Monthly Archives: November 2009

Obama lost, Obama found. John Heilemann, New York. “You’d have to be stone deaf not to hear the air hissing out of the Obama balloon.” But perhaps it’s not too late… A superb piece.

The Top 100 Global Thinkers. Foreign Policy. Infantile, but entertaining. Keep those lists coming. We need more lists.

Populism, politics, and the power of Sarah Palin. Sam Tanenhaus, The New Yorker.

Journalism and democracy. Nicholas Lemann, Chronicle of Higher Education. (Thanks A&L.)

In my previous post on Climategate I blithely said that nothing in the climate science email dump surprised me much. Having waded more deeply over the weekend I take that back.

The closed-mindedness of these supposed men of science, their willingness to go to any lengths to defend a preconceived message, is surprising even to me. The stink of intellectual corruption is overpowering. And, as Christopher Booker argues, this scandal is not at the margins of the politicised IPCC process. It is not tangential to the policy prescriptions emanating from what David Henderson called the environmental policy milieu [subscription required]. It goes to the core of that process.

One theme, in addition to those already mentioned about the suppression of dissent, the suppression of data and methods, and the suppression of the unvarnished truth, comes through especially strongly: plain statistical incompetence. This is something that Henderson’s study raised, and it was also emphasised in the Wegman report on the Hockey Stick, and in other independent studies of the Hockey Stick controversy. Of course it is also an ongoing issue in Steve McIntyre’s campaign to get hold of data and methods. Nonetheless I had given it insufficient weight. Climate scientists lean very heavily on statistical methods, but they are not necessarily statisticians. Some of the correspondents in these emails appear to be out of their depth. This would explain their anxiety about having statisticians, rather than their climate-science buddies, crawl over their work.

I’m also surprised by the IPCC’s response. Amid the self-justification, I had hoped for a word of apology, or even of censure. (George Monbiot called for Phil Jones to resign, for crying out loud.) At any rate I had expected no more than ordinary evasion. The declaration from Rajendra Pachauri that the emails confirm all is as it should be is stunning. Science at its best. Science as it should be. Good lord. This is pure George Orwell. And these guys call the other side “deniers”.

While I’m listing surprises, let me note how disappointed I was by The Economist’s coverage of all this. “Leaked emails do not show climate scientists at their best,” it observes. No indeed. I should say I worked at the magazine for years, admire it as much as ever, and rely on the science coverage especially. But I was baffled by its reaction to the scandal. “Little wonder that the scientists are looking tribal and jumpy, and that sceptics have leapt so eagerly on such tiny scraps as proof of a conspiracy,” its report concludes. Tiny scraps?  I detest anti-scientific thinking as much as The Economist does. I admire expertise, and scientific expertise especially; like any intelligent citizen I am willing to defer to it. But that puts a great obligation on science. The people whose instinct is to respect and admire science should be the ones most disturbed by these revelations. The scientists have let them down, and made the anti-science crowd look wise. That is outrageous.

Megan McArdle adopts a world-weary tone similar to The Economist’s: this is how science is done in the real world. If I were a scientist, I would resent that. She has criticised the emails and the IPCC response to them, then says she still believes the consensus view on climate change. Well, that was my position at the end of last week, and I suppose it still is. But how do I defend it? There is far more of a problem here for the consensus view than Megan and ordinarily reliable commentators like The Economist acknowledge. I am not a climate scientist. In the end I have to trust the experts. That is what we are asked to do. “Trust us, we’re scientists”.

Remember that this is not an academic exercise. We contemplate outlays of trillions of dollars to fix this supposed problem. Can I read these emails and feel that the scientists involved deserve to be trusted? No, I cannot. These people are willing to subvert the very methods–notably, peer review–that underwrite the integrity of their discipline. Is this really business as usual in science these days? If it is, we should demand higher standards–at least whenever “the science” calls for a wholesale transformation of the world economy. And maybe some independent oversight to go along with the higher standards.

The IPCC process needs to be fixed, as a matter of the greatest urgency. Read David Henderson or the Wegman report to see how. And in the meantime, let’s have some independent inquiries into what has been going on.

