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Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Last December, civil liberties advocates cheered the Department of Justice’s announcement that it was indefinitely suspending its equitable sharing asset forfeiture program due to fiscal constraints.  This week, unfortunately, the Department of Justice lifted the suspension and resumed payments to local police departments.

Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize property and cash from Americans, without charge or trial, on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing. In most jurisdictions, the seizing agency gets to keep some or even all of the proceeds, creating a clear profit motive for the agencies to seize property.  

Equitable sharing is a federal program which allows state and local law enforcement to seize property under federal, rather than state, forfeiture law. Law enforcement agencies in states with more restrictive forfeiture laws are thus able to get around those state restrictions by participating in the federal program.

The equitable sharing program also provides an 80% kickback to the seizing local agency, which is a larger share of the proceeds than many states allow. As one might expect, the more a state restricts the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture, the more state and local police tend to rely on the federal program instead.

In short, equitable sharing creates a federal incentive for law enforcement to sidestep state law and chase profits under federal law instead.

While then-Attorney General Eric Holder imposed some small rerforms on the equitable sharing program on his way out of office, the program still rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.  Given this week’s announcement, the chances that the Obama Administration will take further steps to rein in forfeiture abuse in its final year seem slim.  

Nothing, however, prevents state governments from asserting their sovereignty by restricting their law enforcement agencies from participating in the federal program.

This morning I discussed the resumption of equitable sharing with Darpana Sheth of the Institute for Justice:


For more on civil asset forfeiture, check out the Institute for Justice’s exhaustive survey of forfeiture laws and abuses, Policing for Profit.

Also check out Cato’s explainer on civil asset forfeiture.

This morning, the Supreme Court disappointingly, but expectedly, split 4-4 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. With Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death, one of the likely blockbusters of the term turned into a terse, one-sentence opinion: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

“The judgment” was the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which sided with the unions on the question of whether forced union dues for public-sector workers violate the First Amendment. At stake in Friedrichs was whether public-sector unions would continue to be permitted, under a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, to take forced dues from non-members in order to fund the day-to-day activities of the union. In an alternate universe, one in which Scalia is still alive and sitting on the Court, Friedrichs would have almost assuredly overruled or severely limited Abood, essentially converting public-sector unions into “right to work” unions.  

The lack of a blockbuster decision in Friedrichs is one of the most significant immediate consequences of Scalia’s death. Few issues split the Court more starkly than unions, and there were clearly irreconcilable differences among the justices. Friedrichs was only argued on January 11, so the justices didn’t take too long to conclude that there was no way to decide the case with five justices in the majority, thus the thoroughly unsatisfying opinion today.

Prior to Friedrichs, two 5-4 decisions had limited the power and scope of public-sector unions. Friedrichs was the culmination of those two cases, Knox v. SEIU and Harris v. Quinn. Now the future of forced dues for public-sector workers is uncertain, but they are certainly safe for now. And, unless a Republican wins the presidency in November, the Republicans in the Senate continue to block the nomination of Merrick Garland through the election, and the new president makes a good nomination to the Court, then it will be hard to bring a successful challenge again. Unfortunately, given the polls and the craziness of this election year, it’s likely the opportunity won’t come up again any time soon.

Going forward, lawyers for Friedrichs have announced that they will seek rehearing. It is unclear whether such an action will be successful (it takes five votes to get a rehearing) and, furthermore, if the justices are still irreconcilably split, then this issue cannot be resolved by this eight person court. That question, like so many others, rests on this election.

Today, an evenly divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association to permit unions to continue charging nonmembers “agency fees” to cover collective-bargaining activities that the union supposedly engages in on their behalf. About half the states require agency fees from public-sector workers who choose not to join a union.

Not only do agency fees violate the First Amendment rights of workers by forcing them to financially support inherently political activities with which they may disagree (as my colleague Ilya Shapiro and Jayme Weber explained), but the unions often negotiate contracts that work against the best interests of the workers whose money they’re taking. For example, union-supported “last-in, first-out” rules and seniority pay (as opposed to merit pay) work against talented, young teachers. Moreover, a teacher might prefer higher pay to tenure protections, or greater flexibility over rigid scheduling rules meant to “protect” them from supposedly capricious principals.

Even worse, collective bargaining can come at the expense of students, as Ilya Shapiro and I recently explained:

When schools lack high-quality math teachers because the union contract requires they be paid the same amount as gym teachers, kids lose out. And when that contract has “last in, first out” (LIFO) rules that force a district to lay off a talented young teacher before a low-performing teacher with seniority, students suffer.

Last year, a judge in California struck down such tenure and LIFO rules after finding “compelling” evidence that making it hard to fire low-performing teachers had a negative impact on students, especially low-income and minority students. The judge pointed to research by Harvard professor Thomas Kane showing that Los Angeles Unified School District students who were taught by an English teacher in the bottom 5 percent of competence lose the equivalent of 9.5 months of learning in a single year relative to students with average teachers.

“Indeed,” the judge concluded, “it shocks the conscience.”

Sadly, the deleterious effects of collectively bargained tenure rules can be serious and long-lasting. In a 2012 study of more than 2.5 million students, Harvard professors Raj Chetty and John Friedman and Columbia professor Jonah Rockoff found that students who had just a single year in a classroom with a teacher in the bottom 5 percent of effectiveness lose approximately $50,000 in potential lifetime earnings relative to students assigned to average teachers.

And in a just released study, professor Michael F. Lovenheim and doctoral student Alexander Willén of Cornell found that laws forcing school districts to negotiate with unions had a modest but statistically significant negative impact on students’ future employment and earnings. Adults who had been subject to duty-to-bargain laws while attending grade school worked a half-hour less per week and earned $795 less per year. The aggregate national effect is an annual loss of about $196 billion.

But for Justice Scalia’s untimely death, the Friedrichs plaintiffs would have won. Instead, half the states are stuck with a system that violates the rights of workers and reduces the quality of children’s education, at least for the foreseeable future.

After years of controversy and equivocation, a new federal catfish inspection program has finally come into force.  The program—supported by the U.S. catfish industry—ranks among the crony-est of crony boondoggles.  It’s also a blatant example of thinly-disguised regulatory protectionism and a violation of U.S. trade obligations.

Catfish inspections were originally conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, but under a provision of the 2008 Farm Bill, that responsibility has now been assumed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The excuse for the switch is that the USDA’s more rigorous inspection regime will help protect consumers. 

But it won’t.  The USDA itself has said that the program will not reduce risks associated with catfish consumption, which is a very low risk food.  The Government Accountability Office has flatly told Congress the program is wasteful and should be repealed.  Despite bringing no measurable benefits to consumers, the USDA program will cost an estimated $14 million more per year than the original FDA inspection regime.

