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Last week the Environmental Protection Agency released a study that concluded that hydraulic fracturing, so-called “fracking” of oil and natural gas wells, does not contaminate drinking water, except in extremely unusual cases involving improper drilling techniques. The study should reduce the concerns of some of the technique’s vocal critics whose fears have led to restrictions on its use.

The EPA study reviewed the results from thousands of wells and found few faults with the drilling technique. When problems occurred, they stemmed from improperly sealed wells, which can affect any oil or gas well and not just those that utilize hydraulic fracturing.

More evidence about the costs and benefits of fracking appears in the forthcoming summer issue of Regulation. The Barnett shale area splits the Dallas–Forth Worth area in half; all of the wells are in the western part of the metro area. Because many other factors are constant within the metro area, this geological accident allows researchers to determine whether shale development produces net benefits and thus increases housing values. Read the full study here.

In Texas the value of oil and gas rights is part of the local property tax base. Thus localities receive tax revenues from oil and gas development and can finance local public amenities without increasing property taxes. Over the entire 1997–2013 period, houses in the shale ZIP codes in the Dallas–Fort Worth area appreciated 5 to 6 percentage points more than houses in non-shale ZIP codes. These results suggest that improved local finances have more than offset whatever disamenities result from shale development for the typical homeowner. “Fracking” is just another drilling technique, and needs to not be regulated in any special way beyond that of normal oil and gas drilling.

Environmentalists often assume that free markets work against their goals. But the market is the best friend of the natural world because it generates constant pressure to innovate, to cut costs, and to use resources efficiently. The price system prompts consumers and businesses to minimize consumption of dwindling resources. To ease California’s water problems, for example, we need markets not regulatory controls.

The Wall Street Journal today has a pair of stories on scrap metal recycling:

Waste has long been a major U.S. export, providing material to be melted in foreign steel mills or made into new paper products. But the strength of the dollar has made American waste pricier abroad, cutting demand…

… That has been hard on the network of waste dealers and scrap gatherers who are the backbone of the industry. Bob Hooper, who goes by Hoop, finds discarded metal on curbs and in dumpsters around Pittsburgh and carries it to scrapyards in a rusting Chevy pickup with a bungee cord to keep the driver’s door shut.

… On a recent day, he hauled in more than 1,000 pounds of scrap, including two discarded refrigerators, a water heater and a broken microwave buried in egg shells and other moist trash. After gasoline expenses, he netted about $80.

From a related story in today’s Journal:

Wherever he goes in his Chevy pickup, Bob “Hoop” Hooper scans for discarded metal—a mangled bike, a broken microwave, even a beer can. “That’s like the No. 1 rule of scrapping,” Mr. Hooper, 48 years old, explained recently. “Don’t pass up metal.”

Scrapping—gathering metal and selling it to scrap dealers—is a tough job, involving excavations inside dumpsters, forays into dangerous neighborhoods and, lately, falling metal prices.

… Most mornings he hits the road around 9 a.m., and by late afternoon has filled the back of his pickup and earned anywhere from $40 to several hundred dollars at scrapyards. In the evening, he dismantles appliances and sorts valuable metals like copper and brass into plastic buckets. “It gives me something to do while I’m watching TV,” he said.

One regular stop is a housing complex with 31 dumpsters. On a recent morning, he found an umbrella and a mop in one. “It don’t seem like much, but as long as you’re getting something from every stop, it piles up,” he said.

Green groups often confer awards on politicians who press for more control over markets. But they should instead champion people like Bob Hooper. He is devoting his career to recycling, which is helping to reduce landfill waste. His work also boosts the economy, which we know because he is earning a net return in the marketplace.

Bob Hooper has a dirty job, but he is creating a cleaner environment the market-based way.

If I had more time I’d write at greater length about this already infamous New York Times op-ed on student loans – which conspicuously fails to mention that the writer apparently got all of his degrees from pricey Columbia University – but the piece largely condemns itself. What I think is worth contemplating is how far out of mainstream thinking its sentiments are. Alas, maybe not that far.

No doubt most of the public wouldn’t support people not repaying their student loans just because they don’t like them, but the idea that freely chosen debt should be forgiven or curtailed is getting lots of play, from President Obama’s push for programs that would lead to forgiveness for big borrowers, to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s private debt buy-up proposal. And calls for free college are roughly the equivalent of calls for loan forgiveness. No, they aren’t saying that borrowers should renege on commitments they’ve already made, but they are saying that the college cost burden should be dropped even more squarely on the shoulder of taxpayers going forward.

Of course the ultimate problem, beyond the immediate, crushing cost, is that the more you have other people pay for students’ decisions, the more wasteful those decisions will tend to be. And even at current subsidy levels, those decisions are very, very wasteful. But that’s what happens when politicians decide taxpayers should never get in the way of a student’s bliss.

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct Reporting Project, we have identified the worst case for the month of May.  It was was the death of Matthew Ajibade.

Ajibade’s girlfriend called the police because he was having a bipolar episode.  Georgia deputies arrested Ajibade but then took him to the jail instead of a hospital.  At the jail, he was placed in a restraint chair.  Deputies reportedly fired stun guns at him while he was restrained in the chair and then left him unattended in an isolation cell.  Ajibade, 22, died and the coroner now says it was homicide

Nine deputies were fired over the incident and a criminal investigation is on-going.

Last Friday a group of teenagers attended an end-of-year party at a community swimming pool in McKinney, Texas. According to some of the teens at the pool police were called to the scene after adults made racist remarks and a fight between adults and the teens began. A McKinney Police Department Facebook post states that officers responded to reports of “a disturbance involving multiple juveniles” who did not have permission to be at the pool.

One of the teens, 15-year-old Brandon Brooks, filmed the encounter between the youths and police officers. The video, which can be viewed below, shows officer Eric Casebolt handcuffing two teens before throwing a 14-year-old girl to the ground, using his knees to pin her, and pulling a gun on unarmed bystanders - something he is caught on camera denying. The girl was later released without charge.

Warning: This video contains profanity

“Super Trooper” Cops Crash Pool Party And Target Black Kids in McKinney, TX (Dallas)

Casebolt, who has been placed on administrative leave following the incident, was named Patrolman of the Year in 2008 and is reportedly a vice president of the McKinney police union. He was also once an instructor at Executive Self-Defense and Fitness, and was described on that company’s website as someone with “experience in the use of all levels of force” and “a strong working knowledge of human behavior.”

It is hard to imagine the incident earning as much attention as it has without Brooks’ footage, which serves as another reminder of how important it is that citizens film the police. In the forthcoming investigation into the incident Casebolt will not be able to plausibly claim that he felt threatened by a 14-year-old girl and that his use of force against her was justified. Nor will he be able to claim that he did not unholster his weapon and point it at unarmed teens.

Citizen footage of police officers can be instrumental in investigations into allegations of police misconduct. Today a grand jury indicted former North Charleston, South Carolina police officer Michael Slager for the killing of Walter Scott, whose death was caught on camera by an onlooker. Scott was shot multiple times in the back while running away from Slager. I wrote about Walter Scott’s death in April, noting how footage of the killing contradicted what was included in police reports.

The Cato Institute released a video on citizens filming police officers in 2010. It can be viewed below.