Willem Buiter on his FT blog about why Dubai matters:

The massive build-up of sovereign debt as a result of the financial crisis and especially as a result of the severe contraction that followed the crisis, makes it all but inevitable that the final chapter of the crisis and its aftermath will involve sovereign default, perhaps dressed up as sovereign debt restructuring or even debt deferral. The Dubai World and Nakheel debt standstill and possible default is of systemic significance only because it may well be a harbinger of future sovereign financial distress, in Dubai and elsewhere.

From Dubai to Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan, France, the UK and the USA, the sovereign debt burdens have been at current levels during peacetime only on the way down from even higher public debt burdens incurred during wars.  Watching the pubic debt to GDP ratios rise to levels likely to reach or exceed 100 percent of GDP by 2014 is deeply worrying, especially with structural primary (non-interest) deficits as high as they are.  The political economy of fiscal burden sharing, inside nations and between nations, will be a major field of enquiry for economists and political scientists during the years to come. I am pessimistic in that regard about countries characterised by deep polarisation and political gridlock.  This includes nations as different as Greece and the USA.

It is clear that nations whose public debt is mainly denominated in domestic currency and whose central bank is either not very independent or can be make dependent by the government of the day are likely to choose inflation and exchange rate depreciation over default as a way out of fiscal-financial unsustainability.  That category would include the USA and, to a lesser extent, the UK.  Because the ECB faces 16 national governments and national ministries of finance, the power and independence of the ECB are much greater vis-a-vis any Euro Area member state than the power and independence of any central bank facing a single national government and Treasury.  That is regardless of the formal independence criteria laid down in laws, treaties or constitutions.

The practical implication of this is that the ECB will not monetise the government debt and deficits of small European Area member states… For small peripheral European nations, the threat of sovereign insolvency is therefore a real one, unless EU fiscal solidarity can be relied upon to bail them out.

Bromley

Even more than healthcare, the war in Afghanistan will decide whether Barack Obama succeeds or fails. On Tuesday night, in a speech at the West Point military academy broadcast across the country, Mr Obama will lay out his plans.

Mr Obama already owns this “necessary” war, as he has called it, contrasting this battle with his predecessor’s supposedly needless war in Iraq. But Tuesday’s speech will expunge the last particle of doubt on that score. He is expected to commit upwards of 30,000 more US troops to the mission.

Added to the 21,000 extra soldiers he has already assigned, plus support forces, this increase would roughly treble the Bush administration’s commitment. Last week, again to mark the contrast with the previous administration, Mr Obama promised to “finish the job”. Muscular talk, and making the announcement at West Point underscores it. If health reform goes wrong, there will be others to blame. If this war goes wrong, it will be all his fault. It is Mr Obama’s biggest bet by far.

The remainder of this article can be read here. Please post comments below.

Ron Brownstein has an interesting column in National Journal arguing that the Senate health care bill makes a serious effort to curb costs. This longer piece on the Atlantic website, “A Milestone in the Health Care Journey” is also well worth reading.

Though I agree with much of what Ron says, and if I were a senator would vote for this bill rather than no bill, it depends what you mean by a serious effort to curb costs.

Barack Obama’s foreign policy: subtle, or just weak? The Economist.

Emails don’t prove that climate change is a fraud. Gene Robinson, Washington Post. An anti-”denier” gives climate scientists some good advice: welcome contrarian views, don’t try to squelch them, and admit what you don’t know. Why is that so hard?

Mr Obama goes to Copenhagen. FT

Large changes in fiscal policy. Alesina and Ardagna (via Greg Mankiw).

Bonus reading: Win a date with E.J. Dionne. Michael Kinsley, Slate. I missed this somehow first time round. Mike reminded me of it yesterday. Olden but golden. “Not that [Nicholas] Kristof ignores women’s issues. He opposes rape, for example. Chicks love that.”

Yes, the future deficits are worrisome, says Jim Hamilton at Econobrowser. He’s responding to a series of articles and blog posts by Paul Krugman–most recently this column on “the phantom menace“; see also this blog post on invisible bond vigilantes–arguing that the dangers of public borrowing are being exaggerated.

