The Total Futility Of The Climate Campaign

If there is one idea that defines progressive orthodoxy today more than any other, it is the idea that the planet can and must be saved from the climate "crisis" by means of drastic cuts to human carbon dioxide emissions.  Or, at least, by drastic cuts to your carbon dioxide emissions.  Surely you will recall President Barack Obama saying (in 2014) that "no challenge poses a greater threat to our children, our planet, and future generations than climate change."   To address the dire threat, Obama then led the nation into the Paris Climate Agreement, pledging to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by some 26-28% below 1990 levels by 2025.  And that was just the downpayment.  

President Trump of course is now in the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.  But no other country (of the 172 that have ratified the Paris Agreement) has announced a similar intention to withdraw.  And here in the U.S., our progressive political leaders, where they have power, march forward with the official plan.  In New York, our Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged to reduce "greenhouse gas" emissions by 30% by 2030, and by 80% by 2050.  Here is Cuomo making the pledge in 2015, during the run-up to the Paris Agreement:

“Climate change is an issue of society’s sustainability – and to deny that climate change is real is to deny reason,” Governor Cuomo said. “Today, New York is stepping up. We are demonstrating the leadership and focus that this issue demands. We are joining together and committing ourselves to tackling climate change and showing the nation what is possible. Now it is up to world leaders to follow suit.”

Cuomo was joined in his announcement by none other than Al Gore:

"The leadership shown by Governor Cuomo and New York State to make bold emissions reductions commitments is vital to solving the climate crisis,” said Former Vice President Al Gore.

Not to be outdone, Governor Brown of California in the same year, by means of an Executive Order, issued even more ambitious emissions reduction targets:  40% by 2030, followed by 80% by 2050.   According to the prelude to that Executive Order, Brown has also launched his own foreign policy on the subject, by "sign[ing] accords to fight climate change" with leaders from countries including Mexico, China, Peru, Canada and Israel.

And don't forget the 388 (and counting) mayors of U.S. cities and towns who have "commit[ted] to adopt, honor and uphold the Paris Climate Agreement goals."   

So surely then, world greenhouse gas emissions must have turned onto a steep downward trajectory?  Don't be ridiculous.  In fact the sacrifices being asked from the citizens of some of the U.S. states are being offset by a factor of five or ten or more by increasing emissions from elsewhere in the world.  But, you ask, didn't those countries sign the Paris Agreement?  Of course they did!  It's just that their signatures did not come with any promises to cut emissions.

The facts of current and future world energy consumption are laid out in a little-heralded Report from the U.S. Energy Information Agency that came out back in September.  Larry Hamlin at Watts Up With That calls attention to the Report in a post that appeared Saturday December 30.

Here's the bottom line:  Despite widely-trumpeted plans in certain places to achieve dramatic reductions in fossil fuel usage, in reality overall fossil fuel consumption is set to increase substantially over the next several decades.  Any reductions in emissions in places like California or New York or some European countries will be swamped by dramatically increasing emissions from the developing world, particularly China, India and Africa.  The EIA breaks down the numbers by type of fossil fuel -- oil, natural gas, and coal.  First oil:

In the Reference [most likely] case, world consumption of liquid fuels rises from 95 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2015 to 113 million b/d in 2040. Non-OECD nations account for most of the increase, with demand rising by 1.3%/year compared with a slight decrease in the OECD. 

I like that part about all the efforts of certain states and countries to achieve 80% reductions leading to a "slight decrease" in usage in the OECD as a whole.  Meanwhile the non-OECD (developing) world increases its consumption by about 40%.  Whatever reductions occur in some places are barely enough to register in the overall picture.  Next, natural gas:

Natural gas consumption grows in both the OECD and non-OECD from 2015 to 2040, but growth is greatest in non-OECD countries which have expanding industrial sectors and electricity demand.  Consumption in non-OECD countries is projected to grow an average of 1.9%/year from 2015 to 2040 in contrast to 0.9%/year in OECD countries. 

The increases in natural gas consumption over 25 years are so large that EIA won't even put the totals into words.  But a chart on page 49 conveys the bad news:  annual world natural gas consumption goes from about 130 quadrillion Btus in 2015 to about 185 quadrillion Btus in 2040 -- an increase of over 43%.  Even the OECD countries see a projected consumption increase of about 25%.

