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Many articles in recent years have expressed concern about Pentagon bloat. Mackenzie Eaglen called for streamlining the Pentagon’s “army of bureaucrats.” Ray Mabus said “Twenty percent of the Pentagon budget, one dollar out of five, is spent on … the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the defense agencies … Pure overhead.”

Robert Gates said the Pentagon is a “gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy,” where 40 percent of spending goes to overhead, and there are 30 layers of staff under the secretary. Fareed Zakaria called the Pentagon “some kind of gigantic socialist enterprise.”

My favorite bureaucracy story is the recent one about the admiral in charge of navy intelligence who has not been allowed to see any secret intelligence for two years. That is pretty absurd, even for a socialist enterprise.

One measure of Department of Defense (DoD) bureaucracy is the number of civilian (non-uniformed) employees, as shown in Chart 1. (Data from the new federal budget and prior ones).

The number of DoD civilians soared from 659,000 in 2007 to 771,000 in 2011, but then declined to 738,000 by 2016. The peak and fall generally followed the peak and fall in the numbers of uniformed service members over those years.

However, Chart 2 shows that there has been an upward trend in the ratio of DoD civilians to uniformed. In President Obama’s first year of 2009, there were 703,000 civilians and 1.54 million uniformed, for a ratio of 0.46. In 2016 there were 738,000 civilians and 1.34 million uniformed, for a ratio of 0.55.

The relative increase in the civilian bureaucracy is a concern. One might think that Pentagon productivity would have increased because of advances in technology. Shouldn’t procurement be more efficient these days, as we’ve moved from paper forms to electronic databases? Apparently, such gains from technology have been dissipated elsewhere. John Lehman says: “With so many layers and offices needed to concur on every decision, it now takes an average of 22½ years from the start of a weapons program to first deployment, instead of the four years it took to deploy the Minuteman ICBM and Polaris submarine missile system in the Cold War era.”

Aside from wasted cost, the more bureaucratic bloat there is, the more it saps the energies of our uniformed service members. John Lehman estimates that “roughly half of all uniformed personnel serve on staffs that spend most of their time going to meetings and responding to tasks from the hundreds of offices that have grown like mold throughout the vast Defense Department.” The fault, of course, lies not with the service members, but with the complex and top-heavy system that Congress and Pentagon leaders have built over the decades.

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.”

First China. Now the U.S.

It was big news last November when it was revealed that China had been under-reporting its coal consumption by nearly 20 percent. The big implication was that China’s greenhouse gas emissions were also much larger than being reported, complicating the (then) upcoming U.N. climate negotiations in Paris.

Now comes evidence that the U.S. has been underreporting its methane emissions—a potent greenhouse gas—by some 50 percent or more.  And what’s worse, is that over the past decade or so, instead of methane emissions having declined by about 10 percent as reported by the EPA, they have in fact grown by more than a whopping 30 percent. Not only would this information also have (had it been available) complicated the U.N. Paris talks, but it would have taken a lot of the shine off the U.S. emissions reduction efforts that President Obama was touting at the conference last December.

The new evidence is presented in a just-published paper in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters by a team led by Harvard PhD candidate Alexander Turner. Turner and colleagues examined several measures of methane emissions occurring in the U.S. (including in situ measurements and remote satellite observations) and concluded that EPA estimates were way off. They wrote:

National inventory estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate no significant trend in US anthropogenic methane emissions from 2002 to present. Here we use satellite retrievals and surface observations of atmospheric methane to suggest that US methane emissions have increased by more than 30% over the 2002-2014 period… This large increase in US methane emissions could account for 30-60% of the global growth of atmospheric methane seen in the past decade.

The implications are huge—at least when it comes to our advertised role as a supposed leader in climate change mitigation efforts.

Consider this soaring rhetoric from the President in his opening remarks to the U.N.’s Paris climate conference last December:

I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.

Over the last seven years, we’ve made ambitious investments in clean energy, and ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions.  We’ve multiplied wind power threefold, and solar power more than twentyfold, helping create parts of America where these clean power sources are finally cheaper than dirtier, conventional power.  We’ve invested in energy efficiency in every way imaginable. We’ve said no to infrastructure that would pull high-carbon fossil fuels from the ground, and we’ve said yes to the first-ever set of national standards limiting the amount of carbon pollution our power plants can release into the sky.

The advances we’ve made have helped drive our economic output to all-time highs, and drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly two decades…

For our part, America is on track to reach the emissions targets that I set six years ago in Copenhagen – we will reduce our carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.  And that’s why, last year, I set a new target:  America will reduce our emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels within 10 years from now.

In light of the data contained within the new Turner et al. report, Obama’s statements about greenhouse gas emissions are wrong.

Here’s why.

EPA reports that methane emissions are about 25 times more potent than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emissions and when taking that into account, methane emissions make up about 10 percent of the total of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The EPA also thinks methane emission have been on the decline:

Methane (CH4) emissions in the United States decreased by almost 15% between 1990 and 2013. During this time period, emissions increased from sources associated with agricultural activities, while emissions decreased from sources associated with the exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum products.

But the Turner team’s new evidence is that the emissions of this potent greenhouse gas have been rapidly rising—contrary to the EPA claims (Figure 1).

  

Figure 1. U.S. methane emissions according to EPA and three other studies (figure adapted from Turner et al., 2016).

 

A significant and sizeable change such as this in the trajectory of the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. has implications on the overall trajectory of the sum total of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 2 shows the impact. In the left hand-panel are the EPA’s numbers for all greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases), while the right-hand panel reflects the new methane numbers from Turner’s study. While the difference may not look like much, notice that the apparent decline in total emissions since 2005 is less in the right-hand panel than in the left.

 

Figure 2. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, 1990-2013. Left-hand chart shows data for greenhouse gas according to EPA; right-hand chart same as left-hand except that methane data derived from Turner et al. is included (data source: EPA).

