The Most Insidious Area Of Government Regulation

OK that title sets me a high bar of insidiousness, but I have a very strong nominee: the regulation -- and criminalization -- of so-called "money laundering."  In an article back in December 2012 where I described government money-laundering regulation as "the next big shakedown," I had this to say:

We have allowed the government to deputize the banks to spy on us all 24/7 behind our backs to enable an exercise in total futility.

Few non-specialists pay much attention to money laundering regulation because it takes place behind your back and they don't tell you they are doing it.  Hey, that's what makes it insidious!  Those who give it a small amount of thought tend to think, if you want to get the crooks, it probably makes sense to "follow the money."  Why wouldn't that work?

Like many areas of insidious government regulation, the money laundering thing does not have a long history, and basically began with the badly mis-named Bank Secrecy Act of 1970.  By the time USA PATRIOT Act passed in 2001 the banks (and other financial entities broadly defined -- they even tried to make this apply to lawyers, but the D.C. Circuit shot that down) had become involuntary law enforcement deputies, required to report to the authorities any "suspicious" acts of their customers, whatever that may mean.

So surely, if this gigantic invasion of our privacy and autonomy worked at all, crime involving money should more or less be stamped out by now?  The reality could not be farther from that.  Charles Kenny has an article at Bloomberg News on February 23, titled "Why the World Is So Bad at Tracking Dirty Money."  Some statistics please:

Michael Levi of Cardiff University and Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland have studied the global anti-money-laundering system (PDF) and conclude that it has helped facilitate some criminal investigations and prosecutions. But at best, it snares just a fraction of 1 percent of criminal income flows. A lower-end estimate for global laundering transactions is 2 percent of global gross domestic product—or about $1.5 trillion. Global money laundering convictions involve at the most hundreds of millions. In the U.S., a generous estimate of seizures would amount to a mere 0.2 percent of all laundered funds.

The Levi/Reuter study cited there is from 2006, but Kenny also cites updated research to the same effect.  And how about the particular effectiveness of money-laundering regulation in the war against terrorism?

A system that misses all but a fraction of a percent of criminal financial flows is almost guaranteed to miss terrorism finance in particular, which involves very small sums: The Madrid and London terror bombings cost no more than $10,000 to finance; the Sept. 11 attacks, less than $500,000.

And exactly how many anti-terrorism prosecutions have come from anti-money laundering regulation?   Kenny's answer:  "None."  OK, I can't vouch for the thoroughness of his research, but I've also done some looking around, and I also cannot find a single one.  For this we have deputized the banks to spy on everyone behind their backs all the time?  And the cost:

Though the regulations have limited impact on criminal activities, they still cost money. Tracking illicit money flows requires a considerable bureaucracy. Enforcing the regulations cost an estimated $7 billion in the U.S., and probably far more.

I would call that cost estimate ridiculously low -- it could easily be 10 times that by the time you add in the compliance costs of all the institutions.  But it's real money no matter how you count it.

Meanwhile, what happens to all the money generated in the drug trade, or illegal gambling, or any of the other illegal businesses?  My answer is, essentially all of it ends up in the banking system at one point or another.  I don't see how the banks have any ability to stop that, particularly given the near complete automation of the process of depositing money in banks and the elimination of personal interaction between bank employees and customers after the account opening process.  So the banks are just sitting ducks for periodic prosecutions.  An example of a fairly recent capitulation by a bank was a settlement by HSBC for $1.9 billion in 2013.