And finally, how about coal?

Worldwide coal consumption remains roughly the same between 2015 and 2040 (about 160 quadrillion Btu), with decreasing consumption in China and the United States offsetting growth in India.  China remains the largest single consumer of coal in 2040 (about 73 quadrillion Btu), despite a steady decline in the country’s consumption over time.  India’s coal consumption continues to grow by an average 2.6%/year from 2015 to 2040, with the country surpassing the United States as the second-largest coal consumer before 2020. 

So, what then about the so-called "renewables," like wind and solar?  Aren't they supposed to rise up and overtake the evil fossil fuels during this time period?  The EIA Report does project substantial increases in production and consumption of energy from the "renewables"  between now and 2040.  But somehow, none of it is nearly enough to replace any of the existing energy obtained from the fossil fuels, let alone to avoid further increases in fossil fuel usage.  

So as your electricity bill, and mine, triple over the next several years as we attempt to replace fossil fuels with production from wind and solar, should we ask ourselves:  Is this anything other than an exercise in total futility?   

Not So Fast With That Trillion For Infrastructure

With the tax reform law under their belt, all the talk is that President Trump and the Republicans in Congress are now going to pivot to "infrastructure."  This is the ultimate proposal that could get truly universal popular support.  After all, everyone knows that our infrastructure is "crumbling."  Trump campaigned on a promise to fix that with a trillion dollar program.  Infrastructure spending "creates jobs" (it must -- you can see the people working!), and, when completed, the projects are tangible and surely seem to be adding something to the economy.  This is a win, win!  Who could possibly be against it?

Well, that's why we have contrarians around here.  Government dispensing the infinite pile of free money at these levels creates irresistible incentives for graft and corruption on a gargantuan scale.  In the world of infrastructure spending, it's one thing when the government first identifies a project believed likely to enhance the welfare of the people, and then funds it gradually as money becomes available.  Infrastructure funded on this model could well become a net enhancer of the people's welfare.  The Interstate Highway System would be an example of this model.  But that's not what we're talking about here.  What we're currently talking about is the government first deciding, with no specific projects in mind, that the trillion dollars is going to be spent; and then soliciting ideas from people who want to get in on the largesse.  The prospects that most of the money will be well spent are very slim.  

Even in the best of circumstances, involving desirable and even badly needed projects, the incentives of government processes can lead to tremendously negative results.  Let's consider today what is going on in subway and tunnel construction in New York.

First, there is a legitimate need for additional subway and tunnel construction in New York.  On the East Side of Manhattan, there once was an elevated train line that stretched the length of the island along Third Avenue.  In 1955 they tore it down, with the promise that it would shortly be replaced with a new subway running along roughly the same route one block East, under Second Avenue.  Sixty-three years later, only about a mile and a half of the Second Avenue line has been built.  The other subway on Manhattan's East Side, the Lexington Avenue line, is crowded much of the time to the point of being unusable.  Build-out of the Second Avenue line would greatly ease congestion and improve mobility.  As a second example, there is only one tunnel under the Hudson River to carry all of the Amtrak trains plus all of the New Jersey Transit commuter trains.  That tunnel is used at capacity (at least on weekdays) and needs major repairs, which cannot be done while scores of trains are running through the tunnel every day.  So a new trans-Hudson tunnel is widely agreed to be a priority infrastructure project for the region.  

But if these projects are so necessary and important, why haven't they already been built?  The answer is that, with coercive government assistance, a small number of labor unions have gotten themselves into a monopoly position where they can demand enormous sums for themselves and their members, absent which they have the ability to block these projects.  As a result, prospective costs of construction of these and similar projects are wildly, wildly out of line.  Every time somebody puts a number on how much one of these things will cost to build, it's good enough to kill the project for another few years.

Note that the issue is not that it is inherently too expensive to construct subway and railroad tunnels.  Rather, the issue is that our costs are not twenty or fifty percent too high, but five to ten times international norms.  With costs that wildly out of line, nothing gets built.