Cops on Camera

On ABC News’ This Week yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker defended his proposal to spend $250 million of taxpayers’ money to build a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks:

“All across the nation when they do projects like this,” Walker said. “It’s a good deal.”

The Bucks franchise, valued at $600 million, is owned by a group of billionaire financiers in New York. But no matter what it’s worth, Walker’s statement is at wide variance with the findings of independent economists.

Economic projections for subsidized stadiums are always vastly overstated. As Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys wrote in a 2004 Cato study criticizing the proposed D.C. stadium subsidy, “The wonder is that anyone finds such figures credible.”

And indeed the Washington Examiner reported in 2008:

Attendance at Nationals Park has fallen more than a quarter short of a consultant’s projections for the stadium’s inaugural year, cutting into the revenue needed to pay the ballpark bonds and spurring a D.C. Council member to demand the city’s money back.

Several Cato studies over the years have looked at the absurd economic claims of stadium advocates. In “Sports Pork: The Costly Relationship between Major League Sports and Government,” Raymond Keating finds:

The lone beneficiaries of sports subsidies are team owners and players. The existence of what economists call the “substitution effect” (in terms of the stadium game, leisure dollars will be spent one way or another whether a stadium exists or not), the dubiousness of the Keynesian multiplier, the offsetting impact of a negative multiplier, the inefficiency of government, and the negatives of higher taxes all argue against government sports subsidies. Indeed, the results of studies on changes in the economy resulting from the presence of stadiums, arenas, and sports teams show no positive economic impact from professional sports — or a possible negative effect.

In Regulation magazine, (.pdf) Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys found that the economic literature on stadium subsidies comes to consistent conclusions:

The evidence suggests that attracting a professional sports franchise to a city and building that franchise a new stadium or arena will have no effect on the growth rate of real per capita income and may reduce the level of real per capita income in that city.

And in “Caught Stealing: Debunking the Economic Case for D.C. Baseball,” Coates and Humphreys looked specifically at the economics of the new baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., and found similar results:

Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy. The net economic impact of professional sports in Washington, D.C., and the 36 other cities that hosted professional sports teams over nearly 30 years, was a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area.

Stadiums, arenas, convention centers, arts centers, the story is the same. In 2011 the Washington Post reported that the financial projections for a government-funded arts center, Artisphere, in Arlington, Virginia, didn’t seem to have panned out.

A 2014 report by Don Bauder in the San Diego Reader is worth quoting at length:

Would you take advice from a gaggle of consultants whose forecasts in the past two decades have been off by 50 percent?

Of course you wouldn’t. But all around the U.S., politicians, civic planners, and particularly business executives have been following the advice of self-professed experts who invariably tell clients to build a convention center or expand an existing one.

A remarkable new book, Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, tells the amazing story of how one American city after another builds into a massive glut of convention-center space, even though the industry itself warns its centers that the resultant price-slashing will worsen current woes.

The author is Heywood Sanders, the nation’s ranking expert on convention centers, who warned of the billowing glut in a seminal study for the Brookings Institution back in 2005. In this new, heavily footnoted, 514-page book, Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas/San Antonio, exhaustively examines consultants’ forecasts in more than 50 cities….

The worst news: “These expansions will keep happening,” as long as “you have a mayor who says it is free,” says Sanders.

Or a governor:

“We would lose $419 million over the next 20 years if we did nothing, if we said, go on, move somewhere else, which the NBA said they would do,” Walker continued. “In this case, we don’t raise any taxes. There are no new taxes, only existing taxes. And we get a three to one return.”

The project will be funded by existing taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars, though the Wisconsin Center Board has the authority to raise the rate, he said.

“In this case, we take the tax, the revenues on hotels and rental cars that are currently paid for the convention center and allow those to continue to be paid for a new arena,” Walker said. “It’s not a new tax.”

This wasn’t the worst thing Scott Walker said to Jonathan Karl on ABC. He also said he wouldn’t rule out re-invading Iraq. But any presidential candidate who believes that “All across the nation when [politicians spend taxpayers’ money] on stadiums, it’s a good deal,” shouldn’t be anywhere near the federal Treasury.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a still-evolving trade agreement that would reduce tariffs and other barriers to goods and services trade between the United States and 11 other countries. It also would likely include provisions designed to protect certain U.S. industries from the full effects of competition.  A TPP agreement, then, would likely increase our economic freedoms in some realms and reduce them in others.  How these pros and cons would be manifest is unclear at the moment, given the fact that the deal is not done.  But it would a mistake to forego the opportunity to evaluate a completed trade deal that could deliver significant benefits. 

It is broadly understood that the TPP negotiations cannot be concluded without the Congress passing, and the president signing, Trade Promotion Authority legislation.  Without TPA, the president could not be sure that any trade deal brought home reflected the official wishes of Congress, and the likelihood that foreign negotiators would put their best and final offers on the table—knowing that Congress could unravel the deal’s terms—is close to zero.

The Senate passed TPA legislation (along with language reauthorizing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program) on May 22.  The House is likely to take up the bill this week.  At the moment, the president is in lockstep with a large majority of congressional Republicans, who support trade liberalization and see TPA as essential to the process.  But some Republicans (mostly from the conservative wing), who are wary of giving this president any more power, have joined ranks with the vast majority of congressional Democrats in opposition to TPA.  Meanwhile, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton—an architect of the TPP as Secretary of State and a potential heir to the trade agenda—has refused to take a position on TPA.

The spotlight on trade policy has generated much more heat than light.  Misinformation abounds.  Rationalizations masquerade as rationales.

This new Cato Free Trade Bulletin is intended to dispel some of the nonsense that has been circulating and to present a brief, objective assessment of what has transpired and what lies ahead for TPA and TPP.

Every so often, I’ll assert that some statists are so consumed by envy and spite that they favor high tax rates on the “rich” even if the net effect (because of diminished economic output) is less revenue for government.

In other words, they deliberately and openly want to be on the right side (which is definitely the wrong side) of the Laffer Curve.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating in order to make my opponents look foolish, check out this poll of left-wing voters who strongly favored soak-the-rich tax hikes even if there was no extra tax collected.

But now I have an even better example.

Writing for Vox, Matthew Yglesias openly argues that we should be on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, “the case for confiscatory taxation” is part of the title for his article.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

Maybe at least some taxes should be really high. Maybe even really really high. So high as to useless for revenue-raising purposes — but powerful for achieving other ends. We already accept this principle for tobacco taxes. If all we wanted to do was raise revenue, we might want to slightly cut cigarette taxes. …But we don’t do that because we care about public health. We tax tobacco not to make money but to discourage smoking.

The tobacco tax analogy is very appropriate.

Indeed, one of my favorite arguments is to point out that we have high taxes on cigarettes precisely because politicians want to discourage smoking.

As a good libertarian, I then point out that government shouldn’t be trying to control our private lives, but my bigger point is that the economic arguments about taxes and smoking are the same as those involving taxes on work, saving, investment.

Needless to say, I want people to understand that high tax rates are a penalty, and it’s particularly foolish to impose penalties on productive behavior.

But not according to Matt. He specifically argues for ultra-high tax rates as a “deterrence” to high levels of income.

If we take seriously the idea that endlessly growing inequality can have a cancerous effect on our democracy, we should consider it for top incomes as well. …apply the same principle of taxation-as-deterrence to very high levels of income. …Imagine a world in which we…imposed a 90 percent marginal tax rate on salaries above $10 million. This seems unlikely to raise substantial amounts of revenue.

