Monday, January 14, 2019

That's a technical term

Columnist Roger Cohen directs us to what he calls a "seminal" essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt entitled "On Bullshit." The essay was published in book form in 2005 to considerable acclaim.

Despite the frivolous sounding title, Frankfurt's essay was, in the words of Quinta Jurecic writing in the Lawfare blog, actually a serious treatment of "moral and epistemological philosophy."

Cohen referred to Jurecic's own essay, which was written a couple of months prior to Donald Trump's inauguration. Jurecic's essay is a significant work in its own right, and important.

You might think she and I are pulling your leg when I tell you her essay includes the sentence: "But Trump’s victory forces us to consider what it means for the president himself to be, as it were, full of bullshit." But we are not.

Jurecic is deadly serious, as was Frankfurt before her. And Lawfare is a serious venue that considers deep legal and constitutional matters.

Whereas Frankfurt wrote years before Trump's ascendancy, Jurecic's piece was written after Trump's election. She wonders how a "bullshit" (according to Frankfurt's meaning) president-elect can possibly situate his presidency inside a framework that understands the law as "a highly systematized structure of meaning used to evaluate the merit and relevance of facts and arguments," and to render consequential rulings based on them. It's an important question when you consider that neither facts, nor meaning derived from them, figure prominently in Trump's own epistemology.

And how he can "take care" that the laws be "faithfully executed," as the Constitution requires?

"Is it actually possible for a bullshitter to 'take care' or to act 'faithfully' in the execution of the law?" Jurecic wonders.

Treat yourself to some serious reflection by reading and pondering Jurecic's essay.

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Death of Expertise

My friend eyed the books on the end table and asked if they were mine. I said they were. Are they any good? he asked. Maybe he was just making polite conversation.

The one I'd just finished was The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols, a lifelong Republican, and professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Its subtitle is "The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters." Much has recently been written by well-known intellectuals about our being in a "post truth" society. Such commentators include former CIA and NSA director and retired Air Force general Michael Hayden, among many. Hayden recently wrote The Assault on Intelligence, subtitled "American National Security in an Age of Lies." I wonder if he intended the title to be a pun.

Hayden opens his book about our "age of lies" with lies by President Trump—lies that were publicly repudiated in Congressional testimony by Trump's own FBI director and NSA director. Even Rex Tillerson warned, in a commencement address, about "alternative realities," an obvious rebuke of the president who had recently fired him (by tweet, of course). The term is reminiscent of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway's reference to "alternative facts," which set an early anti-truth tone for the new administration as a follow-on to a mendacious Trump campaign. Because the adjective "alternative" does great damage to the word "fact," Conway's unfortunate pairing of them aptly illustrated the strained relationship between the administration and empirical reality. To say the relationship remains strained is a gross understatement. Trump himself, who famously rejects all manner of expertise, has continual difficulty with the truth on a scale unprecedented in the American presidency.

So the problem pervades top to bottom, and all the way through. Nowadays many of us, from the president on down, have a profound difficulty understanding what is real. That's in large part because we no longer listen to experts, and because many of us don't know how to gauge expertise. Too many seek "experts" who tell them what they want to hear rather than what is objectively true. Increasingly, experts are even disparaged as "elites;" their learning somehow makes them worthy of disdain, as if we imagine they think they're better than everybody else. Unfortunately, ours is an age not just of lies but of intellectual egalitarianism, where facts are reduced to opinions, and one opinion is as good as any other. On top of all that, there's a generalized ignorance about almost everything, despite whole libraries of knowledge at our fingertips, and a serious deficit of critical thinking skills to go with it. All told it's a pretty dismal picture.

Nichols discusses in successive chapters what he sees as primary causes of society's disdain of expertise, but for me the most important point was just his affirmation of the disturbing new intellectual landscape as I've been observing it, where objective fact is continually subordinated to poorly informed opinion in our discourse. No longer do we have mutually agreed touchstones against which to gauge claims of fact and construct a common understanding of reality.

I highlighted this failure in my most recent blog post, about the Republican tax cuts of a year ago, where expertise—such as from economists, the Congressional Budget Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation—was utterly ignored in favor of an irrational, unsupported belief that tax cuts in some overriding sense pay for themselves.

This way of thinking constitutes a sort of Republican tax cut "religion" that takes precedence over genuine expertise. Such rejection of expertise was demonstrated with the legislation in question by the complete absence of congressional hearings, where experts would normally be asked to present their analysis prior to passage of such an important law—a law, after all, which massively and fundamentally overhauled the U.S. tax code. Such lack of hearings and public debate is almost unthinkable: an abdication of legislative responsibility and certainly of regular order. Everywhere you look, including in government, the norms of intellectual inquiry are breaking down.

Republican leaders, who already "knew" everything they needed to know as a matter of faith, weren't interested in anything an actual expert had to say about their tax cuts. In fact, they did everything possible to suppress expert judgement, such as the CBO scoring required by law and which would have been front and center had any hearings been held. Even so, the relevant authorities such as CBO and JCT, though shut out of congressional deliberations, projected the tax law would add around $1.5 trillion to the national debt over 10 years—a debt which Republicans previously claimed to abhor.

And so it has happened that in one short year under the new tax law the deficit has exploded, with corporate tax receipts down a jaw-dropping $92 billion over the previous year despite a growing economy. (Think how many of Trump's walls that would pay for.) Corporations were the single largest beneficiaries of the tax law.

So expertise, which elucidates objective reality and provides a best-available explanation of things we've learned, is having a pretty rough go of it. Even so, you'd presumably still want the most expert radiologist to read your CT scan, and the most expert geologist if you're going to drill oil and gas wells, and the most highly trained and experienced engineers to design your jet airplane. Funny how we don't rely on intuition and opinion and "common sense" when it comes to our aircraft.

Such special cases aside, expertise of all sorts is routinely discounted, a symptom of the epidemic of the credulous ignorance and irrationality ravaging modern society. Which is pretty ironic when you consider that we got to be "modern" by cultivating expertise and thinking rationally. Amidst all the learned knowledge that's available to all, many of us now routinely dismiss experts in favor of our own uninformed opinions and prejudices—typically dictated by our tribe, and poured into our heads with our own acquiescence and even invitation—on the most important and (indulge me) most interesting questions of our time.

Questions such as climate change, of course. Death panels. (Have you met with yours yet?) Or the risk/reward calculation on vaccines, which experts tell us overwhelmingly works out in favor of reward. The age of the universe: 13.8 billion years. Of our own solar system: 4.6 billion. Evolution through natural selection, the foundational principle of modern biology.

Questions such as the prevalence of in-person voter fraud, which experts, who have studied the matter repeatedly, say is essentially non-existent in the U.S. (The current president suggested there were 3 million illegal votes in 2016, all for his opponent, and by remarkable coincidence the exact number by which he lost the popular vote. His short-lived commission headed by the vice president and conspiracy theorist Kris Kobach went looking for those votes, but quickly disbanded without issuing a report.)

Questions such as whether there are Ebola-infected terrorists swarming across our southern border: a concern primarily, it seems, of Fox News viewers. (Those alleged swarms notwithstanding, there has not been a single credible demonstration that either Ebola or terrorists have ever crossed the southern border.) About whether any material agreement has been negotiated with North Korea on nuclear disarmament. And questions about the fiscal and macroeconomic effects of tax cuts.

I'll add one more, for the Catholics with whom I sometimes argue: the non-existence of the historical papacy in the first few centuries of the Church, as affirmed even by the most esteemed and expert Catholic scholars.

On the question of the early papacy, a Catholic friend complained quite literally that I was bringing "experts" (his word!) such as historians into a matter that is rightly resolved by Church "teaching." Which is to say by faith. At least in some spheres we're supposed to divine even historical happenings by faith—evidence and reason notwithstanding. My friend's objection succinctly illustrates why our discussion was doomed, thanks to an irreconcilable understanding of what constitutes authority on empirical questions. If only we could confine the problem to matters of pure religion, and set it aside as a one-off human evolutionary quirk that stands apart from other kinds of understanding, then perhaps all would not be so dire.

But we can't, it seems. A lot of us fundamentally don't know how to think, and that deficit of thinking pollutes everything. But why? Nichols has some ideas, and he describes the failures of certain important institutions such as higher education, journalism, even experts themselves. Whatever the reason, critical thinking skills are sorely needed but mostly absent. Tribalism is ascendant. "Motivated reasoning" and "confirmation bias" derail rational thought and logical analysis. Myths proliferate wildly over the Internet to a dim and undiscriminating populace; apparently the intellectual gatekeepers of yore were more crucial than we realized. Facts are waved away, reduced to a smorgasbord of opinions, from which you can pick whichever you prefer to construct your own version of reality.