I first covered this subject three years ago, in November 2014.  At that time, one of those gubernatorial "blue ribbon panels," the MTA Reinvention Commission, had just come out with a big report on how to solve the MTA's problems.  My take was that they had (as usual) missed "the elephant in the room" -- the elephant being the wildly out-of-control construction costs.  The "Reinvention Commission" devoted all of its time and energy to finding "new funding streams" to pay for projects (in opaque and unaccountable ways), without ever considering whether something needed to be done about the out-of-control costs:

[E]very time some project gets proposed, a price tag gets attached to it that is so enormous that next to nothing can or does get built.           

My post built on the invaluable work of Alon Levy of Pedestrian Observations, who has single-handedly compiled international cost comparisons, for example between New York and places like London, Paris and Milan.  Levy's work has shown that tunneling for trains and subways that can be done for $300 - 400 million per mile in those cities somehow costs $1.5 billion to $3 billion per mile in New York.  Wow!

And now, three years late to the game (but we'll take it) the New York Times finally weighs in yesterday with a big front page article by Brian Rosenthal headlined "The Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth."  I spend enough time bashing the Times that this time I should give them some real credit for putting in the effort to identify the reasons that New York's costs are so crazily out-of-line.

Some excerpts from the Times article:

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show. . . .  

The reasons for the M.T.A.’s high costs start with the sheer number of people employed.  Mike Roach noticed it immediately upon entering the No. 7 line work site a few years ago. Mr. Roach, a California-based tunneling contractor, was not involved in the project but was invited to see it. He was stunned by how many people were operating the machine churning through soil to create the tunnel.  “I actually started counting because I was so surprised, and I counted 25 or 26 people,” he said. “That’s three times what I’m used to.”

The unions and vendors declined to release the labor deals, but The Times obtained them. Along with interviews with contractors, the documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. . . .  

There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world.

Now we're going to have a fresh trillion dollars to pay for such projects.  So what if the Hudson River tunnel will cost $20 billion instead of the $3 - 4 billion that it might cost in another city?  So what if the Second Avenue subway build-out will cost $20 billion instead of $3 - 4 billion that it might cost somewhere else?  Shouldn't we just go for it?

Actually, this is important.  The fact that these union practices are government-sanctioned does not mean that they are not an extreme form of graft and corruption.  No matter how badly needed, these projects cannot and should not be built until either the unions bring the costs under control or a way is found around the union blockade. 

A trillion dollars of infrastructure spending?  It will all disappear with almost nothing to show for it if we are not careful.                

At The Times, Making Up Facts To Fit The Narrative

No, I'm not talking about the RUSSIA!!!! narrative.  For now, I'm keeping my powder dry on that one.  My current working assumption is that Trump and Sessions are holding the most explosive revelations for maximum effect in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections.  It's going to be a lot of fun when everything comes out; but meanwhile, we wait.

For today's subject we turn away from the endless Trump obsession and towards one of the many pieces of the official progressive narrative supporting the notion that all problems of the world are your fault and you must therefore feel deep and extreme guilt.  Readers here know that recently the decades-long official narrative of evil affluent people "abandoning" the poor in the inner cities has now been replaced by a new official narrative where the same evil affluent people are "pushing the poor out" of wealthy inner Manhattan and Brooklyn and into the inconvenient far reaches of the outer boroughs.  See my post of November 30, "They Don't Give Any Advance Notice When They Change The Narrative."   

That November 30 post discussed a New York Times article of the prior day that presented the stories of a total of two sympathetic low-wage workers with long commutes between different points in the outer boroughs surrounding Manhattan.  The commutes were indeed difficult, involving multiple legs of the subway, buses, and, in one case, the Staten Island Ferry.  But a mere two instances is not a lot of evidence to support the new official narrative of progressive guilt.  So apparently someone at Pravda felt the need to beef up the new narrative by sending a reporter out to find an additional example or two to keep the drumbeat going.  And thus we have the next article in the series appearing in today's edition, headline "Living Far Between or Beyond Subway Stops, and Feeling Left Behind."

