program.  (Note:  Making it easier for officials to supplant the invisible hand of the marketplace likely wouldn’t be seen as a good thing by the late free trader, Adam Smith.)

It’s not hard to identify losers from a tightly managed U.S. marketplace.  Anyone who uses sugar is paying more for it than it is worth in the outside world.  A press release by the Sweetener Users Association indicates their concerns that additional import restrictions will lead to greater market uncertainty and higher prices.  Consumers can expect to pay hundreds of millions of extra dollars per year for sugar-containing products.  This cost increase will act like a regressive tax.  Low-income people will forfeit a higher percentage of their incomes to pay for this new consumption “tax” than will people with relatively higher incomes.  (Will the White House criticize the deal because it leads to greater inequality?)

Another likely group of losers are U.S. producers and exporters of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  The United States generally is believed to be the world’s lowest-cost producer of HFCS, which has become the preferred sweetener for soft drinks and other liquid applications in North America.  U.S. exports of HFCS to Mexico have risen more than three-fold since 2007 and recently have amounted to a million metric tons per year.  (Liberalization under NAFTA has led to active sweetener trade in both directions.)  The suspension agreement generates uncertainty for HFCS producers because sugar that otherwise would have been exported from Mexico to the United States now may stay south of the border and be used instead of HFCS in soft drinks.  It would not be surprising to see a notable decline in HFCS exports in the coming years. 

On the other hand, Mexico had made clear its intention to retaliate in some form in the event AD/CVD duties were implemented against sugar, with HFCS being a likely target.  (Note:  Such retaliation likely would not be consistent with Mexico’s obligations under NAFTA and the WTO, but those commitments have not been much of a restraint in the past.  The history of bilateral sweetener disputes provides ample evidence of Mexico’s ability to discriminate against imports of HFCS.)  Thus, the U.S. HFCS industry may be hurt less by the suspension agreement than it would have been hurt by Mexico’s reaction to an adverse decision at the ITC.  (Why is it that efficient industries often seem to suffer harm when governments try to protect inefficient industries?)

Of course, the U.S. and Mexican economies also will be losers under the settlement agreement.  Both will tend to see scarce resources being allocated more poorly.  GDP will be lower in each country, although minimally.  Since the effects will be small, should we be concerned?  The main concern is that this is one more among many policy choices in which the U.S. government has sided with special interests at the expense of the public interest.  Could that be a reason that the economy has struggled to get back on its feet?

Which leads to the final loser:  U.S. international trade policy.  The United States currently is negotiating trade agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and (at least still in theory) the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round. Does making a public statement to the effect that protecting U.S. sugar growers is the central organizing principle of U.S. trade policy do anything to strengthen the hand of U.S. negotiators?  Hardly.  Rather, the suspension agreement with Mexico likely will make it more difficult to persuade Japan to eliminate tariffs on its sensitive agricultural products.  Our Canadian neighbors are being challenged in the TTP to end their highly restrictive dairy and poultry programs.  What kind of message does the sugar suspension agreement send to them?  It might be best if U.S. trade policy was simply to take two aspirin and go to bed until 2017.