201501

January 30, 2015 5:43PM

You Ought to Have a Look: Polls, Polls and More Poles

You Ought to Have a Look is 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 in recent days, along with our color commentary.

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Apart from the Northeast blizzard, its global warming hype, and postmortem analysis, climate talk during the past week has been dominated by polls ... and poles ... and Poles.

First off is a Pew Research Center poll that found there was a growing difference between what scientists think about some “science” issues and what the general public thinks about them. One take—an overly worried one—on the “gulf” in opinions is presented by reformed genetically modified organism (GMO) activist Mark Lynas in his article “Even in 2015, the Public Doesn’t Trust Scientists” in the Washington Post. On issues such as vaccine effectiveness, evolution, GMO food safety, and causes of climate change, the level of agreement between the general public and scientific consensus is much less than Lynas is comfortable with and he worries that this growing divide—that he largely lays at the feet of “lobbyists and activists”—has “serious implications for democratic governance.”

This seems a bit overly dramatic.

What is the “correct” level of public agreement with the prevailing scientific consensus? Just as skepticism is a valuable trait for scientists, so too is it for the general public. In many cases, policy and personal decisions are based on much more than simple (known) science alone.

We suggest that the situation would be worse if the general public swallowed everything scientists say—even in the form of the prevailing “scientific consensus”—hook, line, and sinker.

After all, what was once prevailing thought often turns out not to have been true.

In essence, lagging public opinions acts to steady and slow federal policy decisions that would, if based only on the current scientific consensus, prove to be rather herky-jerky.  We have enough of that already.

While this may prove frustrating for scientists working in policy-relevant fields, we don’t see the future with 20-20 vision, so a degree of caution is preferable to full speed ahead. And that, on a general level, is what the divide between public opinion and scientific opinion provides.

That brings us to the results of a New York Times/Stanford University poll on public attitudes on federal actions directed at climate change. The Times’ headline screamed, “Most Americans Support Government Action on Climate Change, Poll Finds.”

Of course, the pollsters didn’t ask the most important question: How much are you willing to spend in an attempt to mitigate future global warming? In previous polls, when such a question was asked, the answer was always “not much.”

And like previous Stanford polls, the respondents seemed to show a lack of understanding about how the U.S. system of taxes works. (But who can really blame them for that?) While they largely were opposed, or shied away from, imposing a tax on their own greenhouse gas-generating activities (like using electricity or gasoline), they largely were in favor of giving corporate tax breaks for renewable energy deployment and development, and for less greenhouse gas–emitting fossil fuel use. But what goes around, comes around.

What we found interesting was what seemed like a lessening of the extreme position that human greenhouse emissions are in no way affecting the climate. This position is being replaced by a realization that climate change is occurring and we are playing some role in it. This seems like another example of the acceptance of the “lukewarmers” stance on global warming: that it is happening, that humans are in part responsible, but that the result will be manageable more so through adaptation and innovation than through government policies aimed at mitigation.

And a word to the wise: before any politician (mis)takes the poll results as reason to pursue, say, a carbon tax, recall that support of past greenhouse gas emission limiting measures affected subsequent elections in big ways: in 2010 after the House passage of cap and trade, and again in 2014 in Kentucky and West Virginia (a result of EPA  regulations). So tread lightly.

The past week was not just dominated by talk of opinion polls, but also by talk of polarized opinions.  

U.K. economist Richard Tol posted a somewhat disturbing blog piece on the polarization of climate policy, highlighting the role of “radical greens”—a group that is becoming increasingly, well, radical.

Tol begins:

The debate on climate policy has long been polarized. Asking an utterly sensible question—which of the many options is the best course of action—is met with howls of derision from both sides. Some protest the idea of taking climate change at all serious. Others are convinced that the maximum action is not enough.

Polarization is not conducive to sound policy.

According to Tol, things have recently turned nasty:

There are now elements in the environmental movement who are so worried about the state of the planet that they have lost all sense of proportion. This is alarming for those at the receiving end of their mindless wrath. It does not help to protect the environment either. Just like Boko Haram does not endear anyone to Muslims, green radicals taint all environmentalists. But whereas Islamic leaders immediately distance themselves from any new outrage, environmental leaders pretend nothing happened.

Tol concludes:

Environmental protection has come a long way since the early 1970s. Pollution is much reduced, and care for the environment is widely shared and supported—at least in Europe. Sensible policies and respectable pressure groups are the best way forward to solve the remaining environmental problems. Green radicals risk throwing that away.

Have a look at Tol’s article for an example of how radical things have become—it's kind of frightening.