 

Figure 3 shows the post-2005 evolution of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in greater detail. Also included in Figure 3 are the promised targets that President Obama made at the U.N.’s Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 (a reduction of 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020) and last December in Paris (a reduction of 26-28% below 2005 total by 2025).

 

Figure3. Total greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. from 1990-2013 according to data form the EPA (in black) and modified to account for methane emissions reported in Turner et al. (in red). Also included are the Copenhagen and Paris targets promised by president Obama (in blue).

 

[Note: What’s not included in Figure 3 are numbers for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions totals from 2014 and 2015 because the EPA hasn’t included them in their database yet.  However, indications are that 2014 emissions were higher than 2013 emissions and that 2015 emissions were about equivalent to 2014 numbers.]

From the data behind Figure 3, we can reassess the EPA’s claim that “Greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were 9 percent below 2005 levels.” What we find instead, using the new data, is that greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were just 5 percent beneath 2005. Conservatively assuming that the emissions from 2014 and 2015 were the same as in 2013, then this leaves only 5 years to drop our national emissions another 12 percent. Fat chance.

And just last week a new analysis showed that there was no way that the U.S. was going to reach its Paris promised goal of reducing GHG emissions by 26-28 beneath 2005 numbers by 2025 without additional strong measures (measures that don’t seem to be in the cards)—even with some creative accounting and overly hopeful assumptions.  The Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan most certainly didn’t help the situation. 

Now, with the new data from Turner and colleagues, it looks like we aren’t going to have to wait to 2025 to witness the failure, it’ll be plainly evident by 2020 (if it’s not already). 

As to what may be behind the apparent strong growth in U.S. methane emissions in recent years, the Turner author offers:

The increase is largest in the central part of the country. The US has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production and a 9-fold increase in shale gas production from 2002 to 2014 but the spatial pattern of the methane increase seen by GOSAT does not clearly point to these sources. More work is needed to attribute the observed increase to specific sources.

The last sentence is rather telling as it seems to indicate the authors are trying to blame fracking, but just haven’t done enough work to do so at this time.

Considering that the EPA contends that methane “emissions decreased from sources associated with the exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum products,” it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. 

But two things are for sure; 1) its hard to grow the economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and 2) U.S. claims to have made great strides in doing so are on shaky ground.

Obama’s can burnish our “leadership role” as climate do-gooders as much as he wants, but the facts are telling a different story—a story which may prove the undoing of his U.N. climate promises.

Reference:

Turner, A.J., et al., 2016. A large increase in US methane emissions over the past decade inferred from satellite data and surface observations. Geophysical Research Letters, doi: 10.1002/2016GL067987.

The Seattle Times reports that more super PAC money has been spent in express support of Sen. Bernie Sanders than for either of his Democratic rivals, including Hillary Clinton. For the record, Sanders would happily abolish super PACs by working to overturn one of the two major court rulings that gave rise to the super PAC:

Any Supreme Court nominee of mine will make overturning Citizens United one of their first decisions.

— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 22, 2016

Super PACs funded by billionaires buy elections. Ordinary people don’t vote. We have an economic and political crisis in this country.

— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 27, 2016

Of course, that’s not quite how it works, but you get the idea. A President Sanders would do his level best to make sure that he becomes the last candidate to receive the benefits of supportive speech facilitated by the super PACs.

The fight for free political speech is a regular topic on the Cato Daily Podcast (subscribe!: iTunes / Google Play / CatoAudio). I recently spoke with Paul Sherman of the Institute for Justice about Bernie’s massive support from super PACs and common misconceptions about how the groups actually function.

 

Last night, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won their respective parties’ presidential primary elections in New Hampshire.  There’s a lot that can be and has been said about this outcome and what it means for American politics.  One interesting thing I’d like to point out is that these candidates are by far the two most protectionist candidates running for either party’s nomination, and they are the only candidates that have made opposition to free trade a part of their campaign’s message.

The conventional wisdom is that good trade policy fairs poorly during election season.  Foreign trade is an easy scapegoat for complex economic problems, and restricting trade is a simple “solution.”  It’s no surprise that the two most populist candidates are also the ones trumpeting an anti-trade message.

At the same time, however, trade is rarely ever an issue that animates voters.  Regardless of their preferences on trade policy, other issues almost always take precedence in voters’ minds when they go to the polls.  It’s endlessly frustrating to free traders that, even though it doesn’t help politicians get elected, they consistently promote harmful myths about international trade during their campaigns.

I’m not sure that was the case in New Hampshire.  During last night’s news coverage, I watched a reporter from one of the cable news networks interview voters.  When asked why they supported Donald Trump, one couple said their biggest concern was that jobs were going to Mexico.

I suspect we’ll hear more anti-trade rhetoric from both Trump and Sanders in the coming weeks as they try to differentiate themselves from their competition and cash in on nativist sentiments.  We’ll have to wait and see if it drives the other candidates toward more illiberal trade policy positions as well, or if it gives them cover to stake out more moderate positions.

Last night, while everyone was focused on New Hampshire, the Supreme Court issued an order that is likely to end up being more consequential than the primary victories of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders: By a vote of 5-4, it stayed the implementation of the so-called Clean Power Plan. A group of states led by West Virginia challenged the regulation, and eventually sought a stay from the high court pending resolution of that lawsuit in the lower courts. 

As I described in a recent op-ed:

In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule for regulating power-plant emissions. Despite significant criticism, on August 3, 2015, it announced a final rule. It gives states until 2018 — it “encourages” September 2016 — to develop final plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, with mandatory compliance beginning in 2022. EPA cites Section 111 of the Clean Air Act as justification for the Clean Power Plan, but that section can’t give the agency such authority. Section 111(d) doesn’t permit the government to require states to regulate pollutants from existing sources when those pollutants are already being regulated under Section 112, as those deriving from coal-fired plants are.

