Seth Meyers Fails on Global Warming

Seth MeyersTuesday night, Ted Cruz was on Late Night With Seth Meyers. It didn’t go well. I’m not a fan of Seth Meyers. He’s always reminded me of another Weekend Update alumni: Dennis Miller. A lot of people have forgotten this, but Miller was once an outspoken liberal. But as with Meyers, you could always tell that he wasn’t serious about it — he clearly hadn’t thought through his political positions. So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Miller turned conservative. In fact, it’s better now: he has a greater grasp on what conservatives think. I’m not saying that Meyers is going to turn conservative, but his liberalism is razor thin.

Even before Cruz got a chance to talk, Meyers said something that annoyed me. After they discussed Cruz’s “world’s on fire” rhetoric, Meyers said, “At first I got excited, because I thought you were coming around on global warming… Because I think the world’s on fire literally.” But clearly, the world is not on fire. It portrays the issue in a casual and hyperbolic way that makes for easy pickings by conservatives. And in fact, Cruz used just such an attack when he later mentioned that it had been snowing in New Hampshire. I know: that’s stupid. But it is a perfectly acceptable counter to the stupid claim that the world is literally on fire from global warming.

One thing that Cruz said that made me want to bang my head against the wall was a total distortion of linguistic history. He said, “It’s why, you remember how it used to be called global warming, and then magically the theory changed to climate change?” Actually, that was the result of a propaganda campaign. According to The Guardian in 2003, “The phrase ‘global warming’ should be abandoned in favor of ‘climate change,’ [conservative branding expert] Mr [Frank] Luntz says…” One of the things that the Republican Party is really good at is branding, and I hate that Ted Cruz can go on national television and claim words that his party got changed are actually due to a changing understanding of science.

Cruz continued, “The reason is it wasn’t warming. But the computer models still say it is, except the satellites show it’s not.” He claimed earlier that the last 17 years of satellite temperature data indicated “zero warming, none whatsoever.” Meyers’ response to this was nothing at all. He didn’t even know enough to say that Cruz was cherry picking data. The audience was left thinking, “Wow! I guess there really is a debate!”

There is no debate:

Satellite Temperature Measurements

That’s from an excellent article by Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones, Scientists: Ted Cruz’s Climate Theories Are a “Load of Claptrap.” It represents an average increase in atmospheric temperatures of 0.22° F per decade for the last three and a half decades. Of course, it’s important to remember that these data are some of the worst that we have — and they still show a distinct rise in temperature. But importantly: we don’t especially care about total global atmospheric temperatures; we care about surface temperatures. One thing that falls out of the simplest of climate models is that while the lower atmosphere (troposphere) warms, the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) cools. So looking at the overall temperature will tend to understate the rise in surface temperature.

What Cruz said was not technically false. You might wonder: why did he pick 17 years and not, say, 20? It’s because 17 years ago, 1998, was one of the warmest years on record (the warmest of the 20th century). Thus, by starting there, the upward trend is small — I assume within the margin of error, because the errors on satellite temperature measurements are large. You can see this very clearly by looking at the yearly average surface temperatures provided in McDonnell’s article:

Yearly Average Surface Temperatures

I don’t mind people like Seth Meyers getting into these debates. But given the power they have to amplify voices, they have a responsibility to know what they are talking about. In this case, Meyers had absolutely nothing to say other than that he believes in global warming. Did he really think Ted Cruz didn’t have talking points about this? If you watch the video, you can see where he pauses slightly after mentioning the snow in New Hampshire. He is used to the audience cheering after he says that. Meyers did liberalism generally, and science specifically, great harm Tuesday night. Maybe it would be best if he just turned into a conservative.

Afterword

This is a great one minute long video that explains the difference between climate and weather in a really clever way. Check it out:

The Hitler Suicide Counterfactual

HitlerlandEarly in his political career, long before he became the all-powerful ruler of the Third Reich who was the target of assassination plots, Adolf Hitler narrowly escaped death. On 9 November 1923, when he and General Ludendorff led their followers in the final act of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, they were met by a hail of machine-gun fire from the police. One of the bullets struck down Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, a close confidant of the Nazi leader; the two men had been marching arm-in-arm, and a slight difference in the trajectory of that bullet would have changed the course of history.

That was pure chance, but what happened the next day was something else. It is impossible to know whether Hitler was really about to shoot himself when he picked up his revolver in Helen Hanfstaengl’s house as the police were arriving to arrest him. But by grabbing the gun away from him and berating him for even thinking of such a thing, the American wife of Hitler’s propagandist Putzi Hanfstaengl may have played as pivotal a role as chance had the day before. If so, this was a clear case of the wrong person appearing at the wrong time.

