Corruption of the Bureaucracy Watch

The Washington Post had a great story which reported that:

Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sent an all-staff email Friday afternoon in an apparent effort to repair damage from an unusual Sept. 6 statement that sided with President Trump rather than agency weather forecasters.

I have obtained a copy of the email and have posted it here. It states that:

Scientific integrity is at the heart of NOAA’s mission and culture, and is essential for maintaining the public’s trust.

Of course, for the government to function properly, all of its component parts must act with integrity. Thus, the NOAA story is but a subpart of the much larger story of a broad-based attempt by the Trump Administration to undermine the integrity of the federal bureaucracy by the Trump Administration.

Going forward, I will attempt to focus on similar examples of this corruption. One question that I would pose to those contributors to the RBC who are from the UK: Is the bureaucracy there under a similar attack? If it either is or were presented with similar pressures, is it institutionally more resistant?

Financing hydrogen iron

A wonkish plan for problem industries in the energy transition.

We know how to make the electricity supply renewable. We know how to make land transport electric. Both are on track. But there are four problem industries where things are not so clear.

These estimates are not all for the same year and not strictly comparable, but they are good enough to make the point that to reach net zero emissions, the four sectors (together 20% of global fossil emissions) cannot be ignored.

The challenges are distinct but they have common features.

  1. Very plausible technological pathways exist to decarbonise. But these are not mature, and for the moment they are far more expensive than BAU.
  2. There is no guarantee or strong expectation that technical progress will ever eliminate the cost barrier, in contrast to electricity and land vehicles.
  3. The industries are typical of modern capitalism: they are international and oligopolistic, with a lot of trade, a handful of large companies, and a myriad of small ones.
  4. Their products and services rarely have plausible substitutes. (We shall see later on why this matters).

Points 1 and 2 mean that the issue for public policy is not R&D (pace all the Democratic presidential hopefuls) but early deployment.

Recall how we got to cheap wind, solar and batteries. It wasn’t a carbon tax, since that does not exist anywhere in the pure form. Partial cap-and-trade exists in the EU, but it has only just started to bite, after giveaway initial allocations. It was done by subsidies for early deployment to create economies of learning and scale:

  • In the USA, tax breaks for wind, solar, and electric cars; renewable obligations at state level.
  • In Europe and China, tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory privileges for electric cars.
  • FITs and ringfenced auctions for wind and solar generation in Germany, other European countries, China and India.

The costs of FITs have been large in the past, though the cumulative liability (in Germany for instance) has now almost stopped growing as the few surviving FITs are near market rates. Well worth it of course, especially if you aren’t a German consumer.

The same principle holds for our four problem industries. Carbon taxes are politically toxic, and a coordination nightmare in globalised industries. So what’s the workable second-best kludge?

I’d like to float a possible solution. I’ll take steel as the example. The principle extends to the others ceteris paribus.


Weekend Book Recommendation: Tales from the Society for the Preservation of Preposterous Absurdity

If we cannot help, we may at least hinder

I have written here before of my love for books that employ a bonkers narrator to deliver absurdist humor, and I have another gem of that cut to recommend this week. A perfectly ludicrous set of adventures are related in this collection by the is-he-a-genius-or-has-he-just-gone-spare Dr. Martin Smotheringdale, President of the Society for the Preservation of Preposterous Absurdity. Smotheringdale introduces the reader to a strange society via a series of investigations into mysterious problems, which through diligent effort he usually manages to make worse.

The hilarious stories in this book are reminiscent of Douglas Adams in being suffused with high-end scientific nonsense, from quantum kittens to a clowder of Schrodinger cats to black hole spaghetti makers. This reflects the day job of the author, Professor Shane Darke, an eminent addiction researcher whose work I have cited on many occasions (including in this interview by my fellow RBCer, Harold Pollack).

Each tale include many drolleries line by line that made me laugh out loud, and the collection is greater than the sum of those parts because the comic inventions build on each other: the poor chap who has his ears reversed in the first tale, the Perpetual Irritation Machine, and the Hypercube, among other off-the-wall concoctions, return for well-timed bows in the tales that follow after the stories that introduce them to the reader. And the best story in the book — The Ghosts of Gridley Gorge — is a joke within a meta-joke that is as brilliantly constructed as anything Evelyn Waugh, Lewis Carroll, or Punch magazine, ever pulled off.

On top of all that, it’s a good buy, just five bucks on a Kindle or 10 to 15 dollars in paperback depending where you look. You can find it at many on line booksellers including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Annals of weird infographics

A Norwegian consultancy comes up with a bafflingly cute one.

This chart, or whatever you want to call it, is from a report on the global energy transition by the big Norwegian consultancy DNV-GL. It’s not wrong or misleading so much as baffling. A new type of Tufte failure, perhaps. For their next effort, I suggest adding animated Teletubbies skiing down the mountaintops.

Happy Birthday to . . . .

Every August 27, I celebrate a birthday. Yes, August 27 is my birthday. But the birthday I always celebrate is that of Lyndon Johnson.