This damning analysis hasn’t kept the program from being implemented, of course, because it’s true purpose is to protect the politically powerful U.S. catfish industry from foreign competition.  Here’s what I wrote a couple of years ago when there was still a chance that Congress might repeal the program:

The main impact of the new inspection regime—and its actual purpose—is that foreign catfish producers will be banned from the U.S. market until they can show equivalence to U.S. production standards.  Regardless of how they produce the catfish, showing equivalence will take years.  In the meantime, U.S. consumers will be left with nothing but domestic catfish at hugely inflated prices.

By far the most common source country for catfish in the U.S. market is Vietnam.  There was a small hope that the some deal could be reached to reform the catfish program as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.  Ultimately, the Obama administration agreed to an 18-month transition period before applying the new inspection standards to imports.  

The transition period will help alleviate much of the program’s harm to consumers and downstream businesses by giving producers time to demonstrate equivalence without shutting down export operations.  However, catfish prices have already been reported to be on the rise in anticipation of the new regulatory environment.

Now that the inspection regime is officially in place, Vietnam has begun to make its case that the regulations violate the rules of the World Trade Organization.  The WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures prevents WTO members from abusing food safety rationales to impose protectionist import barriers.  Specifically, food safety regulations must not be more trade-restrictive than necessary to meet the goals of the regulation and must be based on scientific evidence.

These rules—long championed by the United States as a way to prevent unjustified foreign trade barriers—are designed to prevent exactly the sort of protectionist shenanigans at play in the catfish inspection regulation.  Moving catfish inspection to the USDA imposes a disproportionate burden on imports without being justified by any rigorous analysis or legitimate scientific research.

Vietnam has now formally raised the issue at the WTO but has not yet initiated dispute settlement procedures.  If they do, Vietnam could eventually be authorized to retaliate by imposing tariffs on various products from the United States.

A recent Wall Street Journal piece explored the economic impact of Arizona’s immigration laws based on a Moody’s Analytics report that hasn’t been published yet. The following is an update on some of my earlier work on the economics of Arizona’s two immigration enforcement laws.  The Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA) became law in mid-2007 and focused on workplace enforcement by mandating E-Verify for all new hires and the “business death penalty” for habitual violators. Arizona followed up in mid-2010 with SB 1070 which gave the police more power to expand the scope of immigration enforcement. The Supreme Court struck down much of SB 1070 while leaving LAWA intact.    

The goal of these laws was to force unlawful immigrants out the state so that natives could get their jobs. LAWA was poorly enforced while the Supreme Court mostly struck down SB 1070. However, the fear and uncertainty caused by these laws did damage Arizona’s economy compared to its neighbors.

Arizona’s decline in construction employment was steeper and didn’t recover nearly as well as in neighboring states. From July 2007 through December 2014, Arizona employment in construction declined by 45.6 percent compared to 29.5 percent in the neighboring states of New Mexico, Nevada, and California.  Nevada is a special case due to its gambling-induced boom and bust cycle.  Construction employment in Arizona December 2014 was 49.8 percent below the peak in June 2006, while it was 29.8 percent below the peak in California, and 28.4 percent below in New Mexico. Arizona’s immigration laws aren’t the only factors affecting construction employment, both on the supply and demand sides, but they certainly didn’t improve the situation.  

Chart 1

Construction Employment Indexed to 2001

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Wages for construction workers in Arizona kept pace with wages in surrounding states. They were a little higher in the run up to the housing crisis but quickly fell in 2008 after LAWA became law and only recovered by about 2012 – tracking closely with California which has a much more lenient immigration enforcement policy than Arizona (Chart 2). Neither LAWA nor SB 1070 appear to have improved Arizona wages relative to other states.

Chart 2

Construction Wages Indexed to 2001

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Building construction employment shows a steeper decline in Arizona and a bottoming out worse than in neighboring states (Chart 3).

Chart 3

Building Construction Employment Indexed to 2001

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Arizona wages for building construction workers also don’t deviate much from California but New Mexico’s fluctuate wildly (Chart 4). 

Chart 4

Building Construction Wages Indexed to 2001

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

The Arizona’s immigration laws impact on the construction industry is difficult to tease out of the data because their passage coincided with the housing crisis and the Great Recession. Agriculture, on the other hand, would not be much affected by a housing shock but would be greatly disturbed by an immigration enforcement law – which is what the Chart 5 shows. A small note before proceeding, agriculture is seasonal and 2015 data is available only for the first three quarters so the following charts only go up through the end of 2014. Agricultural employment crashed in Arizona around the time LAWA was passed but actually increased in Nevada and California. New Mexico shows a similar decline.    

Chart 5

All Agriculture Employment

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Wages for all agricultural workers grew steadily throughout the whole period but more rapidly before LAWA and SB 1070 became law (Chart 6). 

Chart 6

All Agriculture Wages

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

The crop production employment figures through 2014 show a substantial difference between Arizona and its neighbors (Chart 7). Native Americans did not fill the gaps left by unauthorized immigrants who fled Arizona – they just took their jobs with them. I had to chop off the first three months of 2015 because crop production is seasonal. This sector was already suffering before LAWA and SB 1070.

Around half of hired workers in crop agriculture are unauthorized immigrants because the H-2A visa is too costly for most farmers. Labor is a particular important factor input for fruits, vegetables, and nursey plants which is where unauthorized immigrants are concentrated. Dairy farms and slaughterhouses also rely heavily on them because there are no visa categories for workers in year-round food production but those aren’t big industries in the Southwest.

Chart 7

Crop Production Employment

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Wages in crop production are pretty closely correlated with the other states (Chart 8). 


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

In conclusion, supporters of the Arizona immigration laws should admit that they did not contribute to job growth for natives. On the other hand, opponents of the laws (myself included) overstated the potential economic harm from them. I expected Arizona’s immigration laws to be far better enforced than they were and to withstand constitutional scrutiny – neither of which happened. None of this is meant to diminish the harms from violated civil liberties or other problems that have arisen in Arizona.

LAWA’s E-Verify mandate has not been enforced.  Only about 57 percent of new hires in 2014 were run through E-Verify despite the law’s universal mandate. The business death penalty has only been enforced three times.  Most of SB 1070 was struck down. The reputational harm to Arizona’s business climate was real but that was minor compared to damage that would have occurred by fully enforcing LAWA and SB 1070. If the Arizona state government is unwilling or unable to enforce immigration enforcement laws there is little hope that the federal government will do so.


The False Claims Act (FCA) allows a private individual with knowledge of past or present fraud on the federal government to bring a lawsuit against the defrauder. The statute allows for compensation to private whistleblowers—known as “relators”—when they bring a successful claim against a defendant on the government’s behalf.

If used properly, the FCA can be an important tool for uncovering fraud and abuse against taxpayer-funded programs. If abused, however, the law can destroy businesses and create perverse incentives that harm the market, innovation, and broader public policy.