I suppose we should give him credit for admitting that high tax rates won’t generate revenue. Which means he’s more honest than some of his fellow statists who want us to believe confiscatory tax rates will produce more money.

But honesty isn’t the same as wisdom.

Let’s look at the economic consequences. Yglesias does admit that there might be some behavioral effects because upper-income taxpayers will be discouraged from earning and reporting income.

Maybe…we really would see a reduction of effort, or at least a relaxation of the intensity with which the performers pursue money. But would that be so bad? Imagine the very best hedge fund managers and law firm partners became inclined to quit the field a bit sooner and devote their time to hobbies. What would we lose, as a society? …some would presumably just move to Switzerland or the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes. That would be a real hit to local economies, but hardly a disaster. …Very high taxation of labor income would mean fewer huge compensation packages, not more revenue. Precisely as Laffer pointed out decades ago, imposing a 90 percent tax rate on something is not really a way to tax it at all — it’s a way to make sure it doesn’t happen.

While I suppose it’s good that Yglesias admits that high tax rates change incentives, he clearly underestimates the damaging impact of such a policy.

He presumably doesn’t understand that rich people earn very large shares of their income from business and investment sources. As such, they have considerable ability to alter the timing, level, and composition of their earnings.

But my biggest problem with Yglesias’ proposals is that he seems to believe in the fixed-pie fallacy that public policy doesn’t have any meaningful impact of economic performance. This leads him to conclude that it’s okay to pillage the “rich” since that will simply mean more income and wealth is available for the rest of us.

That’s utter nonsense. The economy is not a fixed pie and there is overwhelming evidence that nations with better policy grow faster and create more prosperity.

In other words, confiscatory taxation will have a negative effect on everyone, not just upper-income taxpayers.

There will be less saving and investment, which translates into lower wages and salaries for ordinary workers.

And as we saw in France, high tax rates drive out highly productive people, and we have good evidence that “super-entrepreneurs” and inventors are quite sensitive to tax policy.

To be fair, I imagine that Yglesias would try to argue that these negative effects are somehow offset by benefits that somehow materialize when there’s more equality of income.

But the only study I’ve seen that tries to make a connection between growth and equality was from the OECD and that report was justly ridiculed for horrible methodology (not to mention that it’s hard to take serious a study that lists France, Spain, and Ireland as success stories).

P.S. This is my favorite bit of real-world evidence showing why there should be low tax rates on the rich (in addition, of course, to low tax rates on the rest of us).

P.P.S. And don’t forget that leftists generally view higher taxes on the rich as a precursor to higher taxes on the rest of the population.

P.P.P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, Yglesias says I’m insane and irrational.

As I noted last week, the GOP’s 2016 contenders didn’t do themselves much credit as they ducked, covered, cringed, and pratfell through a series of interview questions about the Iraq War. Still, Jeb Bush had a point when he noted that, at the time, “almost everybody” in political Washington was for the war. True enough: as policy disasters go, the Iraq War was as bipartisan as the subprime loan crisis

On the war’s tenth anniversary a couple of years back, the New Republic’s John Judis recalled “what it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.” His memory jibes with mine: it was pretty damned lonely. Well before “Shock and Awe,” hawkish arguments had achieved near full-spectrum dominance over the minds of Beltway policy elites, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq was shaping up as a horrific idea whose time had come. 

But it rankled a bit when Judis wrote that “except for Jessica Mathews at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington’s thinktank honchos were also lined up behind the war.” Not to take anything away from Ms. Mathews, but the late, great Bill Niskanen had to count as a “think tank honcho” if anyone did, and he opposed the war vigorously, early, and often.

In a December 2001 public debate with former CIA director James Woolsey, Niskanen, then Cato’s chairman, offered the first prominent public statement by a DC think-tank leader against that looming debacle: “An Unnecessary War Is an Unjust War,” Bill argued. In the run-up to the invasion, other Cato scholars argued, among other things, that:

At the time, opposition to the Iraq War was controversial even within the building—and outside of 1000 Massachusetts Ave., Cato’s Iraq War skeptics had very little company among the Beltway cognoscenti. 

For example, both inside and outside the Bush administration, American Enterprise Institute scholars played a key role in making the case for war.  As Bob Woodward reported in his 2006 book State of Denial, in late 2001, Paul Wolfowitz approached then-AEI president Chris DeMuth to put together a secret task force of top thinkers to generate “the kinds of ideas and strategy needed to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of 9/11.” They called themselves “Bletchley II,” after the British cryptographers who cracked Axis communication codes during WWII.  

Bletchley II participants included Fareed Zakaria (who should have known better), James Q. Wilson, Reuel Marc Gehrecht, Fouad Ajami, Robert Kaplan, and Bernard Lewis. The team generated “a seven-page, single-spaced document, called ‘Delta of Terrorism.’ ‘Delta’ was used in the sense of the mouth of a river from which everything flowed.” Rumsfeld adviser Steven Herbits summed up the memo’s message: “We’re facing a two-generation war. And start with Iraq.” (Boy, I’d love to see that memo.) 

Over on the center-left, Brookings scholars proved instrumental as well—Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq played a key role in getting center-left opinion leaders behind the war, convincing, among many others, the New Yorker’s David Remnick that “a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.” 

It’s supposed to be conservatives’ job to stand athwart history, yelling “stop!” and liberals’ role to resist the rush to war. For the most part, DC’s think tanks left that job to the libertarians, with predictable results. In 2004, after the die was cast, Cato was the first major DC think tank to offer an extended argument for Exiting Iraq, in Chris Preble’s book of that name.  

I wouldn’t call Cato’s Iraq skeptics “prescient,” nor would I claim that everything we wrote holds up well a decade and a half later; for example, like several of my colleagues, I engaged in a little WMD fearmongering of my own in the early days of the war, warning that “components for a ‘dirty bomb’ may already be in the wrong hands” thanks to the invasion. (Cato’s Alan Reynolds, who decried the WMD “hype,” had the better view). But it would be nice if, when a major daily prints one of those “what to do in Iraq?” symposia, they occasionally think to call somebody, like Ted Carpenter or Chris Preble—who got it right in the first place. 

It would be even better if the GOP’s 2016 contenders weren’t still, 12 years later, so eager to seek foreign policy advice from people who got the Iraq War Question spectacularly wrong.

The Washington Post reports that Scott Walker’s “crash course” in foreign policy is led by tutors like “[Elliot] Abrams, Bush’s deputy national security adviser, and [AEI’s] Marc A. Thiessen, a Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter known for his staunch defense of waterboarding and other interrogation tactics barred by President Obama. Walker selected Thiessen to co-write his 2013 book, Unintimidated, and the two men became confidants during hours of Skype conversations each weekend.” Marco Rubio’s team includes a kettle of Iraq hawks like Abrams, Eric Edelman, and Brookings’ Robert Kagan. There’s no word yet on who’s advising Rick Perry, but last time around he sought out Iraq War architect Doug Feith, now with the Hudson Institute. It was a bit unfair for then-CentCom commander Gen. Tommy Franks to call Feith “the dumbest [expletive deleted] guy on the planet,” given Earth’s seven billion-plus people, but Feith’s hardly the first person you’d want to turn to if you wanted to avoid the costly foreign policy blunders of the past decade. 