The Supreme Court’s stay is a welcome development. The regulations constitute an unprecedented assertion of agency authority, so the Court had to step in to prevent irrevocable harm to the energy sector. As we saw last term in Michigan v. EPA, often it’s too late to fix administrative abuses judicially after the fact. Lawlessness must be nipped in the bud.

And this move may have foreshadowed the death knell of the Clean Power Plan altogether; the only question is whether the justices will have a chance to strike it down for good before the next president reverses it.

For more commentary, see Jonathan Adler.

Washington Post article recently highlighted the impressive but uneven progress that Africa has made in its struggle against poverty. The article looked at questions pertaining to material wellbeing, including “the number of times that an average family had to go without basic necessities.” On that measure, Cape Verde saw the most rapid improvement. And so the article asks, “What did Cape Verde do right?” 

Cape Verde’s superior infrastructure, the Washington Post explains, is partly responsible for that country’s economic progress. Surely that cannot be the full answer. The United States did not have an interstate road network till the Eisenhower Administration – decades after the United States became the richest and most powerful country in the world. Similarly, Germany was the most powerful and richest country in Europe a long time before constructing its famous autobahns. 
  
In fact, it is Cape Verde’s policies and institutions that we should look to as reasons for that country’s superior performance relative to, say, Liberia. According to the Center for Systemic Peace, Cape Verde is a democracy. Liberia, in contrast, is far behind.

Freedom House, similarly, gives Cape Verde a perfect score on political rights, while Liberia is two points behind them on a seven-point scale.

The Economic Freedom Index only began tracking Cape Verde in 2010, but in that time, its freedom to trade has practically caught up with the United States, where freedom to trade is sadly declining.

The Washington Post’s omissions matter. Focusing on infrastructure development while ignoring political and economic freedoms can lead to what economist William Easterly calls authoritarian development. On this theory, simply furnishing dictators and corrupt governments with technical expertise and aid money will improve conditions for the poor. Evidence shows that this approach to development chiefly empowers dictators while the poor continue to suffer. 

Free development, instead, focuses on establishing or strengthening political and economic freedoms for the poor. If given the freedom to do so, ordinary people have a remarkable ability to hold their governments accountable and to improve their lot through production and exchange. 

Liberia’s political institutions are moving in the right direction, but have some catching up to do. Cape Verde, on the other hand, is an excellent example of rapid development under conditions of relative political and economic freedom.  

When the Cold War closed many people believed that history had ended. Europe was certain to be free and undivided.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. But no worries. At least NATO officials are happy. Following Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine the alliance rediscovered a sense of purpose through its old enemy, Moscow.

The Obama administration just announced a multi-billion dollar program to bolster U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. Now a Rand Corporation report warns that Russia could easily overrun the three Baltic members of NATO is raising additional alarm.

Said David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson: the “unambiguous” result of a series of war games was that “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” The Rand researchers recommended a substantial allied military presence to deter Moscow.

Shalapak and Johnson dismissed the cost, estimated at around $2.7 billion annually, but more commitments require more force structure, and that burden almost certainly would fall upon America rather than the Europeans. Just like the administration’s new initiative for Eastern Europe involving a single brigade.

Their conclusion illustrates the folly years ago of treating NATO as a social club and inducting new members which were irrelevant to the continent’s security and possessed minimal military capabilities. Now the alliance realizes that it is obligated to war against nuclear-armed Russia on behalf of essentially indefensible countries.

Equally striking is how NATO membership has discouraged the Baltic nations from doing much for their own defense. Last year Latvia and Lithuania devoted 1.06 percent and 1.14 percent, respectively, of GDP to the military. Estonia was 2.04 percent—the first time Tallinn met the official NATO standard.

Yet the surging fear over Russian adventurism is misplaced. Vladimir Putin’s behavior is bad, but poses little threat to America, “old” Europe, or even most of Russia’s neighbors.

He has taken Moscow back to the Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union. His government demands respect for its status, protection of Russia’s borders, and consideration of its interests.

Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia was actively anti-Russian, pursued close ties with America, and sought membership in NATO—all certain to antagonize Moscow. Ukraine always mattered more to Moscow than Georgia or the Baltics for historical and cultural reasons, as well as the naval base of Sebastopol. Putin acted only after Europe pushed a trade agreement to reorient Ukraine away from Russia and both Brussels and Washington backed a street revolution against the elected president who leaned toward Russia.

Even then, Putin sought to weaken, not conquer, Ukraine. His brutal response was murderous and unjustified, but militarily on par with U.S. interventions.

Putin continues to demonstrate no interest in ruling those likely to resist Russia’s tender mercies. Seizing the Baltic states likely would generate substantial popular resistance.

Moreover, as weak nations currently containing no foreign troops, the Baltics pose no potential threat to Russia. Finally, the Baltic ethnic Russian populations, though significant, demonstrate little sentiment for joining Mother Russia. They prefer cultural connection to political affiliation, creating a poor target for the sort of destabilizing tactics deployed against Ukraine.

So what would Russia gain from attacking the Baltics? A recalcitrant, majority non-ethnic Russian population. A possible temporary nationalist surge at home. A likely short-lived victory over the West. 

As I argue in National Interest: “The costs would be far greater. Grabbing the Baltics likely would spur population exodus and trigger economic collapse. Launching a war without the convincing pretext present in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine might leave the Russian public angry over the retaliation certain to come.”

Worse, Moscow certainly would rupture economic and political relations with the U.S. and Europe and probably start a losing conventional war with NATO. Even more frightening would be the prospect of a nuclear conflict.

The U.S. should stop making defense promises which serve the interests of other nations rather than America. The Europeans should prepare their own defense.

The Gallup Poll has a new estimate of the number of libertarians in the American electorate. In their 2015 Governance survey they find that 27 percent of respondents can be characterized as libertarians, the highest number it has ever found. The latest results also make libertarians the largest group in the electorate, as compared to 26 percent conservative, 23 percent liberal, and 15 percent populist.