It’s an important discussion and you should go to the sources. But here’s a summary. Krugman stresses two main points. First, to make fiscal policy sustainable, you don’t need to reduce the ratio of debt to output, you just need to stabilise it–and there is no compelling reason why you should aim to stabilise it at current levels, rather than at the higher levels which several more years of big deficits will cause. Countries like Belgium and Italy have much higher debt ratios than the US. So what’s the problem?  Second, economic growth makes deficits and additional debt easily affordable, so long as interest rates are low enough in relation to the growth rate to keep a lid on debt-service costs. Interest rates are (very) low at the moment, so what’s the problem?

Browner shrugs off climate change emails. Wall Street Journal.

On the credibility of climate research. Climate audit. Read the comments too.

George Monbiot says climate-science head should roll. Guardian. Monbiot defends the climate-science consensus (quite right), finds a new way to express contempt for dissenters (a pity), and calls on the head of the CRU to resign (which is surprising: good for him).

Obama vs Democrats on Afghanistan. Washington Post.

The secret details of Obama’s Afghan plan. Daily Beast. Leslie Gelb says he knows.

Why Thanksgiving. Jay Cost at Real Clear Politics.

I can’t see that Obama’s decision to go to Copenhagen and proclaim a goal for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions amounts to much. The 17 per cent cut by 2020 he is talking about is in line with the reductions foreseen in the bills now in Congress, but those bills are stuck. Perhaps it would be unseemly not to turn up at all–since he will be in the area, collecting his Nobel prize for most promising world leader–but he cannot disguise the fact that, despite all the expectations aroused earlier, he is going empty-handed. It isn’t the world he needs to convince on global warming, it is the electorate back home.

This is all the harder since the climate science email dump, which showed leading experts–people calling for enormous changes in how the world’s economies work–discussing ways to keep their data private, manipulate public opinion, and deny dissenters access to the professional literature. (None of those emails surprised me, by the way. When it comes to public relations, the climate-science cabal is its own worst enemy. I’m surprised so many people are surprised.)

I’ll return to this subject–but I continue to believe, in any case, that quantitative targets are not the way to go. Despite the totalitarian instincts of some climate scientists, the problem is real and needs to be addressed. Kyoto, however, proved beyond a doubt that the quantity-target  approach is too complicated. Convergence on a global price of carbon makes much better sense, not just in economic terms, but as a matter of practical diplomacy as well. The Senate bill nods in that direction by contemplating a price collar–in effect, a target for prices not quantities. That is the way to go, but the diplomacy needs to be reorganised around the idea. The administration should be leading that effort, and simultaneously making its case to US voters.

I’m still thinking about whether Copenhagen is merely another pointless international sideshow, or, like the intellectual intolerance of the climate-science establishment, an actual obstacle to getting this job done. Probably the latter.

So now Lou Dobbs weighs a run for the Senate–as a stepping stone, mind you, to the presidency. Asked whether he had been urged to ponder a White House run, “Yes, is the answer,” he said. Sarah Palin, far more likeable than Dobbs in my view, probably belongs in a similar category, though she is approaching it from the opposite direction: a politician burnishing her credentials as a celebrity, and making a ton of money in the process, rather than the other way round.

Sarah Palin would surely be better as a replacement for Oprah Winfrey than as president, and I say that not to belittle her: Oprah is an astonishing woman, a force of nature. But the point is, the fields are merging. Or I should say they continue to. Let us not forget Ronald Reagan, who did pretty well as president, considering.

Oprah should run for something. Al Franken has already broken through the Senate’s glass ceiling for second-rate comedians. John Stewart, a first-rate comedian, should follow his example. And if the electorate hesitates, there is always the appointments process. I envisage Charlie Rose as secretary of state and Jim Cramer as Treasury secretary (a celebrity bloviator with serious money: perfect). Conan O’Brien? CIA director. Angelina Jolie, obviously, at the UN. And Lewis Black would be an outstanding Fed chairman.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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