So this is where we've come: reality itself is up for grabs. Unfortunately for the weak-minded, and thus for all of us bound together by societal institutions (not least democracy), the ability to reason logically is prerequisite to understanding that a world where facts are fungible is a world where objective reality doesn't exist. What an unfortunate place to be.

Happy New Year

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Give more money to rich people

The year was 2011. Even though job creation had finally turned positive in the U.S. after the bloodletting of the Great Recession, the country's and world's economy was still depressed, and would remain so for years. Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman's book End This Depression Now! would not be published for another year, and his advice would not be taken. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz warned it would be many years—a decade all told—before the economy returned to normal. And so it was. Depressions are like that, especially if left unattended.

So naturally Republicans in the Congress back then were fixated on the debt. Majority leader Eric Cantor even tied the debt to the depressed economy, but by getting cause and effect exactly backwards. Cantor bizarrely suggested the debt caused the depression, or at least exacerbated and prolonged it, not the other way around. As economics it was absurd. Which is to say: exactly what you'd expect from a Republican politician.

Krugman recently posted a very short essay in which he notes that U.S. "fiscal policy has been off the rails since 2010, not because of what it has done to the national debt, but because of what it has done to the macroeconomy." (Fiscal policy refers to things like government spending, borrowing, and tax policy, whereas monetary policy refers to the interest rate setting and money supply functions of the Federal Reserve.)

"Here’s what fiscal policy should do," Krugman writes. "It should support demand when the economy is weak, and it should pull that support back when the economy is strong. As John Maynard Keynes said, 'The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.' And up until 2010 the U.S. more or less followed that prescription. Since then, however, fiscal policy has become perverse: first austerity despite high unemployment, now expansion despite low unemployment." This perverse policy has coincided with Republican control of the House and later the full Congress.

Back in 2012, Krugman's prescription to End This Depression Now! included ending the austerity insanity driven by deficit hysteria that was keeping the economy depressed far longer than need be. A weak economy is precisely when government spending financed by borrowing is called for, because the government is uniquely able to make up some of the sorely needed demand that's missing from the economy as the private sector pulls back. In other words, the government can buy things when nobody else can or will, keeping businesses solvent and workers employed while the economy heals. This is textbook economics.

By contrast, the Republican prescription is for the government to cut spending at the same time as the private sector, leading to deeper cycles of economic weakness. One reason this is perverse is that the resulting downward spiral leads to even less business activity and more layoffs, and so even less government revenue. If that weren't bad enough, the layoffs lead to higher outlays for things like food assistance and unemployment insurance. So the deficit increases from both ends by the very act of trying to contain it by cutting spending. As economist Brad DeLong noted in 2013, "the debt-to-annual-GDP ratio has a denominator as well as a numerator," an observation you should ponder until  you understand its implication.

Adding insult to injury, such economic disintegration delays recovery and reduces future economic output relative to what it otherwise would have been, which impacts government revenues and thus debt over the long term. The crucial need for government deficit spending is one of the many unpleasant but unavoidable realities of a very weak economy.

But now, in 2018, with the economy near full employment, a very economically strange thing happened: Republicans passed a large tax cut, providing massive fiscal stimulus at a time when, according to Krugman and Keynes, the economic support should be pulled back, not expanded.

The tax cut is not just backwards as a matter of economics; it's also horrible as a matter of fiscal policy. That huge tax cut will add at least $1.5 trillion to the debt over a decade, at a time when that debt will do little good and much harm. Consider, for example, that with the labor market already tight, deficit spending now will "buy" far fewer jobs than it would in a depressed economy with high unemployment.

To restate, deficit spending is called for in a weak economy, not a strong one. Already the deficit has exploded in the wake of the tax cut—even as economic growth has been solid. A strong economy should generate more tax revenues and drive the deficit lower, but the opposite is actually happening. This is quite unprecedented.

So Keynes tells us the government should run deficits when the economy is weak, and should balance its budget or run surpluses when the economy is strong. Republicans, in word and deed, unfailingly say the government should practice fiscal austerity when the economy is weak and desperately needs stimulus, and should be fiscally profligate when the economy is strong and doesn't need it.

This is economic and fiscal malpractice. It should also put the lie, once and forever (how many times does that need to be said?), to the the notion that Republicans are innately and fundamentally averse to deficits. As their actual behavior under Reagan, Bush the younger, and now Trump demonstrates, Republicans only hate deficits when a Democrat is president. The myth of Republican fiscal conservatism has been carefully cultivated for decades, but it is complete nonsense.

Krugman concludes that, "now, with unemployment very low but a Republican in the White House, we’re getting the fiscal stimulus we desperately needed then – and don’t need now. Fiscal policy, like so much of governance in America, has been perverted by right-wing partisanship."

Economist Dean Baker notes that it's been almost a year since the Republican tax cut and there's been no sign of the promised business investment boom. That's a big oops.

It's a problem in part because it is a longstanding matter of Republican religion that tax cuts pay for themselves by stimulating business investment sufficiently to grow the economy and generate offsetting tax revenues. That claim has always been economic fantasy, akin to belief in a sort of free lunch or perpetual motion machine.

But the claim continues to be made. In promoting the tax cuts, Mitch McConnell said, "I’m totally confident this is a revenue neutral bill. Actually a revenue producer." A revenue producer! That despite CBO and JCT projections of a huge increase in debt as a result  of the cuts—projections which are already coming true.

This is what happens when you don't listen to experts—a pathology that's endemic on the ideological right. Which ought to be a parable for all kinds of ignorance in these troubled times. Pick almost any subject or question and you will find Republicans occupying the side opposite the experts.

On the present topic, the tax cuts are in fact already very revenue negative. McConnell might have been adequately forewarned had he allowed committee hearings and expert testimony on the tax bill consistent with "regular order" and proper legislative practice. Astoundingly, there were none.

Baker says if we've not seen any whiff of the promised investment growth by now, it probably won't materialize. "Cuts in corporate tax rates are not an effective way to boost investment," Baker says. "They are an effective way to give more money to rich people." Which, in the end, is what Republicanism is fundamentally all about.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Waving at Volcanoes

Talk to climate change skeptics and you will notice a couple of themes that arise with some regularity, notions to which they reliably but confusedly turn to advance their case: ice ages and volcanoes.

Despite not understanding them, skeptics presume these phenomena somehow demonstrate that humans can't or don't materially affect the climate; that human effects are swamped by natural ones. Yet the reasoning behind such presumption is so inchoate and ill informed that the skeptic can do little more than offer it as a "handwave," as if the case were made implicitly by mere mention, without any need to explain more.

In the first instance, ice ages are imagined to be imponderably immense forces of nature that demonstrate natural climactic variability far beyond any effect mere humans might have. A planet subjected to periodic ice ages needn't worry about the trifling things people are doing. To the climate change skeptic, this is self-evident. One acquaintance of mine is convinced we don't know what causes ice ages, and so by implication we don't understand climate generally. Although he might not, "we" most certainly do, on both counts. Which suggests that the first order of business is to learn some things.

Not only do we know what causes ice ages, but we also know the relative strength of the natural climate "forcings" that instigate them. And hard as it may be to believe without a little elucidation, we know that natural forcings that instigate ice ages are extremely weak compared to the anthropogenic (human-caused) forcings that are now heating the planet. Not only do ice ages not refute anthropogenic climate change, but studying ice ages has considerable explanatory value in understanding what the climate is doing in the present, and why we are changing it so dramatically.

So we should stop waving at ice ages and actually learn something about them. Same for volcanoes.

The handwave at volcanoes usually goes something like this. Anthropogenic climate change is said to be caused by emissions of greenhouse gasses—particularly carbon dioxide—through the burning of fossil fuels. But volcanoes, which are completely natural, emit far more CO2 than humans. So humans can't be causing global warming.

Of course you see the fallacy in this formulation. A moment of critical reflection informs you that what matters is not whether humans emit more or less CO2 than volcanoes, but whether the increment added by humans—whatever volcanoes also emit—is altering the climate. If the climate is stable with volcanoes, but unstable with volcanoes plus humans, then humans cause the instability.

Volcanoes, after all, have been a geological feature of the planet for billions of years, erupting and (presumably) emitting CO2 all that time. It would be pretty dumb to blame volcanoes for very recent developments unless they've become unusually active. Have they? The climate change skeptic who mentions volcanoes has no idea.

So if volcanoes emit CO2, and CO2 causes warming, and to the extent the climate has been stable, there must be other physical processes that offset or counteract emissions from volcanoes and keep the planet from becoming ever hotter. We might, for example, hypothesize that some physical process removes CO2 from the atmosphere, even as volcanoes are adding it, with the two operating concurrently to keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations (and thus climate) fairly constant. And indeed, the carbon cycle consists of processes that move CO2 between various reservoirs, including the atmosphere, the ocean, and deep earth reservoirs. Rock weathering is an important mechanism for moving CO2 from the atmosphere to deep reservoirs over geologic time scales.