In United States ex rel. Harman v. Trinity Industries, relator Josh Harman happens to be a competitor of Trinity Industries, which designs guardrails to protect vehicles when they crash on highways. In 2000, Trinity designed a guardrail safety device known as the “ET-Plus,” which was approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). In 2005, Trinity modified the ET-Plus without fully informing the FHWA of the changes it had made. Harman alleges that by not informing the FHWA of the design change, Trinity defrauded the government and should be held liable for damages under the FCA.

Trinity contends—and the alleged federal-agency victim agrees!—that the re-designed device, which passed all diagnostic tests, met all the safety criteria required by the FHWA, and therefore that the omission of the redesign failed to qualify as the sort of “false statement” required for liability under the FCA. Despite a warning from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit regarding the weakness of the FCA claims, a trial court in the eastern district of Texas—known for being a “judicial hellhole”—moved the case forward, to an eventual jury verdict for Harman.

The jury found Trinity liable for more than $680 million in damages, which is the largest damage award in FCA history. Out of the millions in damages and penalties, the court awarded Harman a 30% share of the recovery, plus almost $19 million in attorneys’ fees and expenses.

Trinity has now appealed the case back to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that Harman didn’t meet the FCA-required burden of proof. Even if the appellate court were to somehow find that burden to be met, the damage award was improper.

We agree. Cato has filed a brief arguing that the jury’s finding of liability and damages were unsustainable under the law. If upheld, this erroneous precedent would lead businesses to withhold innovative products from the marketplace, either by not improving existing products or by not entering the market at all. Others may merely increase the price of their products to reflect the additional risk, increasing the amount of federal reimbursement that must be paid.

Although legal liability plays an important role in the functioning of the free market—and a properly structured tort regime is generally better than command-and-control regulation—excessive liability distorts the market and harms the public welfare.  

There is a current running through the ObamaCare debate that goes something like this:

Every other advanced country provides health insurance to all its citizens for a fraction of what Americans spend on health care. ObamaCare emulates what those countries do. Anyone who complains about ObamaCare increasing premiums or imposing other costs is therefore a right-wing nut who doesn’t understand that universal coverage results in lower spending, not higher spending.

This line of reasoning, so to speak, leads supporters to believe ObamaCare is a free lunch. Their ignorance is not accidental. MIT health economist and ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber helpfully explained some years ago that he and his co-architects deliberately designed the law to hide its costs and make the benefits seem like a free lunch.

ObamaCare’s “Millennial mandate”—the requirement that employers who offer health coverage for employees’ dependents continue to offer such coverage until the dependents turn 26 years old—is one of those supposed free lunches. This mandate’s benefits unquestionably come at a cost. Expanding health insurance coverage among adults age 19-26 leads them to consume more medical care. When those people file insurance claims, health-insurance premiums rise. Yet ObamaCare does an amazing job of hiding those costs from voters.

Does ObamaCare impose a special tax that the IRS collects to pay for that extra coverage? No. That would be far too transparent. The cost just gets added to your premiums.

Does ObamaCare require employers to include a line-item on your premium payments, to show you how much this additional coverage is costing you? Absolutely not. That, too, would make the costs dangerously noticeable. The additional cost just gets thrown onto the pile, hidden among the costs of all the other mandated coverage you don’t want, and the coverage you actually do want.

Maybe workers see their premiums rising, and are merely ignorant of the fact that the Millennial mandate is part of the reason? Nope. ObamaCare hides the cost further still. Explaining how requires a little bit of labor economics.

Workers pay about one-quarter of their health premiums themselves. Employers pay the rest. But employers get the money to pay that three-quarters share of the premium by taking money out of other types of worker compensation. So when your employer pays $13,000 toward your health premiums, it is you—not your employer—who bears that cost, because you otherwise would have gotten that $13,000 in salary or other benefits. Workers lose control over that money without ever knowing it belongs to them.

Workers, therefore, pay 100 percent of the cost of their health benefits, which means they pay 100 percent of the cost of the Millennial mandate as well. But you don’t realize you bear those costs because you never see your employer taking money away from other forms of compensation. In fact, since your employer is writing the check, you probably think it’s your employer’s money rather than yours. You probably don’t know—because, importantly, you have no way of knowing—that the Millennial mandate is preventing you from getting a raise this year. Or that the Millennial mandate led your employer to jettison other health benefits you value more, like lower deductibles or broader physician and hospital networks. And even if you notice those changes, you are more likely to blame their employer than ObamaCare.

ObamaCare’s Millennial mandate may be the perfect crime. Politicians hand out benefits, but no one can tell who’s paying. Workers don’t see a special tax. They don’t see a special premium surcharge. At best, they see only a fraction of the increase in their premiums. They may not see their premiums rise at all. And if they feel any harm, they are likely to blame someone other than the politicians who enacted ObamaCare.

How can voters possibly weigh whether the Millennial mandate’s benefits justify the costs when ObamaCare so systematically keeps them in the dark? They can’t. And, as Jonathan Gruber let slip, that is by design.

Thank God, as always, for economists. Some of them are actually trying to reveal the costs and benefits of this mandate.

  • Stanford University’s Jay Bhattacharya and his coauthors estimate the mandate has reduced wages for workers in affected firms by $1,200 per year. That’s about $6,000 per affected worker since the mandate took full effect in 2011. Note that all workers subject to the mandate saw this reduction in wages, not just workers with dependents.
  • Asako Moriya of the federal Agency for Health Care Research & Quality and her coauthors find evidence that adults age 19-26 used more inpatient care and mental-health services, and that those who were hospitalized were more likely to be insured.
  • Gregory Colman (Pace University) and Dhaval Dave (Bentley University) find evidence that the mandate: induced adults age 19-26 to reduce their labor supply; resulted in those adults spending less time waiting for care; induced them to spend more time socializing; and improved these Millennials’ subjective well-being.

Thanks to such scholars—and only thanks to them—we can have a reasonably informed debate about whether the benefits of this mandate are worth the costs. When it comes to ObamaCare, having information about costs and benefits is the exception rather than the rule.

Even so, don’t expect that information or that debate to do a whole lot of good. The political system doesn’t much care about weighing benefits against costs. Politicians obey whoever shouts the loudest.

In this case, that would be the small number of employers, insurers, health care providers, and (to a lesser extent) Millennials who get relatively large benefits in the form of a competitive advantage or other indirect subsidies. The political system will obey them rather than the much larger population of workers, employers, and others whom this mandate harms.

Why? Because even though it is larger, that group doesn’t shout as loudly because it is much harder to organize. And one of the reasons they are so hard to organize is, as Jonathan Gruber reminds us, ObamaCare’s authors designed the law to make sure that its victims don’t even realize they are victims. That’s why ObamaCare’s Millennial mandate may survive even if its costs vastly exceed the benefits.

Note: I will be hosting a discussion on ObamaCare’s Millennial mandate featuring Prof. Jay Bhattacharya (Stanford) and Asako Moriya (AHRQ) at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., this Wednesday, March 30, from 12-1:30 pm ET. Register to attend the event here. If you can’t make it to the event, you can watch it live online at the discussion and ask questions on Twitter at #MillennialMandate.