For his part, Jeb Bush has sought out a number of key figures “present at the creation” of the Iraq debacle, like Paul Wolfowitz, who, as US forces drove toward Baghdad, in March 2003, promised Congress icing on the cakewalk: “There is a lot of money to pay for this that doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money…. We are talking about a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon.”

Given that background, you might suspect that there’s just no accountability for GOP foreign policy advisers; but that isn’t so. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Elbridge Colby, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was being seriously considered for a job as foreign policy director in Mr. Bush’s expanding organization, [but] according to a person familiar with the campaign’s internal deliberations, Mr. Bush’s political operation raised concerns about Mr. Colby’s published views on Iran. Mr. Colby has prominently advocated against a military strike on Iran and has called for the Republican Party to move closer to its roots of pragmatism and containment.” So he’s out. You can’t expect to retain your political and professional credibility after a screw-up like that.

It’s hard not to feel satisfaction at the indictment of soccer officials for apparently corrupting the globe’s Beautiful Game—soccer in America but football to most of the world. Yet emotional satisfaction is a bad basis for government policy. While the U.S. is not the only nation to assert extraterritorial jurisdiction, it does so more often and more broadly than anyone else.

Moreover, punishing foreigners creates future risks. Someday Americans might get indicted by other nations for “crimes” committed in the U.S.

How did Washington become the world’s policeman and prosecutor in the case of soccer? The sport remains a modest phenomenon in America. Most of the alleged crimes involve foreigners acting overseas.

The impact in the U.S. is less than that on almost every other nation on earth, since virtually everywhere the sport commands greater loyalty from a larger percentage of the population. Nevertheless, some of the criminal acts took place in America and the corruption affected interstate (and foreign) commerce, the boilerplate justification used by Uncle Sam for regulating most everything.

As American power has grown, so has Washington’s willingness to apply its laws to the rest of the world. Washington has routinely abducted foreigners overseas for drug offenses. Perhaps the most extreme example was the 1989 invasion of Panama, after which ousted dictator Manuel Noriega was transported to America and convicted of violating U.S. drug laws.

Even more problematic has been the Justice Department crusade to turn foreign banks into arms of the IRS. The U.S. has gone after Swiss banks with the greatest enthusiasm, paying informants, filing criminal prosecutions, and imposing multi-billion dollar fines for accepting deposits from Americans. Yet citizens of Switzerland and the rest of the world have no moral obligation to help fill Uncle Sam’s coffers to finance more waste and wars.

Congress also passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) requiring all non-American financial institutions to report any accounts held by Americans. As a result, foreign banks face substantial costs in dealing with U.S. citizens, even those fully compliant with American tax laws. Many foreign banks now refuse to serve Americans.

Perhaps the most expansive form of extraterritoriality is sanctions. By one count Washington imposed 61 different economic penalties between 1993 and 1998, Washington’s dictates are amplified not only by the size of the American market, but through Swift, the Brussels-based organization which manages international financial transfers.

Traditionally sanctions applied to companies formed in the U.S. and their branches, and firms located in America. However, through both legislation and regulation Washington has constantly expanded the extraterritorial reach of U.S. penalties.

Over time Washington began targeting U.S. subsidiaries and licensees. Later sanctions also applied to resale of U.S.-origin goods, transactions with foreign firms, and foreign banks financing prohibited transactions. European companies, in particular, have found themselves fined for activities which are legal under national as well as European Union law.

Explained attorneys Ronald Meltzer and David Ross of WilmerHale, “U.S. law has undergone a significant shift: it effectively creates an expanding regime of secondary sanctions that are triggered by transactions that do not require a nexus to the United States.” Sometimes other governments have enacted “blocking” statutes which prohibit their nationals from complying with foreign, i.e., American, restrictions deemed harmful to their national interest.

As I point out on Forbes online: “The moral fervor behind many of Washington’s many fevered crusades often is laudable. But a desire to do good does not warrant America attempting to play dictatress to the world.”

So it is with the U.S. indictments against corrupt soccer officials, and even more so with Washington’s determination to make foreign banks agents of the IRS and foreign individuals and companies tools of U.S. foreign policy. Such overreach inevitably breeds abuse.

It also invites retaliation in the future, when America no longer so dominates the globe. If Americans eventually find themselves in a foreign court for legal conduct in the U.S., they will have today’s lawmakers and officials to thank.

My new piece at Reason begins:

We’ve seen it happen again and again: libertarians are derided over some supposedly crazy or esoteric position, years pass, and eventually others start to see why our position made sense. It’s happened with asset forfeiture, with occupational licensure, with the Drug War, and soon, perhaps, with libertarians’ once-lonely critique of school truancy laws.

In his 1980 book Free To Choose, economist Milton Friedman argued that compulsory school attendance laws do more harm than good, a prescient view considering what’s come since: both Democratic and Republican lawmakers around the country, prodded by the education lobby, have toughened truancy laws with serious civil and even criminal penalties for both students and parents. Now the horror stories pile up: the mom arrested and shackled because her honor-roll son had a few unexcused sick days too many, the teenagers managing chaotic home lives who are threatened with juvenile detention for their pains, the mother who died in jail after being imprisoned for truancy fines. It’s been called carceral liberalism: we’re jailing you, your child, or both, but don’t worry because it’s for your own good. Not getting enough classroom time could really ruin a kid’s life.

My article also mentions that a bill to reform Texas’s super-punitive truancy laws has reached Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, following the reported success of an experiment in San Antonio and pressure from a Marshall Project report. Finally, truancy-law reform is looking to become an issue across the political spectrum — but libertarians were there first.

Today marks the second anniversary of The Guardian’s first blockbuster story derived from files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—launching what would become an unprecedented deluge of disclosures about the scope and scale of communications surveillance by American intelligence agencies. So it seems appropriate that this week saw not only the passage of the USA Freedom Act, but also the approval in the House of several privacy-protective appropriations amendments, about which more momentarily.  Snowden himself takes a quick victory lap in a New York Times editorial reflecting on the consequences of his disclosures, (very much in line with his remarks during our interview at the inaugural Cato Surveillance Conference):

Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing — that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations.

Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.

Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.

He’s referring here to last month’s appellate court ruling against the notorious telephone records dragnet, followed this week by passage of the USA Freedom Act.  That law should bar bulk collection not only under §215 of the Patriot Act, the basis of the phone program, but also under §214—the “pen register” provision previously used to vacuum up international Internet metadata—and National Security Letters, which can be issued by senior FBI officials without judicial approval.  Since the latter two authorities are permanent, they would not have been affected by what quite a few lazy reporters described as “the expiration of the Patriot Act,” though in fact only about 2 percent of the law’s provisions were actually due to sunset.  While the law is far from ideal, incidentally, I think it does constitute more robust reform than many libertarians fear, for reasons I lay out in this piece at Motherboard and this blog post at Just Security.  It will, of course, be necessary to vigilantly watch for efforts to water down the law’s protection—something the public is finally at least somewhat empowered to do by a transparency provision requiring significant legal interpretations by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to be published in unclassfied form.