All of which raises the biggest “what if” question of history: without Hitler, what would have happened to Germany after World War I? The Americans who lived through the collapse of the Weimar Republic, Hitler’s rise to power, and the Nazi era did not explicitly address that question, which can never have a definitive answer. But the common thread that runs though so many of the Americans’ accounts is their fascination with Hitler. Their experiences and observations strongly suggest that, without Hitler, the Nazis never would have succeeded in their drive for absolute power. The country still might have embarked on an authoritarian course, possibly a military dictatorship. But whatever might have emerged would not have been on the terrifying scale of the Third Reich, with all its terrifying consequences.

—Andrew Nagorski
Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Dynamic Scoring and Republican Delusion

Josh BarroAs you’ve probably heard, the new Republican House budget uses “dynamic scoring.” In a general sense, this is a process by which budgets take into account the indirect economic effects of the government policies. So if the the government cuts taxes, people will have more money that they will spend, and that will make its merry way through the economy. Similarly, government spending cuts also works their way through the economy — in the opposite direction. I actually have no problem with this. But as I reported back in January, this is not the way things currently work, Republican Disingenuous Changes at CBO. The Republicans are using dynamic scoring when it comes to tax cuts, but they don’t use it when it comes to the negative effects of spending cuts.

But there is an even bigger problem as Josh Barro reported at The Upshot earlier this week, Tax Cuts Still Don’t Pay for Themselves. It is primarily about a study by the conservative Tax Foundation that found that, for example, tax cuts on business investments would increase business investments so much that it would generate more tax revenue that would offset the tax cuts. But it is explicitly reversed engineered to find that. The question is whether the CBO will follow in this direction.

I think it is clear from the way that the Republicans have managed things thus far that if the CBO doesn’t descend into nuttyland, Congress will force them to do so. I wrote about the new budget earlier this week, Another Ridiculous Republican Budget. In it, I focused on how Republicans want to savage the federal government’s budget without a care in the world about the negative effects on the economy. And it is pretty simple. Imagine that you cut both taxes and spending by one dollar. A dollar will be removed from the economy because of the decreased spending. But a dollar will not be added back into the economy via the tax cut. Most of it will, but some of it will be saved.[1] So even such budget decisions will hurt the economy. And this new budget is mostly spending cuts — not that much in terms of tax cuts.

The whole thing is ridiculous. Apparently, the only point of “dynamic scoring” was to allow the one overriding Republican commitment — tax cuts — to look like they don’t cost as much as they actually do. Meanwhile, they continue to claim that no amount of spending cuts will hurt the economy. I’ve noticed this sort of thing often before. And there is a name for it: theology. There’s no economics in sight.

This is the state of things. One thing that bothers me is that it is asymmetrical. I just can’t imagine the Democrats changing the CBO rules to only use dynamic scoring on spending and not on tax cuts. That’s because Democrats are still wedded to reality. The economics profession — regardless of its many other failings — accepts that both kinds of government policy affect the economy. How could it be otherwise? Yet the Republicans just see what they want to see. The question was always going to be whether the Republicans were just going to turn the CBO into a propaganda unit. But we knew the answer to that back in January when they decided to do this one-sided dynamic scoring.

Once again, my mind flashes back to an insight I had long ago: this is how great empires fall. The Republicans fully reflect the shortsighted view of the business community. And the Democrats, when they don’t share that view, are unwilling to counter them on it. Meanwhile, our infrastructure crumbles, our children fall further and further behind, and our poor just die unnecessarily. But it is a great time to be rich! And that’s all the power elite care about.


[1] If the economy were booming, the private sector for use that saved dollar. In that case, the whole example would be a wash. But clearly, the economy is not booming. And the way economic policy is run in this country, the economy is rarely booming.

Expensive College Also Due to Low Minimum Wage

Timothy TaylorLast week, the economist Timothy Taylor wrote, When a Summer Job Could Pay the Tuition. He noted that when he graduated from high school (1978), one could work one’s way through college with a minimum wage job: part-time during the school year and full-time in the summer. Now that isn’t possible. He used the graph below, which he took from a lecture by David Ernst. What it shows is a time series of the number of hours a student would have to work to pay the tuition at the University of Minnesota. When Taylor was in college, it was about 300 hours per year. By the time I was in college — just a decade later — it was double that. And today, it is roughly 1,600 hours.

There are two aspects of this: tuition increases and the minimum wage decreases. I went to the University of Minnesota’s website and found this convenient document (pdf) that lists the tuition rates dating back to 1960. I chose a base year of 1968, because that was the high water mark for the minimum wage. The tuition at that time was $294 for instate undergraduates. Today, it is $12,060. That represents an averageincrease of 8.4% — a bit more than double the rate of inflation. If tuition had only gone up at the rate of inflation, it would be only $1,974 now. So tuition is a big part of the problem here.