According to a recent story on WBUR, the NPR radio affiliate in Boston,

Massachusetts hospitals are seeing evidence that the opioid epidemic is affecting the next generation, with an increasing number of babies being born exposed to drugs.

Is this cause for concern? Perhaps, but the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s suggests caution in jumping to conclusions.

In the mid-1980s, as crack use spread and garnered attention from law enforcement officials, the public health community, and the media, it seemed that crack use by pregnant mothers was generating horrific harms. For example, the New York Times reported in 1985 that

Cocaine use may be dangerous for pregnant women and their babies, causing spontaneous abortions, developmental disorders and life-threatening complications during birth, doctors reported today.

Similarly, a 1985 article in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that

these preliminary observations suggest that cocaine influences the outcome of pregnancy as well as the neurologic behavior of the newborn.

And many media assessments  were extremely pessimistic; Charles Krauthammer, for example, wrote that 

the inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.

Three decades later, however, with the benefit of calm reflection and better data, the assessment of crack’s impact is strikingly different.   In 2009, the New York Times wrote:

So far, these scientists say, the long-term effects of [crack] exposure on children’s brain development and behavior appear relatively small.

And the Washington Post, in 2010, noted that

[crack babies] were written off even before they could talk. But in the two decades that have passed since crack dominated drug markets in the District and across the nation, these babies have grown into young adults who can tell their stories – and for the most part, they are tales of success.

More broadly, CBS News noted in 2013 that

a new review published May 27 in Pediatrics finds little proof of any major long-term ill effects in children whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy… Studies at the time blamed prenatal drug use, suggested affected children had irreversible brain damage and predicted dire futures for them. 

While some studies researchers looked at for the new review linked pregnant women’s cocaine use with children’s behavior difficulties, attention problems, anxiety and worse school performance, the effects were mostly small and may have resulted from other factors including family problems or violence, parents’ continued drug use and poverty, the researchers said.

Thus increased opioid use, and its potential impact on newborns, undoubtedly deserve attention from the medical community. Fortunately, the early evidence suggests that, with appropriate medical treatment, these newborns suffer little long-term damage from their in utero exposure to opioids (see here and here).  

In contrast, punitive approaches like jailing pregnant women who use drugs, or removing newborns from such mothers (which many advocated during the crack hysteria; see here, here, or here), can easily harm newborns by discouraging drug-using, pregnant women from seeking treatment and medical advice.

Ten years ago, Idaho came out strongly against the REAL ID Act, a federal law that seeks to weave state driver licensing systems into a U.S. national ID. But Department of Homeland Security bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., have been working persistently to undermine state resistance. They may soon enjoy a small success. A bill the Idaho legislature sent to the governor Friday (HB 513) risks putting Idahoans all the way in to the national ID system.

Idaho would be better off if the legislature and Governor Butch Otter (R) continued to refuse the national ID law outright.

Idaho’s government was clear about the federal REAL ID Act in 2008. The legislature and governor wrote into state law that the national ID law was “inimical to the security and well-being of the people of Idaho.” They ordered the Idaho Transportation Department to do nothing to implement REAL ID.

Since then, the DHS has threatened several times to prevent people living in non-compliant states from going through TSA checkpoints at the nation’s airports. The DHS has always backed down from these threats—the feds would get all the blame if DHS followed through—but the threats have done their work. Compliance legislation is on the move in a number of states.

One of those states is Idaho, where that bill with Governor Otter would call for compliance with the REAL ID Act’s requirements “as such requirements existed on January 1, 2016.” That time limitation is meant to keep Idahoans out of the nation-wide database system that the REAL ID Act requires. But the bill might put Idahoans into the national ID system by mistake.

When the original “REAL ID Rebellion” happened with Idaho at the forefront, DHS was under pressure to show progress on the national ID. DHS came up with a “material compliance checklist,” which is a pared-back version of the REAL ID law. Using this checklist, DHS has been claiming that more and more states are in compliance with the national ID law. It is a clever, if dishonest, gambit.

Practical state legislators in many states have believed what the DHS is telling them, and they think that they should get on board with the national ID law or else their state’s residents will be punished. DHS is successfully dividing and conquering, drawing more power to Washington, D.C.

The compliance bill in Idaho means to give in just a small amount, but it refers to the requirements of the REAL ID Act, a federal law, as of January 1st, not the “material compliance checklist” invented by DHS. And the law is clear: a state must “[p]rovide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State.” That means Idahoans’ personal information, copies of their birth certificates and similar documents, their driving records—whatever the DHS decides must be shared.

The risks to Idahoans’ privacy and security are clear. Government and private databases are compromised all the time. A system for sharing driver data with every department of motor vehicles in the country would make Idahoans’ personal information as secure as the weakest DMV in the country.

The idea of having a national ID is something that Americans have long rejected, and for good reason. Once in place, a national ID would be used to control access not just to driving, but to work, to health care, to guns and ammo, to financial services, and housing. In the future, when identity systems go digital, a federally controlled system might just permit Washington, D.C. to “de-identify” people who haven’t paid their taxes or who appear on any form of watchlist.

These are not powers any government should have, much less the federal government in D.C. That’s why it is very important that Idaho should not compromise on REAL ID implementation. The requirements of the REAL ID law include a nationwide data-sharing system, even if the DHS’s implementation strategy has papered over that fact for the time being.

The right strategy for freedom-loving states is continued resistance to REAL ID—all of it. Idaho can continue to show leadership in this area and resist federal mandates. The Idaho legislature and governor said in 2008 that Congress adopted REAL ID “in violation of the principles of federalism contained in the 10th amendment to the constitution of the United States.” Those are not principles to compromise on.

Over the years, President Obama has made some statements that indicate a rather statist mindset.

Now he may have added to that list during a recent speech in Argentina. Check out this excerpt from a report in the Daily Caller.

President Barack Obama downplayed the differences between capitalism and communism, claiming that they are just “intellectual arguments.” …Obama said…”I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works.”

It’s hard to object to the notion that people should choose “what works,” so perhaps there’s not a specific quote that I can add to my collection. However, the president’s implication that there’s some kind of equivalence between capitalism and communism, which both systems having desirable features, is morally offensive. Sort of like saying that we should “choose from what works” in Hitler’s national socialism. Here’s what we know about the real-world impact of communism.

Communism is a disgusting system that butchered more than 100,000,000 people.

It is a system that leads to starvation and suffering.

Communism produces unspeakable horrors of brutality.

So what exactly “works” in that system? If you watch Obama’s speech, you’ll notice there’s not a lot of substance. There is a bit of praise for Cuba’s decrepit government-run healthcare system (you can click here, here, and here if you want to learn why the system is horrifying and terrible for ordinary citizens). And he also seems to think it’s some sort of achievement that Cuba has schools.