Given that any bank can be prosecuted for poor money laundering compliance at any time, you may be thinking that the Feds have been fairly discreet about this one lately, and there's something to that.  But remember, our federal/state system is plagued by dozens of overlapping prosecutors and regulators, each looking to get his name in the papers.  And thus here in New York we have a head banking regulator named Benjamin Lawsky, about as desperately ambitious a buffoon to come along since Eliot Spitzer, making a speech yesterday at Columbia University.  The Wall Street Journal reports on the speech in today's edition:

In his speech, Lawsky also touched on new rules he is considering to better protect against money laundering, including random audits for DFS licensed banks to assess how well they flag suspicious transactions.  Lawsky said he might also start requiring bank executives to certify that their money transaction monitoring is up to snuff to better protect against terrorism and other crimes.  "Money is the oxygen feeding the fire that is terrorism," Lawsky said. "Without moving massive amounts of money around the globe, international terrorism cannot thrive."

Is it possible that Lawsky is so ill-informed that he believes that more anti-money-laundering regulation can actually have some effect on the war on terrorism?  Probably, he just doesn't care about that one way or the other.  What he does know is that it's impossible for banks to tell "dirty" from "clean" money, and thus to keep "dirty" money out.  So if he can force bank executives to "certify" that they keep out "dirty" money, he can then have a lay-down prosecution any time he feels like it where he gets to have some big name executive hauled off in handcuffs and his own picture on page A1.  This is not a pretty game.

Don't know if you caught yesterday's Supreme Court opinion where the Court reversed the conviction of a fisherman under Section 1519 of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley financial regulation law, supposedly because he was someone who "knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object."  The "tangible objects" in question were a small number of allegedly undersized fish.  The majority found it out-of-line to use this financial-regulatory act to prosecute a fishing violation (to obtain hugely enhanced penalties).  Justice Kagan wrote the dissent -- in other words, she would have affirmed the conviction on the grounds that the words of the statute mean what they say, no matter how bizarrely applied.  But then she had this to say:

"[Section 1519 is a] bad law -- too broad and undifferentiated, with too-high maximum penalties, which give prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion.  And I'd go further: In those ways, Section 1519 is unfortunately not an outlier, but an emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code."

I'd only add that it's not just a problem at the federal level, but with many states as well, with New York of course in the lead.






Should You Believe What The Government Says About Vaccination?

It's been big news lately that childhood diseases thought to be near eradication are making a comeback due to failure of many parents to get their kids vaccinated.  For example, here is an article from Time today reporting that the number of recent measles cases is up to 154.  (If you're my age, 154 doesn't sound like a lot of cases of measles.  There were a lot more than 154 cases of measles in my own little elementary school of about 300 kids back in the 50s.  In those days, pretty much everybody -- myself included -- got measles, rubella, mumps, and chicken pox.  But I digress.)

The government puts out all kinds of information touting the safety of the vaccines.  For example, here is the CDC's page on the safety of the measles vaccine.  But lots of parents avoid the vaccines despite the government information.  The big question is, should you trust the government?

It may shock everyone here to learn that on the question of what to do about vaccinating your kids, I am on the side of the government.  By all means, the kids should be vaccinated.  But this controversy points up a much bigger issue, which is that the government definitely can't be trusted on this or any other issue.  On this issue I didn't trust the government, but did my own investigation.  So should you.

My view is that the government's credibility is a precious asset to be carefully guarded and used judiciously in the most important situations for the protection of the public's health and safety.  That shows you how old-fashioned I am.  The government long ago cast aside the old-fashioned view in favor of an approach of putting out whatever fake information they think they can get away with to sell the people on going along with expansion of government size and power.  And when mere lies don't work, try fake claims of disaster and apocalypse.

Start just with CDC.  If you follow this institution at all, you know that it has a gigantic case of mission creep -- call it "mission explosion."  That has led them to redefine lots of things as "disease" and to seek control over large areas of your life that they should have nothing to do with.  For example, how about the anti-salt campaign?  Yes, CDC is deep into that one.  It's current web page on the subject advises that "Most Americans should consume less sodium," and "Too much sodium is bad for your health."  Have they even heard that in 2013 the Institute of Medicine put out a big study debunking almost all of the government anti-salt campaign?  And how about the campaign against second-hand tobacco smoke?  Yes, again, it's one with extremely weak statistical backing, yet endlessly flogged by none other than CDC (along with EPA in this case).  Once you've tried enough of these things, nobody will any longer trust anything you say -- and rightly so.  So why is there surprise that nobody listens to these people on the subject of vaccines?