Number of Minimum Wage Hours for College Tuition

If the minimum wage of $1.60 per hour in 1968 had gone up at the rate of inflation, it would now be $10.75. If the minimum wage had gone up at the rate of productivity growth (and it always did in the decades before 1968), it would be at nearly $22 per hour. Let’s look at these numbers. In 1968, $294 would have required 184 hours of work. Today, $12,060 requires 1,663 hours at $7.25 per hour. If the minimum wage had just gone up at the rate of inflation, 1,122 hours would have been required. And if the minimum wage had gone up at the rate of productivity growth, 548 hours would have done the trick.

Clearly, both education inflation and the regression of the minimum wage have been major factors in making a college education far less affordable. From the looks of it, I think that the minimum wage is the larger issue. It’s telling that the focus of the educational affordability discussion (even among liberals) is so focused on tuition. Whenever I hear this kind of thing, I think the subtext is, “Those college professors make too damned much money!” I have no special love for academics, but I’m skeptical when the focus for helping the poor is tearing down the middle class. The minimum wage hasn’t been decoupled from the economy so that college professors could make more money.

I have to give credit to Ernst and Taylor, because this is a good way to look at the question of affordable college educations. And I think what it shows is not so much that college tuition is growing too fast — although it is. It is more that the rewards of our economic success are not being widely shared. Notice that a big part of the increase in tuition in state schools here in California is not because education is getting more expensive; it is because the state is paying less and less of the bill. When I was paying $500 per semester in the 1980s, I was paying only a fraction of the cost of my education. Today, students pay a much higher percentage of the actual cost. (Very roughly, adjusted for inflation, students pay ten times what I did.)

There is a weird kind of tension in any discussion of college affordability. There are many people who claim that inequality is just a question of education and if we all got college degrees, everyone would be rich — or at least “middle class.” At the same time, our inequality has made getting an education extremely hard. But I think we have to stop thinking this way. The problem is that we have unsustainable levels of inequality. Making education more affordable is a laudable goal. But it is no substitute for addressing economic inequality head on. And in most cases, I think the loud voices crying about skyrocketing tuition are using the issue as a distraction to keep us from dealing with the more fundamental issue.

Morning Music: Vera Lynn

Vera LynnCan you believe that Vera Lynn is 98 years old today? She was an icon of World War II Britain where she became know as “The Forces’ Sweetheart” because of her efforts entertaining the troops. This was mostly in the form of a radio program Sincerely Yours where she would send out cheerful thoughts and sing songs that they had requested. She is, of course, best know for the song “We’ll Meet Again.”

I know the song originally from the ending of Dr Strangelove. It is played over visuals of atomic bombs exploding, as the world comes to an end. It’s cheeky good fun. Just the same, the song does go rather well with those images. And it gets at my general belief that as we destroy ourselves, we will be singing a happy song.

Many years later, Roger Waters wrote a kind of response with, “Vera Lynn.” Waters’ father died during World War II, so the two did not, in fact, meet again. That song starts, “Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn? Remember how she said that we would meet again one sunny day?” But it is perhaps best not to over-think popular music. I wonder how good The Wall will sound 75 years out. “We’ll Meet Again” still sounds pretty nice:

Birthday Post: Illarion Pryanishnikov

Illarion Pryanishnikov - Vasily Perov (detail)On this day in 1840, the great Russian painter Illarion Pryanishnikov was born. At the age of 16, he was sent off to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. And he stayed there for most of the rest of his life — for ten years as a student, then for the final two decades he was an instructor there. But he was something of a radical — a founding member of the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions, which sought (like the post-impressionists later in France) to get beyond the control of the academy.

Pryanishnikov tended to paint historical scenes — especially scenes from recent wars. He was great at doing crowds. But I want to focus on one painting from when he was still a student, Jokers. Gostiny Dvor in Moscow. To us, 150 years on, it doesn’t mean much. But according to Moscow: A Cultural History, it “depicts a clerk making bunny ears with his fingers behind the head of a man who appears to be drunk for the amusement of a group of corpulent top-hatted Moscow merchants.” The implication is that the wealthy people got some poor (maybe homeless) man drunk so they could make fun of him. It’s degrading of all parties involved. Such art is the kind of thing that can lead to revolution — although in the case of Russia, it would take another 52 years.

Jokers. Gostiny Dvor in Moscow - Illarion Pryanishnikov

Happy birthday Illarion Pryanishnikov!