So let’s take a closer look at what Cuba actually has to offer. Natalie Morales is a Cuban-American actor, writer, and filmmaker. Here’s some of what she wrote about her country and her relatives still trapped on the island.

…we send money, medicine or syringes for the diabetic aunt (since the hospital doesn’t have any unused disposable ones), baby clothes, adult clothes, shoes, or food… a doctor, a lawyer, or another similar profession that is considered to be high-earning everywhere else in the world will make about twenty to thirty dollars per month in Cuba. Yet shampoo at the store still costs three dollars. This is because everything is supposed to be rationed out to you, but the reality is that they’re always out of most things, and your designated ration is always meager. …if you’re a farmer and you’ve raised a cow, and you’re starving, and your family is also starving, and you decide to kill that cow and eat it? You’ll be put in jail for life. Because it’s not “your” cow, it’s everyone’s cow. That’s good ol’ Communism in practice.

Ms. Morales is especially irritated by Americans who fret that capitalism will “ruin” Cuba.

…picture me at any dinner party or Hollywood event or drugstore or press interview or pretty much any situation where someone who considers themselves “cultured” finds out I’m Cuban. I prepare myself for the seemingly unavoidable…“I have to go there before it’s ruined!”…I will say some version of this: “What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba? Running water? Available food? Freedom of speech? Uncontrolled media and Internet? Access to proper healthcare? You want to go to Cuba before the buildings get repaired? Before people can actually live off their wages? Or before the oppressive Communist regime is someday overthrown?”

Here’s more about Cuba’s communist paradise, including her observations of the healthcare system that Obama admires.

The very, very young girls prostituting themselves are not doing it because they can’t get enough of old Canadian men, but because it pays more than being a doctor does. Hospitals for regular Cuban citizens are not what Michael Moore showed you in Sicko. …That was a Communist hospital for members of the Party and for tourists… There are no janitors in the hospitals because it pays more money to steal janitorial supplies and sell them on the street than it does to actually have a job there. Therefore, the halls and rooms are covered in blood, urine, and feces, and you need to bring your own sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, and mattresses when you are admitted. Doctors have to reuse needles on patients. My mom’s aunt had a stroke and the doctor’s course of treatment was to “put her feet up and let the blood rush back to her head.”

By the way, none of this means we shouldn’t normalize relations with Cuba. There’s no longer a Soviet Union, so Cuba doesn’t represent a strategic threat. So, yes, relax restrictions on trade and travel, just like we have for China, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Russia, Venezuela, and other nations that have unsavory political systems.

But the opening of relations doesn’t mean we should pretend that other systems are somehow good or equivalent to capitalism and classical liberalism.

Let’s close by sharing some news from another garden spot of communism.

If North Korea’s reputation as a place of hunger, hardship and repression was not bad enough, scientists have now discovered that it is too grim even for vultures. …Eurasian black vultures are no longer bothering to stop over in North Korea as they fly from their breeding grounds in Mongolia to their winter homes in South Korea. They concluded that food is so short under the communist regime that even the world’s best-known carrion birds cannot feed themselves. …Lee Han Su, of the institute, said: “This seems to happen because in North Korea the vultures can barely find animal corpses, which are major food resources for them.” Under the draconian regime of Kim Jong Un the country is unable to feed itself. International aid agencies report chronic malnutrition in some regions. …wild animals face the risk of being eaten by people. Defectors describe how victims of the famine were driven to eat dogs, cats, rats, grasshoppers, dragonflies, sparrows and crows. Vultures, for the time being at least, are off the menu.

I’m not sure what American leftists will say we can learn from North Korea. Even PETA presumably won’t be happy that starving North Koreans are eating sparrows and grasshoppers.

The bottom line is that there is zero moral equivalence between communism and capitalism. The former is based on servility to the state and the latter is based on liberty.

But if you’re amoral and simply want to know what works, compare the performance of North Korea and South Korea. Or look at the difference between Cuba and Hong Kong.

Very compelling evidence.

But this isn’t an issue that should be decided on the basis of utilitarian comparisons. What should matter most is that communism is evil.

Michael Kinsley’s short oped “And Now For Some Good News” is one of the most uplifting things I’ve read in a while:

The overwhelming Democratic front-runner is a woman, yet all the questions that used to be raised about whether a woman could be president have disappeared…

The Democratic front-runner’s rival is a Jew, which also has not been an issue…

This election season has seen the president nominate a person who would be the fourth Jew (out of nine justices) on the Supreme Court. The other five seats are filled by Catholics. No fuss at all…

[O]ne of the remaining GOP candidates is Latino, as was another who recently dropped out of the race…[Ted] Cruz still could win the nomination. There was also a black candidate who did well with voters, but the fact that Ben Carson is African-American was simply not an issue…

Most encouraging of all, after an initial explosion of joy and self-congratulation, the fact that our president for the past eight years has been a black man has largely receded into the background.

I plan to return to Kinsley’s op-ed when this election inevitably stoops to yet another new low.

According to a forthcoming paper by economists Nichola Fuchs Schundeln (Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt) and Paolo Masella (University of Sussex): 

Political regimes influence contents of education and criteria used to select and evaluate students. We study the impact of a socialist education on the likelihood of obtaining a college degree and on several labor market outcomes by exploiting the reorganization of the school system in East Germany after reunification. [We find that] … an additional year of socialist education decreases the probability of obtaining a college degree and affects longer-term male labor market outcomes.

East Germany’s control of education was far greater than what occurs now in the United States. But the East German example merits attention, especially given mounting pressure in the United States for greater federal control of education. 

Watching Pete Townshend wailing on his Fender Stratocaster last night at the Verizon Center reminded of what I’d read about Fender’s history. Part of the Fender story regards how the firm got hammered by Japanese competition in the 1970s, but then bounced back by refocusing on quality. So while I was listening to “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” I’m embarrassed to say I was pondering Donald Trump’s misguided statements favoring protectionism.

As president, Trump suggests he’d block imports from China, Mexico, and even Japan. But what Trump does not seem to realize is that import competition makes American companies stronger. To make America great again, we need both import competition and domestic policy reforms, including slashing the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, as Trump is advocating.

Let’s look at a bit of history. American firms Fender and Gibson have long been the dominant electric guitar makers. But both firms were in decline in the 1970s, as quality fell and import competition increased. Leo Fender had sold his guitar company to conglomerate CBS in 1965, and within a few years musicians began noticing substantial drops in product quality. A similar decline happened at Gibson in the 1970s, which was also controlled at the time by an ineffective corporate parent.

Japanese guitar firm Ibanez saw an opportunity. It had expanded into electric guitars in the 1960s with the idea of making cheaper copies of American products. But by the 1970s, the firm realized that it could make higher-quality products than the Americans, but at lower cost. And like Honda and Toyota in automobiles, Ibanez focused on product innovation, while the American firms rested on their laurels. Ibanez’s strategy succeeded, and today it is one of the top guitar firms.