Unfortunately for the Times, getting around the outer boroughs of New York on the mass transportation system is something completely beyond the experience of any of their employees in the editorial departments.  To compound the problem, they have given the current assignment to one Sarah Maslin Nir, easily one of the most incompetent writers on the staff -- and that's saying a lot.  (Nir was previously best known for writing a multi-part series in the Times in 2015 on the nail salon industry that I called a "scam" and "journalistic drivel."  The series was completely eviscerated upon re-reporting by Jim Epstein of Reason.  After her fiasco with the nail salon story, it's quite incredible that Nir is still employed as a journalist, let alone at the Times; but there you go.)  Nir suffers from the problem -- not a small one for someone trying to be a journalist -- of not bothering to check what she writes to see if it makes any sense whatsoever.  And thus we have a total howler of a story.  Not that anyone at the Times could tell, or course.

So let's start out with a serious dose of guilt for you:

Few physical structures embody the divisions in the city as plainly as the subway system, where the haves and have-nots frequently correlate with which neighborhood has or does not have stops. Subway deserts stretch along the easternmost reaches of Queens, the North Bronx and across coastal Brooklyn to name a few places. The dearth of subways disproportionately affects residents of high-density, low-income neighborhoods, but also blue-collar bedroom communities in Queens. . . .  

Are you feeling guilty yet?  And now for our victim of the day, one Nazir Zahid.  Mr. Zahid lives in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx and commutes to a store that he manages in another neighborhood of the Bronx called West Farms:

It takes four buses to ferry Mr. Zahid from his home in the Kingsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx to the women’s clothing boutique he manages in West Farms, another neighborhood in the same borough where the strands of the subway fray to nothing. It is a three-and-a-half-mile commute that takes Mr. Zahid one hour and 45 minutes — and that is only if all four buses show up on time. 

It's difficult to conceive of how someone could have made so many obvious factual errors in such a short paragraph.  I'll give you a few:

  • Is West Farms a "neighborhood . . . where the strands of the subway fray to nothing"?  Huh?  West Farms is right on the main trunk line of the subway through the middle of the Bronx, served by two express lines, one of which (#2) goes down the West Side of Manhattan, and the other of which (#5) goes down the East Side.  You can check the subway map here.  If you have ever been to West Farms Square, it would be impossible not to know of the access by the subway, which arrives at that point on a very high and dramatic elevated structure.
  • And how about Kingsbridge?  Yes, that is also served by the subway (#1 train).
  • Admittedly, the trip from Kingsbridge to West Farms by the #1 and #2 trains -- which involves going into Manhattan and then reversing directions -- is not terribly convenient, although it would take well less than the hour and 45 minutes reported by Mr. Zahid for his bus journey.  But doesn't the more direct alternative by bus take four buses, as Nir reports?  Completely wrong again.  New York's MTA actually runs a bus line, the Bx9, that directly connects the Kingsbridge and West Farms neighborhoods.  Here is the Bronx bus map.  
  • According to the schedule of the Bx9 bus, the time to get from Kingsbridge (Broadway and 225th Street) to West Farms Square is a little over half an hour, depending some on the time of day -- barely more than one-quarter of the hour forty-five that Ms. Nir claims on behalf of Mr. Zahid.  And this Bx9 bus has a schedule that would make any bus rider in the United States outside of New York City green with envy.  This is one of those 24 hour a day, 7 day a week buses that we have only in New York.  At rush hours it runs about every 5 minutes; during the day, never less than once every 10 minutes; and in the evenings, every 12 minutes all the way to midnight.

The fact is that the commute between Kingsbridge and West Farms in the Bronx is about as good as it is possible to make it with a mass transportation system of buses and subways.  A big improvement may be on the way with the coming of driverless cars that could be cost-competitive with the buses.  Meanwhile, it seems to me that the taxpayers of New York could use some gratitude for their generosity in providing a fabulously extensive transportation system.  Certainly, they have no reason to feel guilty.