And finally, on a lighter note, comes news from a research team led by a group of Polish scientists that calving icebergs make different sounds depending on whether they fall into the water from above or whether they slide into the water from below. According to Oskar Glowacki, a researcher from the Institute of Geophysics at the Polish Academy of Sciences, "We just place the hydrophones—underwater microphones—in the water and listen to the sounds."

They produced an audiovisual to illustrate their finding. You can check it out here (if you dare). Sometimes it’s little wonder why the public isn’t always engaged with scientists!

January 30, 2015 4:19PM

Loretta Lynch’s Worrisome Answer on Civil Asset Forfeiture

Referring to the federal government’s forfeiture regime as “an important tool” in fighting crime, attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch staunchly defended the concept of civil asset forfeiture during the first day of her confirmation hearings.

After Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) questioned the “fundamental fairness” of Americans having their property taken by the government without any proof (or often even suspicion) of criminal wrongdoing, Lynch asserted that there are “safeguards at every step of the process” to protect innocent people, “certainly implemented by [her] office … as well as an opportunity to be heard.”

Even setting aside the litany of federal civil asset forfeiture abuses that have come to light recently across the country, Lynch’s reference to her own office’s handling of civil forfeiture is particularly concerning.

Lynch is currently the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and her office, despite its safeguards, is responsible for one of the more publicized and questionable uses of the asset forfeiture program.  In May of 2012 the Hirsch brothers, joint owners of Bi-County Distributors in Long Island, had their entire bank account drained by the Internal Revenue Service working in conjunction with Lynch’s office. Many of Bi-County’s customers paid in cash, and when the brothers made several deposits under $10,000, federal agents accused them of “structuring” their deposits in order to avoid the reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act. Without so much as a criminal charge, the federal government emptied the account, totaling $446,651.11.

For more than two years, and in defiance of the 60-day deadline for the initiation of proceedings included in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, Lynch’s office simply sat on the money while the Hirsch brothers survived off the goodwill their business had engendered with its vendors over the decades.

That case, which was handled by the Institute for Justice, finally ended just days ago when Lynch’s office quietly returned the money, having found no evidence of any wrongdoing. The Hirsch brothers and their business survived, but just how many law-abiding small businesses can afford to give the government a 33-month, interest-free loan of nearly half a million dollars?

Civil asset forfeiture is rife with government abuse. The tales of lost livelihoods and predatory government agencies are legion. The data support the indignation. A bipartisan coalition of congressmen and even the current attorney general himself have acknowledged the need for reform.

Unfortunately, Lynch’s comments and her history as a champion of civil forfeiture inspire little hope that major and much-needed reform is imminent at the Department of Justice.

January 30, 2015 4:11PM

Expand Trade by Repealing Monopoly Unionism

Republicans say they favor cutting regulations to spur growth and create jobs. And they generally favor expanding international trade. They can attain those goals by reforming labor union laws.

America’s West Coast seaports are getting hammered by aggressive unionism. The damage spreads out across the economy during labor disputes, affecting billions of dollars worth of trade. It’s an economically absurd situation, and it’s hugely unfair to the millions of workers whose jobs depend on trade. It should not be happening in America in the 21th century.

In her official response to President Obama’s SOTU, new GOP senator Joni Ernst (Iowa) said, “Let's tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific. Let's sell more of what we make and grow in America over there so we can boost manufacturing, wages, and jobs right here, at home.”

She’s right, and she should use her prestige and tough-gal credentials to push for change. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher broke the militant unions in Britain and she privatized most of that nation’s seaports. Senator Ernst has an opportunity to push for the same reforms here.  

The key to union reform is repealing the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner Act. That act imposed “collective bargaining,” which is a euphemism for monopoly unionism. Monopoly unionism is incompatible with individual rights and it encourages unions to disrupt workplaces. The private-sector unionization rate is down to just 7 percent in the United States, but where it persists it causes major damage.

That brings us to the West Coast seaports. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The labor dispute that has magnified snarls at U.S. West Coast ports may be on the brink of a settlement, but it will take months to end the widespread pain, freight disruptions, and losses caused by the massive cargo traffic jam.

The near-paralysis at the ports is rippling through the economy. Railroads are reducing service to the West Coast. Cargo ships have slowed down—and even turned around—as containers have stacked up at the ports. And an official of a meat-industry trade group said last week that port gridlock was costing meat and poultry companies more than $30 million a week.

… Neely Mallory III, president of Mallory Alexander International Logistics in Memphis … is having trouble getting railroads to take loads west from Memphis, Dallas or Chicago, because they are reducing service to the ports until the congestion clears. He can’t arrange to export more than 10,500 containers of cotton. Last Friday, a ship due in with imports for his customers gave up, he said. It will avoid the U.S. for 30 days. “It’s devastating,” he added.