Perhaps as significant as the law’s substantive reforms, however, is its symbolic importance.  Since the terror attacks of 9/11, we have relentlessly racheted up government’s spying powers, assured that only by trading away ever more privacy could we guarantee safety.  Whenever a surveillance authority was due to lapse—as, unfortunately, only a few were designed to—leadership in Congress invariably waited until the eleventh hour to schedule the relevant statutes for consideration, then used the manufactured “emergency” of looming expiration to steamroll over legislators who hoped to seriously debate reforms or added safeguards, or whether the expanded powers were necessary at all.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to repeat the strategy that had worked so well in the past this time—only to discover that Americans were no longer so easily cowed. 

That was demonstrated again just days after the Freedom Act’s passage, when a series of amendments to an approrpiations bill aimed at limiting government surveillance passed the House by enormous margins.  The first, offered by Rep. Jared Polis, seeks to prohibit the Drug Enforcement Agency from engaging in bulk collection of Americans’ data under its own supoena authorities, following revelations that it had for decades maintained its own more limited phone records dragnet. The second, from Reps. Ted Poe and Zoe Lofgren, bars the FBI or Justice Department from using government funds to seek to insert backdoors into secure online communications systems. The third, offered by Rep. Thomas Massie, seeks to block the National Security Agency from abusing its role as a consultant to a national standards-setting body to dilute rather than strengthen encryption protocols.

These are, to be sure, heartening developments, but plenty of work remains. We still know precious little about the massive surveillance being conducted under the aegis of Executive Order 12333, which governs intelligence gathering that takes place outside the United States, yet sweeps in large amounts of Americans’ data as it travels around the globe.  Nor do the reforms passed this week  touch §702 of the FISA Amendments Act, an authority that blesses the very general warrants abhorred by the framers of our Constitution, enabling large scale collection of Americans’ communications with foreign persons and websites.  That authority is set to expire at the end of 2017, and after a brief pause to toast the small progress made this week, is the next battle to which privacy advocates will be turning their efforts.

Despite recent gains around the country, civil asset forfeiture reform suffered a setback in Maryland when Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed a bill that would have placed restraints on the state’s civil forfeiture regime.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which the government is able to seize property (cash, vehicles, homes, hotels, and virtually any other item you can imagine) and keep the proceeds without ever charging the victim with a crime.  The bill, SB 528, would have established a $300 minimum seizure amount, shifted the burden of proof to the state when someone with an interest in the seized property asserts innocent ownership (e.g. a grandmother whose home is taken when her grandson is suspected of selling drugs out of the basement), and barred state law enforcement agencies from using lax federal seizure laws to circumvent state law.

In vetoing the measure, Gov. Hogan claimed that restraining civil asset forfeiture “would greatly inhibit” the war on drugs in the midst of a heroin epidemic and interfere with joint federal/state drug task forces. Gov. Hogan admitted that asset forfeiture laws “can be abused,” but that their utility outweighed the risk of abuse. 

Each of these assertions is misguided.

Civil forfeiture reform would certainly make it more difficult for law enforcement to seize property from citizens not charged with crimes.  Indeed, that is the entire purpose of reforming the law.  Likewise, the presumption of innocence, right to due process, and warrant requirement make it more difficult for the government to prosecute people suspected of crimes.  Those checks on hostile government action exist because governments with unfettered authority to summarily plunder and punish tend to do just that, and the litany of civil forfeiture horror stories is proof.

Therefore civil asset forfeiture is not merely susceptible to abuse; civil asset forfeiture is abuse.  Under no circumstances should someone be forced to forfeit their money, property, or even their home to the government on suspicion alone. The “inhibitions” Gov. Hogan’s statement laments are in fact the most fundamental defenses for private property and due process in a country founded to protect them.

Governor Hogan’s appeal to the efficacy drug war is similarly misguided.  We’re told that the prevalence of drugs, especially heroin, in Maryland is reason enough to keep forfeiture laws lax.  Decades of a failed drug war have proven the inefficacy of asset forfeiture as a means of stemming the flow of narcotics, and continuing that failure is no justification for abolishing the due process and private property rights of people who aren’t even charged with criminal behavior.

Remember: even an outright abolition of civil forfeiture wouldn’t mean the police couldn’t seize property from drug traffickers; it would just require the state to prove its suspicions in court before it takes someone’s property.  Criminal asset forfeiture would remain available to law enforcement inasmuch as there is any legitimate law enforcement justification for seizing property.

Lastly, Gov. Hogan’s veto statement announces the establishment of a working group, made up primarily of federal and state law enforcement and prosecutors (with a single seat going to the public defender), to decide whether any change to forfeiture law “is warranted” to prevent abuse and ensure law enforcement can still fight the war on drugs.  Tasking the very people who profit from civil forfeiture abuses with deciding whether changes are warranted casts immense doubt on the possibility of meaningful reform.

SB 528 is already a compromise bill.  It doesn’t abolish civil asset forfeiture, as New Mexico did.  It merely raises the protections due to innocent owners and requires state law enforcement to use state laws instead of excessively permissive federal forfeiture laws.  If even that is too much for Governor Hogan to tolerate, it seems unlikely that a working group of police and prosecutors is going to suggest much in the way of meaningful reform.

Civil asset forfeiture reform is not a partisan issue.  New Mexico’s abolition of the practice resulted from a bill that passed unanimously through both houses of the legislature and was signed by Republican Governor Susana Martinez.  Legislation reining in civil forfeiture in Montana was authored by Rep. Kelly McCarthy and signed by Governor Scott Bullock, both Democrats.

This is not a case of Republicans versus Democrats.  It’s a battle between those who believe that due process and private property rights trump the revenue generation and administrative ease of the state and those who believe that those rights are acceptable collateral damage in the war on crime.  Governor Hogan has chosen the wrong side of this debate.

In what has been aptly named “the world’s dumbest trade war,” both Europe and America have fought to limit imports of low-cost Chinese solar panels.  Much to the chagrin of anyone who likes solar power, the United States and the European Union have imposed high tariffs on Chinese panels in order to protect their own subsidized domestic industries. 

In 2013, the EU negotiated a deal with Chinese solar manufacturers that exempted them from the duties as long as they agreed to sell panels above a set minimum price.  By managing trade in this way, European authorities are essentially creating a solar cartel that divvies up market share among established companies who agree not to compete on price.

But cartel arrangements are notoriously difficult to maintain because any member of the group can ruin the scheme by reneging.  This would seem especially likely when the cartel arrangement was forced on them involuntarily by government in the first place.

So it is that some Chinese companies have tried to find innovative ways to compete despite government price controls.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

Among other violations of the settlement, the commission said Canadian Solar offered unreported “benefits” to its customers in Europe to buy their panels, effectively lowering the sales price below the minimum import-price set by the agreement.

The commission also questioned the practice by Canadian Solar and ReneSola of selling solar cells to firms in non-EU countries for assembly into panels that are then sold to the EU. Because the EU tariffs only apply to panels coming from China, the practice, though not a direct violation of the agreement, allows the two firms’ solar cells to enter the 28-nation EU unrestricted by the agreement.

Darn those Chinese and their legal attempts to help Europeans reduce greenhouse gas emissions through mutually beneficial exchange.  Don’t they know the EU wants prices to stay high to prop up subsidized domestic producers?  Shame on them!