By the 1980s, Gibson was “floundering” and “might well have gone under,” noted an article in Guitar World. And Fender was “all but dead,” according to the company’s official history. But America’s capital markets came to the rescue. Fender was bought out in 1985, and Gibson in 1986, by teams of investors determined to revive the firms’ traditions of quality. Today, Fender and Gibson are back on top of this competitive industry.

By the way, the weakness of Fender and Gibson also prompted American entrepreneurs to enter the fray. Randall Smith started guitar amplifier company Mesa Boogie in his California workshop in the late 1960s. Smith told Guitar World that he saw the decline of Fender and Gibson in the 1970s, and he was determined to “avoid that fate and remain dedicated to the instruments and the musicians that play them.” Smith’s company went on to invent an array of new features for guitar amps that have become standard in the industry.

Hartley Peavey has a similar story. As a teenager in Meridian, Mississippi, Peavey began building guitars and amps for his friends, which led to his founding Peavey Electronics in 1965. He wanted to offer consumers better value for money than the gear on the market at the time. Peavey used innovative manufacturing techniques to keep his costs down and to challenge Fender and Gibson with quality guitars at lower prices. Today, Peavey is one of the largest names in amps and guitars, and it ships many of its products worldwide from factories in Mississippi.

In sum, Trump is singing the right song on corporate taxes, but don’t be fooled by his rhetoric on trade.

For more on guitars, see here.

It’s very hard to be optimistic about Japan. I’ve even referred to the country as a basket case.

But my concern is not that the country has been mired in stagnation for the past 25 years. Instead, I’m much more worried about the future. The main problem is that Japan has the usual misguided entitlement programs that are found in most developed nations, but has far-worse-than-usual demographics. That’s not a good long-term combination.

As I repeatedly point out in my speeches and elsewhere, a modest-sized welfare state can be sustained in a nation with a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state is a challenge for a country with a population cylinder. And it’s a crisis for a jurisdiction such as Japan that will soon have an upside-down pyramid.

To make matters worse, Japanese politicians don’t seem overly interested in genuine entitlement reform. Instead, most of the discussion (egged on by the tax-free bureaucrats at the OECD) seems focused on how to extract more money from the private sector to finance an ever-growing public sector.

But the icing on the cake of bad policy is that Japanese politicians are addicted to Keynesian economics. For more than two decades, they’ve enacted one “stimulus package” after another. None of these schemes have succeeded. Indeed, the only real effect has been a quadrupling of the debt burden.

The Wall Street Journal shares my pessimism. Here’s some of what was stated in an editorial late last year.

Japan is in recession for the fifth time in seven years, and the…Prime Minister who promised to end his country’s stagnation is failing at the task. …Mr. Abe’s economic plan consisted of three “arrows,” starting with fiscal spending and monetary easing. The result is a national debt set to hit 250% of GDP by the end of the year. The Bank of Japan is buying bonds at a $652 billion annual rate, a more radical quantitative easing than the Federal Reserve’s. …The third arrow, structural economic reform, offered Japan the only hope of sustained economic growth. …But for every step Mr. Abe takes toward reform, one foot remains planted in the political economy of Japan Inc. In April 2014, Mr. Abe acquiesced to a disastrous three percentage-point increase in the value-added tax, to 8%, pushing Japan into its first recession on his watch. More recently, he has pushed politically popular but economically ineffectual spending measures on child care and help for the elderly. …only 25% of the population now believes Abenomics will improve the economy. Reality has a way of catching up with political promises.

You might think that even politicians might learn after repeated failure that big government is not a recipe for prosperity.

But you would be wrong.

Notwithstanding the fact that Keynesian economics hasn’t worked, Japanese politicians are doubling down on the wrong approach.

According to a report from Bloomberg, American Keynesians (when they’re not busing giving bad advice to Greece) are telling Japan to dig a deeper hole.

Paul Krugman urged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to…expand fiscal stimulus to revive the economy.

Reuters filed a similar report:

U.S. economist Paul Krugman said on Tuesday he advised Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to…boost fiscal spending… Krugman’s advice was the same as that which fellow U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz gave Abe last week.

Indeed, there apparently was a consensus for bigger government:

Every one of the economists that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invited here for a series of meetings with policymakers has recommended that Japan let loose government spending… When Abe asked why consumer spending has remained feeble since the 2014 consumption tax increase, the U.S. academic suggested the answer lies in expectations that fiscal stimulus will end. …Abe’s government…appears to be seeking to rally the G-7 for aggressive fiscal policy.

So why did the Japanese government create an echo chamber of Keynesianism? Perhaps because politicians want an excuse to buy votes with other people’s money.

With an upper house election looming in July, ruling coalition lawmakers also are eager to dole out massive public spending.

And it appears that Japanese politicians are happy to take advice when it’s based on their spending vice ostensibly being a fiscal virtue. That’s not too shocking, but the Keynesian scheme that’s being prepared is a parody even by Krugmanesque standards.

Japan’s government is considering handing out gift certificates to low-income young people in a supplementary budget for fiscal 2016 as consumer spending remains sluggish on a slow wage recovery, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported Thursday. Government officials believe certificates for purchasing daily necessities would lead to spending, unlike cash handouts which could be saved… The additional fiscal program would follow a similar measure for seniors and the ruling coalition would use it to gain voter support before the Upper House election expected in July, the daily said.

Maybe the politicians will succeed in buying votes, but they shouldn’t expect better economic performance. Giving people gift certificates won’t alter incentives to work, save, and invest (the behaviors that actually result in more economic output).Indeed, on the margin, these handouts may lure a few additional people out of the labor force. 

The plan is foolish, even from a Keynesian perspective. Since money is fungible, do these people really think gift certificates will encourage more spending that cash handouts?

By the way, another reason to be pessimistic about Japan is that there apparently aren’t any politicians who understand economics. Or, at least, there aren’t any that want good policy. The opposition party isn’t opposed to Keynesian foolishness. Instead, it’s leader is only concerned about who gets the goodies.

Katsuya Okada, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, said in parliamentary debate in January. “Elderly people are not the only ones who are suffering. Among the working generation, only a limited number of people are feeling the fruit of Abenomics.”

The bottom line is that Japan will become another Greece at some point. I’m not smart enough to know whether that will happen in five years or twenty-five years, but barring a radical reversal in government policy, the nation is in deep long-run trouble.

P.S. Though I have to give the Japanese government credit for being so incompetent that it introduced a giveaway program that was so poorly designed that nobody signed up for the handout.

P.P.S. And Japan also wins the prize for what must be the world’s oddest regulation.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a scholarship tax credit (STC) bill into law today, making the Mount Rushmore State the 29th state to enact a private school choice law, and the 21st to enact STCs. However, while an important step in the right direction, the number of students who will be able to receive tax-credit scholarships is vanishingly small.