For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup Poll has been using two questions to categorize respondents by ideology:

  • Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
  • Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

Combining the responses to those two questions, Gallup found the ideological breakdown of the public shown below. With these two broad questions, Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian, and the number has been rising.

Two years ago David Kirby found that libertarians made up an even larger portion of the Republican party.

So why isn’t all this supposed libertarian sentiment being reflected in candidates and elections? There have been plenty of analyses in the past week, including my own, about why Rand Paul didn’t attract this potentially large bloc of libertarian voters. Maybe people don’t see issues as equally salient; some libertarians may wish that Republicans weren’t so socially reactionary, but still vote Republican on the basis of economic issues. Some, as Lionel Shriver writes in the New York Times, feel “forced to vote Democratic because the Republican social agenda is retrograde, if not lunatic — at the cost of unwillingly endorsing cumbersome high-tax solutions to this country’s problems.” 

For now I just want to note that there are indeed a lot of voters who don’t fit neatly into the red and blue boxes. The word “libertarian” isn’t well known, so pollsters don’t find many people claiming to be libertarian. And usually they don’t ask. But a large portion of Americans hold generally libertarian views – views that might be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. 

David Brooks wrote recently that the swing voters in 2016 will be people who don’t think big government is the path to economic growth and don’t know why a presidential candidate would open his campaign at Jerry Falwell’s university. Those are the voters who push American politics in a libertarian direction. David Bier and Daniel Bier wrote last summer about how many policy issues show a libertarian trend over the past 30 years. Find a colorful chart illustrating their findings here.

Politics is often frustrating for libertarians, never more so than during this presidential election when the leading presidential candidates seem to be a protectionist nationalist with a penchant for insult, a self-proclaimed socialist, and a woman who proudly calls herself a “government junkie.” But polls show libertarian instincts in the electorate, just waiting for candidates who can speak to them. 

Read more about the libertarian vote in our original study or in our 2012 ebook.

We have good news and bad news.

The good news is that President Obama has unveiled his final budget.

The bad news is that it’s a roadmap for an ever-growing burden of government spending. Here are the relevant details.

  • The President wants the federal budget to climb by nearly $1.2 trillion over the next five years.
  • Annual spending would jump by an average of about $235 billion per year.
  • The burden of government spending would rise more than twice as fast as inflation.
  • By 2021, federal government outlays will consume 22.4% of GDP, up from 20.4% of economic output in 2014.

I guess the President doesn’t have any interest in complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule, huh?

While all this spending is disturbing (should we really step on the accelerator as we approach the Greek fiscal cliff?), the part of this budget that’s really galling is the enormous tax increase on oil.

As acknowledged in a report by USA Today, this means a big tax hike on ordinary Americans (for what it’s worth, remember that Obama promised never to raise their taxes).

Consumers will likely pay the price for President Obama’s proposed $10 tax per-barrel of oil, an administration official and a prominent analyst said Thursday. Energy companies will simply pass along the cost to consumers, Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, which tracks gas prices nationwide, said in an interview with USA TODAY. ….a 15-gallon fill-up would cost at least $2.76 more per day.  It would also affect people who use heating oil to warm their homes and diesel to fill their trucks.

Isn’t that wonderful. We’ll pay more to fill our tanks and heat our homes, and we’ll also pay more for everything that has oil as an input.

While middle-class consumers will see a big hit on their wallet, the Washington Post explains that Obama wants the new tax revenue to fund an orgy of special-interest spending.

…the tax would raise about $65 billion a year when fully phased in. …The administration said it would devote $20 billion of the money raised to expand transit systems in cities, suburbs and rural areas; make high-speed rail a viable alternative to flying in major regional corridors and invest in new rail technologies like maglev; modernize the nation’s freight system; and expand the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program launched in the 2009 economic stimulus bill to support local projects. …The budget would also use roughly $10 billion per year in revenues for shifting how local and state governments design regional transportation projects. Obama would also propose investing just over $2 billion per year in “smart, clean vehicles” and aircraft.

More railway money pits and Solyndra-style boondoggles? Gee, what could go wrong?

By the way, the Administration is claiming that the big new energy tax won’t really hurt our pocketbooks because oil prices have been falling. Here are parts of a story by the Washington Examiner.

President Obama said the oil supply glut that has forced prices down to about $30 a barrel makes his proposal to levy a $10 per-barrel tax on crude oil timely. …the White House appears to be of the view that consumers would have an easier time paying it during record low prices.

Gee, how thoughtful of them.

But is anybody under the illusion that the politicians in Washington will repeal the tax when energy prices rise?

Anybody? Bueller?

Here’s one last gem. As cited by the Los Angeles Times, the President offered this pithy statement.

“Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future,” Obama said during his weekly Saturday address.

Now think about what he’s saying. Obama wants us to believe that the absence of a tax today and in the past is actually a subsidy!

Not that we should be surprised. Our friends on the left have a strange habit of arguing that we’re getting a subsidy when we’re allowed to keep our own money. Indeed, they even have a concept called “tax expenditures” that is based on that perverse notion.

P.S. The folks at Politico have a story about Obama’s plan, and there’s a bit of speculation about how it could become an issue for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

…the proposal could be particularly awkward for Hillary Clinton, who has embraced most of Obama’s policies but has also vowed to oppose any tax hikes on families earning less than $250,000 a year.

I think this analysis is absurd.

Hillary will promise all through the campaign that she opposes tax hikes on everyone other than the rich. But then, just like Obama, she’ll break that promise if she gets to the White House.

P.P.S. Lest anyone think I’m taking a partisan jab at Hillary because she’s a Democrat, keep in mind that I’m terrified that Republicans may decide (not withstanding their “dead on arrival” comments) to like Obama’s scheme. After all, many of them last year were very tempted by gas tax hikes to fund more pork-barrel spending.

P.P.P.S. And what’s really depressing is that I explained just last month that it would be very simple to shrink the relative burden government (and also balance the budget very quickly if that’s what you care about) if the federal budget “only” grew by the rate of inflation.