In all seriousness, green industrial policy has become a global problem that will only grow as long as governments find the benefits of free trade in wind and solar power equipment less appealing than doling out privilege through managed trade.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination earlier today. Many recall his 2012 bid, which came to a rather spectacular end when Gov. Perry, on live television, forgot the name of the third federal agency he promised to eliminate if elected president. However, in a recent WSJ op-ed, Gov. Perry redeemed himself by offering a real candidate for elimination: the Export-Import Bank.

The Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) provides financing and loan guarantees at below-market rates to foreign purchasers looking to buy products from American exporters. For example, if Emirates Air wants to buy planes from Boeing, Ex-Im can provide a loan guarantee, reducing the interest rate Emirates will pay, and thus incentivizing Emirates to buy from Boeing rather than Airbus.

Ex-Im’s supporters claim that these subsidies create jobs and finance domestic economic growth. But, they fail to consider the ensuing downstream effects, which Bastiat termed “ce qu’on ne voit pas”–that which is unseen. As the Cato scholar Daniel Ikenson makes clear, every dollar Ex-Im provides to subsidize foreign purchasers of U.S.-produced products discriminates against U.S. consumers of the same products. For example, when Emirates receives a subsidy for planes because it is a foreign company, Emirates gets a leg up on Delta.

An edifying account of how this system works was presented many years ago by the late Prof. Yale Brozen in his foreword to Prof. Leland Yeager’s classic Proposals for Government Credit Allocation (1977):

Whom you know and with whom you have influence becomes more important in obtaining capital than how productively you can use it. Capital is diverted from more productive uses to politically determined applications […]. The national income pie shrinks as an increasing proportion of our capital is allocated by the political process – not only because of its diversion from more productive uses but also because more and more of our resources are devoted to winning political influence, as that becomes the road to access to available capital and subsidies.

For the record, Ex-Im isn’t small potatoes. In FY 2015, Ex-Im’s loans and loan guarantees will total $30.9 billion, or 6.7% of all non-housing federal credit programs (see the accompanying chart). The Ex-Im’s total cumulative loans and guarantees outstanding (read: credit exposure) currently sits at $112 billion. Because the loans are granted at below-market rates, the Ex-Im does not receive fair compensation for the $112 billion of risk it takes on.

Instead of adopting a policy that makes a few U.S. exporters winners at the expense of many losers, there is a way to make all U.S. firms more competitive: just lower the grueling corporate tax rate. Rick Perry also embraces this idea in his op-ed, mirroring what I have been advocating for years.

The message is clear: taxes on corporations increase costs, decrease margins, and often lead to price increases. The top U.S. corporate tax rate (excluding state taxes) currently stands at 35%.

When our sky-high corporate tax rates are the highest of any of the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, something is wrong. There is clearly a better way to unburden U.S. corporations than to sponsor a “bank” in which politicians and bureaucrats, not capital markets, choose winners and losers. Rick Perry is right: it is time to move away from a mercantilist view of trade towards one that puts the market back in control. Kill the Export-Import Bank and cut corporate taxes, please.

The Spin Cycle is a reoccurring feature based upon just how much the latest weather or climate story, policy pronouncement, or simply poo-bah blather spins the truth. Statements are given a rating between 1-5 spin cycles, with less cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.

Today’s press buzz is about a new paper appearing in this week’s Science magazine which concludes that the “hiatus” in global warming is but a byproduct of bad data. The paper, “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus,” was authored by a research team led by Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, Dr. Thomas Karl. Aside from missing the larger point—that the relevant question is not whether the earth is warming, but why it’s warming so much slower than the computer model projections—the paper’s conclusions have been well-run through the spin cycle.

The spin was largely conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of Science magazine, through its embargo campaign and the courting of major science writers in the media before the article had been made available to the general public (and other scientists). Given the obvious weaknesses in the new paper (see below and here, for starters), there seems the potential for more trouble at Science—something that Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt is up to her eyeballs with already.

One major problem with the new Karl and colleagues paper is that the headline-making finding turns out not even to be statistically significant at the standard scientific level—that is, having a less than 1-in-20 chance of being due to chance (unexplained processes) alone.

Instead, the results are reported as being “statistically significant” if they have less than a 1-in-10 chance of being caused by randomness.

More and more we are seeing lax statistical testing being applied in high profile papers (see here and here for recent examples). This tendency is extremely worrisome, as at the same time, the validity of large portions of the scientific literature is being questioned on the basis of (flawed) methodological design and poor application and interpretation of statistics. An illuminating example of how easily poor statistics can make it into the scientific literature and produce a huge influence on the media was given last week in the backstory of a made-up paper claiming eating chocolate could enhance weight loss efforts.

But, as the Karl et al. paper (as well as the other recent papers linked above) shows, some climate scientists are pushing forward with less than robust results anyway.

Why? Here’s a possible clue.

Recall an op-ed in the New York Times a few months back by Naomi Oreskes titled “Playing Dumb on Climate Change.” In it, Oreskes, a science historian (and author of the conspiratorial Merchants of Doubt) argued that since climate change was such an urgent problem, we shouldn’t have to apply the same 1-in-20 set of rigorous statistics to the result—it is slowing down the push for action. Climate scientists, Oreskes argued, were being too conservative in face of a well-known threat and therefore, “lowering the burden of proof” should be acceptable.

Oreskes article and suggestions were summarily panned. Nevertheless, evidence that it is being put into action is plentiful.

The new Karl et al. paper is a perfect example—abrogating normal statistical confidence levels to push a result that will be prime ammunition for the barrage of proposals aimed at restricting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use in producing energy. This is just more politicized science in the Administration’s relentless campaign over the upcoming UN climate summit in Paris, where it will push for a new international agreement restricting carbon dioxide emissions.

As an amusing side, using similar statistical procedures and confidence levels, the observed trend in Karl et al.’s newly-adjusted data is significantly lower than the average trend forecast to have occurred by the collection of climate models used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In other words, these flimsy statistics kill both the “hiatus” and the climate models as well.  

For the spinning non-robust results into major climate-alarming headlines worldwide, we award a Normal Wash spin cycle (three spins) to the AAAS and Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt.  

The very day King John pledged to uphold Magna Carta, June 20, 1215, he asked Pope Innocent III to annul it.  The pope replied, “We utterly reject and condemn this settlement and under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe it and that the barons and their associates should not require it to be observed.”

So, John reneged on his agreement with the barons, they rebelled and formed an alliance with King Philip II of France who prepared to invade England.  Before long, the French Prince Louis entered London, and the French controlled castles throughout England.  The English Church, however, backed John and refused to crown Lewis as England’s king. 

John fled from his pursuers, but somewhere along the line he contracted dysentery and was dying.  He appointed 13 executors including William Marshal who was among the most revered knights in England.  John died on October 19, 1216,  and his nine-year-old son was hastily crowned Henry III.  Because he was under-age, Marshal formed a regency government.  Although Marshal was able to seize an important English castle from the French, the civil war was substantially stalemated.

With John gone, the rebel barons found themselves in an awkward position – their alliance with foreigners who occupied England.  Patriotic English wanted to get the French out.  Fortunately, Prince Louis was happy to collect a bribe, and soon the French went home.

Regent Marshal recognized that there was more likely to be domestic peace if some fundamental legal issues were resolved and that consequently John’s repudiation of Magna Carta must be reversed.   So Marshal reviewed the document, made some cuts, and reissued Magna Carta in late 1216.   Among the cuts was paragraph 61 about the committee of 25 barons who would monitor the king’s compliance with Magna Carta and, if necessary, try to enforce it.  Perhaps less important than those words was the fact that the barons had demonstrated their willingness to use force against a tyrannical king.