South Dakota’s Partners in Education Tax Credit Program provides tax credits to insurance companies that contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low-income families pay tuition at the school of their choice. According to the Friedman Foundation, nearly four in ten South Dakota families meet the income eligibility requirements (150 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $67,000 for a family of four in 2015-16), but only a tiny fraction of eligible students will actually receive scholarships because the law only provides a total of $2 million in tax credits. With a scholarship cap equal to 82.5 percent of the state’s per-pupil expenditure at district schools, the maximum scholarship value in 2015-16 will be $4,023. That means that in a state with about 147,000 K-12 students–nearly 16,000 of whom are enrolled in private schools–only 500 students could receive scholarships worth $4,000.

That’s great for the one-third of one percent of South Dakota students who might get a scholarship, but it’s hardly revolutionary.

National exit polls show that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has captured many of the hearts and minds of the young Democratic electorate. Fully 70-80% of young Democrats, under the age of 30, are casting their ballots for Sanders over Hillary Clinton in state primaries and caucuses.

Many young people are drawn to Sanders’ vision of Democratic socialism. First, they don’t associate socialism with Soviet-style command and control economies with long bread lines and political repression. Instead, millennials associate the basic concept of socialism with Scandinavia. They like the idea of these countries’ large social welfare programs where government plays an active role in providing for people’s needs. Indeed, young people are the only cohort in which a majority—52%—support a “bigger government providing more services” compared to 38% of Americans overall.

Are young people the first generation to support activist government in their youth? Not in the least.

When Gen Xers were in their 20s during the 1990s they too preferred “bigger government providing more services” at about the same level as millennials today (~53%). Baby Boomers in their 30s during the 1980s also preferred bigger government (52%). However, about the time as both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers began entering their 40s, both groups began to prefer smaller government with fewer services. Today, 37% of Gen Xers and 25% of Baby Boomers continue to favor larger government.

It appears that as Americans get older, get promoted at their jobs, make more money, and start paying higher taxes, they become less thrilled with the idea of activist government.

It should be noted that back in 2007, when millennials were nearly 10 years younger than today, the Pew Research Center found fully 68% in support of a larger government offering more services. Is this an outlier? No poll conducted of previous generations in their youth ever identified such strong support for active government. This could be a function of fewer polls being conducted in the 1980s and 90s, and that we don’t have comparable polls of Baby Boomers when they were college-aged. Moreover, millennials were much younger in 2007, with the oldest being only 26. Perhaps given how high support used to be, it’s remarkable that support has declined so quickly.

Overall, these results tend to compliment other evidence that indicate that as millennials get older, get jobs, make more money, and pay more in taxes, they, like generations before them, become less keen on activist government.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is celebrating its 25th anniversary this evening.  FAMM’s President and Founder, Julie Stewart, was Cato’s public affairs director in 1991 when she received the bad news that her brother had been arrested on a marijuana charge and would have to go to prison for five years. She was shocked at the severity of the sentence and set out to do something about mandatory minimum sentences.  FAMM has grown steadily over the years and so have its accomplishments–more than 310,000 persons have benefitted from reforms that FAMM has championed.  Congratulations to Julie and all of her colleagues at FAMM!


A few related items here, here and here.

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.”

Atmospheric concentrations of methane (CH4)—a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide (at least over shorter time scales)—have begun rising after a hiatus from 1999-2006 that defied all expectations. No one knows for sure why—why they stood still, or why they started up again.

There is a lot of research underway looking into the causes of the observed methane behavior and at least three new studies have reported results in the scientific literature in the past couple of months.

The findings are somewhat at odds with each other.

In February, a study led by Alex Turner, from Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was published that examined methane emissions from the US over the past 10 years or so. The researchers compared observations taken from orbiting satellites to observations made from several sites on the earth’s surface. They reported over the past decade “an increase of more than 30% in US methane emissions.” And this increase was so large as to “suggest that increasing US anthropogenic methane emissions could account for up to 30-60% of [the] global increase.”

However, the methodologies employed by Turner et al. were insufficient for determining the source of the enhanced emissions. While the authors wrote that “[t]he US has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production and a 9-fold increase in shale gas production from 2002 to 2014” they were quick to point out that “the spatial pattern of the methane increase seen by [satellite] does not clearly point to these sources” and added that “[m]ore work is needed to attribute the observed increase to specific sources.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Turner and colleagues note that “national inventory estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate no significant trend in US anthropogenic methane emissions from 2002 to present”—a stark contrast to their findings, and a potential embarrassing problem for the EPA. But, never fear, the EPA is on it. The EPA is now actively re-examining its methane inventory and seems to be in the process of revising it upwards, perhaps even so much as to change its previous reported decline in methane emissions to an increase. Such a change would have large implications for the US’s ability to keep the pledge made at the U.S. 2015 Climate Conference in Paris.

However, the Turner et al. results have been called into question by a prominently-placed study in Science magazine just a couple of weeks later. The Science study was produced by a large team led by Hinrich Schaefer of New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

Schaefer and colleagues analyzed the changes in the isotopic ratios of carbon in the methane contained in samples of air within ice cores, archived air samples, and more recent measurement systems. Different sources of methane contain different mixtures of methane isotopes, related to how long ago the methane was formed. Using this information, the authors developed a model for trying to back out the methane sources from the well-mixed atmospheric samples. Although such a procedure is somewhat tunable (i.e., you can get pretty much any answer you want (kind of like climate models!)), the authors are pretty confident in their final results. 

What they determined was that prior to the 1999-2006 hiatus, methane emissions largely bore a chemical signature of fossil fuels. This signal diminished during the hiatus, and has not shown much of an increase since, despite the post-2006 renewed growth in global methane emissions. Instead, Schaefer’s team found a strong chemical signal pointing to biogenic sources of methane being behind the current rise—most pointedly, emissions from agriculture (including both rice paddies and animal husbandry). 

Despite the rather surprising nature of this conclusion, the authors are resolute:

The finding of a predominantly biogenic post-2006 increase is robust. Further, it seems likely that fossil-fuel emissions stagnated or diminished in the 1990s. Importantly, they are a minor contributor to the renewed [CH4]-rise. This contradicts emission inventories reporting increases of all source types between 2005 and 2010 with a major (~60%) thermogenic [fossil fuels] contribution… The finding is unexpected, given the recent boom in unconventional gas production and reported resurgence in coal mining and the Asian economy. Our isotope-based analysis suggests that the [CH4]-plateau marks not a temporary suppression of a particular source but a reconfiguration of the CH4-budget. Either food production or climate-sensitive natural emissions are the most probable causes of the current [CH4]-increase. These scenarios may require different mitigation measures in the future.

It is very hard to reconcile the results of Schaefer et al. with those of Turner et al.