UPDATE December 29:  I thought readers might like to see a picture of the West Farms Square subway station.  As you can see, if you have been there, you could not help but know that the subway is a major presence.

west farms subway station 2.jpg

Tax Reform And The Blue State Model

It was not long before I started this blog in 2012 that Walter Russell Mead of the American Interest began writing about what he dubbed the "blue model" of government, and his prediction that that model was "on the way out."   When applied to the states, the term "blue model" referred to the combination of relatively high taxes, high state spending, and extensive regulation typical of Democrat-leaning states like California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.  Mead's prediction was that the combination of the information revolution and competition from lower-tax and lower-regulation "red" states would put the blue model under increasing pressure and force reform.

Almost six years later, the "blue" states have only doubled down on their policy model.  None of those states have seen any significant cutbacks on state programs.  During this period California and Connecticut have actually raised their income tax rates on top earners.  In the competition against other states, California appears to be doing relatively well, although its population explosion has slowed substantially.  In New York, Connecticut and New Jersey the population has been almost completely flat in recent years.  Illinois has actually experienced a population decline since 2010, but only a slight one.   Meanwhile, the big "red" states, like Texas and Florida, have grown rapidly.  But the very slow and gradual relative decline of the big blue states so far has not created any significant motivation to do anything different. 

Could that be about to change?  As of January 1, the state and local income tax deduction will mostly be gone.  Suddenly there will be a significant shift in the competitiveness between the high-tax "blue states" and the lower-tax "red states."  Will this lead to any serious rethinking of the "blue state model"?

I'm betting against it.  The basic nature of the blue state model is to put in place various government handouts and favors to specified groups, who thereupon become dependent on the handouts and favors and will fight to the death to keep them as is.  Given the overall disinterest of most of the electorate, the recipients of the handouts and favors come to exercise effective control over the political process.  

Consider a couple of examples.  Generous pensions for state and local government workers are a hallmark of the blue state model.  Not that the red states are pure on this issue.  But if you look at lists of states ranked by amount of aggregate unfunded pension debt, or by amount of unfunded pension debt per capita, or by percentage of pension obligations that are unfunded, the big blue states consistently appear at or near the bottom of the list.  A December 2017 Report just out from the American Legislative Exchange Council contains rankings of the states on all of those measures.  In funding percentage at the risk-free rate, Connecticut ranks dead last among the states at 19.7%; Illinois 48th at 23.3%; and New Jersey 46th at 25.7%.  California and New York do better on that measure, but they are kingpins of aggregate unfunded pension debt:  50th place and $987 billion in the case of California (hey, it's less than a trillion!); and New York at 46th place and $345 billion.  (To its credit, New York has been relatively honest in funding the pension obligations it has taken on.  However, it has taken on ridiculously generous obligations, particularly as they concern early retirement ages for workers in many areas.  The result is that pension contributions constitute a high and ever-increasing percentage of government budgets at both state and local levels.)

Are the blue states going to do anything soon to right their pension ships?  New York and Illinois have provisions in their state constitutions that make revisions of pension accruals for existing employees difficult or impossible.  (See my discussion of that issue here.)  In California, there is no comparable constitutional provision, but the courts have imposed a rule of law that may amount to the same thing as a practical matter.  Former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed has led an effort to enact a ballot initiative that would overrule the court-made restrictions; but after getting off to a slow start, that initiative was pulled in 2016, and its backers are talking about another try in 2018.  They will face major opposition from the public employee unions.

As a second example, consider obligations that blue states have taken on in union contracts.  Again, the red states are far from pure; but generosity to public employee unions is one of the hallmarks of the blue model.  Some insights into the nature of the problem can be found in a big New York Times spread today in the New York section, headline "What Would It Take To Fix New York Subway?"    The impetus for the article is that a recent series of things like derailments and fires has brought calls for an emergency program to "fix" the subways.  Mayor de Blasio, of course, has called for a new "millionaire's tax" to raise the funds.  (Funny how he seems to have the exact same idea for how to "fix" every problem we encounter.)  So, can we free up some money to "fix" things by bringing down the costs of operating the subway through automating the function of running the trains?  They are well on the way to doing that in London and Paris:

London is upgrading its fleet to become automated in the mid-2020s.  In Paris, driverless trains are in operation on two lines.

So how about in New York?

In New York, the L train [one of some 26 lines] is the only line where the new traffic control system has been fully implemented and where trains could, in theory, be automated.  But after a brief experiment using only one train operator in 2005, the M.T.A. had to bring back two-person crews to the L after losing a labor dispute.