P.P.P.P.S. One final comment is that I might be tempted to accept an oil tax in exchange for the abolition of a tax - perhaps the death tax or capital gains tax - that collects a similar amount of revenue.

But I’d have two condition: First, the net result has to be a tax system that is less destructive to prosperity. Second, I’d have to be convinced that the swap wouldn’t backfire, with politicians somehow winding up with more power and/or money when the dust settles (which has been my concern about the Rand Paul and Ted Cruz plans to impose a value-added tax, even though their plans theoretically would produce a much less destructive tax system).

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pursuing an investigation of the Exxon Corporation in part for making donations to think tanks and associations like the American Enterprise Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, which mostly work on issues unrelated to the environment but have also published some views flayed by opponents as “climate change denial.” Assuming the First Amendment protects a right to engage in scholarship, advocacy, and other forms of supposed denial, it is by no means clear that information about such donations would yield a viable prosecution. Which means, notes Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that the New York probe raises an issue of constitutional dimensions not just at some point down the road, but right now:

A prolonged investigation in response to someone’s speech can violate the First Amendment even when it never leads to a fine. For example, a federal appeals court ruled in White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000) that lengthy, speech-chilling civil rights investigations by government officials can violate the First Amendment even when they are eventually dropped without imposing any fine or disciplinary action. It found this principle was so plain and obvious that it denied individual civil rights officials qualified immunity for investigating citizens for speaking out against a housing project for people protected by the Fair Housing Act.

In another case, in which a company had been sued seeking damages over its participation in trade-association-related speech, a federal appeals court found that the pendency of the lawsuit all by itself caused enough of a burden on the firm’s speech rights that the court used its mandamus power to order the trial judge to dismiss the claims, a remarkable step.

Moreover, Bader writes, a string of federal precedents indicate that the constitutional rights Schneiderman is trampling here are not just Exxon’s but those of the organizations it gave to, which have a right to challenge his action whether or not the oil company chooses to do so:

These groups themselves can sue Schneiderman under the First Amendment, if Schneiderman’s pressure causes them to lose donations they would otherwise receive. Government officials cannot pressure a private party to take adverse action against a speaker.

Meanwhile, writing at Liberty and Law, Prof. Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School takes a different tack: the subpoenas imperil due process and separation of powers because they issue at the whim of Schneiderman’s office. Earlier ideas of constitutional government “traditionally left government no power to demand testimony, papers, or other information, except under the authority of a judge or a legislative committee.” In more recent years executive subpoena power has proliferated; so has the parallel power of lawyers in private litigation to demand discovery, but the latter at least in theory goes on under judicial supervision that can check some of its abuse and invasiveness. Extrajudicial subpoenas by AG offices are particularly dangerous, Hamburger argues, because of their crossover civil/criminal potential: the targets do not enjoy a high level of procedural protection when “attorneys general claim to be acting merely in a civil rather than a criminal capacity,” yet the same offices can and do threaten criminal charges. Especially dangerous is New York’s Martin Act, a charter for general invasion of the private papers of anyone and anything with a connection to New York financial transactions.

An attorney general’s concern about fraud or the “public interest” is no justification for allowing him to rifle through private papers. When he thereby extracts the basis for a criminal prosecution, he evades the grand jury process. When he thereby lays the groundwork for a civil enforcement proceeding, he evades the due process of law, for there ordinarily is no discovery for a plaintiff until he commences a civil action. Even worse, when a prosecutor uses a subpoena to get a remunerative settlement, it is akin to extortion — this being the most complete end run around the courts.

Previously on the probe here and here (and earlier here and here), and on the New York attorney general’s office here and here.

John Wagner of the Washington Post reports that Bernie Sanders rallies feature a playlist to back up that “political revolution” he keeps talking about:

Supporters of the senator from Vermont who arrive at events early are likely to hear “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” by folkster Tracy Chapman. And “The Revolution Starts Now” by country rocker Steve Earle. And “Revolution” by reggae legend Bob Marley & the Wailers. And “Revolution” by Celtic punk band Flogging Molly….

There’s “Uprising,” by Muse; “Power to the People,” by the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band; “Make a Change,” by Buckwheat Zydeco; and “Give the People What They Want,” by The O’Jays.

And as I read through his article, I kept waiting for the most famous “Revolution” song of all, by the Beatles. Apparently you won’t hear that at a Bernie Sanders rally. Now, my more music-savvy colleagues tell me that’s probably because the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, is very tight-fisted about rights. But I wonder if it just might be that John Lennon’s lyrics are a little too cautionary:

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan…

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.

Of course, Bernie hasn’t been carrying any pictures of Chairman Mao. But he did honeymoon in the Soviet Union – in 1988! – and in the 1960s he spent some time on an Israeli kibbutz run by a pro-Soviet group (Noam Chomsky called them “split between Stalinist and Trotskyite”). So that disparagement of Mao might be a little too close for comfort. Not to mention the skepticism about radical solutions and changing the Constitution. In fact, as he moves to a national campaign, maybe he should add a few songs from the American Revolution.

President Obama has released his budget for fiscal year 2017. The president’s spending and revenue proposals will be mainly dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, including his $3 trillion in proposed tax hikes.

So it is more interesting to look at the budget baseline, which presents projections assuming no changes in law going forward. Since Obama’s proposals will go nowhere in Congress, the baseline gives us a better picture of what the next president will face when he or she comes into office next year.

Under the baseline, fast-growing spending inflates the deficit from $616 billion this year to $1.4 trillion by 2026. As the deficits accumulate, federal debt held by the public will soar from $14 trillion this year to about $24 trillion by 2026.

If you stacked $24 trillion in $100 bills in a pile, it would stretch 16,000 miles high, or about the height of 150,000 Washington Monuments. Government debt—driven by deficit spending—is by far Washington’s largest monument.

