14 Aug 2009

Science or Not? CRU Admits It No Longer Has Original Temperature Records

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This is a great example of where suspicion of the other side’s motives can really juice up a conflict. The global warming debate is chock full of this tendency. Check out this story, which is based on true facts (as I understand them):

The world’s source for global temperature record admits it’s lost or destroyed all the original data that would allow a third party to construct a global temperature record. The destruction (or loss) of the data comes at a convenient time for the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in East Anglia – permitting it to snub FoIA requests to see the data.

The CRU has refused to release the raw weather station data and its processing methods for inspection – except to hand-picked academics – for several years. Instead, it releases a processed version, in gridded form. NASA maintains its own (GISSTEMP), but the CRU Global Climate Dataset, is the most cited surface temperature record by the UN IPCC. So any errors in CRU cascade around the world, and become part of “the science”.

Professor Phil Jones, the activist-scientist who maintains the data set, has cited various reasons for refusing to release the raw data. Most famously, Jones told an Australian climate scientist in 2004:

Even if WMO agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.

In 2007, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, CRU initially said it didn’t have to fulfil the requests because “Information accessible to applicant via other means Some information is publicly available on external websites”.

Now it’s citing confidentiality agreements with Denmark, Spain, Bahrain and our own Mystic Met Office. Others may exist, CRU says in a statement, but it might have lost them because it moved offices. Or they were made verbally, and nobody at CRU wrote them down.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some kidney shots in the above–like calling Phil Jones an “activist-scientist.” But even so, you can get why the “global warming is a hoax” crowd would look at this and think their worst fears had been vindicated decisively. I mean, just think of it: The group that is the caretaker of one of the most venerable global temperature series, is basically just asking us to trust it!

That was actually Roger Pielke’s take on the whole sordid affair. And I have to confess, it did seem crazy to me that Jones gave his excuse with a straight face. But then Chip Knappenberger, a climate scientist who often blogs at MasterResource, posted a comment on Pielke’s blog that made me doubt my quick conclusion:

I have plenty (probably the vast majority) of papers which I couldn’t provide the raw data for if asked, much less many of my analysis routines. But, in my published papers, I include Data, Methods, and Results sections where I describe my work. And the fact that it is peer-reviewed means that someone, somewhere, with some qualifications in the field thought it was reasonable. So readers of my papers don’t simply have to “trust me” even if I can’t provide the data and/or the routines at some later date. If what I have done is wrong, it’ll be replaced by new and improved science, either by me or others—that is one of the primary ways that science moves forward—historically with our without the co-operation of all interested parties.

Perhaps my way of thinking about this is old-school and a new era is upon us (one which I have yet to fully embrace and not sure I ever will, especially the latter) in which everyone has to use the same data archiving techniques and the same analytical tools and reviewers will be required to precisely replicate the results before they are published—if not the reviewers themselves, perhaps a staff of analysts employed by the journals. But even if this will someday be the case, I don’t see how it should be retroactively applicable. Will all the journals be wiped clean of all past material, only to have it reinstated once each and every article has been replicated?

So if the CRU is guilty of requiring people to just “trust them” them, I would imagine that so too are 90% or more of all the authors ever published in the scientific literature.

I should stress that there are two distinct issues in the global warming (aka climate change) debate: First, what is our understanding of the impact of human activities on the environment? Second, what (if anything) should the government do, in light of this scientific understanding?

Libertarians shouldn’t be afraid to find out that the climate’s true sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions is on the high end of the range of guesses. And they certainly shouldn’t rest their opposition to cap and trade legislation on the relatively fragile claim that “global warming is a hoax.” I consider it a much safer argument to observe, “Politicians have never solved a societal defect in the history of the world.”

14 Aug 2009

Pentagon Seeks Authority to Post 379,000 Troops in U.S.

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Reader cypress brings this alarming story to our attention. I am not familiar with the website so I can’t vouch for the claims, but here’s what it says:

The Pentagon has approached Congress to grant the Secretary of Defense the authority to post almost 400,000 military personnel throughout the United States in times of emergency or a major disaster.

This request has already occasioned a dispute with the nation’s governors. And it raises the prospect of U.S. military personnel patrolling the streets of the United States, in conflict with the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.

