Greener, Not Browner

A recent Science paper by J-F. Busteri and 30 named coauthors assisted by 239 volunteers found, looking at global drylands (about 40% of land areas fall into this category), that we had undercounted global forest cover by a whopping “at least 9%.” 239 people were required to examine over 210,000 0.5 hectare (1.2 acre) sample plots in GoogleEarth, and classify the cover as open or forested. Here’s the resultant cool map:

This has been the subject of a flood of recent stories, blog posts, tweets, and whatever concerning Bastin et al. But here at the Center for the Study of Science, we’re value added, so here’s some added value.

Last year, Zaichin Zhu and 31 coauthors published a remarkable analysis of global vegetation change since satellite sensors became operational in the late 1970s. The vast majority of the globe’s vegetated area shows greening, with 25-50% of that area showing a statistically significant change, while only 4% of the vegetated area is significantly browning. Here’s the mind-boggling map:

Trends in Leaf Area Index, 1978-2009. Positive tones are greening, negative are browning, and the dots delineate where the changes are statistically significant. There is approximately 9 times more area significantly greening up than browning down.

Trends in Leaf Area Index, 1978-2009. Positive tones are greening, negative are browning, and the dots delineate where the changes are statistically significant. There is approximately 9 times more area significantly greening up than browning down. 

Hope you’re sitting down for the money quote:

We show a persistent and widespread increase of growing season integrated LAI (greening) over 25% to 50% of the global vegetated area, whereas less than 4% of the globe shows decreasing LAI (browning). Factorial simulations with multiple global ecosystem models show that CO2 fertilization effects explain 70% of the observed greening trend…

And the other greening driver that stood out from the statistical noise was—you guessed it—climate change.

Now, just for fun, toggle back and forth between the two maps. As you can see, virtually every place where there’s newly detected forest is greening, and a large number of these are doing it in a statistically significant fashion. This may lead to a remarkable hypothesis—that one of the reasons the forested regions were undercounted in previous surveys (among other reasons) is that there wasn’t enough vegetation present to meet Bastin’s criterion for “forest,” which is greater than 10% tree cover, and carbon dioxide and global warming changed that.

References:

Bastin, F-L., et al., 2017. The extent of forest in dryland biomes. Science 356, 635-638.

Zhu, Z., et al., 2016. Greening of the earth and its drivers. Nature Climate Change, DOI: 10.1038/

NCLIMATE30004. 

Can the Iran Deal Survive?

The Iran deal is working as advertised by containing Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That non-proliferation success creates a greater one: it vastly lowers the odds of a U.S. attack on Iran and pacifies relations. That’s what makes the deal anathema to those on both sides who would preserve enmity to gain in domestic political fights.

The deal’s fate may be sealed in the coming weeks. A presidential election Friday in Iran will either re-elect Hassan Rouhani, who pushed for the deal and now defends it, or replace him with a hardliner. The Trump administration recently launched a review of Iran policy and the deal, which could yield a decision to try to undermine the agreement or to truly stay in it.

Under the 2015 deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in various ways and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspections in exchange for relief from some of the sanctions that the United States, the European Union, and the UN Security Council had imposed and the release of frozen funds. The deal leaves in place sanctions on Iran for human rights violations, ballistic missile development, and support for terrorist organizations. The Obama administration also dropped charges against a number of Iranian sanctions violators in exchange for Iran’s release of four American prisoners.

Last fall’s elections put the deal in peril. They matched a Republican Senate majority that had openly tried to undermine the deal’s negotiation with a militaristic president who opposed it as a candidate. Trump made typically contradictory statements about the deal in campaigning but mostly voiced hostility typical of GOP hawks. For example, he told the AIPAC convention, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Trump’s top foreign policy appointees seemed to share a particular hostility to Iran. Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who many saw as a lone voice of foreign policy caution, had notably belligerent views on Iran, even bizarrely suggesting that it had created ISIS, despite Iran’s aide for ISIS’s opponents in Iraq and Syria.

Despite this rhetoric, neither Congress nor the administration has raced to dismantle the deal. Congressional leaders have suggested they expect to abide by it. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did join the panel’s ranking member Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to introduce a bill that would heighten sanctions on Iran for missile development, support for terrorist organizations, and human rights abuses. Though adopting the bill would antagonize Iran and make it more difficult for the United States to hold up its end of the bargain, it would not directly violate its terms.