And of course, CDC is just the tip of the iceberg.  The now-completely-debunked low fat diet?  That one is mainly the baby of the Department of Agriculture ("DOA" is my preferred acronym.).

And if we might move on from health issues to economic ones, readers here are well aware that most government economic statistics are false in fundamental ways, always with an eye toward selling the people on bigger and more powerful government.  Thus, the so-called "poverty" rate is carefully constructed so that it can never go down no matter how much money the government spends to cure the poverty.  Government budgets and deficits are reported on a cash rather than accrual basis, which completely conceals the ongoing disaster of unfunded entitlements.  Government GDP statistics are constructed to count even the most outrageous total waste as a 100 cents on the dollar addition to GDP, and thus to make it appear that elimination of total waste decreases GDP.

And I'm only now getting to "the greatest scientific fraud of all time."  The amount of fake information put out by the government and government-paid fake "scientists" on the subject of the global warming scare is truly staggering.  Indeed, a whole sub-specialty called "climate communication" has sprung up, basically a euphemism for the effort to scare the public with tales of climate apocalypse into turning over complete control of the economy to bureaucrats.  The polar ice caps are melting!  Polar bears are dying!  Sea level rise will drown us all!  Do you believe a word they say?  Why?

(P.S.  Good post here by Tony Heller/Steven Goddard yesterday comparing a New York Times article from December 2012 here predicting closure within 25 years of half of Northeastern ski resorts from warm temperatures and lack of snow to the latest data from US HCN showing that Jan/Feb 2015 is on track to be the coldest since records began about 1890 in the Northeast U.S.)

UPDATE 2/25/15:  Many readers may be aware of the scandal whereby Lisa Jackson, then Administrator of EPA, used a personal email account in the name of "Richard Windsor" to do agency business when she wanted to avoid potential disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.  A dogged fellow named Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute nevertheless pursued his FOIA requests on climate issues, and ultimately got disclosure of several of the "Richard Windsor" emails.  In its weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup, the Science and Environmental Policy Project has an excerpt from an email sent from an EPA functionary to "Richard Windsor" on May 18, 2009:

Unfortunately, climate change in the abstract is an increasingly – and consistently – unpersuasive argument to make. However, if we shift from making this about the polar caps and about our neighbor with respiratory illness, we can potentially bring this issue home to many Americans …  By revitalizing our own Children’s Health Office, leading the global charge on this issue, and highlighting the children’s health dimension to all our major initiatives – we will also make this issue real for many American who otherwise would oppose many of our regulatory actions.

It's about the children!  And by the way, do these people at EPA know that CO2 has nothing to do with respiratory illness?  How could they not?  So this is just plain, outright fraud.

Meanwhile, here is a picture from today of ice on the Hudson River at midtown Manhattan (taken from my office).  The river only ices up like this once every few decades, and only when the temperature remains below freezing consistently for weeks.  Since the average high in late February is 44 degrees F, that is extremely unusual.

Hudson River Ice


Obamacare: What Will Be The Reasoning Of The "Liberal" Justices?

The latest court challenge to the so-called Affordable Care Act ("ACA" or "Obamacare"), called King v. Burwell, is scheduled for argument before the Supreme Court on March 4.  This is the case where the Petitioners assert that the government cannot provide Obamacare premium subsidies to healthcare purchasers unless the policy in question was purchased on an exchange "established by the State."  Turns out that some 36 states never established these exchanges.  When those states refused, the federal government stepped in and set up its own exchange to be used by the citizens of the refusing states.  The IRS then promulgated a regulation providing that Obamacare's premium subsidies are equally available whether the exchange where you bought your policy was established by a state or by the federal government.  But can that IRS regulation be squared with the language of the statute?