Now it turns out that the climate has not been stable over very long periods of tens to hundreds of millions of years. But in the present context, and for the current discussion, we can presume stability. The longer term variations are interesting and reasonably well understood, but worrying about them at the moment would just confuse our discussion. So we won't. For our purposes we will note that except for a few minor blips, the climate has in fact been quite stable since the end of the last ice age, which is to say for the past 10,000 years or so. This is the geologic epoch known as the Holocene, in which human civilization emerged and flourished, in no small part due to that climactic stability. That's the period we are presently considering.

During this recent period of climactic stability, volcanoes have been erupting and emitting CO2, as they always have. But the planet has not been warming. Not, at least, until very recently. Whatever is now happening, volcanoes are not the cause.

In fact, volcanic activity over the past couple of centuries has been a bit less than normal. Yet over that period atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by almost half, and the planet is heating up rapidly. Don't blame volcanoes: something else must be going on.

What could that something be? Well, these past couple of centuries of reduced volcanic activity and increasing CO2 and, most recently, increasing temperature, coincides with the Industrial Revolution, and the large scale burning of fossil fuels. First coal. Then coal and oil. Then coal, oil, and gas.

Given what you already knew about the long term presence of volcanoes on the planet, you probably recognized immediately that the handwave at volcanoes as formulated above is a red herring—even without knowing the relative emission amounts. But as a factual matter, do volcanoes actually emit more CO2 than humans? No, they don't. It isn't even close.

The U.S. Geological Survey says that volcanoes emit around 260 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year. Human emissions amount to 32 billion tons per year. People emit 120 times as much CO2 as volcanoes. So the handwave isn't just a red herring; it's a canard. And yet such misconceptions that climate change skeptics tell each other have a way of circulating pretty much forever.

There's more. Volcanoes are indeed an important natural but very slow (relative to humans) emitter of CO2 over very long geologic time scales. (But don't forget we also posited processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, keeping things more or less in balance.) But on human time scales, volcanoes actually promote cooling, not warming! That's because volcanic eruptions spew reflective aerosols such as sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Those aerosols block sunlight from reaching the earth and warming it.

The most prominent recent example was the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. Pinatubo was the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Fifteen months after the Pinatubo eruption, scientists measured a global temperature reduction of around 1 degree Fahrenheit. The effect is quite significant.

A more astounding example was the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia), the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. The following year, 1816, came to be known as the "Year Without a Summer," due to the massive cooling effect from Tambora. The effect was likely exacerbated by the eruption of Mayon in the Philippines in 1814. The "volcanic winter" caused by Tambora resulted in massive crop failures and food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. At that time humanity had no understanding that the frightfully bizarre weather of 1816 was a consequence of volcanic eruptions. Not only was the scientific basis for volcanic cooling not yet developed, but the vast majority of humans had no idea that there had even been a massive volcanic eruption somewhere on the planet.

By now the science behind such associations, and other physical processes that affect the climate, is well understood. Scientists refer to a large variety of natural and anthropogenic factors that cause the climate to warm or cool as "forcings," and they are reliably quantified. Positive forcings (such as CO2) promote warming, and negative forcings promote cooling. Volcanic eruptions actually have a net negative climate forcing.

Here's a subtle exception. Scientists have assigned a slight positive forcing value to volcanoes over the past two centuries to account for the fact that volcanic activity over that period has been somewhat less than normal. In other words, volcanoes haven't been erupting as much lately as they have over the longer term, and so their usual expected cooling effect is diminished a bit due to reduced activity. This small positive contribution by volcanoes goes into the larger mix of forcings that scientists combine to calculate the net result of all the factors driving the climate.

So, yes. Volcanoes are warming the planet a tiny bit. By not erupting! But the effect is minuscule, with volcanoes accounting for a small fraction (less than three percent) of the positive climate forcings presently operating.

Over geologic time scales volcanoes have been a (mostly) gradual contributor to atmospheric CO2, which in the proper amount is a very good thing, and not just because plants require it for photosynthesis. Some small amount of atmospheric CO2 is necessary to keep the climate comfortable and amenable to life. The earth would be far colder without carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But it doesn't take much. A scant 4 hundredths of 1 percent (0.0004) of  the mix of atmospheric gasses is CO2—only one molecule out of every 2,400. Compare that with 21 percent oxygen (0.21) and 78 percent nitrogen (0.78). Do not allow personal incredulity to keep you from accepting that such a tiny amount of CO2 has such a large effect on global temperature. It does, and the physics, which has been well understood since the 19th century, is quite straightforward.

Unfortunately, we now have too much of a good thing, thanks overwhelmingly to human emissions. The human CO2 contribution is a novel development in the history of the earth. Never before, over billions of years, has deeply sequestered carbon been dug up and intentionally burned.

The CO2 (and temperature) increase has been remarkably rapid compared to the rate of change that typically occurs during natural cycles, such as the progression in and out of ice ages. The long term average CO2 concentration over the Holocene was about 280 parts per million (ppm). That's the level that prevailed prior to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and is a good baseline against which to compare current levels.

Atmospheric CO2 concentration began increasing steadily when humanity started burning fossil fuels, and it has marched ever upward over the past couple of centuries as the rate of burning intensified. It recently hit 410 ppm—a 46 percent increase over preindustrial levels. CO2 concentrations continue to rise, and correlate closely with calculated emissions from burning fossil fuels, and also with an unambiguous and now rapid trend of planetary warming.

Scientists are able to accurately estimate atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the geologic past, going back millions of years. Concentrations over millennial time frames can be readily measured from ice cores. Exquisitely precise direct atmospheric measurements began in 1957. The graph of those emissions is called the "Keeling Curve". As an fascinating aside, the graph's sawtooth appearance is a consequence of annual variations correlated to the Northern Hemisphere's growing season.

Since 1957 atmospheric CO2 has increased by 100 ppm—around a third. That's a heck of a lot of CO2 added over a partial human lifetime. Mine, for example. Despite recent pledges by the world's nations to reduce their CO2 output, the steady increase continues. So does the temperature of the planet.

A sobering new special report by a working group of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warns that the planet is warming faster than previously believed; that total warming of 2 degrees Celsius (the upper limit of what was previously thought to be "safe") will have significantly worse effects than would 1.5 degrees; and that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees would require an immediate and dramatic transformation of the world's energy systems at a scale and speed that's hard to imagine. If you are tempted to throw up your hands and say it's all impossible, understand that these temperature targets are in no sense limits: things can and will get much worse if nothing is done.

The report says that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require net anthropogenic CO2 emissions to decline 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050. Limiting warming to 2 degrees requires a decline of 20 percent by 2030 and a reduction to zero by 2075. 2030 is only 11 years away.

Regardless of what humanity chooses to do—and the prospects are not encouraging—volcanoes will remain a mute and uncaring presence on this planet we call home, doing what they have always done since time immemorial. They have neither agency nor any meaningful role to play in what comes next. Our climate, and our future, is entirely up to us. We need to stop waving at volcanoes and get to work.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Connecting the dots

Yesterday Donald Trump said he has no intention of firing Rod Rosenstein. Today Nikki Haley announced her resignation as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., effective year end. Haley, who is said to be politically ambitious, said emphatically she has no intention of running for president in 2020. What's going on?

I want to get this out now, before everybody else figures it out. Here's the plan.

Donald Trump will fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions immediately after the midterm elections. Trump will then appoint Lindsey Graham Attorney General. South Carolina's Republican governor Henry McMaster will appoint Haley to fill Graham's Senate seat. Haley, you recall, was formerly  governor of that state.

With Sessions and his cussed recusal gone, Graham will take over supervision of the Mueller investigation. That done, nobody gives a hoot about Rosenstein, so he can stay.

Because Graham is a senator, his easy confirmation is assured.

The only problem with this scenario is that Haley and her husband are said to be deep in debt. It's thought that maybe she wants to make a lot of money speechifying and so forth before resuming her political career. Still.

So that's my prediction. Don't point out that the last one didn't work out.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Perhaps you heard ...

Perhaps you heard the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.7 percent, its lowest level in almost 50 years. Meanwhile, September jobs creation came in at 134,000, far lower than expected. Because of differences in how they are measured and indeed what they measure, the two indicators do not always perfectly track each other month-to-month.

I sliced and diced the job creation performance of Trump and Obama in excruciating detail back in June. It's time for a very quick update. Trump frequently claims he's done something extraordinary with the economy, so it's important that we keep checking.

Starting with his first full month in office, February 2017, we now have 20 months of Trump job creation on the books. Trump's total is 3.8 million jobs created, for an average of 190,200 jobs per month. Obama created 4.2 million jobs over his final 20 months in office, through January 2017. That's an average of 207,550 jobs created per month.