Manufacturers also are feeling the pain. The National Association of Manufacturers has heard from members that container shipments through the West Coast ports in recent months have become “incredibly erratic,” said Robyn Boerstling, director of transportation and infrastructure policy for the trade group. “Everyone is feeling extremely uneasy and frustrated,” she said. Companies fear that if they can’t deliver on orders it will be very hard to win business back, she said.

NAM said a small U.S. maker of pulp and paper told it that the company had lost about $1 million of pulp exports to China in the past few months because it couldn’t meet shipment deadlines or customers feared it might not deliver on time. FastenalCo., a distributor of industrial and construction supplies based in Winona, Minn., said some deliveries of screws, nails and other fasteners from Asia are delayed by a week or two, forcing it and some customers to hold larger inventories.

For more on the West Coast seaports, see here.

January 30, 2015 11:09AM

Cutting Spending Is the Best Approach

On Monday, the White House will release President Obama’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016. The president is expected to reemphasize his previous fiscal approach of higher spending coupled with higher taxes, while completely ignoring the country’s long-term fiscal problems.

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) provides evidence of the best way to solve those problems, should the president decide to tackle the nation's fiscal mess. The study, by Alberto Alesina, Omar Barbiero, and others, tries to answer one central question: What is the best way for a country to rebalance policy to solve a fiscal crisis?  

The study looked at Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member countries and their response to the financial crisis from 2009 to 2013. Following the crisis, many of those countries became burdened by large amounts of debt and deficit as a result of rising spending and falling revenues. Government spending grew to an average of 43 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) within the European Union.

With a fiscal crisis on the horizon, many of the countries turned to so-called “austerity” measures in order to promote economic growth. Some countries adopted policies that focused on increasing revenue to close budget gaps, while others focused spending cuts. Researchers distinguished between fiscal plans based on spending cuts and those based upon tax increases.

The researchers found that spending cuts, not tax increases, are the best way to resolve a fiscal crisis. According to the researchers, “Fiscal adjustments based upon cuts in spending appear to have been much less costly, in terms of output losses, than those based upon tax increases.” Tax-based fiscal plans are an inefficient solution to fiscal problems in the long-term. An average tax-based plan with a size of 1 percent of total GDP was shown to shrink the economy by almost twice that amount over the next three years.

The NBER study provides valuable insight regarding the effectiveness of different types of fiscal adjustment plans. Fiscal plans emphasizing cuts in spending are more successful in promoting economic growth in the long term.

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Thanks to Kristina Pepe for her excellent research assistance on this piece.

January 30, 2015 9:48AM

Ignorance of Economics Is No Excuse

The new Spanish leftist party Podemos takes great inspiration from the victory of Syriza in Greece. As NPR reports:

Much of Europe is watching Greece closely after an anti-austerity party won elections there last weekend. And Spaniards are paying particular attention because Greece may be influential. A similar new political party--left-wing, anti-establishment--has formed in Spain over the past year. And polls show that it could win power in elections this fall.

If Podemos is elected, Spaniards may be disappointed in the results. Consider the cognitive dissonance here:

Many Spaniards are ... frustrated that while the economy here is growing, unemployment still tops 23 percent and double that for youth. Polls show voters are switching to Podemos. It promises to raise the minimum wage, hike taxes on the rich and re-evaluate whether Spain should pay its debts.

Making it more expensive to hire workers and reducing the return on investment don't seem like policies designed to deal with Spain's appalling unemployment problem. Europe has had higher unemployment than the United States for most of the past two decades. In 2004, economist William B. Conerly suggested some reasons for that: longer and more generous unemployment benefits, reducing the incentive to find a job; inflexible wages; and job protections that make businesses reluctant to hire workers whom they won't be able to let go. The economist Mark Perry reports that the unemployment rate in European countries with a minimum wage is twice as high as in countries with no minimum wage. And minimum wage laws certainly seem to reduce youth employment.

Alas, as I noted after the State of the Union, President Obama also

wants more and better jobs. And yet he wants to raise taxes on the savings and investment that produce economic growth and better jobs. And he proposes a higher minimum wage, which would cost some low-skilled workers their jobs. 

Perhaps if we copy enough European policies, we can achieve European unemployment rates. In the meantime, the Spaniards seem likely to worsen their dire economic situation. 

January 29, 2015 5:20PM

Senate Passes Bill to Approve Keystone XL Pipeline

Today, in a 62-36 vote, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. The House passed a similar measure a few weeks ago. These actions come more than 6 years after TransCanada Corp originally submitted its application to the State Department to build a pipeline linking the Alberta oil sands to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Did I say State Department?