The Trump administration, thus far, has stuck with the deal, while huffing and puffing. Officials say they’ll honor its terms pending a review run by National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster, who, notably, isn’t a strident proponent of confrontation with Iran, like his predecessor, General Michael Flynn. The State Department recently certified Iran’s compliance but, in the same press release, proclaimed Iran’s continued support for terrorism. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson knocked the deal for failing “to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” seemingly referring to its retention of enrichment facilities. President Trump then claimed that Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the agreement” and called it “terrible.”

These statements are a boon to Iran’s hardliners, who call the deal a capitulation to the United States, which they see as irredeemably hostile. Evidence of that hostility also comes in U.S. policy: the Corker-Menendez bill, Iran’s inclusion in the Trump administration’s legally-fraught travel ban, potentially-heightened U.S. military aid for their rival Saudi Arabia in its brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, and a likely massive arms sale to the Saudis.

The President Is Not the Commander in Chief of the United States, Nor Its CEO

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday that “the president is the CEO of the country,” and thus “he can hire and fire whoever he wants. That’s his right.” Leaving aside the question of whether the president can fire everyone in the federal government, she is wrong on her main point. The president is not the CEO of the country. He can reasonably be described as the CEO of the federal government. The Constitution provides that in the new government it establishes, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, too many people keep calling the president—this president and previous presidents—”my commander in chief” or something similar. Again it’s important for our understanding of a constitutional republic to be clear on these points. The president is the chief executive of the federal government. He is the commander in chief of the armed forces, not of the entire government and definitely not of 320 million U.S. citizens. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution provides:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.

Too many people who should know better keep getting this wrong. The highly experienced former first lady, senator, secretary of state, and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for instance, who declared last year on the campaign trail, “Donald Trump simply doesn’t have the temperament to be president and commander in chief of the United States.” (She had also used the term a year earlier, and in her previous campaign she expressed a determination to be the “commander in chief of our economy,” so this wasn’t just a slip of the tongue.)

And also third-generation Navy man, senator, and presidential nominee John McCain who declared his support for President George W. Bush in 2007, saying, the Washington Post reported: “There’s only one commander in chief of the United States, and that’s George W. Bush.”

Now Donald Trump is getting the same treatment. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Daily Mail, a popular newspaper in a country still headed by a monarch, would write

President Donald Trump sent a message to ex-FBI director James Comey and his detractors as he told Liberty University graduates that ‘nothing is more pathetic than being a critic’ during his first commencement address as the commander-in-chief of the United States.

But how about Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, writing in a Capitol Hill newspaper to mock President Trump’s historical ignorance:

How apropos that this famous and very fitting quote was likely used by the Abraham Lincoln, the president who actually was the commander-in-chief of the United States when the Civil War happened.

Oops.

Why Is Insider Trading Illegal?

Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the legendary baseball commissioner, once said that every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine a candle always burns. Growing up a Baltimore Orioles fan during the franchise’s glory days, my shrine had many heroes, including central figures Cal Ripken (HOF 2007), Eddie Murray (HOF 2003), and John Lowenstein. Not central but still part of the shrine was Doug DeCinces, a good glove/solid bat third baseman who manned the O’s hot corner for nine of his 15 major league seasons.

And so I was saddened to read that last Friday DeCinces was convicted of 14 charges of insider trading.

Back in 2008, his neighbor, James Mazzo, then CEO of an ophthalmic surgical supply company, told DeCinces that the firm was about to be acquired by medical giant Abbott Labs. DeCinces owned stock in the firm and purchased more after he learned of the deal. He also shared the tip (though apparently not its provenance) with some friends, including Murray. DeCinces ultimately profited about $1.3 million on the deal according to press reports.

His maneuver seems inoffensive if shrewd; after all, who wouldn’t buy something that he can then sell at a profit? That is fundamental to the marketplace, and it typically makes all participants better-off.

But in DeCinces’ case it’s a crime, and a very serious one. He can receive as much as 20 years in federal prison for each of the 14 charges he was convicted on.

The question is why. Remember that all an inside trader does is act on private information that more accurately reflects the future value of some financial asset than the current price does. He buys or sells that asset at a price that someone else voluntarily accepts. He does nothing that damages (or falsely props up) the ultimate value of the asset. Nor does he hurt the broader financial marketplace; if anything, his trading slightly pushes the asset price toward a more appropriate value.

Where Are All These Globalists I Keep Reading About?