Yes, we have at least some trains fully equipped for automated operation, but we use not one person, but two to run them.  The union insists!  Oh, and our costs of building new extensions of the subway system run five to ten times international norms.  So, sorry, no money is available for the emergency "fix."

Basically, what the "blue model" comes down to is spending far more money to get the same or worse results.  We spend far more than national norms on healthcare, for no better health outcomes; and far more (more than double) national norms per student on K-12 education for no better outcomes.  But the costs are all locked in place and nearly impossible to control or reduce.

So what will be the result of the tax reform?  My prediction:  the process of relative decline will be somewhat accelerated -- from very, very slow, to merely very slow.  Likely, new "millionaire's taxes," like the one de Blasio has been proposing, will go off the table.  But don't look for any immediate declines in the existing tax structure, unless there are a large number of departures of the wealthy suddenly announced.

UPDATE, December 27:  Turns out that the Daily Caller had a post yesterday on the amount of outmigration from the big blue states, headline "Nearly 450,000 People Fled These Three Deep Blue States In 2017."  The three states in question are California, Illinois and New York.  The post is sourced from Census data that came out on December 20.  Key quote:

Three Democratic-leaning states hemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of people in 2016 and 2017 as crime, high taxes and, in some cases, crummy weather had residents seeking greener pastures elsewhere.  The exodus of residents was most pronounced in New York, which saw about 190,000 people leave the state between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last week.

The outmigration from California was 138,000, and from Illinois 115,000.  In the case of California and New York, they were able to replace the departures with immigrants from abroad.     

The Malicious UN Addresses "Poverty" In The United States

With things like RUSSIA!!!! and the tax bill and the extreme corruption of our law enforcement and national intelligence bureaucracies getting all the attention lately, the subject of poverty in the United States -- aka "the poverty scam" -- has been out of our view for a while.  But something has just happened to bring that particular scam not only back into view, but into sharp focus.  Last Friday (December 15) a guy named Philip Alston, the UN's "Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights," issued a Report (or maybe it's a "Rapport") on a "visit" he made to the "USA."

You may be aware that the UN actually has an official definition of "extreme poverty," which is "liv[ing] . . . on less than $1.90 per person per day."  This March 2017 post from Our World in Data -- using data sourced from the World Bank -- contains a country-by-country list of all the people in the world deemed to be living in this condition of "extreme poverty."  The United States (along with the main countries of Western Europe, and also such places as Canada and Australia) does not even appear on the list.  So undoubtedly you would expect the Report of the UN's Rapporteur on "extreme poverty" as to the U.S. to be a one-liner saying something like "there is nothing like that here."

You would be so wrong!  Remember, this is the UN.  And, because this is the UN, you get exactly what you should expect from the UN.  I mean, these are the people whose main business is keeping the poor people of the world poor by supporting and facilitating every kind of socialism and statism and dictator and parasitic bureaucracy and by intentionally jacking up the price of energy and by every other destructive thing you can think of.   It goes without saying that this Report (and any other report the UN might come out with) comes filled with extreme malice and hatred toward the U.S. and everything it stands for; with complete ignorance of the most basic things about how an economy works, including that capitalism and freedom are the only effective way to alleviate poverty; and with supercilious demands for immediate taxpayer-funded and socialist-model solutions to any and every remaining human problem that can still be found in the U.S.  The combination of malice and ignorance is so extreme that it impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

In a short blog post I can only scratch the surface of what is wrong with this Report.  But let's start with this:  Section IV of the Report, titled "The current extent of poverty in the US," buys right in to the completely fake Census Bureau poverty statistics to gin up some large numbers to try to embarrass the U.S.:

In order to define and quantify poverty in America, the Census Bureau uses ‘poverty thresholds’ or Official Poverty Measures (OPM), updated each year. In September 2017, more than one in every eight Americans were living in poverty (40 million, equal to 12.7% of the population). And almost half of those (18.5 million) were living in deep poverty, with reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold.      