In fact, Obama averaged 207,000 jobs created over his final 60 months—five years—in office.

Here's the latest official monthly jobs data going back a decade:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

From the standpoint of jobs creation, the Trump economy is basically a continuation of the Obama economy. There have now been 96 months of continuous positive job growth. Trump lags Obama by an average of 17,000 jobs per month. But of course it's harder to create jobs as the market tightens. As the very low unemployment rate indicates, the market is indeed tightening.

Which is what you'd expect after 8 years of continuous strong job growth. As for that amazing unemployment rate, it too is just a continuation of a fairly smooth long term decline that began after the peak of the Great Recession in 2009, near the beginning of the Obama presidency. The rate of decline has actually flattened slightly under Trump, as the following graph shows. Again, this is what you'd expect in a tightening job market. But there has been no miraculous Trump effect. None at all.

Click on the graph for a better look.

Source: St. Louis Fed

Economist Dean Baker says the real jobs hero of the past couple of years is the Federal Reserve, especially under former chair Janet Yellen. Many economists and some Fed governors had urged the Fed to begin raising interest rates as soon as the rate dipped below 5 percent, fearing that inflation would rise rapidly as the unemployment rate fell below that level.

Yellen said wait and see. She was right. Inflation remained subdued even as the job market continued to tighten. Thanks to her, a couple of million more persons are working now than might otherwise be. Too bad she wasn't offered a second term. Incidentally, the unemployment rate was around 4.7 percent when Trump took office. The peak was 10 percent in October, 2009.

The remaining pieces of the jobs puzzle are the participation rate and wage growth, which has been subdued for years. Even the recent uptick is barely enough to keep wages increasing at the rate of inflation, although much faster wage growth could soon materialize. It's hard to see how it wouldn't with the very tight job market. But we've been saying that for a while now.

A final note. The median household income has finally rebounded to its pre-recession level, adjusted for inflation. It is statistically indistinguishable from its level in 2007. As the economy remained mired in depression for years (even as the jobs rebound was getting underway), economists (such as Joseph Stiglitz) said it would take a decade to return to normal. And so it did, although we aren't yet sure what the new "normal" will look like. The best guess is that GDP growth will soon decline to a level well below 3 percent, and stay there.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Dreams of Deescalation

I had a vision. The confirmation process remained gummed up through the midterms. The Dems retook not just the House but also the Senate. A cabal of Republican Senators (Jeff Flake, Jon Kyl, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski) dubbed the "Arizona Caucus" emerged to say the only nominee they'd support in the lame duck session was Merrick Garland. Amazingly and improbably, the idea was Kyl's—a hardcore conservative former senator who was appointed to fill the seat of the recently deceased John McCain. Kyl was visited by a numinous inspiration, as if a felt but unseen hand were on his shoulder.

The Democrats immediately agreed. Mitch McConnell collapsed on the Senate floor but was revived. After having some things explained to him (no, the president can't fire senators), Donald Trump donned Solomon's mantle and acquiesced to the inevitable. Garland was quickly confirmed, leaving the court evenly split: four conservatives, four liberals, one centrist. All sides solemnly vowed to never again refuse to consider a president's duly named nominee in order to deliver the selection to his successor. A rare moment of deescalation was observed. John McCain threw back a shot of Absolut and smiled kindly down. A restless pack of coyotes yipped somewhere near Sedona.

What am I smoking? Nothing but this cheap cigar. Do I think such a thing could actually happen? Never. But it would be a story for the ages.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Ice Ages Revisited: A Story of Climate

June, 1990. Our bush pilot maneuvered his Cessna 185 through the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range, bringing it and us down on the tundra beside Alaska's Jago River, above the Arctic Circle. We set up camp and had supper.

Later that "night" I was still awake, and crawled out of the tent for a walk. It occurred to me to snap a photo of my wristwatch, to memorialize the moment. Almost midnight. Sun still going strong. So close to solstice, it would remain above the horizon all night. No wonder I couldn't sleep.

Even hundreds of miles south, in Fairbanks, the continuous light had been disorienting. Locals spoke of high-energy summers with nonstop frenetic activity, like late-night baseball games. The long, dark, torpid winter, in which the sun barely makes an appearance, is just the opposite. In the far north, that's when you do your sleeping.

As every schoolchild knows, the earth rotates about its axis: an imaginary line that runs through the planet, connecting the north and south poles. The spin axis is not vertical with respect to the sun. Rather, the earth tilts seasonally toward or away (depending on your perspective relative to the equator) from the sun, exposing the polar regions in particular to extreme annual variations in the duration of sunlight.

(Click on the diagram for a better look)

During the northern summers, the Arctic is tilted toward the sun, bathing the region in near-continuous sunlight for a few months. The exact conditions vary with latitude and day of the year.

Simultaneously, the south pole is tilted away from the sun, so the Antarctic experiences the cold of winter and near-continuous darkness.

Half a year later, with the earth moved in its orbit to the opposite side of the sun, the seasons are reversed. Now the Arctic, tilted away from the sun, is cold and dark. The Antarctic enjoys summer and sunlight because it tilts toward the sun.

Importantly, then, the abundance or dearth of sunlight at high latitudes during summer or winter is a feature of the planet's tilt. By examining the diagram, you can see that if the spin axis were more vertical, the Arctic summers would receive somewhat less sunlight, because the northern hemisphere would be tilted somewhat less toward the sun. At the same time, the southern hemisphere would be tilted less away from the sun, so the Antarctic would receive more winter sunlight.

Indeed, the poles are just extreme cases of seasonal variation that the entire planet experiences. We have seasons precisely because of axis tilt.

Moreover, planetary tilt explains not just seasons, but also glacial epochs over fairly long time scales. Which is to say, "ice ages."

That's because the degree of axis tilt varies slightly over a 40,000-year period. Sometimes the earth straightens up a bit, and sometimes it leans over. The variation is not large, but it is significant and predictable.

Consider the diagram. You can readily see that larger amounts of tilt favors warmer polar summers and colder polar winters, since more tilt points the poles more directly toward the sun during the summer, and away from the sun during the winter.

Conversely, a more vertical axis favors colder polar summers and warmer polar winters. The effect is crucial to ice age formation, so be sure you understand it.

An important feature of cold polar winters is that they are comparatively dry—by which I mean there is relatively little precipitation, which occurs mainly in the form of snow. Warm winters are comparatively wet, because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture than a colder one. Warm winters tend to have greater amounts of snowfall.

We now have sufficient basic understanding to explore how the planet descends into glaciated periods where ice accumulates at high latitudes and spreads to lower ones—particularly in the northern hemisphere, which has more land cover than the southern hemisphere. We will introduce additional details as we go.

As noted, the degree of the earth's axis tilt varies over a 40,000-year period. A more vertical axis favors ice accumulation, because the relatively warm winters receive more snowfall, as described above. Snow is compacted into ice to form glaciers, which are also called ice sheets.

A more vertical axis favors ice accumulation another way, too. The relatively cooler summers allow more of the winter snowfall to persist across seasons. That is, less snow and ice melts during the cooler summer, so it builds up over time.

So the first requirement for an ice age is reduced axis tilt. Once the earth straightens up sufficiently, things get started. Since the axis tilt period is 40,000 years, you might have to wait a while before conditions are right.

Even then, the process is slow. It takes thousands of years to enter a full-blown ice age, and several crucial feedbacks are necessary to achieve it. Here's how things proceed.

Ice buildup begins with the warm winters and cool summers that come with reduced axis tilt. Once enough ice accumulates in the early going, the first important feedback kicks in. That feedback involves what scientists call albedo, which refers to the reflectivity of surfaces and bodies, especially the earth. Because snow and ice are quite reflective, much of the sunlight falling upon them is reflected back into space without causing much warming.

By contrast, bare land and open water are comparatively dark, so they absorb much more incoming solar radiation than do snow and ice, and thus promote warming.

As an aside, the albedo feedback is as important to today's unnatural anthropogenic warming as it is to the natural progression of ice ages. It's just that in a warming climate the albedo feedback is positive: melting snow and ice promote more absorption of sunlight and so more warming. In a cooling climate the albedo feedback is negative: increased ice formation causes less sunlight absorption and more cooling. Finally, albedo also explains why, in a warming climate, high latitudes warm much faster than lower latitudes: It's because they're losing their ice cover.

As an ice age gets going, the formation of ice feeds back on itself through abedo effects, and ice coverage increases. Initially this occurs at high latitudes, which means closer to the poles. But the cooling caused by increased reflectivity causes the ice to slowly spread over a larger geographic area. As you'd expect, global average temperature decreases too, thanks to less absorbed sunlight warming the earth.