Yep, in matters involving the crossing of an international border (in this case the one with Canada) the State Department must make a determination as to whether or not the project is in the “national interest.” Two-thousand, three hundred and twenty-three days later, the ultimate head of the State Department still hasn’t made up his mind.

So Congress has attempted to make the decision for him.

But it probably won’t work.

President Obama has already advertised that he plans on vetoing the measure, because, well, because the State Department already has a procedure in place to handle cross border pipeline projects like this one.

In fact, this procedure has worked flawlessly up until the Keystone XL pipeline.  The previous cross-border pipeline that was proposed—the Alberta Clipper in 2007—was approved in just over two years. At the time, the State Department wrote in glowing terms about the project praising it for advancing “strategic interests,” being a “positive economic signal” and adding that “reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are best addressed through each country’s robust domestic policies.”

In the intervening years, Obama has come to view climate change as a matter of utmost urgency and as a defining issue of his legacy as president. And leading environmentalists have planted it in his head that the Keystone XL pipeline is make or break when it comes to climate change.

It is not.

Keystone XL will have virtually no impact on the global climate now or in the future.

But that doesn’t matter any longer. Instead, the pipeline has become a symbol of climate action, a line in the sand that can’t be crossed if you are truly concerned about climate change and the fate of humanity.

I have repeatedly pointed out that it is in President Obama’s best interest to keep the pipeline in limbo. This way, climate change stays front page news. And with a left-leaning press, this means more coverage playing up the pipeline protests and playing down needless government meddling in private economics.

President Obama has asked interested federal agencies to comment on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. These comments are due February 2nd.  The State Department will then sift through them and consider them and ponder what to do next.

This is what the President will say when he vetos the bill.

The stalling will continue.

And so will the conversation.

January 29, 2015 5:18PM

The Oil Price Plunge Won’t Cause Russia or Iran to Capitulate

The recent dramatic drop in global oil prices has significant geopolitical as well as economic implications.  Consumers in the United States and other countries enjoy substantial savings, while marginal producers, both here and abroad, find their profit margins severely squeezed.  As I discuss in an article at Aspenia Online, some of the oil-producing states that have been especially hard hit include Russia, Venezuela, and Iran.  All of those countries are governed by regimes that are on bad terms with the United States, so there is a temptation among American political leaders and pundits to relish the current discomfort of those governments.

Greater restraint is warranted.  The geopolitical benefits to the United States from the current depressed pricing environment are not trivial.  Increased economic constraints appear to be one factor making Iran’s clerical regime more willing to negotiate seriously about that country’s nuclear program.  Venezuela’s already substantial financial woes, caused by the leftist government’s chronic economic mismanagement since the late 1990s, has made that country a less appealing political model for the rest of Latin America.  Washington’s worries about a leftist “Bolivarian” revolution sweeping the region, which were prominent just a few years ago, have faded considerably.

The Obama administration is especially pleased about how lower oil prices are putting pressure on Vladimir Putin’s government.  Although Western economic sanctions, imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, account for some of the country’s distress, the precipitous drop in oil prices (with Brent crude now selling for well under $50 per barrel) is a more important factor.  Not only has the value of the Ruble shrunk by more than 50 percent, the Russian government faces a budgetary squeeze verging on a crisis.  U.S. officials hope that the growing financial and economic discomfort will compel Putin to make major foreign policy concessions.

Washington’s expectations of drastic concessions, much less outright capitulation, from Iran and Russia are likely to prove illusory.  Tehran’s behavior over the past two decades indicates that gaining international acceptance of the country’s nuclear program is a high policy priority.  Increased economic pain resulting from depressed oil prices is unlikely to alter that calculation.

Likewise, Moscow will probably stay the course regarding its foreign policy, despite the ongoing financial and economic turmoil.  It is difficult to imagine any Russian government agreeing to disgorge Crimea or to tolerate Ukraine joining NATO.  Both the Russian leadership and the Russian population are prepared to endure considerable hardship before surrendering to Western demands. 

Indeed, U.S. leaders need to exercise caution.  Lower oil prices may provide some geopolitical benefits to the United States and its Western allies, but officials must guard against unrealistic expectations.  Pressing economically stressed countries too far could even backfire, making incumbent regimes more recalcitrant. U.S. policymakers need to carefully consider whether the onset of severe economic instability in Iran and Russia would really benefit American interests or the cause of peace.  Such a scenario might instead strengthen extremist forces and produce a surge of public hostility toward the United States, as angry populations make America the scapegoat for their problems.  At a minimum, we must recognize that the oil price crash does not provide geopolitical benefits for Washington without some worrisome potential drawbacks.