This turns out to be a great issue to examine the two fundamental ways of looking at the world.  In one worldview, the limitations on the government's powers are fundamental to our freedom and our success, and as one example the government cannot spend any money unless by statute duly approved by Congress.  In the other world view, there is a tremendous moral imperative requiring the government to do everything possible to achieve economic fairness and equity, generally to be done by passing out government money and benefits, and all statutes must be interpreted toward that end, no matter what they actually say.

The basic argument of the King Petitioners is that the statute clearly says that the subsidies are only available to policies purchased on state-created exchanges.  From page 18 of their brief:

The ACA grants a tax credit “equal to the premium assistance credit amount,” which is the sum of monthly assistance amounts for “all coverage months of the taxpayer” during the year. 26 U.S.C. § 36B(a), (b)(1). A “coverage month” is one in which “the taxpayer … is covered by a qualified health plan … enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA, 42 U.S.C. § 18031].” Id. § 36B(c)(2)(A)(i) (emphasis added).  These provisions are thus perfectly clear: Unless a taxpayer enrolls in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA],” he has no “coverage months” and therefore no “premium assistance amounts.”

Did it make sense for the ACA to restrict the subsidies in that way?  Well, there's this famous quote from Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber from 2012:

In the law, it says if the states don’t provide [exchanges], the federal backstop will. The federal government has been sort of slow in putting out its backstop, I think partly because they want to sort of squeeze the states to do it. I think what’s important to remember politically about this, is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits.

So I've been spending some quality time with the government's brief and with the many, many briefs from amici supporting the government (all available here).  And what is remarkable to me is the extent to which they steer away from arguments directed to the statutory text and toward arguments having little or nothing to do with the law and everything to do with what they see as the moral imperative.  Children will die!  Old people will suffer!  Everyone will be sick!  OK, I exaggerate somewhat, but not by much.

For example, from a brief for AARP, National Health Law Program, National Council on Aging, and others:

Lack of adequate and affordable health insurance among pre-Medicare adults results in worse health outcomes and death, and negatively impacts financial stability, the health care system, federal programs, and the national economy.

Or from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, and many others:

Petitioners' construction of the ACA could deprive millions of children of insurance coverage and access to affordable healthcare.

Or from America's Health Insurance Plans:

Premium assistance tax credits in federally facilitated exchanges are an essential safeguard against the destabilization and failure of these essential insurance markets.

And there are a couple of dozen more like these.  Guys, would you care to address the law even a little?  Oh, did I mention that essentially all of these guys supporting the government are on the receiving end of big payments from the subsidies?

The government, to its credit, does take a stab at a statutory construction argument, which appears at pages 20-25 of its brief.   It's too long and convoluted for me to go into detail here, but read it yourself and see what you think.  The gist is that an exchange established by the federal government is an exchange "established by the State" because . . . well, because.  And then they continue with lots more about how the "structure and design" of the Act should trump the actual language.  Of course, Mr. Gruber has articulated why the "structure and design" of the statute are consistent with the opposite construction.

But the funny thing about this kind of case is that you can predict which way the Justices are going to come out by their political leanings much more than by anything about the merits of the legal arguments.  In other words, which of the two views of the world do they subscribe to?  I have no doubt that Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor will vote to uphold the IRS regulation.  In their heart of hearts, they know that Congress must have meant to get the subsidies to everyone who might need them, and they can't let this critical statute get tripped up by what can only be some technical drafting glitch.  The question I have is, what will be the basis for their decision?  I predict an opinion with lots about suffering children and dying old people.  I hope I'm wrong, but I'll bet I'm not.  