With temperature decrease comes a second crucial feedback. Colder temperature causes atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to likewise decrease. (One possible reason might be that colder oceans can hold more dissolved CO2 than warmer ones. The oceans are a huge CO2 surface reservoir, containing far more of the gas than the atmosphere.) Reductions in carbon dioxide seem to lag temperature changes by a few hundred years. In some circumstances the lag appears to be much less.

This may strike you as exactly backward. After all, according to our popular understanding of global warming, CO2 is supposed to drive climate, not respond to it. It actually does both, which is what you'd expect of a feedback. In many natural situations changes in temperature precede and cause changes in CO2. But because CO2 is a greenhouse gas, its concentration is also a cause of further temperature change. Altering CO2 concentration directly and unnaturally, such as by burning fossil fuels, affects climate just as potently as alterations that occur through natural feedback mechanisms. Ultimately, CO2 concentration is the single most important determinant of climate.

So the CO2 feedback can go in both directions, promoting both warming and cooling. When the earth descends into an ice age, colder temperatures cause less atmospheric CO2, which in turn causes even colder temperatures. Other somewhat less important greenhouse gases participate in a similar fashion during the progression into an ice age.

Because the crucial albedo and greenhouse gas feedbacks are so slow, an ice age takes thousands of years to develop. Much later, ice ages unwind as increasing axis tilt promotes the melting of ice. The feedbacks involved are the same, especially albedo and greenhouse gases, but they turn positive.

I suppose I should tell you that ice age development is a little more complicated than I've let on so far. Up to this point I've avoided mentioning another factor in the onset, intensity, and duration of ice ages, but we really ought to take a quick look at it for completeness. We will get to that now.

It turns out that axis tilt is not the only instigator of ice ages. Another weaker but important factor (factors, actually) involves the shape of the earth's orbit around the sun.

The earth traces an orbit that's ever so slightly elliptical, not perfectly circular. That means there is some small variation over time, including in a single year, in Earth's distance from the sun. The variable distance affects how much solar radiation the earth receives at any particular time. The day of the year when the earth is closest to the sun varies through the entire calendar over a period of about 20,000 years. Since warm winters and cool summers favor ice accumulation, the time of year of closest proximity to the sun can be important in nudging conditions toward or away from more ice, and reinforcing or weakening the primary effect of axis tilt.

Furthermore, the eccentricity (the amount of deviation from circular) of the earth's orbit itself varies from nearly zero (almost circular) to nearly six percent (a bit more elliptical), and does so with a non-uniform periodicity. In case you're wondering, the variation in the shape of the earth's orbit is caused by the gravitational tug of other planets in the solar system.

So the effect and timing of proximity to the sun is variable, and can amplify or diminish the effect of axis tilt depending on whether and how much all the factors are in or out of phase with each other.

Axis tilt considered alone would now be pushing the northern hemisphere toward a buildup of ice sheets (as always, over thousands of years), but in fact things are moving in the opposite direction. Despite a more vertical axis that ought to be initiating a new ice age, ice is actually melting at a furious rate, particularly in the Arctic. It's crucial that we understand why, and what it means for the future of humanity.

First, let's get a sense of duration. The most recent ice age began roughly 100,000 years ago, peaked around 20,000 years ago, and was gone by 10,000 years ago. The warm period (called an "interglacial") beginning approximately 10,000 years ago or a little earlier is named the Holocene. It's the geological epoch in which the entire history of human civilization has occurred.

What's remarkable about ice ages is how incredibly weak are the factors that cause them compared to other important drivers of climate, including (especially!) anthropogenic (human caused) drivers. That's not at all what most of us would expect. We imagine ice ages to be imponderably immense phenomena, consistent with the amazing realization that 20,000 years ago there were ice sheets 2 miles thick covering Canada. But our common intuition about them is wrong, and that misguided intuition could be leading us astray on other climate understandings as well.

How do we know this? It's important to recognize that the factors that determine the energy balance of the earth—and thus its temperature—are readily quantifiable. The physics is quite straightforward—not that we'll be doing any of it here. Later I'll direct you to where you can go for somewhat deeper looks that are still accessible to the layman, should you so desire.

Scientists quantify climate forcings—which are physical phenomena that alter the planet's equilibrium temperature to make it warmer or cooler—in units of watts per square meter of the earth's surface. To get a sense of scale, you might be interested to know that the earth averages 240 watts of incoming sunlight per square meter. When the earth is in energy equilibrium, it radiates an equivalent amount out into space as heat, maintaining a constant temperature. Unfortunately, the earth isn't currently in energy equilibrium.

Positive forcings tend to make the climate warmer, and negative forcings make it cooler. Forcings can be both natural and human-caused, and we combine their values using simple summation to yield an overall climate forcing quantity that determines (subject to "sensitivity," which we won't deal with here) the earth's equilibrium temperature.

I reproduced a list of the most important forcings, and explained them in more detail, in a previous essay entitled Of Ice Ages and Men. The strongest recent natural forcing is a slight increase in solar irradiance, which can vary a bit up or down over intermediate time scales. Natural forcings operating since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution sum to a scant 0.35 watts per square meter. This small positive value means that, over the past 250 years or so, the earth would be expected to warm just slightly due to natural causes alone.

Human-caused forcings (some positive, some negative) over that 250 years sum to 1.45. Greenhouse gases are the largest human-caused forcings. Total climate forcings are thus 1.8 watts per square meter.

This means the earth's energy balance—the balance between incoming (solar) and outgoing (heat) radiation—is currently 1.8 watts per square meter greater than what would maintain the planet at its current temperature. Simple physics requires the planet to warm until incoming and outgoing radiation are back in balance at a higher equilibrium temperature. I explain this in more detail in my previous essay.

The point I want to drive home is that the climate forcings that instigate ice ages, involving the axis tilt and orbit shape factors we've discussed here, amount to a tiny fraction of one watt per square meter—too small to be listed with the most important climate forcings that are now operating. How can that be? How can such tiny forcings result in thick ice sheets covering a large part of the planet?

The answer is that those small negative forcings, operating with and against other small natural forcings, do their work over many thousands of years, with the help of slow but relentless feedbacks that become entrained and amplify the initial effect. It takes shockingly little forcing, but a whole lot of time, to build an ice age.

But now those small negative natural forcings are completely and utterly swamped by anthropogenic forcings, rendering them entirely impotent. There will be no more ice ages.

I must underscore that statement, unambiguously. The arithmetic is trivial. Ice age inducing climate forcings are a small (negative) fraction of a watt. Human caused forcings sum to 1.45 watts. Total climate forcing is presently 1.8 watts. Ice ages are no match for humanity.

A good thing, perhaps? I mean, who wants an ice age?

The problem is we are going far beyond avoiding an ice age. Humanity is on track to heat the planet to a degree not seen in millions of years, with devastating implications for human civilization and even the composition of life on Earth.

Certainly the human species has never experienced anything like what's in store in the next century or two. After all, Homo sapiens has only existed for a few hundred thousand years. Precursor species of the genus Homo only existed for the past couple of million years. The very recent, stable, and accommodating climate of the Holocene is what allowed human civilization to take hold in the first place. The climate will soon become unstable and unaccommodating.

And unlike ice ages, the heating of the planet will happen fast, catastrophically so. Adaptation for human civilization and for all of life will be exceedingly difficult. Extinctions will dominate the biosphere. The lived experience of the human population will be decidedly unpleasant.

Even if you want to head off a developing ice age—and who wouldn't?—what we are now doing to the climate is extraordinary overkill. As renowned climate scientist James Hansen put it, "a single chlorofluorocarbon factory would be more than sufficient to overcome any natural tendency toward an ice age." Which underscores how scant is the climate forcing that causes them, and by implication how horrifyingly large is the anthropogenic forcing currently underway. "Ice sheets will not descend over North America and Europe again as long as we are around to stop them," Hansen says.

It turns out that with respect to climate, nature is no match for humanity. Ice ages certainly aren't. Humans now have control of the climate. What will we do with it?

Postscript - This essay is the result of a recent brief conversation with a climate change skeptic that lasted just a few minutes. "Ice ages" were mentioned (volcanoes, too: a subject I hope to address in the future), as often happens in these brief, vapid interactions in which each side imagines the other to be naïve and misinformed, but with polite smiles all around. The implication of the hand-wave at ice ages is that natural climactic phenomena are too immense to yield to a trifling humanity. Our effect on the climate must be negligible by comparison. Actually explaining ice ages seems a good way to refute that misguided implication.

So I went back and re-read my previous essay, Of Ice Ages and Men. I wasn't entirely happy with it. It takes too long to get to the point, with too much diversion, and too much sarcasm. The paragraphs are too long for an online essay, although they'd be fine in a book. There were other problems too. So this latest effort is an attempt to take another crack at the subject, in a way that might actually influence my recent discussant were she to read it. I have no idea whether I've achieved the improvement I hoped for.

