Browsing the blog archives for June, 2015.

The Pope & Climate Change

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Pope Francis released an encyclical on climate change a few days ago, among other things condemning business for its “obsession with maximizing profits” and consumers for buying things they don’t need. I’m not a Catholic, but I appreciate the church’s leadership on a number of issues. On this one, the Pope’s dead wrong.

What’s most disturbing about the Pope’s commentary is that he creates a false moral argument against free enterprise cloaked in a nefarious mix of sound reasoning and misinformation. At a basic moral and theological level, the Pope is correct. Protestants (like me) and Catholics generally agree that God created man as a superior being with authority to oversee the earth, but that man has a responsibility to care for it appropriately. Reasonable arguments decrying the immorality of pollution in general stem from this logic. However, his definition of pollution has broadened to include most production and consumption activity because of their alleged connection with climate change. In other words, his moral argument for saving the planet is based on his acceptance of flawed or incomplete scientific arguments about man’s ability to influence the climate. The linchpin to the entire argument is an acceptance of the climate change science.

Having spent last week in China, far left CNN-International was one of my few available news sources. CNNI-I was thrilled to acknowledge the Pope’s support and immediately trotted on Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. The title of the book and a quick perusal of her site (www.naomiklein.org) illustrate the battle lines. This is an attack on free enterprise, plain and simple.

Faced with data suggesting that the planet probably isn’t warming now, Klein and others of her ilk have replaced “global warming” with the all-encompassing “climate change.” The also skillfully drop terms like anthropogenic or man-caused from their rants, claiming that their opponents deny climate change. Of course, the earth has warmed and cooled since the beginning of time. The debate is not about the existence of climate change, but whether man’s activity is contributing to some degree of catastrophic change.

In her CCN-I interview, Klein stated that, “the Republican party has been denying climate change.” This not only reinforces my earlier point about the slick removal of “man-made” from the discussion of climate, but is also factually incorrect. Most Republicans have been afraid of the climate mafia and being touted as Neanderthals for “rejecting science.” Her real beef with the Republicans is that they’ve been too slow as a group to redistribute wealth and dismantle liberty to address the doomsdayers.

Klein, like others, made no mention of the actual scientific argument for anthropogenic climate change. However, she did say that she’s attended many UN conference where a lot of “technical data” was presented and third world representatives were in tears because of climate degradation in their home nations. Put another way, Klein doesn’t want you asking the difficult questions about climate change; it’s better to leave it to the government-funded experts, proceed with the marching orders, and focus on the emotional and human side of disasters allegedly connected to human activity in the West.

CNN-I parroted this logic as well, presenting stories of a flash flood in Shanghai and a drought in parts of Brazil and following them with a superficial disclaimer that, “while no one is certain that human activity caused these calamities, it’s hard to deny the evidence and we need to take action.”

Amidst all of the climate hand wringing, Pope Francis and media like CNN-I are skipping the most salient questions. What exactly is the “settled science” that supports the man-made climate change argument? Why are they willing to put so much faith in a government-supported scientific community on such a critical issue? Why should we believe this community’s assessment of climate change now when many of the same people were touting the destruction of “global cooling” a few decades ago and of “global warming” only a few years ago? If human activity is contributing in some meaningful way to a negative near or intermediate term shift in climate, why should be believe that world government activity is capable of developing and executing a solution? Why do many of the biggest proponents of anthropogenic climate change continue to fly around the world to attend conferences and consume far more than their share of products linked to fossil fuels?

It’s time to shift the debate in the direction of reason. Unfortunately, Pope Francis just added fuel to the existing fire.

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Maintaining the Infrastructure

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Somebody has to pay for the roads and bridges. Ideally, government-maintained infrastructure should be financed through use taxes so everyone pays in accordance with the benefits they receive. A federal and state gas tax regime has been in place for some time, but the federal trust fund is approaching insolvency. Spurred by the decline in oil prices, a bi-partisan group recently introduced the “Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act” to raise the gas tax by as much as 40% to “rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.” Arguably, raising the gas tax might be necessary if the funds generated are insufficient for maintaining highways, but this proposal is fraught with problems and requires deeper analysis.

First, any and all revenue from a gas tax should be used strictly for infrastructure. Currently, this is not the case. According to a 2013 Heritage Foundation study, significant chunks are allocated to bicycle lanes, light rail, landscaping, and even a transportation museum. Before the fund can be deemed insolvent and any tax increase is discussed, these nonessential expenditures must be stripped from the budget.

Second, we need to take a closer look at sources of funds. Proponents of a tax hike claim that one is needed to replenish the trust fund’s expected $168 billion deficit. Without an increase, Congress would likely appropriate general funds to make up the difference. But if this shortfall is to be financed with a gas tax instead of general funds, then the tax increase will free up other funds for other uses, not necessarily road projects. Why not propose a corresponding cut in the income tax to balance the increase in the gas tax?

Third, much of the $787 billion Obama stimulus package was supposed to finance infrastructure, yet relatively little actually went to highway projects. This illustrates the shell game that occurs whenever taxes and spending are assigned to politically popular purposes like highways, safety, and education.

Finally, most politicians assume that all highway maintenance must be government-financed, usually at the federal level. I contend that no funds from a federal gas tax should be used for state or local roads; these can be financed through state or local taxes. Moreover, private involvement through tolls can align the specific costs of infrastructure with users of specific projects without the need for more taxes. Federal government involvement in highways is way out of control both constitutionally and pragmatically, but I’ll save that topic for another day.

To the extent that governments will be involved in financing highway projects, federal and state gas taxes are reasonable options, but 100% of the funds generated must be allocated to actual highway projects and any “necessary” increase in gas tax rates should be balanced dollar for dollar with an across-the-board cut in income tax rates. I don’t expect either of these provisions—especially the second one—to be part of the proposal. The “Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act” is neither sustainable nor completely about infrastructure. It’s jut another tax increase.

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