Where is all the spending going? The chart below shows federal outlays divided into four pots, as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) from 1970 through to 2026, with projections under the baseline. The chart reveals that entitlement spending—driven by rapid growth in Social Security and health programs—will increasingly dominate the budget in coming years.

I suspect that entitlement spending will also dominate the next president’s tenure in office as it drives up debt to unprecedented and dangerous levels, although you wouldn’t know that from the campaign trail so far this year.

It is no secret that the United States wants China to take a firmer stance toward its troublesome North Korean ally.  That was true even before the North’s satellite launch/long-range ballistic missile test.  And Chinese officials may be receptive to the argument that steps need to be taken to rein-in Kim Jong-un’s regime, even at the risk of destabilizing his government.  But as I point out in a China-U.S. Focus article getting Beijing to accept the risks entailed in becoming more assertive toward Pyongyang will require some major changes in U.S. policy.

At a minimum, Washington will have to respond favorably to China’s long-standing demand that the United States be willing to engage North Korea in wide ranging negotiations to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  Chinese officials are increasingly uneasy about Pyongyang’s behavior, especially the regime’s continued defiance of China’s warnings not to conduct more nuclear weapons or ballistic missile tests.  But Chinese policymakers also still cling to the belief that much of North Korea’s belligerence and recalcitrance is the result of the U.S.-led campaign to isolate the country.  Only by offering a comprehensive settlement to Pyongyang to finally end the state of war on the Peninsula, lift most economic sanctions, and establish diplomatic relations, will Washington convince Beijing that it truly seeks to an equitable outcome.

If the United States makes such a generous offer and Pyongyang rejects it, an already uneasy China will be even more impatient with its North Korean ally.  And China is the one country that can inflict real pain on Kim Jong-un’s regime.  Beijing supplies North Korea with a sizable portion (by some estimates more than half) of its food and energy supplies.  If China severed that link, North Korea would soon face an economic and social crisis.  Beijing has been reluctant to take that risky step for two reasons, however.  First, it could well trigger chaos in North Korea, perhaps bringing down Kim’s regime and leading to massive refugee flows out of North Korea into China.  That is no small concern, but in addition to that headache, Chinese officials worry that the United would seek to exploit such a situation to its geopolitical advantage.

For all of its annoying behavior, North Korea is an important buffer state to China, separating the Chinese homeland from the U.S.-led alliance system in East Asia.  Destabilizing North Korea carries the inherent risk that China might then confront a united Korea on its border—a united Korea in a military alliance with the United States.  Even worse from China’s standpoint, it might have to deal with the presence of U.S. air and naval bases in what is now North Korea.  The buffer would be gone.

Even verbal assurances that the United States has no plans for such bases would provide scant comfort.  Chinese leaders are fully aware that U.S. officials promised their Russian counterparts when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe evaporated that NATO would not expand eastward.  Today, all of those nations are members of the U.S-led NATO, including several directly on the border of the Russian Federation itself.  Moreover, the United States is building up its forces in the eastern members of the alliance.

Chinese leaders are determined that nothing comparable will take place in Northeast Asia.  They will want something more tangible than an easily forgotten paper promise.  Fortunately, the United States can offer that more tangible guarantee.  Washington’s military alliance with South Korea is a Cold War dinosaur.  It was formed at a time when South Korea was poor, weak and war-ravaged.  Worse, that weak South Korea faced a heavily armed North Korea fully backed by both Moscow and Beijing.  South Korea could not have survived without U.S. protection and massive U.S. aid.

How times have changed!  The last thing that either Moscow or Beijing want is another war on the Korean Peninsula.  They have utterly no interest in backing such a venture by their nominal North Korean ally.  Indeed, Beijing especially is developing is significant economic relationship with South Korea.  And China is wise to do so.  South Korea now has twice the population and an economy 40 times the size of North Korea’s.  Seoul can afford to build whatever forces it deems necessary to deter North Korea, or failing that, to utterly destroy an attacking force.  Washington should have terminated the alliance with South Korea years ago.  U.S. leaders should make it clear now to Seoul (and Beijing) that we will be doing so over the next few years.

That concession must be made with eyes open.  The withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula means that China will likely become the most influential outside power there.  The continuing animosity of the Korean people toward Japan because of the abuses of the colonial period makes it unlikely that that country would become the leading player on the Peninsula.  But a united Korea would be a serious midsize country in its own right and not easily dominated by any neighboring state.

Washington will likely be reluctant to make that—or any other—concession to get Beijing to adopt a more hardline policy toward Pyongyang.  U.S. officials seem to assume that other countries should do what we want simply because we want it.  A graphic example of that occurred in late January when Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to Beijing to prod Chinese leaders to toughen their policy toward North Korea.  On his way, he stopped to address a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to urge them to adopt a united position opposed to China’s claims in the South China Sea. The diplomatically tone-deaf secretary of state didn’t seem to grasp that Washington’s anti-China collusion with ASEAN might affect China’s willingness to take a tougher stance against North Korea.

But foreign policy is rarely a charitable enterprise.  And Chinese foreign policy is never a charitable enterprise.  If we want Beijing to incur the risks of getting tough with its loose cannon North Korean ally, we must offer worthwhile concessions.  Unfortunately, there are no indications that our policymakers are even close to doing so.

I have two posts up at Darwin’s Fool on ObamaCare’s impact on jobs. In one post, I critique Politifact’s ruling that GOP presidential candidate (and Iowa caucus winner) Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) is a liar for claiming that ObamaCare is a job-killer. An excerpt:

In their rush to label Ted Cruz a liar, PolitiFact ignored economic theory, ignored economic consensus, ignored problems with the evidence they had amassed, ignored that some of the evidence they collected supports Cruz, ignored reams of anecdotal evidence, and dismissed Congressional Budget Office projections based on nothing more than a subjective and arbitrary distinction PolitiFact themselves invented.

In the other post, I offer a compilation of media reports about employers who have eliminated jobs or switched to part-time hiring. 