The government needed more money again in 1217, and Marshall proposed a tax on the land held by knights – land that provided food and generated revenue to make possible their feudal military service.  Barons resisted, and Marshall reissued the previous version of Magna Carta with some clauses added to protect feudal privileges of the barons.

In February 1225, there were fears that England might be invaded by the French, and the government needed even more money to mount a defense.  There was much debate and eventually an agreement among the barons to pay a tax on moveable goods – provided the king reissued Magna Carta.  Accordingly, Henry III approved a version similar to that of  2017 and affirmed that he did it with his “spontaneous and free will” as well as with his royal seal.  He declared, “neither we nor our heirs will determine anything by which the liberties contained in this charter be violated or weakened.”

Over the centuries, the 1225 Magna Carta was reaffirmed dozens of times by English sovereigns.  In 1311, Edward II referred to some statutes, saying “that they be not contrary to the Great Charter.”

Other countries issued charters intended to limit  a ruler’s power, too, but Magna Carta really took root, and constitutional development went furthest in England.  For instance:

  • Magna Carta appeared in dozens of compilations of English laws, invariably as the first law.  Initially it was in Latin, then French and finally English.
  • The Due Process of Law Act was adopted in 1368, during the reign of Edward III, and it said, in part, that the “Great Charter be holden and kept in all Points, and if any Statute be made to the contrary, that shall be holden for none.”
  • In 1509, King Henry VIII approved of the beheading of Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, accused of looting taxpayers and the government.  One of the formal charges involved violating Magna Carta.

Queen Elizabeth I, near the peak of her power in 1587, wanted to establish a new judicial post in her government for one of her cronies, Richard Cavendish, so he could make a lot of money by issuing certain documents in the common law courts.  She asked administrative judges whose approval was needed.  They refused, and they were charged with disobedience.  They had to explain themselves before the queen.

According to constitutional historian Henry Hallam, the judges said they meant no offense to her majesty, but her order was against “the law of the land” – meaning principles affirmed in Magna Carta.  Consequently, they said “no one is bound to obey such an order.”  When further pressed, they pointed out that the queen herself had sworn to uphold the law of the land.  The judges believed they couldn’t obey her order without violating the laws and their oaths.  The judges cited prior practices that had been rejected, because they violated the laws of the land.  Queen Elizabeth left the chamber without commenting, and nothing more was heard about the matter.

During the 17th century, the legal scholar, judge and member of Parliament Edward Coke (pronounced “Cook”) interpreted Magna Carta as a bedrock of the English constitutional law that enabled people to resist and rebel against the tyrannical Stuart kings. 

Many critics have belittled the importance of Magna Carta by dwelling on the fact that the rebel barons were looking out for their own interests as feudal lords.  But establishing constitutional limits on a ruler with arbitrary power is always extraordinarily difficult.  Some people succeed before others, and their success is likely to make it easier for more people to follow.

Although Magna Carta didn’t derive from the principles of a “higher law,” such as were received by Moses and articulated by Sophocles, Marcus Tullius Cicero, John Lilburne, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson,  and others, from a constitutional standpoint Magna Carta had similar standing.  It didn’t come from rulers.  It couldn’t be repealed.  It was forever.

A new paper posted today on ScienceXpress (from Science magazine), by Thomas Karl, Director of NOAA’s Climate Data Center, and several co-authors[1], that seeks to disprove the “hiatus” in global warming prompts many serious scientific questions.

The main claim[2] by the authors that they have uncovered a significant recent warming trend is dubious. The significance level they report on their findings (.10) is hardly normative, and the use of it should prompt members of the scientific community to question the reasoning behind the use of such a lax standard.

In addition, the authors’ treatment of buoy sea-surface temperature (SST) data was guaranteed to create a warming trend. The data were adjusted upward by 0.12°C to make them “homogeneous” with the longer-running temperature records taken from engine intake channels in marine vessels. 

As has been acknowledged by numerous scientists, the engine intake data are clearly contaminated by heat conduction from the engine itself, and as such, never intended for scientific use. On the other hand, environmental monitoring is the specific purpose of the buoys. Adjusting good data upward to match bad data seems questionable, and the fact that the buoy network becomes increasingly dense in the last two decades means that this adjustment must put a warming trend in the data.

The extension of high-latitude arctic land data over the Arctic Ocean is also questionable. Much of the Arctic Ocean is ice-covered even in high summer, meaning the surface temperature must remain near freezing. Extending land data out into the ocean will obviously induce substantially exaggerated temperatures.

Additionally, there exist multiple measures of bulk lower atmosphere temperature independent from surface measurements which indicate the existence of a “hiatus”[3]. If the Karl et al., result were in fact robust, it could only mean that the disparity between surface and mid-tropospheric temperatures is even larger that previously noted. 

Getting the vertical distribution of temperature wrong invalidates virtually every forecast of sensible weather made by a climate model, as much of that weather (including rainfall) is determined in large part by the vertical structure of the atmosphere.

Instead, it would seem more logical to seriously question the Karl et al. result in light of the fact that, compared to those bulk temperatures, it is an outlier, showing a recent warming trend that is not in line with these other global records.

And finally, even presuming all the adjustments applied by the authors ultimately prove to be accurate, the temperature trend reported during the “hiatus” period (1998-2014), remains significantly below (using Karl et al.’s measure of significance) the mean trend projected by the collection of climate models used in the most recent report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

It is important to recognize that the central issue of human-caused climate change is not a question of whether it is warming or not, but rather a question of how much. And to this relevant question, the answer has been, and remains, that the warming is taking place at a much slower rate than is being projected.

The distribution of trends of the projected global average surface temperature for the period 1998-2014 from 108 climate model runs used in the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)(blue bars). The models were run with historical climate forcings through 2005 and extended to 2014 with the RCP4.5 emissions scenario. The surface temperature trend over the same period, as reported by Karl et al. (2015, is included in red. It falls at the 2.4th percentile of the model distribution and indicates a value that is (statistically) significantly below the model mean projection.

[1] Karl, T. R., et al., Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus. Scienceexpress, embargoed until 1400 EDT June 4, 2015.

[2] “It is also noteworthy that the new global trends are statistically significant and positive at the 0.10 significance level for 1998-2012…”

[3] Both the UAH and RSS satellite records are now in their 21st year without a significant trend, for example

Although Venezuela’s inflation has soared (see: Up, Up, and Away), Venezuela is not experiencing a hyperinflationary episode–yet. Since the publication of Prof. Phillip Cagan’s famous 1956 study The Monetary Dynamics of Hyperinflation, the convention has been to define hyperinflation as when the monthly inflation rate exceeds 50%.

I regularly estimate the monthly inflation rates for Venezuela. To calculate those inflation rates, I use dynamic purchasing power parity (PPP) theory. While Venezuela’s monthly inflation rate has not advanced beyond the 50% per month mark on a sustained basis, it is dangerously close. Indeed, Venezuela’s inflation rate is currently 45% per month (see the accompanying chart).