In June, the U.S. Northern Command distributed a “Congressional Fact Sheet” entitled “Legislative Proposal for Activation of Federal Reserve Forces for Disasters.” That proposal would amend current law, thereby “authorizing the Secretary of Defense to order any unit or member of the Army Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Navy Reserve, and the Marine Corps Reserve, to active duty for a major disaster or emergency.”

Taken together, these reserve units would amount to “more than 379,000 military personnel in thousands of communities across the United States,” explained
Paul Stockton, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and America’s Security Affairs, in a letter to the National Governors Association, dated July 20.

The governors were not happy about this proposal, since they want to maintain control of their own National Guard forces, as well as military personnel acting in a domestic capacity in their states.

“We are concerned that the legislative proposal you discuss in your letter would invite confusion on critical command and control issues,” Governor James H. Douglas of Vermont and Governor Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the president and vice president of the governors’ association, wrote in a letter back to Stockton on August 7. The governors asserted that they “must have tactical control over all . . . active duty and reserve military forces engaged in domestic operations within the governor’s state or territory.”

According to Pentagon public affairs officer Lt. Col. Almarah K. Belk, Stockton has not responded formally to the governors but understands their concerns.

“There is a rub there,” she said. “If the Secretary calls up the reserve personnel to provide support in a state and retains command and control of those forces, the governors are concerned about if I have command and control of the Guard, how do we ensure unity of effort and everyone is communicating and not running over each other.”

Yeah, I’m sure that’s what the governors are worried about.

14 Aug 2009

On the Other Hand: A Sample of Brad DeLong

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Every once in a while it occurs to me that it’s possible my worldview has a serious flaw in it, and that the people who really drive me through the roof might actually be right. Fortunately, such moments soon pass and I can get back to blogging.

But just to make sure you guys realize that our opponents aren’t morons, let me quote from a recent Brad DeLong essay in which he discusses the thought of John Hicks. After explaining the conventional mechanism through which central bank operations can stimulate an economy, DeLong says:

A little thought, however, will lead us to the conclusion that such open-market operations may fail. In them, the Federal Reserve is buying bonds, shrinking the supply of bonds out there–and thus pushing up their price and pushing down interest rates. For each amount that the Federal Reserve expands the money stock, therefore, it puts downward pressure on interest rates and thus on monetary velocity. In the limit where interest rates are so low that people don’t really see a difference between cash and short-term government bonds like Treasury bills, open-market operations have no effect because they simply swap one zero-yielding government asset for another.

It is in this situation that a government deficit can be useful. A government deficit means that the government is printing and issuing a lot of bonds at exactly the same moment that private investors are looking for a safe asset to hold. As these bonds hit the market, people who otherwise would have socked their money away in cash–thus diminishing monetary velocity and slowing spending–buy the bonds instead. A large and timely government deficit thus short-circuits the adjustment mechanism, and avoids the collapse in monetary velocity that was the source of all the trouble.

Lately I have come to believe that the notorious “liquidity trap” is a legitimate phenomenon. The closer nominal interest rates approach zero, the more that government debt begins to resemble government fiat money. This surely can’t be a good thing.

Think of it: The central government and central bank conspire to take the distinct markets of debt and money, and merge them into a common reality. It’s like they divided by zero.

Naturally, I’m not endorsing the Keynesian policy prescriptions for “what to do when you’re in a liquidity trap.” But I’m saying that Keynesians have been saying for more than a year that something funky happens when central banks drive interest rates down to zero. And unfortunately, their Chicago School / monetarist critics have largely ignored their insights.

14 Aug 2009

Yet Another Reason They Will Legalize Marijuana, Soon

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Lately I have been giving economic arguments that suggest the government will soon have to legalize marijuana. I’ve come up with an independent argument.

The authorities over the next few years will need to legalize marijuana in order to clean out the prisons. They will need to make room for people like you.

14 Aug 2009

Picture Rod Serling Discussing Atlas Shrugged

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Walter Block sends along this amazing video. (If you aren’t into it by 2:00, then you should stop it. But many of you will be hooked by that point.) Does anyone recognize this guy? Is this clip part of a show?