Also disturbing is the glib statement on “climate-sensitive natural emissions.” Attention, Schaefer et al.: Your study covers from 2007 through 2014.  The figure below shows annual global surface temperature departures from an arbitrary mean. There is no climate change to be “sensitive” to during this period. Further, the statement is at odds with much of the text of the article, which largely points to an anthropogenic biogenic source for the change. One can’t help but wonder if some crusading reviewer insisted on the climate statement as the price for publication. Such a thing happened to one of us (Michaels) as a condition for publication in the prestigious “EOS—Transactions of the American Geophysical Union” many moons ago, despite the fact that the paper in question specifically determined such a link was not the case. 

And, to keep things interesting, a paper was published just days after the Schaefer et al. Science piece, by a team of researchers led by Petra Hausmann of Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. These researchers investigated the growth in atmospheric methane concentrations alongside the growth in atmospheric ethane concentrations –a tracer for methane emission from fossil fuels. By analyzing the increase in ethane, Hausmann et al. concluded that about half of the growth in methane emissions between 2007 and 2014 came from fossil fuel sources correlated to the oil and natural gas fracking boom in the U.S. In their press release, they note that their result fits with the Turner et al. results of a significant increase in US methane emissions and contrasts with the US EPA estimates.  The authors also note the discrepancy with the Schaefer et al. findings.

Pretty clearly, no one knows quite what is going on.

And into this confusion, the EPA has decided (no doubt from the President’s urging) to issue regulations pertaining to the allowable amount of methane emissions from US oil and gas recovery and delivery operations—in the name of mitigating future climate change.

As we pointed out when the regulations were first announced, the impact on future climate change is so tiny as to be immaterial. And now, with the great uncertainty as to what exactly is behind the recent rise in atmospheric methane concentrations, the EPA’s regulations may not only be insignificant, but wrong-headed as well.

What is certain, is that if you don’t understand the cause of a situation, taking steps to “fix” it is probably a bad idea. The Obama Administration’s “While under debate, regulate!” mantra is a poor operating protocol destined to fail. Or worse.  



Hausmann, P., R. Sussmann, and D. Smale, 2016. Contribution of oil and natural gas production to renewed increase in atmospheric methane (2007–2014): top–down estimate from methane and methane column observations. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 16, 3227-3244, doi:10.5194/acp-16-3227-2016.

Schaefer, H, et al., 2016. A 21st century shift from fossil-fuel to biogenic methane emissions indicated by 13CH4. Science, doi:10.1126/science.aad2705.

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.

When the Common Core debate was exploding three or four years ago, a primary pro-Core strategy seemed to be ignoring substantive objections to the Core and dismissing opponents as ignorant, maybe even loony. Over time, that strategy appeared to energize and expand opposition, and many Core supporters shelved it. But not, it seems, the Center for American Progress, which just posted to the website Funny or Die a video mocking Core-concerned parents.

You can watch the vid here, but basically two parents are sending their daughter to kindergarten and letting her know that she’ll have no need for books but will need a disguise, an ever-so-hilarious tin foil hat, and a ray gun, among other things, because her school uses Common Core and that means no to book-larnin’, yes to “Pod People” mind-reading. Thankfully, before the little girl sets off, her older sister, about to start her first year of college, walks by the little girl’s room and sets her goofball parents straight. “Common Core is just some standards my teachers use,” she exasperatedly explains. “So, you know, we can get into college, and get a job, and hopefully move out of our crazy parent’s house.”

Oh, is that it?

Not only insulting to Core opponents and dismissive of their concerns, the video is highly misleading. The Core is a specific set of standards – not just “some” standards – and states make teachers use them, quite likely in response to federal coercion. There is also no meaningful evidence that the Core enables students to get a job and leave the house of either their crazy or their sane parents. And a student entering college this year would have had little Core-aligned education – they would not have gone through it many years ago, as the video implies – because classroom implementation only began in the last two or three years.

Now, some opponents certainly ascribe things to the Core they should not. Sometimes these are politicians or education analysts, but often they are regular people with normal lives who cannot spend hours combing through laws and regulations to get all the right information. But CAP and many other Core defenders do, or at least should, know the whole truth, yet like this video they often put out misleading or woefully incomplete information, often with the stated goal of setting opponents straight. Indeed, just last week I responded to such “fact-checking” on the website of The Seventy Four. And what, by the way, did folks at The Seventy Four say about CAP’s video? They called it “hilarious” and reprinted a bunch of their flawed fact-check.

You can judge for yourself, of course, whether the video is hilarious. But there is little funny about dismissing the concerns of real parents and citizens who have had Common Core imposed on them, nor is it chuckle-inducing when, in the name of correcting others, Core fans keep distorting reality.

Coastal marshes are valuable ecosystems that provide important nutrients to coastal waters that help sustain local food webs. They are also increasingly recognized as valuable carbon sinks, sequestering significant quantities of carbon both above and below ground. In recent years, however, concerns have been expressed that these ecosystems are in danger of collapsing in response to rising sea levels that are projected to occur as a consequence of CO2-induced global warming. If such fears are correct, melting ice will increase the rate of sea level rise beyond which these ecosystems can keep up, essentially them to a submerged death, which would have substantial repercussions on surrounding communities.

But how likely is it that this gloomy scenario will occur?

Investigating this very topic, the three-member research team of Ratliff et al. (2015) used a one-dimensional ecomorphodynamic model to “assess the direct impacts of elevated CO2 on marsh morphology, relating to ongoing and emerging environmental change.” According to the authors, previous works have revealed large increases in marsh plant biomass productivity in response to elevated concentrations of atmospheric CO2, yet “direct CO2 effects on vegetation and marsh accretion (as opposed to its indirect effects, e.g., via the increase in temperature) have not yet been incorporated into marsh models. As a result, they note the relative importance of CO2 effects on marsh dynamics “remains unknown” … until now, that is.

Using a meta-analysis of CO2 enrichment data, Ratliff et al. were able to model the impact of CO2 fertilization on coastal marsh vegetation and morphological dynamics for varying rates of relative sea level rise that are projected to occur under future global warming. Accordingly, the authors report “we found that the fertilization effect of elevated atmospheric CO2 significantly increases marsh resilience to drowning and decreases the spatial extent of marsh retreat under high rates of sea level rise.” In addition, they found that the more expansive marshes under elevated CO2 resulted in greater carbon sequestration such that “the fertilization effect may also contribute to a stabilizing feedback within the climate system, where increasing biomass production and organic deposition consequently sequester greater amounts of CO2.”

In light of the above findings, Ratliff et al. conclude that their results “imply that coastal marshes, and the major carbon sink they represent, are significantly more resilient to foreseen climate changes than previously thought.” And that good news should suppress fears of the untimely demise of coastal marsh vegetation due to possible climate change-related increases in sea level. Sadly, such fears could have been avoided altogether, if the models would have included this important direct benefit of CO2 from the get-go.



Ratliff, K.M., Braswell, A.E. and Marani, M. 2015. Spatial response of coastal marshes to increased atmospheric CO2. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 112: 15,580-15,584.