Of course, Alston won't even tell you what this "official poverty measure" might be quantitatively, or how it relates to the UN's international measure that is supposedly what his job is about.  The official Census Bureau poverty level for the U.S. for 2017 is $12,060 per year for an individual, and $24,600 for a family of four.  The international standard of $1.90 per day would come to $693.50 per year.  In other words, the U.S. official "poverty level" ranges from about 9 to about 17 times the international standard.  People earning at U.S. "poverty level" rates would be considered quite wealthy in most of the countries of the world where real poverty is prevalent.  And of course, that's only the start.  Alston also completely fails to mention that the U.S. "poverty" statistics:

  • Count only "cash income," and therefore sweep in as "poor" millions of people with substantial resources from other sources that do not count as "cash income," such as college students on scholarship, early retirees drawing on savings, and young people living with support from parents and grandparents.
  • Systematically exclude almost all of the approximately $1 trillion per year currently spent by governments at all levels in the U.S. to alleviate the "poverty" -- about $25,000 per year for each and every person deemed to be in "poverty" in the country.  That $25,000 of additional resources per person for each person "in poverty" in the U.S. is another 36 times the size of the UN international poverty level.

Tim Worstall, writing in the Washington Examiner on December 18, nails Alston's Report for its total illiteracy about the numbers discussed.  For example, on Alston playing fast and loose with statistics about child poverty:

[W]hen they talk about child poverty (para 25) we’re told that 18 percent of children live in poverty, 13.3 million. Then in paragraph 29, we’re told that food stamps (SNAP) lift 5 million out of poverty, the EITC another 5 million.  So, the number of children “living in poverty” is not 13.3 million, is it — it’s 3.3 million. That comes out to just 4.5 percent of children “living in poverty,” after the effects of just two of the things we do to reduce poverty.

And that's just what Alston has admitted to, if only he understood his own numbers.  But what if we also included all the other forms of assistance to the poor, including other nutrition programs (CSFP, CACFP, WIC, FMNP, etc., etc. -- you mean you've never heard of these things?), housing assistance (HUD alone spends about $50 billion per year), clothing assistance, energy assistance, free cell phones, yada, yada, yada.  What then would be the number of children in the U.S. remaining in "poverty" if all of these handouts were counted as alleviating the poverty?  Could it be as much as 1%?  Of course, you can't actually find out the answer to that question because the government reports the data in a way to make answering the question impossible.

The malice and ignorance of the Alston Report is by no means limited to the issue of the measure of "poverty" and the number of people experiencing it.  Alston veers wildly off his mission, taking the occasion to excoriate the U.S. on everything from tax policy to the criminal justice system to income inequality to alleged racism.  On that last issue, get this:

Who then are the poor?  Racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface.  The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of color, whether African Americans or Hispanic ‘immigrants’.            

Speak for yourself, Philip!  He just throws around such wild accusations, in the passive voice of course, without knowing a thing about what he's talking about. 

To pick one example from many of extreme and embarrassing ignorance from the Report, consider Section 10 on "Environmental sustainability":

10. Environmental sustainability
44. In Alabama and West Virginia I was informed of the high proportion of the population that was not being served by public sewerage and water supply services.  Contrary to the assumption in most countries that such services should be extended systematically and eventually comprehensively to all areas by the government, in neither state was I able to obtain figures as to the magnitude of the challenge or details of any government plans to address the issues in the future.

Hey Phil:  In rural areas in America, people dig wells for water and provide their own septic systems for sewerage!  Even the richest people!  It has to be the same in Europe of course.  Nobody would pay to dig a sewer line for ten or fifty miles to serve one house.  Could this guy really be this dumb?

Ignorance, even ignorance this extreme, I could forgive.  But the malice, no.  Alston excoriates the U.S. for not adopting massive socialist-model "solutions" to ameliorate non-existent poverty, while seemingly remaining completely unaware that the socialist model, foisted on the world by the UN, is what keeps the real poor of the world poor.  And not U.S.-level poor, with a "poverty level" 10 times or so the world standard and additional resources of another 30+ times the world standard provided to be sure they are comfortable in their "poverty."  No, the UN keeps the world's poor in real poverty, $1.90 per day or less poverty.  