For progressives, particularly of my generation, LBJ evokes sharp and conflicting emotions. After all, most of us cut our political teeth opposing the war in Vietnam. Johnson ginned up support for the war effort by lying to the American public, both about the immediate causes (e.g., the Gulf of Tonkin “attack”) and the overarching political stakes (e.g., the alleged falling dominoes). As a consequence, Americans were pitted one against the other to a degree not seen, perhaps, since the Civil War.

But unlike other flawed presidents (Trump comes all too readily to mind), LBJ attempted to bring out the best in America. In that sense, he was clearly a legitimate political heir of Franklin Roosevelt. He changed America for the better by pushing through Medicare, serious gun control, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. While he didn’t spearhead its passage, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, that removed national quotas, was enacted. He signed the Public Broadcasting Act and set up the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Today, all Americans are the beneficiaries of his legacy.

I doubt whether anyone who is under the age of, say, 55 can fully appreciate the extent or the intensity of the differences among Americans that the Vietnam War precipitated. The divisions among Americans today are really not as charged. After all, in LBJ’s day, support for his foreign policy world view was widely shared across the political spectrum, albeit perhaps, not evenly. That is clearly not the case currently. Now, support for the wide ranging demagoguery of Donald Trump is limited to a fairly narrow ethnic and economic segment of American society.

Trump intentionally attempts to divide Americans along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. While racial politics and frictions were clearly in play when LBJ was president, he did not attempt to exploit those fault lines. For instance, the urban riots from 1965-1968 tested the mettle of LBJ’s character. It would have been easy for him to fall prey to, say, the racism which at that point began to infect the Republican Party. We should not forget that it was then that the GOP began the program of racist division called the Southern Strategy. Today, fifty years later, we now see the full poisonous flower of that program. But that was not LBJ’s path.

No, LBJ kept his balance. Today, in the diversity that is America, we reap the benefits of what we can only call his wisdom. So on this day, let us invert Mark Anthony and remember that sometimes it is the good that men do that lives after them and that, with the passage of time, we should inter the evil with their bones.

Happy Birthday Lyndon.

No Emergency

I had not planned to post this evening. And, this post deals with a topic that is clearly outside of my area of practice. However, Trump’s claim that the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, 50 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq., gives him the authority to order U.S. companies to cease doing business in China is so plainly specious that even a first-year law student could debunk it. But, since this is Saturday night and no first-year law students are readily available, I figured that I had to step in.

Section 1701 provides as follows:

Section 1701. Unusual and extraordinary threat; declaration of national emergency; exercise of Presidential authorities

(a) Any authority granted to the President by section 1702 of this title may be exercised to deal with any unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States, to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States, if the President declares a national emergency with respect to such threat.

(b) The authorities granted to the President by section 1702 of this title may only be exercised to deal with an unusual and extraordinary threat with respect to which a national emergency has been declared for purposes of this chapter and may not be exercised for any other purpose. Any exercise of such authorities to deal with any new threat shall be based on a new declaration of national emergency which must be with respect to such threat.

Subsection (b) makes it clear that the alleged threat must be based upon a “new declaration of national emergency which must be with respect to such threat.” Presumably, Trump’s Tweet of yesterday does not constitute a “declaration of national emergency.” This conclusion is fortified by 50 U.S.C. § 1703 which requires:

  • That “[t]he President, in every possible instance, shall consult with the Congress before exercising any of the authorities granted by this chapter and shall consult regularly with the Congress so long as such authorities are exercised.” 50 U.S.C. § 1703(a).
  • That “[w]henever the President exercises any of the authorities granted by this chapter, he shall immediately transmit to the Congress a report specifying— (1) the circumstances which necessitate such exercise of authority; (2) why the President believes those circumstances constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States, to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States; (3) the authorities to be exercised and the actions to be taken in the exercise of those authorities to deal with those circumstances; (4) why the President believes such actions are necessary to deal with those circumstances; and (5) any foreign countries with respect to which such actions are to be taken and why such actions are to be taken with respect to those countries.” 50 U.S.C. § 1703(b).

50 U.S.C. § 1703(c) requires periodic follow-up reports every six months.

Needless to say, Trump did not consult with Congress prior to the Tweet. Further, he has not even made a pretense that he could outline the matters required to be set forth in the report that subsection (b) requires to be submitted to Congress.

There’s more, however. Subsection (d) of Section 1703 provides that the requirements of Section 1703 “are supplemental to those contained in title IV of the National Emergencies Act.” 50 U.S.C. § 1622 provides methods for terminating a declared national emergency, including “a joint resolution terminating the emergency.” 50 U.S.C. § 1622(a)(1). And, subsection (b) of Section 1622 provides that:

Not later than six months after a national emergency is declared, and not later than the end of each six-month period thereafter that such emergency continues, each House of Congress shall meet to consider a vote on a joint resolution to determine whether that emergency shall be terminated.

Subsection (c) sets forth the procedures to be followed with respect to a joint Congressional resolution. Subsection (c)(3) provides that:

Such a joint resolution passed by one House shall be referred to the appropriate committee of the other House and shall be reported out by such committee together with its recommendations within fifteen calendar days after the day on which such resolution is referred to such committee and shall thereupon become the pending business of such House and shall be voted upon within three calendar days after the day on which such resolution is reported, unless such House shall otherwise determine by yeas and nays.