The original essay is still worth a read, because it includes a good bit of additional detail that I've omitted or skimmed over here. The present treatment was intended to be a little shorter and a little simpler, while still developing the ultimate crucial understanding about the weakness of natural climate forcings and the strength of anthropogenic ones. But on that score you can and should go much deeper than anything I've written.

The best book I've found on climate science is Storms of My Grandchildren, by renowned climate scientist James Hansen. Much of what I've conveyed here comes from that book.

Hansen, who might well be the most important climate scientist in existence, and one of the most prominent prophets of impending calamity, has impeccable credentials. He was director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies for three decades, and was one of the earliest scientists to offer testimony to the U.S. Congress about how humanity is altering the climate. Hansen cut his climate teeth at NASA in the 1970s studying the runaway climate of Venus (whose atmosphere is hot enough to melt lead), and then moved on to studying Earth. Finally retired from NASA, he now hangs out at Columbia University.

I've read Hansen's book multiple times. Every time I return to it I'm even more impressed than before by how well and comprehensively he explains the topic. There's a lot here that's suitable for almost any reader who is willing to engage. My appreciation of the book increases every time I refer to it.

If you want to truly understand climate science, this is your book. I recommend it highly and without reservation. Get your own copy. Read it. Underline large sections an mull their meaning. Go back later to refresh your understanding. This is important and fascinating stuff, and you will find no better guide.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

For the love of golf

The slacker Obama played golf 306 times over the 8 years he was president. (Other tallies are a little higher.) That's 38 times per year.

During the campaign, Trump savaged Obama over his golfing profligacy. "I'm going to be working for you. I'm not going to have time to go play golf," Trump promised.

No, of course not. Trump suggested that if elected president, he'd never leave the White House. Why would he? Too much important work to do.

And work is the thing. Trump tweeted in 2012: "Don't take vacations. What's the point? If you're not enjoying your work, you're in the wrong job."

Obama's vacations were another of Trump's constant complaints. Through early June of this year, Trump had spent almost a third of his presidency at one of his Trump-branded properties. What a great way to not take vacations.

So far in his presidency Trump has had 141 golf "outings" to courses he owns. He has played or has "likely" played on 115 occasions. Additional others not in that count are rated "maybe". Not counting the maybes, that comes out to 74 times playing golf per year, about double the Obama rate.

So who cares?

Exactly. Because nothing Trump says means anything, it's hard to actually care about anything he says.

I'm not suggesting that what Trump says shouldn't mean anything—only that you can be pretty sure, on matters large and small, that it never does. No time for golf? Means nothing.

That's by design. When nothing has meaning, everything is possible, and reality becomes whatever the great leader needs it to be. The connection between past and present becomes tenuous, as do all other gauges of reality. The way to inure oneself against charges of hypocrisy is to be continually hypocritical. Flood the zone. Exhaust the opposition.

Meaninglessness as normalcy goes for subjects far more important to the country than golf. To pick just one example among many, when Trump said that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat, after a single summit in which no solid commitments were made, he was peddling a made-up reality that had no basis in fact. And indeed, the subsequent talks have been unproductive and sometimes hostile to the point of falling apart. So far, not a single genuine accomplishment—even in the form of an actual but as yet unaccomplished agreement on any concrete matter—has been achieved. Few persons who understood the situation expected otherwise. Yet somehow North Korea was once a threat but now isn't.

Consistently saying things that have no meaning ensures we reach a point where nothing ever has meaning: There is no objective reality (but plenty of Rex Tillerson's "alternative realities"), no expectation of continuity or consistency, nothing for which to be held accountable, no foundation on which to lay a larger understanding of how things are. George Orwell wrote extensively about this.

When Trump publicly said in early 2017 that he would deliver health insurance that was better and cheaper and universal—everybody would have great health care—you did not need to be a health care expert to understand that he was spouting meaningless nonsense. He might just as well have proclaimed he'd invented a perpetual motion machine, or cold fusion. But he charged forward with his ridiculous claims. Over the intervening time, Republican-controlled government in both the Congress and the administration has been working to reduce access to health care and reduce the quality of coverage for many.

When Trump said recently that during a two-day summit he'd forced NATO countries to honor and even increase their financial commitments, that too was a fabrication. The commitments had been agreed to years ago, and member nations were on pace to meet them by 2024 as agreed. Nothing changed over the course of two days.

Authoritarian and especially totalitarian governments require that reality be under control of the state. Freedom and democracy—which are in global decline—require that reality be both objective and discernible by the populace. A free and principled press, which Trump denounces as "fake news", is crucial.

With respect to the simple matter of golf, you might sincerely expect that if Trump earnestly said he'd have no time for it, he really wouldn't have (much) time for it. You would not expect that he'd double the rate of his predecessor's golfing, about which he himself was so scathingly critical, and do it so shamelessly.

 Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

 The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Trump Fixes Everything

Donald Trump fixes everything, just as he said he would. He fixed the economy, which posted a strong 4.1 percent gain in the second quarter. Didn't know the economy had been broken? Now you do.

"We're having the best economy we've ever had in the history of our country," Trump said in an address on Thursday.

And thank goodness for that.

At the White House on Friday, Trump said "we've accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions," a "turnaround" presumably based on a single strong quarter of GDP growth and a continuation of solid job creation. Historic!

Trump said the second quarter's 4.1 percent growth rate was "amazing."

How historic and amazing is that number? Well, Obama had four quarters over 4 percent. Two of Obama's quarters were 4.6 percent—half a point higher than Trump's—and one was a whopping 5.2 percent. Because it is not a technical term recognized by economists, I use the word "whopping" advisedly, in simple contrast to Trump's "amazing," to indicate Obama's quarter crushed Trump's by over a point. Obama also had a couple of 3.9 percent quarters. So there's recent precedence for "amazing" GDP growth.

And yet, full disclosure requires me to report that killjoy economists say Trump's 4.1 percent quarter is likely to be a one-time affair. A confluence of one-off factors contributed to second quarter strength, and they will not be repeated. These include a strong increase in consumer spending, apparently thanks to the tax cut. But because GDP growth is a compounding quantity, simply maintaining that new, higher level of spending won't produce further growth.

And a somewhat surprising and significant factor in the strong quarterly report was a huge surge in soybean exports ahead of China's imposition of tariffs in response to Trump's trade war. That won't be repeated either—quite the opposite. With tariffs in place, soybean exports are now weak and will constitute a drag on the economy going forward.

Alas, economists say the economy has probably already peaked. The third quarter report will likely be lower, and the fourth quarter lower still. Overall GDP growth for all of 2018 could easily come in at less than 3 percent, with even lower growth next year. Economists say that the economy chugging along at a steady 2.5 percent annual growth over the next several years, which is far from assured, would be a dandy result.

But not dandy enough to pay for the recently passed tax cuts, which is one reason those cuts were, fiscally speaking, a bad move. The cuts, mostly for corporations and the rich, will result in much higher deficits and debt over the coming decade. Already government revenues from corporate taxes are down thanks to the cuts, and the U.S. is closing in on $1 trillion annual deficits. The tax cuts alone will account for a trillion or more dollars in increased debt over a decade. It's a matter of Republican religion that tax cuts pay for themselves through higher growth, a doctrine unsupported by economics. Because the necessary growth is unlikely to materialize, the budget shortfall the cuts will cause won't be fixed any time soon.

Despite economists' projections, Trump is saying the second quarter is just a taste of what's ahead, with even higher GDP growth in the future. Indeed, 4 percent or greater growth has always been a feature of his core package of economic promises. Economists are unanimous: Ain't gonna happen.

But at least Trump has delivered on jobs, right? Hasn't job creation been historic and amazing under Trump? Hasn't Trump fixed the job market?

No. Not that it was actually broken, even if Trump complained mightily about Obama's economy. The main valid complaint about the job market is that wage increases have been anemic, barely matching inflation. That deficiency hasn't yet been fixed, a matter of considerable puzzlement to economists.

Job creation under Trump has been solid, but a good bit slower than under Obama. Over Obama's final 5 years in office, far more jobs were created as a monthly average than Trump's monthly average so far. Substantially more jobs were created in Obama's final 16 months in office than in Trump's first 16 months.

It is true, as Trump likes to remind us, that the unemployment rate has hit a 20-year low. But the rate has been declining at a fairly constant pace for the nine years of positive job creation the present economy has enjoyed. The decline has continued but not accelerated under Trump: he simply gets to claim the final result that's been building for almost a decade. His oblivious followers say, about time!—which is itself a testament to the power of propaganda.

Well, then, what about the trade deficit, a statistic very near and dear to the president's heart? Because Trump is a mercantilist—an economic philosophy repudiated in the long-ago past—he cares mightily about the U.S. trade balance, even if he doesn't understand its economic implications.