When is Alston going to pay a visit to Venezuela?

The Manhattan Contrarian Stands Up For President Obama -- Sort Of

On Monday, December 18, Politico published a rather important piece by reporter Josh Meyer titled "The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook."   The thoroughly sourced (mostly not anonymous!) and lengthy (some 14,000 words) piece tells the story of Project Cassandra, a Justice Department effort that ran from about 2008 to 2015, and investigated criminal activity of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization.  In Meyer's telling, Project Cassandra uncovered criminal activity (mostly drug dealing) in the range of about $500 million, but was systematically shut down by the Obama administrations via directives "from the top," in connection with Obama's efforts to reach the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that was a hallmark of his foreign policy.

A few choice quotes from Meyer's introduction will give you a sense of the scope of his findings:

In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States, according to a POLITICO investigation.  The campaign, dubbed Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 after the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed evidence that Hezbollah had transformed itself from a Middle East-focused military and political organization into an international crime syndicate that some investigators believed was collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities. . . .  

[A]s Project Cassandra reached higher into the hierarchy of the conspiracy, Obama administration officials threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way, according to interviews with dozens of participants who in many cases spoke for the first time about events shrouded in secrecy, and a review of government documents and court records. . . .  “This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” said David Asher, who helped establish and oversee Project Cassandra as a Defense Department illicit finance analyst.  “They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”

That sounds rather damning!  So how could the Manhattan Contrarian possibly be standing up for President Obama?

The issue is that a number of right-wing sources have jumped on Obama's shutting down of Project Cassandra as an example of presidential "obstruction."  Admittedly, it's not a large number of sources, at least as far as I can find.  But consider these examples:

  • New York Post, headline of a December 19 column by Jonathan Tobin:  "Now, this is presidential obstruction."
  • Conservative author and radio host Mark Levin on Facebook, December 19:  "Barack Obama actually DID obstruct criminal investigations involving Hezbollah and Iran. But most of the media either downplay it or ignore it."  
  • Carteret County News-Times, December 20 (OK, not a major source):  "It’s . . . no surprise that the leftist media doesn’t mention the Obama administration’s decision to kill Project Cassandra, a federal investigation into international drug smuggling, money laundering and terrorism by Hezbollah, the terrorism arm of Iran.  That would be obstruction of justice."

The use of the term "obstruction" by these sources may well be in reaction to the use by dozens of progressive or "mainstream" sources of the same term to describe some actions of President Trump (such as asking then-FBI Director Comey to "go easy" on Michael Flynn, and/or then firing Comey), and even to support calls for impeachment of Trump.  Certainly, if you find Trump's conduct in those instances to be objectionable, let alone a basis for impeachment, it's hard to understand how you would not find Obama's conduct as to Project Cassandra (as described by Meyer) to be far more objectionable.

But the problem is, none of this conduct, by either Trump or Obama, is "obstruction" -- at least as the term "obstruction" is used in the context of "obstruction of justice," which is a federal crime, and thus a potential subject for a criminal prosecution and/or impeachment of a President.  As I have pointed out in multiple posts, for example this one,  "the prosecutorial discretion function of the government belongs to the President."   Under the Constitution , the Justice Department, including all the prosecutors, reports to the President, and the President has the right, if he wants, to direct who will and who will not be investigated and prosecuted.  The fact that the President rarely exercises this right does not mean that he does not have it.  Thus Obama was completely entitled to let Hezbollah off the hook, just as Trump was completely entitled to let Flynn off the hook.  (Of course, in fact, Trump did not let Flynn off the hook, at least not yet.  Trump does still have the ability to pardon Flynn.)  

Now, it's a completely different question whether it's a good idea to let all of Hezbollah off the hook on a massive criminal conspiracy involving hundreds of millions of dollars as well as associated terrorist activity.  That seems like a major political issue going to the heart of whether U.S. foreign policy was being competently conducted and whether the safety of the American people was being properly protected.  No, I am not standing up for President Obama on those questions.  Why the Meyer/Politico revelations have not yet caused a firestorm of coverage in the progressive press, I cannot explain.  I guess these revelations just don't fit the preferred narrative of the moment.