On Mayor de Blasio's New Budget And Housing Plans

When Bill de Blasio became Mayor of New York a little over a year ago, many on the right predicted some kind of imminent disaster for the City.  But not me.  These things don't happen that fast.  It takes a long time to undo the good work in public safety and (to a lesser degree) in budget control bequeathed to de Blasio by his two predecessors; and yet another long time for the incentive effects of bad policy to have noticeable impacts on the economy and success of the City.

So walking around the streets of New York you won't notice that much has changed.  In fact, there's something of a boomlet going on in housing construction, and job creation continues to be decent if not strong.  Still, it's worthwhile making a few comments on de Blasio's recently-articulated housing and budget plans.

De Blasio continues to flog "affordable housing" as his signature initiative, supposedly to address the "tale of two cities" and income inequality -- although how construction of subsidized housing is supposed to alleviate income inequality is never actually spelled out.  Here's what de Blasio had to say about housing on February 3 in his "State of the City" address:

[W]e are following through on a plan to build and preserve affordable housing on an unprecedented scale. We’ve committed to the construction of 80,000 new units of affordable housing by 2024. . . . Increasing the overall supply of housing is critical to serving New Yorkers at all income levels — and to assuring we can accommodate the work force who will continue to grow our economy.  So we plan for the construction of 160,000 market rate units as well.

Let's put this in a little perspective.  According to data from the NYC Comptroller's Office here, the number of housing units in New York City exceeds 3.2 million.   De Blasio proposes 80,000 affordable units to be built over 10 years -- that's 8,000 per year, or 0.25% of current stock per year.  Barely enough to notice.  Except, as I have pointed out many times, we're talking about annual subsidies of something in the range of $50,000 to $100,000 per family for every family that gets in on the boondoggle.  Plus, these families are then stuck in the apartment they get in their first draw, and remain as officially-designated second-class citizens for the rest of their lives.

And how about that 160,000 units of market rate housing?  De Blasio gives no indication of where he came up with that one, or what if anything his initiatives will have to do with it.  Does it sound like a lot?  Actually, it's pitiful -- It's over 10 years, so about 0.5% of current stock per year.  Those familiar with New York housing history know that in the decade of the 1920s New York built over 800,000 units of housing.  That's 80,000 per year, five times the pace suggested by de Blasio, and in a city just over half the size (although rapidly growing).  And that was without any of the subsidies, tax breaks, rent regulation, landmarking and any of the other crazy quilt of restrictions and incentives we deal with today. 

Well, how about pensions?  As with last year's speech by de Blasio, I can't find a mention of the subject.  In his February 2015 Financial Plan,  if you make it all the way to page 44, you'll find a chart that projects total pension expense for the City for the years 2015 through 2019 at basically a flat $8.5 billion per year.  No explanation of how they come up with that, although they do say that future contributions have been somewhat reduced due to the good stock market returns of 2014.  Over at the site for the New York City actuary, I can't find anything to back up these numbers.  Are they paying any attention at all?  I don't have any reason to think they are.  But again, these things play out over a very long time horizon.




The Greatest Scientific Fraud Of All Time -- Part IV

As discussed here in three previous posts, over the past few years, several independent researchers have laboriously compared raw archived temperature data at numerous stations with adjusted data used by U.S government agencies NASA/GISS and NOAA/NCDC in calculating world temperatures and making declarations of "hottest year ever."  The researchers have included Tony Heller of the Real Science web site, Paul Homewood of Not a Lot of People Know That, and Joe d'Aleo of ICECAP.  In examination of data from scores of weather station sites, they have uniformly found that the adjustments have been to cool temperatures in older years and warm temperatures in later years, thereby creating or adding to a warming trend that does not exist in the raw data.  Many of the adjustments have been significant -- 1 deg C or more -- and some have approached 3 deg C.  The web sites in question contain links to the raw and adjusted data used in the calculations, so anyone with knowledge of any particular site could come forward and say, for example, that the raw data they are using for Reykjavik is wrong, or the adjustment for 1932 is justified by a move of the site from point A to point B in that year, or some such thing.