If inflation moves much higher, the legacy of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution will be that Venezuela joins the rather select hyperinflation club as the 57th member. Yes, there have only been 56 documented hyperinflations

GOP Agrees Bush Was Wrong to Invade Iraq, Now What?”—that’s how the US News headline put it last week. A good question, because it’s not at all clear what that grudging concession signifies. It’s nice that 12 years after George W. Bush lumbered into the biggest foreign policy disaster in a generation, the leading Republican contenders are willing to concede, under enhanced interrogation, that maybe it wasn’t the right call. It would be nicer still if we could say they’d learned something from that disaster. 

Alas, the candidates’ peevish and evasive answers to the Iraq Question didn’t provide any evidence for that. Worst of all was Jeb Bush’s attempt to duck the question by using fallen soldiers as the rhetorical equivalent of a human shield. Ohio governor John Kasich flirted with a similar tactic—“There’s a lot of people who lost limbs and lives over there, OK?”—before conceding, “But if the question is, if there were not weapons of mass destruction should we have gone, the answer would’ve been no.” 

That’s how most of the GOP field eventually answered the question, with some version of
the “faulty intelligence” excuse. We thought Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical
and biological weapons and was poised for a nuclear breakout; it was just our bad luck
that turned out not to be true; so the war was—well, not a “mistake,” insists Marco Rubio, just, er—whatever the word is for something you definitely wouldn’t do again if you had the
power to travel back in time. As Scott Walker, who’s been studying up super-hard on
foreign policy, explained: you can’t fault President Bush: invading Iraq just made sense, based on “the information he had available” at the time. 

Well, no—invading Iraq was a spectacularly bad idea based on what we knew at the time. If we’d found stockpiles of so-called WMD, it would still have been a spectacularly bad idea. Saddam’s possession of unconventional weapons was a necessary condition in the Bush administration’s case for war, but it wasn’t—or shouldn’t have been—sufficient to make that case compelling, because with or without chemical and biological weapons, Saddam’s Iraq was never a national security threat to the United States. 

Put aside the fact that, as applied to chem/bio, “WMD” is a misnomer; assume for the sake of argument that President Bush’s claim that “one vial, one canister, one crate” of the stuff could “bring a day of horror like none we have ever known” was an evidence-based, good-faith assessment of those weapons’ potential, instead of a ludicrous and cynical exaggeration. Even so, you’d still have to show that Saddam Hussein was so hell-bent on hitting the U.S., he’d risk near-certain destruction to do it. 

There was never any good reason to believe that. This, after all, was a dictator who, during the 1991 Gulf War, had been deterred from using chemical weapons against US troops in the middle of an ongoing invasion. As then-Secretary of State James Baker later explained, the George H.W. Bush administration:

made it very clear that if Iraq used weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, against United States forces that the American people would demand vengeance and that we had the means to achieve it. … we made it clear that in addition to ejecting Iraq from Kuwait, if they used those types of weapons against our forces we would in addition to throwing them out of Kuwait, we would adopt as a goal the elimination of the regime in Baghdad.

Eleven years later, as the George W. Bush administration pushed for another war with Iraq, there wasn’t any convincing evidence that Saddam Hussein had, in the interim, warmed up to the idea of committing regime suicide through the use of CBW. Even the flawed October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) prepared during the run-up to the Iraq War vote concluded that “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington a stronger cause for making war.” 

By that time, with Bush 43 sounding the alarm about Iraq’s “growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas [including] missions targeting the United States,” it should have been apparent that the case for war rested on a series of imaginary hobgoblins. As Jim Henley put it a couple of years ago, “In the annals of projection, the US claim that Saddam was building tiny remote-controlled death planes wins some kind of prize.”  

What if the Iraqi dictator instead passed off those weapons to terrorists, “secretly and without fingerprints”? In the 2003 State of the Union, that’s what President Bush argued Saddam just might do: “imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein.” But the notion that Hussein was likely to pass chemical or biological weapons to Al Qaeda was only slightly less fantastic than the scenario that had him crop-dusting US cities with short-range, Czech-built training drones. As my colleague Doug Bandow pointed out at the time: “Baghdad would be the immediate suspect and likely target of retaliation should any terrorist deploy [WMD], and Saddam knows this.” 

I made similar arguments two weeks before the war in a piece called “Why Hussein Will Not Give Weapons of Mass Destruction to Al Qaeda”:  

The idea that Hussein views a WMD strike via terrorist intermediaries as a viable strategy is rank speculation, contradicted by his past behavior. Hussein’s hostility toward Israel predates his struggle with the United States. He’s had longstanding ties with anti-Israeli terror groups and he’s had chemical weapons for over 20 years. Yet there has never been a nerve gas attack in Israel. Why? Because Israel has nuclear weapons and conventional superiority, and Hussein wants to live. If he’s ever considered passing off chemical weapons to Palestinian terrorists, he decided that he wouldn’t get away with it. He has even less reason to trust Al Qaeda with a potentially regime-ending secret.

In its 2004 after-action reassessment of the administration’s case for preventive war, the Carnegie Endowment concluded

there was no positive evidence to support the claim that Iraq would have transferred WMD or agents to terrorist groups and much evidence to counter it. Bin Laden and Saddam were known to detest and fear each other, the one for his radical religious beliefs and the other for his aggressively secular rule and persecution of Islamists. Bin Laden labeled the Iraqi ruler an infidel and an apostate, had offered to go to battle against him after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and had frequently called for his overthrow. … the most intensive searching over the last two years has produced no solid evidence of a cooperative relationship between Saddam’s government and Al Qaeda. ….the Iraqi regime had a long history of sponsoring terrorism against Israel, Kuwait, and Iran, providing money and weapons to these groups. Yet over many years Saddam did not transfer chemical, biological, or radiological materials or weapons to any of them “probably because he knew that they could one day be used against his secular regime.”

In the judgment of U.S. intelligence, a transfer of WMD by Saddam to terrorists was likely only if he were “sufficiently desperate” in the face of an impending invasion. Even then, the NIE concluded, he would likely use his own operatives before terrorists. Even without the particular relationship between Saddam and bin Laden, the notion that any government would turn over its principal security assets to people it could not control is highly dubious. States have multiple interests and land, people, and resources to protect. They have a future. Governments that made such a transfer would put themselves at the mercy of groups that have none of these. Terrorists would not even have to use the weapons but merely allow the transfer to become known to U.S. intelligence to call down the full wrath of the United States on the donor state, thereby opening opportunities for themselves. 

You don’t have to “know what we know now” to recognize the poverty of the case for war. You just had to know what we knew then. 

Even so, it’s possible that GOP hawks have learned something from the Iraq debacle, however loathe they are to admit it. Like Saddam’s Iraq, the Syrian and Iranian regimes have long had unconventional weapons and links to terrorist proxies. But I haven’t heard even Lindsey Graham or Marco Rubio invoke the risk of terrorist transfer to make the case for war with Iran or Syria. Perhaps that’s because it’s as unpersuasive an argument now as it should have been then. 

Besides, maybe it’s asking too much to expect professional politicians to depart entirely from the sentiments of the people they want to vote for them. A recent Vox Populi/Daily Caller poll asked Republican voters in early primary states: “Looking back now, and regardless of what you thought at the time, do you think it was the right decision for the United States to invade Iraq in 2003?” Nearly 60 percent of them answered in the affirmative. The GOP’s 2016 contenders may not have good answers to the Iraq Question, but, apparently, they’re miles ahead of their constituents.  

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