There’s a new scholarly journal out there called American Affairs. Eliana Johnson of Politico describes it as “a journal of public policy and political philosophy with an eye toward laying the intellectual foundation for the Trump movement.” Many people in the Trump movement purport to be in favor of “nationalism” over “globalism,” so you can imagine the journal will have some things to say about this topic. In the mission statement, the editors note the following:

We are said to live in a “globalized” world. Yet the most conspicuous global phenomenon of the present time would appear to be the resurgence of nationalism, in the United States as well as in Europe and Asia. What is the future of nations and nationalism, and what are the consequences of further separating political sovereignty from the existing political community of the nation-state? Is further “globalization” both inevitable and desirable? Can nationalism be leavened by justice—or even be essential to it—rather than being abandoned to its worst expressions?

And in the first issue, nationalism vs. globalism gets some prominent discussion. Georgetown political science professor Joshua Mitchell has a piece called “A Renewed Republican Party,” in which he talks about the “repudiation of globalism” in the 2016 election:

What term, then, should Republicans use to name the repudiation of globalism during the recent historic election? There will be a division, I suspect, along the lines we saw during the painful run-up to the 2016 election itself. On the one hand, Republicans who sided with globalists on the issue of commerce or who had a low estimation of American culture will indeed call what has happened a populist revolt. On the other hand, Republicans who think that globalism has not only been a disaster for the whole of the America but also that it is theoretically untenable will—or should—call what has happened a revolt in the name of national sovereignty, not populism.

Now, I’m not convinced that Trump really is the nationalist he plays on the campaign trail, or that his supposedly nationalist advisers are either. (The way they reach out to like-minded people in the UK, France, Germany and Russia seems kind of, well, globalist. Maybe it’s not really a repudiation of globalism they are after, but rather a different kind of globalism.)

Regardless, that’s the narrative going on right now: nationalism vs. globalism. And not suprisingly, this talking point has made the leap to a full-fledged academic fad, as evidenced by the creation of the American Affairs journal.

But what I keep wondering is: where are all these globalists that we are supposed to be afraid of? Mitchell tells us that American citizens want “their towns, counties, cities, states, and country” back. But back from whom? Who exactly has taken these things from us?

Thank You Allan Meltzer

Allan Meltzer passed away this week. He was one of the great economists I was lucky to have known and to have occasionally worked with. My colleague Jim Dorn wrote a very nice summary of his scholarship and influence here. Jim also recounts his close work with Cato over the years. Jerry O’Driscoll offers a remembrance here.

My own thinking on economic development benefitted substantially from Allan’s work on international debt, foreign aid, and financial crises. I benefitted even more from Allan’s guidance and interest in my work on those issues. He always took whatever time needed to discuss economic and policy topics with me, and recommend readings and research ideas. When Mexico experienced its 1994-95 peso crisis, Allan was an invaluable and generous resource. At the time, few market advocates in Washington criticized the proposed bailout of Mexico. The country, after all, had been considered a star reformer, and the government there was deemed worthy of U.S. support. We at Cato dissented and published a strong critique against “rescuing” Mexico because we thought it promoted moral hazard, it was a use of public resources that was unfair to ordinary Mexicans and Americans alike, and it supplanted and undermined superior market solutions to the crisis. From his perch at Carnegie Mellon University and the American Enterprise Institute, Allan was one of the few making the same arguments. It was useful to have him on our side and to employ some of the arguments he developed.

More Data, More Problems

In recent years, criminologists, law enforcement organizations, government agencies, and other criminal justice experts have been experimenting with various methods of data collection to improve American criminal justice. For example, some researchers look at recidivism—that is, how likely a person who has been incarcerated will end up back in jail or prison—to stem the tide of mass incarceration. Others have turned to “hot-spot policing” to better focus limited police resources on preventing new crimes in highly specific, high-crime areas.  Each method typically has its strengths and weaknesses, and much can be learned from new techniques.

But more data isn’t always a good thing. After a long battle with the Sun-Times, the Chicago Police Department released its “Strategic Subject List.” From the report:

“We have 1,400 individuals that drive this gun violence in this city,” police Supt. Eddie Johnson said in August, assuring the public his department was keeping tabs on the people on its closely guarded “Strategic Subject List.” “We’ve gotten very good at predicting who will be the perpetrators or victims of gun violence.”

Yet the list is far broader and more extensive than Johnson and other police officials have suggested. It includes more than 398,000 entries — encompassing everyone who has been arrested and fingerprinted in Chicago since 2013.

Nearly half of the people at the top of the list have never been arrested for illegal gun possession. About 13 percent have never been charged with any violent crime. And 20 of the 153 people deemed most at risk to be involved in violent crime, as victim or shooter, have never been arrested either for guns or violence.