Trump tweeted this morning that the "Trade Deficit has been reduced by $52 Billion," as if that were a remarkable accomplishment. Setting aside questions of trade balance that are beyond Trump's ken and the time and space available here, it's worth noting that the U.S. experienced a surge of exports in the second quarter precisely because trading was revved up artificially ahead of the anticipated trade war and impending tariffs. A huge factor in GDP growth and the decline in the trade deficit was a surge in soybean exports, but as we have seen that's over and the situation is now reversed.

So no, Trump hasn't fixed the trade deficit.

Ok, then, what about those soybeans? Commentators have quipped that Trump breaks things and then takes credit for fixing what he has broken. Trump's tariffs and the resulting retaliation have broken things big time. He has definitely broken the soybean market, and now he's trying to fix it, but in ways that will have perverse consequences. Let's look.

There is no question that soybean farmers are getting hammered in Trump's trade wars. Prices are down by 20 percent or more, and farmers are hurting. It's said that "one in every three rows of U.S. soybeans is exported to China," which is by far the largest single buyer of U.S. beans. Or was. No more, though, and that's a market farmers are loathe to lose, because long-held trading relationships are precious and hard to replace. Other agricultural commodity prices are depressed too. An economist at Syracuse University notes that hog exports to China "have pretty much collapsed."

So the Trump administration has unveiled a $12 billion program to support farm prices, funded by the U.S. Treasury and thus by taxes paid by you and me. Sorry to inform you, but we will all pay for Trump's misadventures. And this illustrates why trade wars are so costly. Taxpayers will pay directly for mitigation efforts, and, further, consumers will pay higher prices for imported goods and, eventually, products such as automobiles that have a large percentage of imported parts. Because even imported machinery made to produce things is also burdened by tariffs, the price of most everything will eventually be affected. Tariffs even drive up the cost of purely domestic goods, such as U.S. produced steel.

The $12 billion farm aid program, an attempt to fix something Trump has broken, will be run through the Depression-era Commodity Credit Corporation, and will involve intervention in the commodities markets, direct payments to farmers, and the establishment of new markets. Remember how the government bought a lot of surplus cheese in the 70s to support milk prices? Kinda like that.

The farm aid program has caught a lot of flack, even from Republican politicians representing farm states. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said: "This is becoming more and more like a Soviet-type of economy here: Commissars deciding who’s going to be granted waivers, commissars in the administration figuring out how they’re going to sprinkle around benefits."

In other words, government bureaucrats will be picking winners and losers in the economic war that's unfolding. Conservative columnist George Will quotes conservative economist John Cochrane as saying the farm aid program is a "darker system, which leads to crony capitalism."

"Everyone depends on the whim of the administration," Cochrane writes. "Who gets tariff protection? On whim. But then you can apply for a waiver. Who gets those, on what basis? Now you can get subsidies. Who gets the subsidies? There is no law, no rule, no basis for any of this. If you think you deserve a waiver, on what basis do you sue to get one? Well, it sure can’t hurt not to be an outspoken critic of the administration when the tariffs, waivers and subsidies are being handed out on whim."

Will concludes that now "there is a Republican president who can teach [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez a thing or two about the essence of socialism, which is 10-thumbed government picking winners and losers and advancing the politicization of everything."

Trump has also sought to fix his broken soybean market by superficially fixing the trading relationship with the European Union, a relationship he has also broken.

As you know, Trump unadvisedly commenced a multi-front trade war, simultaneously picking fights with China, the E.U., and Canada. Yet another front could be opened with Mexico. Trump imposed import tariffs on European steel and aluminum, and the E.U. retaliated with tariffs on certain U.S. products such as Harley Davidson motorcycles, Kentucky bourbon, and others. That's the E.U. front.

Recently Trump and  European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker agreed to not escalate further, at least not yet. No additional tariffs will be imposed by either side while negotiation proceeds. And Europe has agreed to import more U.S. soybeans and liquefied natural gas—something it had pretty much intended to do anyway. But the additional E.U. soybean imports, if they materialize, will not come close to replacing bean exports to China. There is actually a worldwide game of musical chairs going on, with Brazil now selling more beans to China, and Europe looking elsewhere for beans it would normally have bought from Brazil. Who knew soybeans could be so interesting? All this because of Trump's trade wars.

So Trump calmed one front of his trade war, "taking credit for solving a crisis of his own making." In seeking lower tariffs across-the-board, Trump is suddenly pursuing a negotiating tack with the E.U. that's almost identical to the approach taken by the Obama administration. The irony.

The  premise of this piece is that Trump fixes things, often things he has broken, and other things too, because fixing is what he does. As further evidence alongside all the breaking and fixing we've already seen, consider how Trump fixed NATO, in the span of just a couple of days. Trump-the-fixer achieved something past U.S. presidents have been unable to accomplish. Or so he says.

Trump entered the recent NATO summit with guns blazing, bashing member countries for not paying enough, slamming Germany's Angela Merkel, and calling the E.U. a "foe."  At the end of the summit Trump held an impromptu press conference in which he said all was well. Great, even.

Trump said that "yesterday, I let them know that I was extremely unhappy with what was happening, and they have substantially upped their commitment, yeah. And now we're very happy and have a very, very powerful, very, very strong NATO, much stronger than it was two days ago." Trump said NATO members "are paying money that they never paid before. They're happy to do it."

Just like that! Indeed, Trump said, members have coughed up an additional $33 billion, presumably thanks to his hectoring. "The people have stepped up today like they've never stepped up before," he said. This is what leadership looks like.

So what happened in those two days that caused such a dramatic turnaround? Answer: Nothing. Nothing at all, save for a reversal in Trump's rhetoric. Nothing but words emanating from Trump's mouth, entirely disconnected from concrete reality.

It's important to understand that members' commitments to NATO are not, as Trump often couches it, about paying but, rather, about spending. In 2014 NATO members agreed that members would spend at least 2 percent of national GDP on their national military budgets. Each country would spend at that level on its own defense, which would in turn redound to the benefit of NATO. Countries with more capable militaries would be able to more capably contribute to the defense of all.

In 2014 it was agreed that member countries would meet that 2 percent of GDP spending goal by 2024, and since then spending has indeed been increasing. But the agreement and the spending increases, which have been ongoing, predate Trump, and nothing he's done has affected the amount or the trajectory of those increases. Despite his press conference implications, Trump didn't shake down NATO members for additional funds during their two-day meeting, nor did he shake them down in their previous 2017 meeting.

There is not the slightest suggestion of any change in agreed-upon member spending evident in the joint Declaration signed by the summit attendees. Member spending is described in paragraph 3, which begins: "We reaffirm our unwavering commitment to all aspects of the Defence Investment Pledge agreed at the 2014 Wales Summit, and to submit credible national plans on its implementation, including the spending guidelines for 2024, planned capabilities, and contributions." Not only does the Declaration say nothing about Trump's claims, but the presidents of France and Italy both repudiated Trump's characterization of sudden and dramatic spending increases.

If anything, Trump did more to harm NATO than to fix it. At various points Trump has questioned whether the U.S. would defend certain members he deemed deadbeats, and even whether NATO itself remained important to the U.S. Such apparent ambiguity emanating from the U.S. president might well entice Russia to push its weight around in the Baltics in a manner similar to how it has been intervening militarily in Ukraine. Baltic states such as Latvia and Estonia are NATO members, but could be forgiven for being nervous about the firmness of Trump's support. Such ambiguity presents the possibility of a consequential miscalculation by Russia. And Trump's unhinged ramblings about made-up realities don't engender confidence in the U.S. as a reliable partner, but rather invite a WTF attitude among NATO countries who see no connection between the president's words and reality.

After his post-NATO press conference, Trump got on a plane to the U.K. During the flight he proceeded to criticize Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview with London's Daily Mail. Trump fixed that serious "protocol breach" by calling the story "fake news," even though audio of the interview backing the quotations in the article was publicly available.

So Trump breaks and fixes, fixes and breaks. He has been working mightily to break the private health insurance market. He is breaking the Iran nuclear deal the rest of the world supports. And most of the fixing is more mirage and mythology than real, as with NATO, soybeans, the job market, and economic growth. What's emerging is the myth of the great leader, master of all things—a myth founded on propagandistic assertions with no factual basis, and apparently none needed. Nowhere does a formal, official record follow the president's incoherent ramblings. There was never an official readout of his talks with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The Russians have been making claims about what the two presidents agreed to, but the U.S. is mum.

Which brings us finally to North Korea, a problem that U.S. presidents have struggled with for decades, and which Trump claims to have fixed. After his meeting with Kim Jong-Un, which truly was historic, Trump said there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. If that isn't fixing, I don't know what is.