14 Aug 2009

The "Efficient Markets Hypothesis" Is a Mental Crutch for Economists

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In a recent post, I discussed Robert Lucas’ defense of mainstream macroeconomics. Lucas made excuses for why economists couldn’t have predicted the housing crash, excuses that drove me to declare, “I’m starting to think the efficient markets hypothesis is a state of mind, a consciously chosen way of looking at the world. I’m not sure what it would mean to really falsify it.”

I’m going to take another swipe at this, since others are adopting Lucas’ line. For example, William Easterly recently wrote:

[E]conomists did something even better than predict the crisis. We correctly predicted that we would not be able to predict it. The most important part of the much-maligned Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH) is that nobody can systematically beat the stock market. Which implies nobody can predict a market crash, because if you could, then you would obviously beat the market.

Picture a man who had watched CNBC faithfully through 2004 and 2005, and who had borrowed against his pension in order to buy six condos in Las Vegas. Then, after everything blew up in his face–what he had previously been assured was a “six sigma” event–the man asked, “How did you economists fail to see this coming?!” Can you imagine what that guy would do, if William Easterly happened to be there to give him the above answer?

Easterly, Lucas, and other economists think they are oh so clever, yet they’re merely assuming their conclusion. They look out at the world, and see that it can be made consistent with the EMH if we assume certain other things about how the world works.

But by the same token, suppose that the critics of the economic forecasters are correct, and that groups of people–including economists and investors–are capable of making systematic errors for years at a time. Now if that alternate view of the world were correct–meaning the EMH had to be false–then what would the last five years have looked like? Well gee, they would have looked like what just happened. In other words, we can quite easily make the theory of “not-EMH” consistent with the observations.

For example, right now there are some people who are quite convinced that very large price inflation is imminent, while there are other people who are quite convinced that very large price deflation is imminent. The prices for gold, silver, and 30-year Treasurys are constantly shifting, but at any given time they do their part to balance the speculative powers in the camps of the dollar bulls vs. dollar bears. Especially in these unprecedented times, when people are unsure even what framework to use when anticipating the future, it is rather misleading to think in terms of an “equilibrium price” for a one-year put on oil futures. At any time, the put’s price should be interpreted as a ceasefire, not as a “best guess.”

Now let’s suppose that the people worried about collapsing credit lines (e.g. Mish) turn out to be right. The CPI falls by about 10% a year for the next four years. If that happens, I promise that I will say, “I was wrong and Mish was right.”

I’m not going to say, “I didn’t predict this coming, but then again no one did. If Mish thinks he predicted it, he’s sadly mistaken. His arguments and graphs were all taken up by the market, and yet gold remained above $900. Therefore Mish just got lucky; he really couldn’t have known for sure that this would happen.”

I am not being cute or making an analogy; I think the above paragraph is literally what Lucas and Easterly have done, albeit they could point to formal models with Greek letters to make their case less blatant. Even so, they are imposing the EMH on the world, and they don’t even realize it.

14 Aug 2009

The Policeman Is Not Your Friend, Leave the Kids in a Freezing Car for 40 Minutes Edition

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Robert Wenzel sends me this tale of a Syracuse mom getting tased and arrested. She had been pulled over for talking on her cell phone, which made her indignant because she didn’t have a cell phone in the car. (She had been holding her hand to her cheek while driving.) Apparently, the cop took her to jail and left the 15- and 5-year-old kids in the minivan on the road, where they sat for 40 minutes. This happened back in January, when it is friggin’ freezin’ in Syracuse.

(For you voyeurs, there is a video showing the arrest, narrated by the woman.)

14 Aug 2009

Two Murphy Audio Events

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* Here is a 15-minute interview with Lew Rockwell. (Remember, the LRC podcasts are regular hyperlinks that take you to a new page. Then you play the interview from the page.)

* Here [.mp3] is my Mises Circle talk on the first full day of this year’s Mises University. It’s about 45 minutes long, but if you’re borderline, I’d nudge you over the edge to go ahead and listen to it. There were some good jokes, as far as a talk on monetary policy goes.

UPDATE: Oops I forgot to mention, the Mises Circle talk was held outdoors. So I was mic’ed and standing at the top of a short staircase, looking out to a crowd of 180 students as they wrapped up dinner. That’s why I’m talking loudly in the beginning, because it took a few minutes for the young punks to settle down and start lapping up my wisdom. Tom Woods had to lay down the law for one group of chatterboxes near the back.