But I can't find any such challenges to the work of these researchers.  In fact, most remarkable to me is the almost total silence from GISS and NCDC.  As I mentioned in my July 2014 post, politifact had put a series of questions to NCDC on the subject of some specific adjustments at sites in Kansas and Texas, and their response can be found here.  The response is extremely terse and the key quote is "our algorithm is working as designed."  Judith Curry of Georgia Tech and the Climate Etc. site had said that "NOAA really needs to respond."  But we get nothing in the way of specific justification for any adjustment, no code, no explanation.

Looking around in the last couple of days for any kind of response to very credible allegations, the closest I can find is a post from some scientists at Berkeley Earth that appears at Ms. Curry's web site.   Berkeley Earth, for those unfamiliar, claims to be an "independent" organization, and is run by father and daughter Richard and Elizabeth Muller.  They publish their major funders on their web site, and you can see that they have received significant amounts from the U.S. government, but more from various foundations, and they are not a U.S. government agency.  Muller father claims to be a former climate skeptic who converted.  I can't find any good evidence that he was ever a skeptic, and I would call him a global warming activist, but I'll let you do your own research and form your own conclusion.

Anyway, the Berkeley Earth response, dated February 9, appears at first blush to be long, detailed and technical.  But I would call it hand-waving.  The gist is, we've looked at these accusations and there's really nothing to them because overall they don't add up to any meaningful change in the overall world temperature series, so there's really nothing here.  Trust us.  Key quotes:

In general, noise and inhomogeneities in temperature data will make a temperature field rougher while homogenization practices and spatial averaging will make it smoother. Since the true temperature distribution is unknown, determining the right amount of homogenization to best capture the local details is challenging, and an active area of research. However, as noted above, it makes very little difference to the global averages.

In summary, it is possible to look through 40,000 stations and select those that the algorithm has warmed; and, it’s possible to ignore those that the algorithm has cooled. As the spatial maps show it is also possible to select entire continents where the algorithm has warmed the record; and, it’s possible to focus on other continents were the opposite is the case. Globally however, the effect of adjustments is minor. It’s minor because on average the biases that require adjustments mostly cancel each other out.

OK, I'm in the litigation business, and that goes exactly nowhere with me.   Specific allegations demand a specific response, and no judge or jury I've ever been before would take this as a credible answer to the charges.  Here are some specific questions that must be answered or no one who pays attention is going to believe a word you are saying:

  • For each station where the independent researchers have demonstrated that adjustments have created or added to the warming trend, give us a specific justification for the adjustment.  That justification must also support the specific magnitude of the adjustment.  For example, what is the specific justification for adjustments coming to 2.26 deg C for Luling, Texas, or 5 deg F (2.6 deg C) for the state of Maine?
  • You say that there are stations where the adjustments go in the opposite direction and that the total of all adjustments essentially cancels out.  OK then, give us a list of stations where the adjustments go in the opposite direction, and enough of them with large enough quantitative adjustments to cancel out what the researchers have presented.  How come nobody but you knows about them?
  • Numerous adjustments have been identified that cool the past by multiple degrees, often 50 to 100 years after the fact.  I can't think of any possible justification for this, and I'm not alone.  Let's hear it! 
  • Address the arctic specifically.  I note that a huge percentage of your warming trend has taken place in the arctic (north of 65N) and Homewood has attempted to go through all of those stations and has found uniform large adjustments to increase warming and not a single one in the other direction.  Instead of addressing the arctic, you address "selected regions", leaving out Siberia and Canada entirely and blending the remainder with sub-arctic areas.  Don't think we don't notice tricks like this!
  • Let's see the code for your "homogenization" algorithm.

The Berkeley Earth post suggests that they may be coming forth with some of this information at some point in the future.  We're eagerly awaiting it.  In the current state of affairs, I would say that Goddard, Homewood, d'Aleo, et al. are way ahead.