Andrew J. Coulson was my friend and mentor in school choice policy. He was a good, principled, brilliant, and funny man whom I will miss deeply, along with many, many, others. Andrew was so much more than his work, but I’d like to focus here on that legacy he leaves behind for those who never had the pleasure of knowing him personally.

There is no one else beside Andrew Coulson that you must read to discover what reforms we need in education and why they will work. That is not hyperbole. There are many very sharp people who have contributed important thoughts on education reform, but you will get everything essential that you need from reading through Andrew’s collective works. I have a short list of links to material representing Andrew’s core ideas below. In the near future, his final project – a documentary series on the history and future of education – will be released and should be added as mandatory viewing.

All the way through Andrew’s illness, he continued work on his passion; bringing freedom and excellence to education and opportunities to children. I know he has made a huge difference already, but I hope even more people read and learn from Andrew after his passing. If you have even a fleeting interest in education reform, please do yourself a favor and read as much as you can by Andrew Coulson.

I was first introduced to Andrew in graduate school, about twelve years ago. I’d written an article for NRO on vouchers, playing off a West Wing episode to encourage conservatives and Republicans to provoke a wedge-issue fight for targeted vouchers and black voters. Someone working in the choice movement emailed to compliment me on the article, but gently suggested I might be missing some important concerns about school choice policy.

He attached a late draft of a paper written by Andrew for the Mackinac Center called “Forging Consensus.” I read it. And that was it. I was convinced that education tax credits were the best option for remaking our education system into one of freedom and excellence, one where we could provide the best opportunities possible to all children. In terms of practical impact, principle, public opinion, politics and legal restrictions; Andrew made a thoroughly convincing case for consensus on what the goals of school choice proponents should be.

More than a decade later, I’m more convinced than ever that Andrew was correct then and still correct now. His work directly inspired my PhD dissertation, and I ultimately went to work for Andrew at the Cato Institute. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that everything I’ve written on education reform since then has been a recapitulation or an extension of Andrew’s thinking and analysis.

Andrew was a fine thinker and passionate advocate. But, as many have noted, he was also a kind man with a splendid sense of humor and relentless optimism. He remained immovably committed to his principles and the conclusions to which his great mind had led him. But he always engaged with a sense of magnanimity and humor, never bitter or angry. Even when I made a good deal of trouble for him with my lack of these qualities, Andrew stood by me. When he faced difficulties because of his principles, he always stood firm on those as well.

I wish more of his qualities had rubbed off on me along with his ideas. I had a great deal of difficulty maintaining my balance and optimism to continue in what I knew would be an extraordinarily long and difficult battle. Andrew did not, or at least he never let it show or slow him down.

Andrew’s passing is a great personal loss to those of us who knew and worked with him. It’s an even greater loss to our collective movement to expand liberty and opportunity.

But Andrew would never approve of ending on such a gloomy note. So I’ll keep in mind all the wonderful gifts he’s left us – the memories and impact of his friendship and the continuing inspiration and power of his ideas.

Market Education: The Unknown History, Transaction Publishers, January 1999

Forging Consensus, Mackinac Center, April 30, 2004

Expanding Choice through Tax Credits: Q&A with Cato’s Andrew Coulson Reason TV, Jan 28, 2011

Tax Credits Better for Schools Than Vouchers,” Philadelphia Inquirer. May 15, 2011.

On the Way to School: Why and How to Make a Market in Education, Freedom and School Choice in American Education. June 2011

Do Vouchers and Tax Credits Increase Private School Regulation?, Working Paper No. 1. October 5, 2010.

Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, Legal Briefs. August 4, 2010.

Cato Education Market Index Full Technical Report, Policy Analysis No. 585. December 13, 2006.

The Fiscal Impact of a Large-Scale Education Tax Credit Program, Policy Analysis No. 618. July 1, 2008.

State Education Trends, Policy Analysis No. 746. March 18, 2014.

Comparing Public, Private, and Market Schools: The International Evidence, Journal of School Choice. Vol. 3. 2009.

Given all the recent controversy about whether Congress should require women to register for the draft (answer: no, Congress stop requiring anyone to register), over at Darwin’s Fool I offered an alternative proposal for all those who still think conscription would reduce unnecessary wars: 

The only argument for the draft for which I have any sympathy is one the anti-war Left offers. (Remember them? They existed briefly during the Bush years.) It is the idea that conscription might make Congress and the president less eager go to war, because it would impose more of the cost of war on influential middle- and upper-class voters…

If the goal is to make Congress feel the burdens of war, drafting congressional staff would be a more effective deterrent to war than general conscription.

Read the whole thing.

Over at TimeCato adjunct scholar Shirley Svorny offers a proposal that GOP and Democratic presidential hopefuls would be wise to endorse:

Ted Cruz won Iowa’s Republican presidential caucus promising to repeal every word of Obamacare. When pressed for details, he said he would separate insurance from employment, expand the use of health savings accounts, and allow people to purchase insurance across state lines. These are good ideas, ones we’ve heard before. There are, however, a number of other policy initiatives worthy of attention, whether the Affordable Care Act is repealed or not. There’s one simple thing Congress could do that would expand access to high-quality care, especially for patients in rural areas, without costing taxpayers a dime.

Telemedicine providers [use] telecommunication to provide health care over distances [and] have made great strides in improving access to care for rural communities. Telemedicine allows quick access to specialists, as with stroke victims where time is of the essence. Video interactions are expected to replace a sizable chunk of face-to-face office visits.

But the current system of state licensing stands in the way of interstate practice. Physicians must maintain licenses in each state in which they treat patients. Congressional action to define the location of telemedicine services as the location of the physician would allow physicians to practice with a single license in multiple states. It would allow telemedicine to achieve its full potential.

Read the whole thing. Svorny explains this proposal at greater length in a forthcoming Cato policy analysis.