Let me translate all of this into plain English: Trump has to formally declare a national emergency. If he does, he has to report it to both houses of Congress. Either house can pass a resolution to terminate the national emergency. Let’s assume that the House of Representatives passes such a resolution. That resolution has to be taken up by the Senate within eighteen calendar days after it is transmitted by the House of Representatives unless the entire Senate, by a majority vote, elects to delay consideration of the resolution. In other words, Mitch McConnell cannot unilaterally block Senate consideration of the resolution.

In the first six months of 2019, the U.S. exported $52 Billion in goods to China and imported a little over $219 Billion. See here. China is the largest trading partner of the U.S. Even Trump is not stupid and/or crazy enough to destroy that relationship. And, even if I’m wrong and he is that stupid and/or crazy, there are at least 51 Senators who would stop him.

A Grunberg side-effect

Cute children for the climate

A PR photo taken at the opening on Thursday of an offshore wind farm in Denmark:

Caption supplied:

At the Horns Rev 3 opening, left to right: CEO of Vattenfall Magnus Hall, Chairman of Vattenfall Lars G. Nordström, HRH Crown Prince of Denmark, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Minister of Climate, Energy and Utilities Dan Jørgensen, and pupils from Hvide Sande School

Credit: Vattenfall, via Recharge

What are the smiling kids doing there? Their contribution to building the wind farm is nil. They were roped in to show that the powerful adults in the back row are Concerned about future generations. Should I blame Greta Grunberg, or John Kerry, who took his scene-stealing granddaughter along to sign the Paris Agreement in New York?

Picky, picky, you say. If it helps and does no harm to the kids, fine. But let’s not mistake charming photo ops for action. To be fair, in this case they had some action to celebrate. The wind farm is for now the largest in Scandinavia, with a nameplate capacity of 407 MW.

There is much more cuteness to come along these lines.

PS: On reflection, there is a clear distinction between the Kerry photo and the Danish one. Kerry’s granddaughter is interacting with him, not the assembled grandees. She is fascinated by Grandpa’s behaviour; he is doing something unusual she does not understand, but it’s clearly very important to him, so she wants to be part of it. In the Danish photo, there is no interaction, the adults are not looking at the kids or talking to them. They are just exploited extras on the stage. Maybe the suits talked to the kids at another time, but it’s not what the photo says.

What’s the Worst Advice You’ve Ever Received?

I’m a fan of the podcast Women with Balls, on which Katy Balls interviews accomplished British women from politics, business, and the arts. It’s better than many shows of this sort because Balls takes her guests seriously as people and professionals and not just as women.

My favorite standard question on the show is “What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?”. We are often asked about the best advice we’ve gotten; Balls’ question directs attention in an unexpected direction.

It takes me back to a professional conference in Los Angeles that I attended right after earning my doctorate. I had finished my degree at a young age and I had an ever younger face in those days, so I was repeatedly mistaken for a graduate or undergraduate student (many of my female colleagues will know the feeling). Once it was revealed that I was in fact Dr. Humphreys, a very large number of older male faculty quizzed me aggressively about my current job in Palo Alto and immediately told me I was making bad career decisions. My friend Eric Mankowski, with whom I roomed at the conference and with whom I attended many convention events, told me he had never seen a person — male or female — subjected to a steadier stream of unsolicited, patronizing advice than what I endured throughout that conference. The specifics of the advice varied across giver, but the consistent theme “You will never succeed in academia unless you follow my path” was the worst advice I ever received.

What about you – what is the worst advice you ever received?

Safe and Sanitary

You will, no doubt, remember that wonderful video of Justice Department attorney, Sarah Fabian, argued that “safe and sanitary” is too vague a term to include toothbrushes, soap, warmth, or sleep. No one who watched the video would be surprised that the court rejected the Justice Department’s position:

The district court’s interpretation of the [“safe and sanitary” provisions of the previous consent agreement] is consistent with the ordinary meaning of the language of paragraph 12A [of that agreement], which does provide a standard sufficiently clear to be enforced. The court found, among other things, that minors (1) were “not receiving hot, edible, or a sufficient number of meals during a given day,” (2) “had no adequate access to clean drinking water,” (3) experienced “unsanitary conditions with respect to the holding cells and bathroom facilities,” (4) lacked “access to clean bedding, and access to hygiene products (i.e., toothbrushes, soap, towels),” and (5) endured “sleep deprivation” as a result of “cold temperatures, overcrowding, lack of proper bedding (i.e., blankets, mats), [and] constant lighting.” After so finding, the district court concluded that these conditions fall short of paragraph 12A’s requirement that facilities be “safe and sanitary,” especially given “the particular vulnerability of minors.” Those determinations reflect a commonsense understanding of what the quoted language requires. Assuring that children eat enough edible food, drink clean water, are housed in hygienic facilities with sanitary bathrooms, have soap and toothpaste, and are not sleep deprived are without doubt essential to the children’s safety. The district court properly construed the Agreement as requiring such conditions rather than allowing the government to decide whether to provide them.

Slip op. at 13-14.

I have posted the opinion here.