But it was an amazing claim, since nothing at all had changed except the two leaders had a nice talk and appeared to have gotten along. The scant two-page document that described their "agreement" was mostly aspirational, and much less specific than denuclearization agreements previously negotiated between the two countries. So the two formally agreed to something less than has been agreed to before. For its part, North Korea has broken every previous agreement, and experts see no reason to assume that this time will be any different.

Observers have noted that in some sense Trump has "fixed" yet another problem that he himself created with inflamed "fire and fury" rhetoric and name-calling, a situation that left many to fear that a real conflagration might be in the offing. Saying so does not imply that Trump is somehow responsible for North Korea's nuclear program or its decades of bad behavior—only that Trump himself is often as not a source of additional instability. And we should not fault Trump when we note that as 2017 proceeded, Trump "permitted" North Korea to attain ballistic missile capability. The principle fault was his early bluster that such a capability would not happen on his watch. It did happen, and he was completely incapable of stopping it. Welcome to reality. North Korea increased its capabilities enormously under Trump, and not a bit of it has been reversed.

The complaint here is that Trump always spikes the football long before reaching the endzone, and presents himself as the triumphant solution to all problems, to the adulation of his credulous followers. There is always more to Trump's self-aggrandizement than reality permits. The meeting between Trump and Kim was previously untried and possibly worth the risk, but it's important to recognize where we currently stand, which, as of this moment, is: nowhere much.

As far as the outside world and the American public can see, there is no concrete agreement of any kind between the two countries. It is unclear that North Korea and the U.S. mean the same thing when they speak of  "denuclearization." There is no indication at all about how denuclearization that is "complete and verifiable"—a longstanding U.S. demand—is expected to be achieved. There is no timetable nor metrics nor milestones. In the first high-level post-summit meeting between the two countries involving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, North Korea criticized the U.S. as having a "gangster-like" attitude. Very recently Pompeo admitted that North Korea continues to produce fissile material.

For its part, North Korea has made "concessions" that are not concessions at all. It only stopped ballistic missile testing after it was confident it had perfected its technology, and only then did it offer to meet with the U.S. president. It destroyed its nuclear test site not as a concession, but because the site was becoming unusable because of multiple detonations. It recently began dismantling a satellite launch site because it didn't need it anymore. North Korea hasn't paused anything it wouldn't have paused anyway, and it certainly hasn't taken the slightest step backward.

Experts say that Kim Jong-Un has already gotten what he wanted. North Korea has sought bilateral talks with the U.S. for decades, and meeting personally the the leader of the world's superpower gives Kim the legitimacy he craves. With that accomplishment in his hip pocket, Kim has turned his attention back to his relationship with China.

It's likely as not that the North sees itself as a de facto member of the nuclear club, and will be loathe to relinquish its membership. Let's hope that real progress can yet me made, but let's also save our self-congratulations for when it's finally warranted. Nothing has yet been fixed. Not even close.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Trump Jobs, Obama Jobs

Everybody's gushing about the great new jobs report that was just released.  223,000 jobs created (preliminary) in May, a strong showing. President Trump actually tweeted about it in advance, which is a definite no-no. Another norm bites the dust.

The unemployment rate fell to 3.8%, the lowest level since the year 2000. Trump recently took credit for that, too.

Trump, apparently, has been a job-creating maven, just like he said he would be. With 16 complete months in office, we now have a solid chunk of jobs data with which to compare with his predecessor. And we should: During the campaign, Trump was highly critical of Obama's job creation record.

So I wanted to see how Trump's 16 full months—February 2017 through May 2018—stack up against a comparable interval under Obama. But which interval would yield a fair comparison? Then it hit me: compare all of them! So I calculated the total jobs created for every single interval of 16 consecutive months during Obama's final 60 months (5 years) in office. Yes I did!

There are 45 such intervals in Obama's final 60 months. I did not go back further because five years is plenty of data; because the period begins far before the presidential campaign in which Trump made his critiques and promises; and because doing so would dip too much into the aftermath of the Great Recession that began at the end of the Bush presidency. Recall that the economy was shedding 800,000 jobs per month when Obama was sworn in. Even so, note that there were 3 million jobs created between the final month of negative job creation and the period we're looking at. But those particular jobs are not part of this study, which, again, is Obama's final 60 months in office. For this analysis we are considering the period February 2012 through January 2017.

The comparison is stark. Obama has two intervals at or above 4 million jobs created (ok, one is 3.999 million). Obama has 19 intervals exceeding 3.5 million. Trump never even hits 3 million.  The total for Trump's first full 16 months is 2.966 million.

In all, there were 40 16-month intervals over Obama's final five years that exceeded 3 million jobs created. There were only five intervals where Obama under-performed Trump. I placed all the data in a table for you to peruse, but because it is so large I put it down at the bottom of this post. Scan it on your way out.

The data comes from the authoritative Bureau of Labor Statistics, from which the monthly jobs reports originate. Here's the source data I worked from; feel free to check my arithmetic. Click on the table for a larger view:

This particular table is an image from a screenshot from the linked BLS page, so you can't load the numbers directly into your spreadsheet from here. (Me? I used a calculator. Yes I did!) But you can follow the link in the caption directly to the BLS web site where this table lives, where a download link is provided. Note that you can always obtain the most recent 10 years of data at this BLS page, so it's worth bookmarking.

There's yet another way to compare Trump job creation with Obama job creation. Over Trump's first full 16 months in office, an average of 185,000 jobs were created per month. By contrast, an average of 207,000 jobs were created per month for the entire final 60 months of the Obama presidency.  And over Obama's final 16 months, which abuts Trump's 16 months, an average of 216,000 jobs were created. So the handoff from Obama to Trump saw an immediate large reduction in jobs created. Yes it did!

All the same caveats and disclaimers from my earlier two posts (here and here) on this subject still apply. But we are now playing by Trump's rules, so when Trump crows about how many jobs he's created, citizens need to know he is under-performing Obama. In particular, do not forget how critical Trump was of Obama's economy—including job creation—during the campaign. And don't forget how Trump promised he'd fix that situation as president. Now he wants you to know what a great job he's doing.

Finally, about that unemployment rate, which is at an 18-year low. Trump wants to take credit for that too. Here's a graph of the rate since 2008. Click on the graph for a larger view. As you can see, it has been declining quite steadily for many years since its Great Recession peak, and has continued to decline at about the same rate since Trump took office. See any Trump effect? Me neither.

Source: St. Louis Fed

Up to this moment there have been 92 months of continuous job creation, the vast majority of that under Obama, who also created jobs at a faster rate than Trump. Obama created over 12 million jobs over the 60-month period we've been examining. He created over 15 million jobs since the last monthly job loss, in 2010. Yes he did! So Trump is in effect the cherry on the icing on Obama's jobs cake, but Trump wants to claim he's the entire cake.

At best, Trump hasn't yet managed to screw up Obama's economy. But with his recently announced tariffs and brewing trade wars, he might be trying to do so. We will, as he might put it, have to wait and see.

 Trump jobs, 16 full months in office


Jobs Created

Avg. Jobs per month

Feb 2017 - May 2018



Obama jobs, final 60 months, 16-month intervals


Jobs Created

Avg. Jobs per month

Oct 2015 - Jan 2017



Sep 2015 - Dec 2016



Aug 2015 - Nov 2016



Jul 2015 - Oct 2016



Jun 2015 - Sep 2016



May 2015 - Aug 2016



Apr 2015 - Jul 2016



Mar 2015 - Jun 2016



Feb 2015 - May 2016



Jan 2015 - Apr 2016



Dec 2014 - Mar 2016



Nov 2014 - Feb 2016



Oct 2014 - Jan 2016



Sep 2014 - Dec 2015



Aug 2014 - Nov 2015



Jul 2014 - Oct 2015



Jun 2014 - Sep 2015



May 2014 - Aug 2015



Apr 2014 - Jul 2015



Mar 2014 - Jun 2015



Feb 2014 - May 2015



Jan 2014 - Apr 2015



Dec 2013 - Mar 2015



Nov 2013 - Feb 2015



Oct 2013 - Jan 2015



Sep 2013 - Dec 2014



Aug 2013 - Nov 2014



Jul 2013 - Oct 2014



Jun 2013 - Sep 2014



May 2013 - Aug 2014



Apr 2013 - Jul 2014



Mar 2013 - Jun 2014



Feb 2013 - May 2014



Jan 2013 - Apr 2014



Dec 2012 - Mar 2014



Nov 2012 - Feb 2014



Oct 2012 - Jan 2014



Sep 2012 - Dec 2013



Aug 2012 - Nov 2013



Jul 2012 - Oct 2013



Jun 2012 - Sep 2013



May 2012 - Aug 2013



Apr 2012 - Jul 2013



Mar 2012 - Jun 2013



Feb 2012 - May 2013



Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.