The Obama administration has released the numbers from the 2016 open enrollment period for Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges. The Congressional Budget Office had already downgraded its enrollment projection for 2016 from 21 million to 13 million. The news is actually just slightly worse: only 12.7 million enrollments, a number that is likely to shrink over the course of the year. Naturally, the administration declared success because enrollments exceeded the 10 million it had predicted back in October (thereby confirming speculation it had deliberately low-balled that prediction so it could later declare victory in spite of what it knew would be terrible enrollment numbers). Yet most observers overlooked what may be the worst news of all: evidence suggesting significant adverse selection in the Exchanges.

The administration reported that 70% of those who re-enrolled for 2016 shopped for a better plan, while 43% switched plans. The administration spun this as a positive, as evidence that Obamacare is expanding choice.

In reality, those numbers mean the vast majority of enrollees were dissatisfied enough with their Obamacare coverage to look for a better option , and a near-majority were so dissatisfied with their premiums or their coverage that they switched to what they hope will be a better plan. Most importantly, such widespread plan-switching is strong evidence of the type of adverse selection that is already eroding Obamacare’s promise to the sick , and could cause the exchanges to collapse.

As architect Jonathan Gruber helpfully explained, Obamacare imposes hidden taxes on the healthy in the form of higher premiums in order to provide hidden subsidies to the sick in the form of lower premiums. Widespread plan-switching is an indication that sick enrollees are trying to maximize their subsidies, while healthy enrollees are trying to minimize their implicit tax. In pursuit of lower premiums, healthy people will gravitate toward plans that save money by using narrow networks and high-cost sharing for drugs. Sick enrollees will gravitate toward the plans that provide the most comprehensive coverage for the drugs, doctors, and hospitals they use. That’s adverse selection.

By encouraging adverse selection, Obamacare literally punishes insurers who offer the most comprehensive coverage. Those plans end up with lots of sick people, and not enough healthy enrollees to offset their claims costs. Obamacare’s architects – who knew they were creating this problem – included additional subsidies for insurers who attracted a disproportionate number of sick enrollees. They figured that if the government threw enough money at those insurers, they would not respond to the incentives Obamacare creates for them to avoid the sick by skimping on coverage. Yet those subsidy programs don’t seem to be working very well, and either way two of them expire after this year.

We can already see evidence of how such adverse selection is driving carriers out of the market and driving a race to the bottom. UnitedHealthcare has already signaled it will be leaving the Exchanges, and other carriers are also looking to the exits. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found evidence that Obamacare plans are offering increasingly lousy coverage to people with high-cost illnesses.

It remains to be seen whether more insurers will abandon the exchanges, or whether the exchanges will collapse entirely. But even if it limps along, yesterday’s enrollment figures show why Obamacare coverage will get worse over time.

Here is a recent Bernie Sanders tweet

We need trade policies that work for the working families of our nation and not just the CEOs of large, multi-national corporations.

I agree. And that is why Bernie Sanders and other progressives should support free trade: Current U.S. tariff and trade policy is bad for poor working families.  Economist Ed Gresser has explained that import tariffs are the most regressive of our taxes: 

… Tariffs are highest on the goods important to the poor. The trade agreements and bills of the past 25 years have sharply cut tariffs on luxury products and industrial inputs. But domestic industrial lobbies have fought hard and usually successfully to keep tariffs on cheap consumer goods high. The result of these bills is that as a percentage of total revenue, tariffs are now lower than at any time since at least the 1950s and perhaps ever; but on a few products, most of all shoes and clothes, the tariff system has changed little since the 1960s.

Therefore, shoes and clothes make up only one-fifteenth of America’s merchandise imports, but bring in almost half of America’s annual tariff revenue. In comparison to other major expenses—education, transport, entertainment, and so on—these goods are relatively small expenses for middle-class and wealthy families, but very large expenses for poor families with children.

This is why tariffs now hit maids and secretaries harder than company vice presidents—the more the tariff system raises money from shoes and clothes, therefore, the more it becomes some thing like a large excise tax on necessities especially important to the poor. Its regressive nature is especially striking in comparison to other federal taxes. …

Getting rid of these regressive taxes should be a priority for anyone truly interested in helping the poor.

The writer Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, cites The Libertarian Mind in a New York Times column today, about the difficulty of being a “disenfranchised…socially progressive economic conservative.” Shriver writes:

Yet whether it’s “leftist” or “rightist,” my catechism is consistent. The rubric to which those positions hew — we should be free to do whatever doesn’t impinge on the rights of others — forms the conceptual backbone of the United States. The Constitution is libertarian. To the extent that the unamended Constitution was flawed, it was more rigorous application of libertarian principles that would have abolish slavery and granted women’s suffrage. Libertarians were way ahead of the pack on decriminalizing homosexuality.

We can at least thank Rand Paul for nominally refurbishing libertarianism so that it is halfway respectable. But the real mystery is why American libertarianism was ever marginalized (and why they marginalized themselves). David Boaz encapsulates the essential idea in last year’s “The Libertarian Mind”: “You learn the essence of libertarianism in kindergarten: Don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises.”

Shriver goes on to endorse seatbelt and helmet laws, a higher minimum wage, gun control, and socialized medicine, a useful reminder to us more ideological sorts that even intelligent, well-informed voters don’t always fit into neat categories. But she does complain about being “repeatedly forced to vote Democratic because the Republican social agenda is retrograde, if not lunatic — at the cost of unwillingly endorsing cumbersome high-tax solutions to this country’s problems.” And she says:

Voters like me — who believe that environmental quality, health and safety, and security needn’t be purchased at the cost of our liberty, and who defend the right to make our own mistakes as a crucial aspect of being human — deserve political representation.

Exactly. And that’s a point we’ve been making here at the Cato Institute since our 1981 paper on liberal, conservative, libertarian, and populist perspectives right up through our recent work on “the libertarian vote.” It’s gratifying to see this additional confirmation that there are many voters out there who are “socially progressive economic conservatives,” or “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” or indeed broadly libertarian.

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